Divine Penetration

21 October 2009


saint teresa

A few days ago I mentioned listening to a biography of Simone Weil. The last chapter had a number of extracts from Weil’s writings, and one in particular struck me, but I should try to give some context as to why it struck me.

Some months back I listened to a new translation of Saint Teresa of Ávila’s autobiography, and I had drafted a couple of posts about it that I never took the time to properly finish. I enjoy Saint Teresa’s writings about her mystical experiences and refer to them often, especially her detailed descriptions of the stages of prayer and her distinctions between different species of mystical experience.

Although Weil agonized over whether she could, in good conscience, join the Catholic church, her late thought is thoroughly assimilated to the Catholic paradigm, and she repeatedly self-identified in terms of the Catholic tradition. Weil is not so explicit as Saint Teresa of Ávila in describing her mystical experiences that brought her to the Catholic church (she seems to have been a deeply private person in this respect), but there are clear traces of her mystical experiences in her writings, though, like Saint Teresa of Ávila, it is a mysticism of a peculiar character:

“Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it… We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them… 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.”

Simone Weil, Waiting on God, quoted in Simone Weil by Francine du Plessix Gray

There is an approximately parallel passage in the introduction to the writings posthumously collected as Gravity and Grace, a commentary on Weil’s thought by her friend Gustave Thibon:

“The hero wears armor, the saint is naked. Now armor, while keeping off blows, prevents any direct contact with reality and above all makes it impossible to enter the third dimension which is supernatural love. If things are really to exist for us they have to penetrate within us. Hence the necessity for being naked: nothing can enter into us while armour protects us both from wounds and from the depths which they open up.”

Thibon has here captured an essential aspect of Weil’s conception of the spirit and its function in the world, or, rather, its non-function defined in terms of passivity, in terms of waiting, in terms of attention. A similar concern with penetration and passive waiting is to be found in the famous passage of Saint Teresa of Ávila when she describes her vision of an angel penetrating her with a spear:

“In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.”

A secular commentary upon this penetrative feminine mysticism is to be found in Andrea Dworkin’s theoretical treatise Intercourse:

“By definition, as the God who does not exist made her, this lesser privacy, this lesser integrity, this lesser self, establishes her lesser significance: not just in the world of social policy by in the world of bare, true, real existence. She is defined by how she is made, that hole, which is synonymous with entry; and intercourse, the act fundamental to existence, has consequences to her being that may be intrinsic, not socially imposed. There is no analogue anywhere among subordinated groups of people to this experience of being made for intercourse: for penetration, entry, occupation.” (p. 155)

If Dworkin is right that being made for penetration is a unique existential condition, and that being such a being has ontological consequences, one should expect that the spiritual reality of such a being would differ from other beings, viz. beings for whom this unique existential condition does not apply.

One finds the account of such a being in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Sartre’s great treatise on phenomenological ontology. Sartre was a contemporary of Weil, and indeed Sartre’s long time companion Simone de Beauvoir sought out Simone Weil, wanting to meet her because of what she had heard about Weil breaking into tears upon news of a famine in China. But de Beauvoir and Weil did not hit it off, according to the brief account in de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Beautiful Daughter. After it became clear that Weil wanted to feed the world’s hungry while de Beauvoir wanted to help those who hungered for meaning, they apparently had nothing more to say for each other. But we note that both saw the world in terms of a hunger that demanded satiation — in other words, an emptiness in the world that needed to be filled. Enter Sartre.

The later portions of Sartre’s treatise elaborates what Sartre called existential psychoanalysis, which he proposes in contradistinction to Freudian psychoanalysis. One of the conclusions at which Sartre arrives in the course of this exposition is that human beings are hole-filling creatures.

“Here at the origin we grasp one of the most fundamental tendencies of human reality — the tendency to fill. We shall meet with this tendency again in the adolescent and in the adult. A good part of our life is passed in plugging up holes, in filling empty places, in realizing and symbolically establishing a plenitude.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Part Four, Chapter Two, III

Another conclusion, to put the matter bluntly, is that everyone wants to be God. In Sartre’s language this is formulated in terms of being-for-itself (i.e., consciousness) looking to the self-contained and self-sufficient character of being-in-itself and wanting to become being-in-itself. Being-for-itself, subjectivity, is vulnerable: when pierced by The Look it bleeds in the direction of the other. Being-in-itself possesses no such vulnerability (like the hero in armor described by Thibon).

“…the ideal of a consciousness which would be the foundation of its own being-in-itself by the pure consciousness which it would have of itself. It is this ideal which can be called God. Thus the best way to conceive of the fundamental project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God.”


Now, not to put too fine a point on it, but if we all want to be God, and we are hole-filling creatures, then we need a hole to fill. God, according to Weil, may not need a hole to fill, but Weil made herself empty and waited to be filled by God, to be penetrated by God, to be taken by God. And there is a precedent for this: in the form of the Holy Spirit God came to Mary, Mother of God, and filled her so that Mary was with child by way of an Immaculate Conception. Saint Teresa was also penetrated by God, though she seemed to be more interested in what Dworkin called, “… the sensual reality of submission, violation, and being possessed.” (Intercourse, p. 196)

Is Sartre’s Being and Nothingness the secularized, masculine counterpart to the penetrative feminine mysticism of Saint Teresa and Simone Weil?

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