Sunday 6th December 2015, Advent 2, evening
by Revd Chris Palmer
There is an essay by Simone Weil, French philosopher, activist, and mystic, about the purpose of education in relation to the love of God. She argues that fundamental to the life of prayer is giving our attention to God – and what education does is train us to pay attention. We may think that devoting ourselves to algebra or learning a foreign language is to develop our knowledge - or perhaps we think it’s pointless – but it’s real value is teach us attentiveness, so that we may better know God. And not only know God, but also other people. She gives as an example the Curé d’Ars – patron saint of priests – who strove to learn Latin for years and was for ever frustrated in this. But the attention he paid to it, made him famous for understanding the souls of the hundreds who flocked to him each week to make their confession. And she goes on to say, that we mustn’t think of this attention we must learn as a labouring or screwing up of our minds. Most intellectual mistakes are made in the rush to force a conclusion prematurely. No, attention is fundamentally about waiting. Like someone trying to express themselves and holding the pen poised for the right word to come to mind, and simply dismissing the wrong ones until the perfect word arrives. So with God, we wait on him, sometimes it feels futile – and then at a moment not of our choosing light floods in.
Well, I’m rather attracted to the idea that the main purpose of school is to help us to pray. Though I’m not sure I’d sell that idea widely. But it seems to me that Zechariah in our second reading was someone who had learned and lived that waiting on God that Simone Weil talks about: a priest, who had given himself to the study of scripture, who had faithfully undertaken his duty in the temple, and who had sought God’s favour in the context of his and his wife’s childlessness. And this learning, this attentiveness, this not forcing the issue, but simply waiting on God – these are the context into which light burst, in the form on an angel, while Zechariah is at his most attentive, offering sacrifice to God.
And, well, you’ve just heard the story. Zechariah is terrified, the angel delivers the news of John’s forthcoming birth and tells Zechariah that he and Elisabeth will be filled with joy, Zechariah is incredulous (‘How can this be: we’re both old’), and the angel tells Zechariah he will be mute until John is born, because of his unbelief.
In fact, I feel sorry for Zechariah: his line is almost the same as Mary’s a few verses later: ‘How can this be; we’re old’, ‘How can this be; I’m a virgin’. But she seems to get away with it and Zechariah doesn’t. Except that I wonder whether Zechariah’s muteness is not such a bad thing or a punishment at all. The inability to speak quietens the sound of our own voice, our own gossip, our own explaining ourselves, defending ourselves, our criticising others, thinking that what we’ve got to say outweighs what we need to hear.
In my imagination Zechariah’s attention, his attentiveness to God, is given ninth months to deepen, to expand, and grow. This was the waiting time, not only in the obvious sense of waiting for a birth, but in the more profound sense of waiting on God, waiting on others.
Advent is the waiting time – and in this sense of waiting on God. Giving God our unanxious, untense attention, not needing to grasp at his revealing, but nonetheless simply being open to it. In this sense, all of life is Advent time, a time of openness to what God might do or say. And our part is not to force it, but simply to be available to God when he comes.
This attentiveness or being available to God is the subject of parables of Jesus: the wise and foolish virgins, the house keeper who is ready for the thief at any hour, and so on. And we can fall off the ridge of this waiting to either side. On the one side is simply being distracted by everything else, so that the hope of God no longer holds our hearts; Jesus told parables about that too: ‘the cares of this world, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word…’, in the parable of the sower. This is the obvious way to fall from the waiting place, and probably the more common.
But the alternative – falling off the other side of the ridge – is forcing the waiting to a conclusion prematurely. Simone Weil talks about intellectual errors when people don’t wait for the results in study. But the equivalent in the spiritual life is convincing ourselves or others that we have heard God before we have.
For those who crave to know God’s will, desire God to speak to them, want answers to their prayers, or long to know how to act, this is a constant temptation. And desire and wanting and craving and longing are important in the spiritual life. Our truest desires do point us to God. But the only real desire is the desire for God himself, God herself. Yearning for answers, rather than yearning for God, muddies the waters of discernment.
When we’re anxious, pent up, needing a response, these are rarely times we hear God’s spirit aright. Other spirits – of greed, of power, of lust – populate the air when we are agitated or striving for a reply.
However great the disappointments or grief of life; however strong the resentments we nurse, or the guilt we bear, or the anger we (at times even) celebrate, we are not open to God in that state of heart. Our first task is to discover serenity, the consolation of having a heart aflame with desire and love for God, and only God.
And into the clarity that comes at such moments, God speaks. Or maybe I should say, in that clarity we hear – because God is always speaking. Simone Weil puts it like this: ‘This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. Only the one who is capable of attention can do this.’
It ought to be easy – not forcing the issue, but just waiting. But however we learn it, whether it’s by studying Latin and geometry, or going off and working a factory as Simone Weil did to be nearer to the people, or by attentively doing the task assigned as Zechariah did for his long life before God spoke, this attentiveness is the atmosphere in which we breathe God.
This sermon refers to Weil's essay, 'Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God', written in 1942 and found in Waiting on God.