In the mid-twentieth century, there was a writer named Simone Weil, a physically frail woman who suffered from intense anxiety. She worried she didn’t measure up, that her writing wasn’t good enough, that she was unimportant, that she was wasting her potential. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, she fled to a monastery in a small town in France called Solesmes. While there, she listened to the monks sing their daily prayers, later writing that because of a week-long splitting headache, “each sound hurt…like a blow.” But she forced herself to continue to engage in the devotions and was rewarded. Eventually, she says, she was able to, “rise above this wretched flesh, to leave it to suffer by itself, heaped up in a corner, and to find a perfect and pure joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and the words.”
Amid the frenzy of the world and her own interior anxiety, she encountered a calm, deep, patient love; the love of the monks as they devoted themselves to God and the love of God as he permeated the monastery. It was here in the womb of the Church that Christ entered her previously non-religious soul.
A friend visiting the monastery with her explained that the sacraments of the Church are love incarnate, and they re-make those who receive them. He showed her a poem by George Herbert about God’s undying love. To focus her attention, she would recite it to herself when she was in the midst of health issues and in pain until the poem blossomed into a prayer and an intimate encounter with Christ, which greatly surprised her. She says, “I had never foreseen the possibility…of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.” For the rest of her short life, her entire demeanor changed. She had encountered God’s love and it changed her. All she needed was to come to a full stop in some holy place and pay attention.
The passage of time is uncanny, one minute you’re in high school and the next you’re celebrating the birth of a grandchild. One moment you’re dating the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen and the next you’ve celebrated your 50th anniversary with her. I wake up each morning at 6am and make a cup of coffee so I can sit on the porch and listen to the crickets for a few minutes. I get excited because, even though I’ve said thousands of them, I know I get to come to Epiphany and say another Mass. It’s a simple ritual to sanctify the day, and it means everything to me, because without it I have trouble coping with how fast life is slipping away. That simple act of coming to Mass each morning sanctifies the time and helps me to bring God with me throughout the day.
A friend of mine talks about sitting at a red light each morning on the way to mass. She says, “Each morning I see the same bent over, elderly man with his Quik Trip coffee cup make his way painfully across the street. He is clearly suffering pain in his legs, but he keeps going. All the cars are moving and turning and rushing past him, their drivers thinking their own thoughts. This is how suffering is. We always think martyrdoms are glorious affairs. But dying is a lonely business: whether you are dying to your selfishness, or suffering physically, or in the final breath. It’s this amazing heroic thing going on in…a world too busy to be amazed.” Even this – a man with his gas station coffee – even this is worth the attention we might give to it because it can unlock a profound meditation on the nature of life.
In the book of Wisdom, we are confronted with a series of questions. How do we know what God wants of us? How do we hear his voice? What are his plans for us? You can hear a hint of anxiety in the writing – perhaps I’m coloring the text with my own concerns – but certainly it has always been true that the search for God has been a relentless wrestling match with doubts, uncertainty, and the feeling that we are all treading water in the open sea with no land in sight. The medicine is the same as it is for for Simone Weil, even if it is through gritted teeth and a splitting headache, pay attention to the beauty of God breaking through seemingly ordinary objects and people. Every single created thing is embraced by the love of God and if he had to he would die daily for each of his creatures. And if we are patient enough to recognize that love, it will embrace us, too.
When St. Paul writes his letter to Philemon, he does so because Philemon’s runaway slave has found St. Paul and begged to not be sent back into slavery. St. Paul appeals to love, because love is a more accurate insight into the true nature of things than pure reason. In the end it isn’t necessarily the smartest person who becomes the saint, it is the one who loves. And it isn’t the most educated person who is most wise, it is the person whose love has allowed them to pay attention most intently. If Philemon had demanded his slave back, according to Roman law he would have technically been “right,” but then again, we all know he wouldn’t actually have been right. It is love that reveals this distinction. Look again, says St. Paul, see more accurately, you may lose a slave, yes, but you will gain a brother.
Where is it that we need to take a second look, a better look? A more generous look?
People who are in love pay attention. A mother stares at her baby for hours and takes note of every little feature, every sigh, every hiccup. When we have Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament here, it isn’t unusual that people will simply kneel in silence and look at Jesus very closely and very carefully. They are paying attention because they are in love.
If you feel like you are carrying a cross, carry it with love. If you are trying to curb a bad habit, or simply improve each day as a parent, a spouse, a friend, the energy to do so is motivated by love. Authentic and pure values – truth, beauty, and goodness – are the result of one act, the act of paying full attention to the object and seeing it, perhaps for the very first time, just the way God sees it. St. Paul says that if Philemon will welcome Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother, he will in fact be welcoming St. Paul himself. How much more so is it true that, when we put our anxieties behind, put our own thoughts and concerns behind to welcome and cherish what God has given us, welcome the people he has placed in our lives, then we are welcoming God himself. After that, it’s impossible to see anything the same way ever again.