The one thing needful
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
22 July 2007, 10:30 (Mary Magdalene)
You can be a religious person or you can be a worldly person and it doesn’t really matter which you choose to be. Such a decision about life style is obviously more important than the lesser decisions that 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 person’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 ancient theologian) of ‘all good men always and everywhere’. In this the worldly person often, and surprisingly, outdoes their religious neighbour. But then the religious person has a habit of winning the away match too. As R .H. Tawney noticed a while ago, they have 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 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, in which to muse on things eternal and consider the rugged adventure of faith.
There is, however, a third possibility which is sanctity or holiness or wholeness of living. It is (as I have discovered during the weeks of my sabbatical leave) more radical, both in denial and in affirmation. That is to say that the choices involved are stricter. There is more definitive giving up of worldly or religious fleshpots. The way remains narrow that leads to life. But I have found 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 who read widely will recognize here the Psalms, George Herbert, William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Peguy, Jonathan Sacks or Charles Handy – all of whom have been my travelling companions. Another of the same company was Simone Weil – particularly during the Central European phase of my sabbatical.
Whatever else she was (and there is a lot else, one way and another), she was a saint. 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 Trinity.
She was a Jew, a French blue-stocking of the most daunting sort. And ‘they order these things better in France’, unadulterated by that diffidence and amateurism with which the English intellectual feels obliged to offset their cleverness. In 1928 the list for entry into the Ecole Normale 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 August 1942, aged 40.
And she died refusing the two things which we have noticed as indispensable to world 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 ration of the Jewish people in the extermination camps of Europe and of the people of France under Nazi occupation.
And yet she died in the love of God and the love of the world – that is, connected 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.’
Last of all she writes:
‘Matter is our infallible judge. From this alliance between matter and real feelings comes the significance of meals or solemn occasions, of festivals and family or friendly reunions, even between two lovers, and so on (also sweets, delicacies, marrons glaces and plum pudding, Easter eggs and a thousand local and regional customs (now almost vanished). The joy and spiritual significance of the meal is situated within the special delicacy.’
‘The most important part of teaching = to teach, what it is to know (in the scientific sense). Nurses!’
It’s 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 upon marrons glaces and Easter eggs yet refusing necessary nourishment. To worldly-cum-religious people like us the denials and the affirmations which saints make are so scarcely intelligible, their combination so apparently contradictory, 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 those last words ‘to teach, what it is to know (in the scientific sense)’ and in her key word ‘attention’. That word does not mean the stiff standing to attention of the soldier on parade but the active- passivity which is at the heart of good cooking and good worship. That is the way to the ‘inscape’, to the intimacy with the central life of anything which is scientific knowledge.
Simone Weil (with a little help from the Rule of Benedict and the Psalms) helped me to get to the inside of Christianity and to find the one thing needful. How, you might be wondering? ‘The one thing needful’ is perhaps the phrase which gives the clue. In this morning’s gospel story it was applied to listening Mary, you remember, and as a rebuke to strenuously trying Martha.
The one who seeks his life will lose it, the one who loses his life will find it. Simone Weil got there by not insisting on it. We are understandably reluctant to apply that saying rigorously to sanctity, the central business of religion. We are happier thinking of more orthodox ecclesiastical figures as saints than an oddball like this woman.
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 the 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 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, and in the full sense of the word, she knew – deeply and widely. And to give us a chance of choosing to take the same way of radical poverty and radical richness, she taught it too.