Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
6 November 2005, 10:30 (3 before Advent)
You can be a wise or a foolish bridesmaid, in much the same way that you can be a religious person or a worldly person, and it doesn’t really matter which you choose! Such a decision about life-style is obviously more important than the lesser decisions, which are subsumed under it – of recreation, dress or interior decoration. But as between worldliness and religion we can detect a muddle, a smudging of outlines, which suggests that the choice is not exactly radical. Whichever you go for, there is every possibility of getting the juiciest plums from the other.
By opting for worldliness, you may think you have turned your back on the security of a life based on the acceptance of orthodox dogma. But, looking around, we notice that the worldly man’s life is pervasively determined by orthodox dogmas: unexamined, but passionately held, because they are believed to be the views (to borrow a phrase from an early Father of the Church) of ‘all good men always and everywhere’. In this the worldly person often, and surprisingly, outdoes his religious neighbour. But then the religious neighbour has a habit of winning the away match too! As R.H.Tawney noticed a while ago, he has the capacity for keeping a good bank balance to undergird a private life of prosperous cosiness!
I have simply been saying that most of us here are both wise and foolish bridesmaids! We concoct a pleasant trifle of the two things – an observation which befits a canon residentiary who is a family man inhabiting a very adequate house (Council Tax and Water Rates paid for), in which to muse on things eternal and consider the rugged adventure of faith!
There is, however, a third possibility which is sanctity. The month of November – this time of All Saints - challenges me each year (in a way that Advent and Lent rarely do) to reflect upon those saints who have been marked by the holiness of God. Sanctity is more radical, both in denial and in affirmation. That is to say, the choices involved are stricter. There is more definitive giving up of the worldly or religious fleshpots. The way is narrow that leads to life. There is along this more excellent way, more positive affirmation of the substantial things of religion and the ordinary world: an inheriting of the earth and the kingdom of God. Those of you who read widely will recognize here George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Charles Peguy. Simone Weil is of the same company. Whatever else she was (and there was a lot else one way and another), she was certainly a wise bridesmaid.
I will not say much about the inextricable intricacies of her character. Lack of time apart she was one of those who gave and spent herself unreservedly and articulately in her work. Mozart is another example and so, we might say, are all three persons of the Holy Trinity. She was a French blue-stocking of the most daunting sort - just the sort of person you occasionally still meet on a Swan Hellenic Cruise! And - ‘they order these things better in France’ – unadulterated by that diffidence and amateurism with which the English intellectual feels obliged to offset his cleverness. In 1928 the list for entry into the Ecole Nomale Superieure – that academic pinnacle for which we have no equivalent – read, in order of merit: Weil, de Beauvoir.... She died in a sanatorium in Kent in November 1942, aged 40. And she died refusing the two things which we have noticed as indispensable to worldly and religious people alike and which they have in common: dogmatic and material security.
She would not be baptized into the Church. Nor would she eat more than she believed to be the insufficient rations of the French people under Nazi occupation. And yet she died in the love of God and the love of the world – that is, attached to both by a devout (and here is one of her key words) ‘attention’. The evidence for that is in the last pages of the last of the many notebooks in which she jotted down her discoveries and ideas. She wrote there of a following of Christ, as much deeper than surface imitation of him as is true painting than the superficial imitation of nature. ‘A true painter,’ she wrote, ‘through paying attention, becomes what he looks at. And while he is in this state, his hand moves, with the brush attached. Think Christ with one’s whole soul – and while one is in this state, the mind, the will, and the body perform acts.’
And last of all she writes: ‘From this alliance of attention and real feelings comes the significance of meals or solemn occasions, of festivals, and family or friendly reunions, even between two friends, and so on (also sweets, delicacies, drinking together).’
It is rum, to say the least, that someone should die so very much in Christ, yet refusing baptism, the sign of it. Rum too that someone should die meditating happily on food yet refusing necessary nourishment. Hardly the stuff of a wise bridesmaid, you might be thinking! To worldly-cum-religious people like ourselves the denials and the affirmations, which saints make, are so scarcely intelligible, their combination so apparently absurd, that we itch to write them off as lunatics. But people like me who are trained and paid for the understanding of odd phenomena must feel responsible for making the effort!
The clue lies in her key word ‘attention’. That word does not mean the stiff standing to attention of the soldier on parade but the active-passivity that is at the centre of good cooking and good worship. That is the way to the ‘inscape’, to the intimacy with the central life of God.
Reflecting upon Christianity some twenty years ago, a dispassionate outsider wrote this: ‘Standing, as it were, at the pavement’s edge with his tray of goods, the priest reduces the price until he is offering his wares for nothing: prayer is less important than decent behaviour, and God himself dispensable in the last resort: and still the passers-by go their way, sorry over having to ignore such a nice man. It is possible that, had the priest turned his back on them, attending only to the divine sun which seizes and holds his gaze, they might have come up quietly behind him and knelt down – looking where he looks. It might be said that the basic command of religion is not ‘Do this!’ or ‘Do not do that!’, but simply ‘Look!’. The rest follows.’ Substitute
the word ‘attend’ for ‘look’ – the intention is the same – and there crystallised is this morning’s gospel message. ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’ (Mt 25:13).
Simone Weil was a wise bridesmaid. She got into the inside of Christianity, found the one thing necessary, and so was a saint. She got there by not insisting on it. Of the Church and its doctrines she wrote that they are ‘things to be regarded from a certain distance with attention, respect and love.’ It was by that way of refusing to grab and appropriate busily to herself the apparatus of religion that she found her way to the heart of Christianity. She lost her life to find it. And that way is not arbitrary. It fits its end and its result, which is a life joined to Christ deeply at that centre which neither worldliness nor religion can reach or describe – a life which from there radiates out in happy affirmation and enjoyment of more worldly things and religious things than we less-than-saints can manage.
The starved woman who died meditating happily on food; the unbaptized woman to whom was real something which to us is only doctrine or emotion – dying into and with Christ. In a word, she ‘kept awake’ with her lamp trimmed, and to give us a chance of taking the same way of radical poverty and radical richness, she taught it too.
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Bach to Baby in the Crypt
Please join us on Tuesday 19 December at 2pm for this classical concert aimed at babies, toddlers and their carers. For further details see their website: https://www.bachtobaby.com/rochester-cathedral-special