Ecclesiasticus 10.12-18 or Proverbs 25.6-7;
Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16;
Luke 14.1, 7-14
A difficult query was put to this paper’s “Out of the Question” column recently: “What did Simone Weil mean by the word ‘decreate’?” (27 July) Simone Weil had such a subtle and mobile mind that it is never easy to pin down exactly what she meant about anything. Capturing her thought is a binding of Ariel.
One approach to Simone Weil’s concept of “decreation” would be to see it as her attempt to trace to its roots a hard saying from Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus said: “Go and sit down in the lowest place.” Simone Weil said that the essential fact about the Christian virtues — in her words, “what lends them a special savour of their own” — is humility. She described humility as “the freely accepted movement towards the bottom”.
For Simone Weil, the heart of Christian obedience is the consent to be last, the willing acceptance of “the lowest place”. (I contrast her mind with that of a former Bishop of London, who objected to where I had seated him for a service I was involved in. “Comes to something,” he growled, “when I’m given a back seat in my own diocese.”)
“Go and sit down in the lowest place.” In the parable’s picture-language, the seat to choose is the one furthest from the top table, ideally somewhere close to a door swinging open on the din and pong of the kitchen. According to Paul, the ground and motive of this bizarre ethic — after all, for the Greeks, humility was a vice, not a virtue — is the incarnation and Passion of Jesus.
God “emptied himself” both by assuming our sinful nature, and by suffering on the cross our nature’s awful entail. Henceforth, that self-emptying determines the character and direction of the Christian ethic. “Let his mind be yours,” says Paul (Philippians 2. 5-11).
Simone Weil’s audacious claim — St Paul never went as far as this — was that God “emptied himself” in creation, too. God’s creation, so Simone Weil argued, is an act of abdication. By allowing the existence of other creatures, God refuses to be everything. “My very existence is like a laceration of God,” she says.
The Christian response to the God who abdicates — the “decreation” required of each of us — reflects that initial divine sacrifice. “Decreation” is the extinction of the autonomous self. By the grace of God, I must utterly destroy the “I” in me. As Weil famously remarked: “To say ‘I’ is to lie.”
Rowan Williams has pondered long on Simone Weil’s “decreation”. He writes: “I must enter the process of decreation so that between the world and unconditional love no barrier is set up in the shape of an ego with plural and specific needs and projects” (Simone Weil’s Philosophy of Culture, edited by Richard Bell, CUP, 1993).
Many mighty egos, with their clamorous demands, will meet at the Lambeth Conference next year. Will the Archbishop remind them of this wraith of a woman who saw that the repudiation of power, rather than the assertion of power, is the way of Christ? We shall see.
Such was Simone Weil’s understanding of the Gospel we hear this Sunday. Such, too, was her own renunciation. Such was the witness of her frail and wasted figure, the anorexic carcase on which she visited such affliction. “She was a saint,” an archdeacon remarked to me recently. “Totally barking, of course,” he added.
Simone Weil was one of those very rare Christians, who, believing that what Jesus teaches is true, did what he said. My friend the archdeacon was voicing aloud only what most of us tacitly acknowledge: that you would need to be sectioned if you took Jesus at his word and lived the way he said we should.
In many a church this Sunday, there will be a discussion in the vestry about who should process in front of whom when the service starts. It is safe to assume that this discussion will be uninformed by the Gospel that someone proudly placed in the procession will shortly be reading.
For the author of the letter to the Hebrews, “the lowest place” is “outside the city”, the killing-field where Christ died. The radical renunciation required of the Christian believer is the abandonment of all the security, all the material comforts and institutional privileges symbolised by the city from which he or she has fled. The “lowest place” — the only place for the disciple of Jesus whose faith is more than a frivolous posture — is “outside”, beneath the cross.
There are some biblical texts that speak with special and devastating power to a specific era or situation in the life of the Church. The tremendous peroration to the letter to the Hebrews is surely a text for our time. “Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured” (Hebrews 13.13).
Inexplicably — or perhaps not inexplicably — our lectionary tells us to skip this verse.
12The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
13For the beginning of pride is sin,
and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities,
and destroys them completely.
14The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
15The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
and plants the humble in their place.
16The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.
17He removes some of them and destroys them,
and erases the memory of them from the earth.
18Pride was not created for human beings,
or violent anger for those born of women.
6Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great;
7for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can man do to me?”
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,” and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
12He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous