“What does it profit us if we gain the whole world and lose our souls?”
“In our era, the road to holiness passes through the world of action.” (Dag Hammarskjöld)
“Something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” (Simone Weil)
Seeing that the mystics we have considered, from St. Augustine through to Brother Lawrence, were priests, recluses or monks, and lived a long time ago you might think that Christian mysticism is not something possible or helpful for modern people like ourselves. So today we meet two twentieth century mystics who were not cloistered in a monastery, nor were they what we might call religious types. The first , Dag Hammarskjöld , was, in fact, a Swedish politician and diplomat, and the second, Simone Weil, was a Jewish French professor of philosophy and political activist. Let me tell you a little about their spiritual journeys, and why many, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury, regard them as Christian mystics.
I still remember the day in September 1961 when Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash in Zambia at the age of 56. Hammarskjöld was then the Secretary General of the United Nations, and at the time he was trying to negotiate a peace deal in the newly independent but war torn Congo. Foul play was suspected as the cause of the plane crash as there were powerful geo-political forces at work trying to prevent peace negotiations from succeeding. Hammarskjöld never wrote any books, but he did keep a journal, and a few years after his death his journal was published. Entitled Markings it was described by a distinguished theologian at the time as “perhaps the greatest testament of personal faith written.”
You will find virtually nothing in Markings about Hammarskjöld’s very busy life as a high-powered diplomat, but you will discover many profound insights into his spiritual journey. Among them is perhaps his most famous statement: “In our era, the road to holiness passes through the world of action.” In other words, to become a saint you don’t have to live in a monastery; you can be busily engaged in politics, for that, too, is where God is at work seeking to establish justice and peace. For Hammarskjöld, we Christians cannot escape from our responsibility to join with God in doing the same. But what brought Hammarskjöld political activist to this point of view that makes him a mystic?
Soon after he became the Secretary General of the United Nations in 1953, Hammarskjöld said, in a radio interview, that he was deeply influenced by the great medieval mystics. He mentioned Meister Eckhart in particular who, he said, had taught him that that the path of “self-surrender” was the true path to discovering the self. In an entry in Markings he refers back to the time when this began to dawn upon him:
Once I answered Yes to Someone — or Something. And from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, has a goal.
The “Someone” or what I think is badly translated as “Something,” refers, of course, to the mystery we call God, but who transcends all our categories and words. For elsewhere Hammarskjöld refers to himself as only a vessel through in and through whom God is at work, and about his discovery that God was more real to himself than he was to himself; that God was no object that we can examine and control, but the subject or One who gives us life. Although Secretary General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld did not set out to gain the whole world with a lust for power and influence, for by doing so he would have lost his soul. On the contrary, through surrendering himself to God Hammarskjöld discovered the meaning and purpose of life in serving the world. This discovery, this sense of being encountered by God, Hammarskjöld described as a “creative act,” something he experienced as “a thunderclap of … dazzling power.” Hammarskjöld the politician and activist was so overwhelmed by the mystery we call God, that he denied self, and followed Jesus to the cross.
This brings us to Simone Weil. She was a Jewess by birth, a Marxist as a student, and deeply involved in the struggles in France prior to the Second World War, but she called herself a follower of Jesus and believed that the Christian life was the one she was called to live. This journey began when she visited the chapel in Assisi where St. Francis used to pray. She writes: “Something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” But she refused to be baptized and formally join the Catholic Church though she often worshipped there. In her classic book Waiting for God, she explains he reluctance to be baptised: “I cannot help still wondering whether in these days when so large a proportion of humanity is sunk in materialism, God does not want there to be some men and women who have given themselves to him and to Christ and who yet remain outside the Church.” Like Jesus, Simone Weil wanted to identify fully with the outsider, those who felt excluded.
But place her among the mystics? She gives us reason when she says that like St. John the mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing probably had the greatest influence on her life: “God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.” This, for her, was the heart of the mystery of God. That is why, as she insisted in Waiting for God, that if we think we can find God by searching for God we will never be successful. On the contrary, it is God who comes searching for us in the dark moments of our lives. Our task is to “wait for God,” to be open to the possibility that God will find us.
For Weil there is no prescribed mystic path to God, only the need to wait, to be open, to anticipate God’s coming to us, and to be receptive when God comes. This is what happened to her when she visited the chapel in Assisi. Something from beyond herself compelled her to her knees. It is often so. It happened to St. Paul on the Damascus Road, it happened to C.S. Lewis when he was “surprised by joy.” And I am sure it is the experience of many of us. We never went looking for God; we were found by God. That is the heart of the matter: for true mystics know that they will never find God no matter how hard they search unless it God is searching for them — for us — before we even begin. And from their experience they also know the moment will come when Someone, the mystery we call God, will approach us and invite us to say “yes.” True mysticism begins, as the Psalmist also knew, in waiting for God with expectancy, not least in times of darkness.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning. (Psalm 130:5-6)
John de Gruchy
Volmoed March 30, 2017 Lent 5