hildegard von bingen – a feather on the breath of god (c 1150)

“Listen; there was once a king on his throne anointed with great honour. He sent forth his dove into the world, which dropped the tiniest feather from its wing. The king raised the feather, blew on it, and commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself, but because the air bore it along.

Thus am I: but a feather on the breath of God.”

– Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)

This extraordinarily gifted woman, born c. 1098 in Bermersheim, Germany, was given to the church at the age of eight. The tenth child of Hildebert of Bermersheim and Mechthild of Merxheim, she was promised as a tithe to the church from her birth and was later to become an abbess. She was a polymath: a visionary, a theologian, an early scientist and physician and a prodigious letter-writer who numbered kings, emperors and popes among her correspondents. There is a detailed Wikipedia entry about her HERE.

Illumination from the "Liber Scivias" showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary.

Illumination from the “Liber Scivias” shows Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe.

on undoing the self and paying attention

Excerpted from this post at Wine, Women and Philosophy:

… And aren’t unsettling folk just like that? You think you’ve done them, ticked them off, when suddenly, you’re back to square one… This other quagmire into which we had unwittingly waded – the actual technicalities involved in “undoing the creature in us” so as to successfully “decreatea la Weil – required our immediate attention.

And so, spurred on by Anne Carson’s insight into how to go about actually paying attention – “Attention is a choice of where you put your mind…And looking at the object of your attention to the extent that you forget you’re doing the looking” – we embarked on a series of exercises designed to both instruct us on the ins and outs of destroying the “I,” and sharpen our skills in the attentiveness department.

Of course, there was a lot of preliminary discussion as to whether destroying the “I” was a desirable thing in the first place. In a sense, that Weilian notion of carving out a void in the space where the self normally resides goes counter to the rah-rah-be-your-biggest-and-best-self kind of rhetoric on offer in Self-Esteem for Dummies etc. In a culture where Self reigns Supreme, doing away with it is unnerving at best, terrifying at worst – even if this negation is, as Weil contends, a necessary move if one is to fully open oneself to Truth and Knowledge and Whatever Else Truly Matters.

For the self gets in the way. Like a shadow, it blocks out the light. Like unwanted baggage, it weighs you down. Like the elephant in the room, it takes up all the space. Clear the shadow, the baggage, the elephant, and you’re starting to get somewhere. A strange way to go about getting to the bottom of self-esteem, perhaps. But it seemed to offer something in the way of getting more out of life, and so we bit.

Simone Weil suffered from terrible migraines. She tried many ways of clearing them out of her head, but nothing seemed to work. One thing she knew for sure was that they got in the way of her being able to turn her full attention to what mattered. In April 1938 she found herself attending the Easter Mass at the Abbeye St-Pierre in Solesmes. She felt the Gregorian chanting of the monks enter her body, go straight to the space in her head filled with migraine. As the chanting poured in, her migraine did a peculiar thing: it emptied out. Soon, the space formerly known as migraine was awash with Gregorian Chant. It was a space rendered ready for paying attention: for “a patient holding in the mind,” as Weil referred to the act of paying attention, which in turn would make thought itself “available, empty, penetrable by the object.”

This is a radical take on the role of thought in the life of the mind: not the light bulb switching on as it encounters its object, but rather, the necessary conditions for the object to come to light. In Weil’s conception, thought must be suspended if the object of one’s attention is to find its way in, gain a proper foothold. If thought is busy thinking, the object just passes it by. If thoughtfulness hasn’t twinned itself up with attentiveness, the best we can hope for when it comes to thinking is a worrying – Weil would go so far as to say dangerous – mishmash of “partial attitudes.”

That, at least, is the theory. We obviously needed to put ourselves in Weil’s shoes to grasp what it felt like in practice. And so we experimented with filling our heads with the self-same Gregorian chants that had so impacted Weil, and making of the resulting void a luminous object-ready nesting ground. Yah, right. Weil, as I suggested earlier, was unsettling: not your average, run-of-the-mill, kind of gal.

But we gave it a go, and then turned our attention to other aural stimuli: a metronome’s steady tick-tocking, which brought the Weilian notion of time as “unvarying perpetuity” into the equation; a wind-up music box with its twirling ballerina and its ever-decelerating ditty, which prompted us to probe yet further how time, if invariably monotonous for Weil, could helpfully be categorized as either “time surpassed” – as in here comes the void, which is good monotonous – or as “time sterilized” – as in me just going round and round like “a squirrel turning it its cage” and never getting anywhere near the void, much less admitting to myself that I am going round and round (which for Weil is the worst sin of all, this kind of self-delusion) and which is, not surprisingly, bad monotonous.

This seemed as good a queue for a song as we were likely to get, so we broke out Anne Carson’s Duet of What is a Question from her Weil-inspired opera in three parts, Decreation (2005), and gave it our valiant best. Improvising the vocal arrangements – Carson had only supplied the libretto – provided us with the perfect opportunity to pay attention to each other, and hone our deep listening skills. As for getting us closer to the void, we were still a little in the dark. Enter American poet Fanny Howe (b.1940) and her beautifully observed prose poem, Doubt.

If Baruch Spinoza is the physicists’ philosopher, Simone Weil, it would seem, is the poets’ philosopher. Though it is easy to understand why Weil speaks to poets like Carson and Howe, the writing that comes of their interest in her ideas and her personal narrative is as tantalizing and challenging as Weil herself.

Sometimes, though, what poetry gives us that philosophy cannot is a line of such stark and heart-breaking beauty that knowing what the void, for example, actually is, or what it is to make one or find it or get there no longer seems to matter. For a very brief moment, we just feel decreated – like the creature in us has unraveled, like we have completely come undone.

fanny howe – doubt (2003)

fanny howeVirginia Woolf committed suicide in 1941 when the German bombing campaign against England was at its peak and when she was reading Freud whom she had staved off until then.

Edith Stein, recently and controversially beatified by the Pope, who had successfully worked to transform an existential vocabulary into a theological one, was taken to Auschwitz in August 1942.

Two years later Simone Weil died in a hospital in England—of illness and depression—determined to know what it is to know.
She, as much as Woolf and Stein, sought salvation in a choice of words.

But multiples succumb to the sorrow induced by an inexact vocabulary.

While a whole change in discourse is a sign of conversion, the alteration of a single word only signals a kind of doubt about the value of the surrounding words.
Poets tend to hover over words in this troubled state of mind. What holds them poised in this position is the occasional eruption of happiness.

While we would all like to know if the individual person is a phenomenon either culturally or spiritually conceived and why everyone doesn’t kill everyone else, including themselves, since they can—poets act out the problem with their words.

Why not say “heart-sick” instead of “despairing”?
Why not say “despairing” instead of “depressed”?

Is there, perhaps, a quality in each person—hidden like a laugh inside a sob—that loves even more than it loves to live?
If there is, can it be expressed in the form of the lyric line?

Dostoevsky defended his later religious belief, saying of his work, “Even in Europe there have never been atheistic expressions of such power. My hosannah has gone through a great furnace of doubt.”

According to certain friends, Simone Weil would have given everything she wrote to be a poet. It was an ideal but she was wary of charm and the inauthentic. She saw herself as stuck in fact with a rational prose line for her surgery on modern thought. She might be the archetypal doubter but the language of the lyric was perhaps too uncertain.

As far as we know she wrote a play and some poems and one little prose poem called Prologue.
Yet Weil could be called a poet, if Wittgenstein could, despite her own estimation of her writing, because of the longing for a conversion that words might produce.

In Prologue the narrator is an uprooted seeker who still hopes that a transformation will come to her from the outside. The desired teacher arrives bearing the best of everything, including delicious wine and bread, affection, tolerance, solidarity (people come and go) and authority. This is a man who even has faith and loves truth.

She is happy. Then suddenly, without any cause, he tells her it’s over. She is out on the streets without direction, without memory. Indeed she is unable to remember even what he told her without his presence there to repeat it, this amnesia being the ultimate dereliction.

If memory fails, then the mind is air in a skull.

This loss of memory forces her to abandon hope for either rescue or certainty.

And now is the moment where doubt—as an active function—emerges and magnifies the world. It eliminates memory. And it turns eyesight so far outwards, the vision expands. A person feels as if she is the figure inside a mirror, looking outwards for her moves. She is a forgery.

When all the structures granted by common agreement fall away and that “reliable chain of cause and effect” that Hannah Arendt talks about—breaks—then a person’s inner logic also collapses. She moves and sees at the same time, which is terrifying.

Yet strangely it is in this moment that doubt shows itself to be the physical double to belief; it is the quality that nourishes willpower, and the one that is the invisible engine behind every step taken.
Doubt is what allows a single gesture to have a heart.

In this prose poem Weil’s narrator recovers her balance after a series of reactive revulsions to the surrounding culture by confessing to the most palpable human wish: that whoever he was, he loved her.

Hope seems to resist extermination as much as a roach does.

Hannah Arendt talks about the “abyss of nothingness that opens up before any deed that cannot be accounted for.” Consciousness of this abyss is the source of belief for most converts. Weil’s conviction that evil proves the existence of God is cut out of this consciousness.

Her Terrible Prayer—that she be reduced to a paralyzed nobody—desires an obedience to that moment where coming and going intersect before annihilation.
And her desire: “To be only an intermediary between the blank page and the poem” is a desire for a whole-heartedness that eliminates personality.

Virginia Woolf, a maestro of lyric resistance, was frightened by Freud’s claustrophobic determinism since she had no ground of defense against it. The hideous vocabulary of mental science crushed her dazzling star-thoughts into powder and brought her latent despair into the open air.
Born into a family devoted to skepticism and experiment, she had made a superhuman effort at creating a prose-world where doubt was a mesmerizing and glorious force.

Anyone who tries, as she did, out of a systematic training in secularism, to forge a rhetoric of belief is fighting against the odds. Disappointments are everywhere waiting to catch you, and an ironic realism is always convincing.

Simone Weil’s family was skeptical too, and secular and attentive to the development of the mind. Her older brother fed her early sense of inferiority with intellectual put-downs. Later, her notebooks chart a superhuman effort at conversion to a belief in affliction as a sign of God’s presence.

Her prose itself is tense with effort. After all, to convert by choice (that is, without a blast of revelation or a personal disaster) requires that you shift the names for things, and force a new language out of your mind onto the page.

You have to make yourself believe. Is this possible? Can you turn “void” into “God” by switching the words over and over again?

Any act of self-salvation is a problem because of death which always has the last laugh, and if there has been a dramatic and continual despair hanging over childhood, then it may even be impossible.
After all, can you call “doubt” “bewilderment” and suddenly be relieved?

Not if your mind has been fatally poisoned. . . .
But even then, it seems the dream of having no doubt continues, finding its way into love and work where choices matter exactly as much as they don’t matter—at least when luck is working in your favor.

Fanny Howe, from Gone: Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

charity hamilton – troubled bodies: metaxu, suffering and the encounter with the divine

charity hamilton

Charity Hamilton

The body is the canvas on which the female experience is painted and through which female identity is often understood. The female body is a slate on which a patriarchal story has been written, scarred onto the flesh.

For Simone Weil metaxu was simultaneously that which separated and connected, so for instance the wall between two prison cells cuts off the prisoners but was also the means by which they communicated by knocking on that wall. Could the body be that metaxu all at once separating us and connecting us to the Divine? The nature of metaxu is that it offers a route not just for the individual soul but for the souls of others to travel…

It’s all well and good to dust off a dead French Jewish Catholic not-quite-feminist-philosopher called Simone Weil and say ‘thanks, your theory of metaxu is great’, but what I want to know within the bones of my so-called soul is how this notion of metaxu can draw me into God, how can it liberate my sisters and how can it usher in the kingdom of the mother of all creation?

