Part I: Williams on Two Eccentric Female Philosophers, Simone Weil and Etty Hillesum

Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent Holy Week lectures focused on the subject of prayer.  He began by discussing insights of three early Church figures:  Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian.  In his second lecture, he discussed several Protestant and Catholic Reformers, highlighting their common emphases on God’s free action, God’s majesty and God’s mystery.  (Williams, by the way, gave a very positive presentation of John Calvin’s views on prayer, referring to one of Calvin’s sermons on Abraham and Isaac.  Hermeneutically speaking, it is interesting to note that Calvin’s exposition of the text is anything but a strict grammatico-historical reading.  I applaud Williams for avoiding the herd mentality about Calvin and engaging in a bit of 21st century ad fontes activity). In this post, I draw our attention to the Archbishop’s third lecture, viz., those who have written on prayer in the 20th century.  More specifically, I focus on the two eccentric female “outsiders” (that is, outsiders to Christian orthodoxy), Simone Weil and Etty Hillesum.

The question of prayer and how to pray, as Williams’ points out, was still quite pressing in the 20th century.  That is, the events of the war, the Nazi invasions and the resultant crimes against humanity, all played a role in pushing people to seek God.  First, Williams’ discusses Simone Weil, a Jewish philosopher, who died in 1943 at the young age of 34.  Because of Jewish identity, her historical situation, and her own desire to connect with the plight of the poor, Weil was intimately acquainted with suffering.  For example, when the Nazis took over France, Simone was uprooted and forced to flee.  In the final months of her life, she decided to eat no more food than was available to the poorest in France in her day. This decision had deleterious consequences on her health and contributed to her death.  Weil’s family was a secular Jewish family and also a very intellectual family.  At an early age, Simone evinced intellectual gifts and a proclivity for philosophy and languages.  In addition to teaching at a high school, Weil also worked in a factory, as she wanted to relate with the working class and their struggles.  Weil’s life was one of intensity, and that intensity comes through in her writings.

As Williams explains, although she was an intellectual, Simone had a life-changing mystical experience in her twenties while on a retreat at a Benedictine Abbey.  As she read George Herbert’s poem, “Love Bade Me Welcome,” she had what she describes as an encounter with Christ-as she puts it, “Christ came down and took possession of me.”  She, however, was eccentric and struggled with Catholic theology.  For example, she refused to be baptized.  Why?  She believed that most of the human race was not baptized and out in the cold and felt that her call was to stay out in the cold with most of the human race.  Had she lived longer, perhaps her views on baptism would have changed; nonetheless, one can respect her desire to existentially connect with the alienated and downtrodden.  Weil did, in spite of her differences with traditional theology, spend much time reflecting on the Eucharist and the Trinity.  In addition, she spoke out against the impersonal and technological totalitarianism of her day-that is, against the kind of life she had seen and experienced in the factory.

Weil’s best known book is entitled, Waiting for God. As Williams’ explains, for Simone, the essence of prayer begins in attention, in waiting attention.  This kind of posture involves self-denial, a kind of selflessness.  That is, (quoting Williams) “you put your thoughts and anxieties on the backburner, [you] let your self be there and let your mind be shaped by what is in front of you.  In learning a language, you submit your mind and your feelings to the structure of something that is there, and as you do that you enter into a kind of freedom.”  In other words, by de-centering the self and one’s own concerns and preoccupations, you allow what is there to shape you.  You allow the Other a voice, a potentially transforming voice.   In fact, Weil sees the de-centering necessary for prayer as that which is required in many “ordinary” activities.  As Williams’ puts it, “the selflessness of learning a language or a craft-all of that is a preparation for the deep attention of waiting in which you turn toward God.  That is her most central idea.  It connects experiences that we all share in some way with the experience of connecting with God.”  Thus, whether learning to ride a bicycle (or in my daughter’s case, a tricycle), learning a craft, or learning a foreign language, we are de-centering ourselves and being shaped by an “other.”

Weil’s philosophical ideas are quite complex.  (Interestingly, they remind me of some of Balthasar’s teachings).  For example, “Simone sees this selfless giving as the ground of God, because God himself is always giving himself so selflessly that you can almost say that he cancels himself out, so that the world can exist, can come to light.  That gift, in which you cancel yourself as the giver, she translates into the idea that somehow in our own relationship to God, we, in response to God’s stepping out of sight, cancel ourselves and our absorbed into God.”  Weil speaks of this as “de-creating” ourselves. Of course, that moves a bit outside of Christian orthodoxy; yet, her point about self-less giving is very much at the heart of Christianity.    Williams ends by saying, “the power and density of her writing is addictive. She covers such a range of thinking and feeling, and though she herself found it very hard to accept love, she never lost sight of that experience where Christ came down and ‘took possession of me’ when she was contemplating George Herbert’s poem,

‘LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.'”

In part II, I shall summarize Williams’ lecture on Etty Hillesum.

Archbishop Rowan Williams’ Holy Week Lectures

Below are links to Archbishop Rowan Williams’ Holy Week lectures (HT, Jason at Per Crucem ad Lucem).   I recently listened to lecture one, in which Williams discusses three early church figures and their insights on prayer:  Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian.  For all three saints, the Lord’s Prayer plays a huge role in teaching us how to pray. From Origen, Williams highlights praying “in Jesus” to the Father.  From Gregory of Nyssa, we see how prayer is closely connected to our various relationship with others.  A solid prayer life, in other words, makes us people who want to be reconciled with others.  Turning to Cassian, the Archbishop leaves us with some practical advice to help us when we become distracted in prayer (as is so often the case).  To help us re-focus when distracting thoughts enter, pray, as did Cassian this short, easy-to-recall phrase, “Oh God, make speed to save me.”   Also, Cassian advises, it’s better to begin with a commitment to frequent, short, yet focused times of prayer than to attempt three-hour sessions of prayer.  As one who struggles to maintain a consistent prayer life and who wants to grow in this area, I found these reflections exceedingly helpful and inspiring.

Lecture 1: The Early Church

Lecture 2: Reformers, Catholic & Protestant

Lecture 3: The Quest for God in the Modern Age