Listening to Simone

By Christiana N. Peterson
lady-in-pewThe woman stands in the entryway of our common building just before Sunday worship begins. It’s not a sightly place, but it has every necessity for common intentional community life: a kitchen, a large meeting space, tables and chairs for worship and meals, a bathroom and a prayer room.

At first, the woman seems to fit right in with our unfussy crew: round spectacles, hair in a frizzy bob, a shapeless dress, oversized shoes. I immediately feel an affinity with her.

But I am also wary of her. Something tells me that she has intentionally obliterated anything outwardly lovely in her appearance. This both draws me in and annoys me.

Because I think I know her type. They come through intentional community sometimes: idealistic, stringent in their belief system, radically unusual in their dress. Community hoppers who bounce from church to church, intentional community to community, never satisfied with what they find and always criticizing. Not one of those again, I sigh.

I’m surprised when she speaks with a French accent. My name is Simone, she says.

Hello, I say. WelcomeWe are about to start worship. Please come in.

She enters into our worship space. I wonder if she is cautious or uncomfortable. I wonder why she is here in the first place. Even in my annoyance, I desperately want her to approve of us.

During the opening worship, she doesn’t sing but her eyes are bright as if something heavenly is moving and breathing in her. For some reason, that delights me.

When sharing time comes, though, she begins to speak about God. She tells us that she’s glad to be here but that she believes it is God’s will that she isn’t to be baptized or become a member of a church. If she belongs to one place too much, then she belongs to humanity less.

I am perplexed. Why would God not want her to be a part of community?

Christ likes us to prefer truth to him, because, she says, before being Christ, he is truth.

What is this philosophical mumbo-jumbo? I think. Ugh, she is one of those idealists.

I speak up: Do you expect us all to reject community the way you do? Or is it just you? Is God really speaking to you, telling you to not be baptized in order that you wouldn’t truly belong?

She doesn’t reply.

But I am angry now.

Have you ever actually been a part of a community? I say to her. I have seen too much of your kind of idealism. Too much refusal to accommodate ideals into the realities of community, the realities of the messiness of others. The reality of our own brokenness.

She doesn’t respond, which irritates me further. When my anger subsides during the song of benediction, I’m somewhat embarrassed at my outburst to a stranger, to someone I am supposed to welcome in.

***

Simone Weil, your words are discomfiting. When I first begin to read your essays and letters, I am annoyed and I wonder what you would do if you appeared in our community. We aren’t the church of the 1940s that you were so wary to join.

I wouldn’t actually yell at you, but you leave me with all sorts of questions: Did you have a special sort of sight that I won’t ever be able to access? Is it just me and my inability to see through the veil?

Sometimes when I read your words, I agree with Flannery O’Connor’s assessment of you: “Weil’s is the most comical life I have ever read about, and the most truly terrible and tragic.”

But if we met, and I said these things to you, even out of respect and admiration, I suspect you might respond the way you did to Simone de Beauvoir when she noted that “the problem was not to make men happy, but to find the reason for their existence.” De Beauvoir claims your response was, “It’s easy to see you’ve never gone hungry.”

It’s true, Simone, I’ve never gone hungry. I wonder what a hungry person would say back to you, you who didn’t have to go hungry but chose it instead.

Simone, I was a bit skeptical of your radical life. I thought you didn’t get it, that your ideals worked because you had never really lived in community. But then you knocked me over the head with it:

“Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing…it is a miracle.”

Oh, Simone. You do get it. You say, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’”

I see now that you understood more than I do. And I confess that I am defensive because you have poked at my weakness. Loving my neighbor can be so hard. In order to love, we must know ourselves, our faults, sins and weaknesses, and know that even with all of our shadows, we are loved by God. We must know this in order to look at someone else and ask, “What are you going through?”

Maybe that is why I’m not so good at it, Simone. I am uncovering my shadows and trying to see God’s love there. I hope it doesn’t take long. I want so much to love others but it takes an attention that I never anticipated.

So Simone, if you ever want to come visit our ragtag group, I promise to listen to you with an open heart. I won’t agree with everything you say, but I wonder if our community might change your mind a bit. Would you consider joining us? We are seeking the truth too.

 

Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published poetry at Catapult, Curator, and Literary Mama as well as articles on fairytales and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. She lives with her family in rural Illinois in an intentional community where she is learning the joys and challenges of church and farm life. You can find more of Christiana’s work on her blog thebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter.

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