Human beings are created in the image of God and formed from the dust of the earth, and thus the body has an echoing significance throughout Christian history. The body is the perceived seat of what some describe as the fall, the locus of the incarnation, the home of crucifixion, the vessel of redemption, salvation and resurrection. The body is not an external meaningless diversion from the spiritual path; rather it is an incredibly important recurring theme both biblically and in Christian tradition and history. Bray and Colebrook state that,

The body is a negotiation with images, but it is also a negotiation with pleasures, pains, other bodies, space, visibility, and medical practice; no single event in this field can act as a general ground for determining the status of the body (Bray and Colebrook, 1998).

Yet more than all of this, the body is the place in which we dwell, it is all we have. As Elizabeth Moltmann Wendell says ‘I am my body’ (Moltmann-Wendell, 1994). For each of our sisters the body is the canvas on which the female experience is painted and through which female identity is often understood. It is on the stage of our female bodies that some of the most fixed church doctrines have been written and enacted. The female body is a slate on which a patriarchal story has been written, scarred onto the flesh. These bodies of ours are patriarchal constructs which must be liberated and re-adopted into the Christian story without the limitations of perceived notions or definitions of ‘gender’.

Isherwood and Stuart assert that ‘From the moment we are asked to believe that Eve was a rib removed from the side of Adam we understand that theology is based in the body and we are at a disadvantage!’ (Isherwood and Stuart, 1998: 15). The historical dichotomy between the Eve and the Mary constructions has led to a definitive inequality for women, both in terms of physical wellbeing and in terms of spiritual and psychological wellbeing. The choices for a woman to be the sin-formed, temptress Eve or the virginal pure vessel Mary are seen historically in the precarious place of women in the church and in society.

Elizabeth Stuart writes that ‘Women were regarded as being ensnared in their bodiliness to a far greater degree than men and they too had to be tamed and subdued for their own good and the good of the men they might tempt into sin’ (Stuart, 1996: 23). It is hardly surprising therefore that twentieth and twenty-first century feminist, womanist, mujerista and black theologians have worked hard to undo and re-express a theology of the body which offers a more authentic narrative of the relationship between the Divine and the physical which both liberates the female body and liberates God from the patriarchal box the Church has created around her.

…The female body can only be liberated from that patriarchal overwriting by writing its own narrative, much of which will be based upon experiences of being troubled. The true nature of the female body can only be revealed by a concerted effort to ‘re-own’ this body as our own not as we have been taught to understand it. This in turn means that the systems, doctrines and ‘ways of being’ which exist within the Church and society must be challenged and re-imagined from the perspective of the un-vocalized and troubled female narrative. In the sense that the female body has not really been ours, has not been an authentically female body and yet has the potential to be unlocked as such, it therefore makes for the perfect condition for metaxu, it is that thing which separates in its forms of oppression and connects in its potential liberation. It is at once a place where great evil has been wrought and a place of divine goodness. Weil writes of love that,

Creation is an act of love and it is perpetual. At each moment our existence is God’s love for us. But God can only love himself. His love for us is love for himself through us. Thus, he who gives us our being loves in us the acceptance of not being. Our existence is made up only of his waiting for our acceptance not to exist. He is perpetually begging from us that existence which he gives. He gives it to us in order to beg it from us (Weil, 2002: 28).

According to Weil, our very existence is from God and returns to God. I would argue that to be able to return this ‘not being’ to God, the body has to take some form of action, or have some form of action performed upon it to open a space in which our not being or not existing can be offered to God. It is this removal of our self which I argue can be interpreted as a removal of the socially created self to leave only the God part of ourselves, the authentic self that is God. The body is metaxu in that it is imperfect and yet perfect. The body is human and therefore unreal and socially recreated, yet the body is also created by God and God dwells within it. The female body is both imprisoned and is liberated. Its imprisonment is the very thing that enables it to unravel the layers of patriarchal construction to locate the God part and its imprisonment is the thing which allows for an authentic narrative to be written. The female body has to separate us from the Divine in order to connect us to the Divine.

Read the whole of this interesting paper by Charity Hamilton HERE.