Outside looking Inside

The sacraments have a specific value, which constitutes a mystery in so far as they involve a certain kind of contact with God, a contact mysterious but real. At the same time they have a purely human value in so far as they are symbols or ceremonies. Under this second aspect they do not differ essentially from the songs, gestures, and words of command of certain political parties; at least in themselves they are not essentially different; of course they are in¬ finitely different in the doctrine underlying them. I think that most believers – including some who are really persuaded of the opposite – approach the sacraments only as symbols and ceremonies. Foolish as the theory of [Emile] Durkheim may be in confusing what is religious with what is social, it yet contains an element of truth; that is to say, that the social feeling is so much like the religious as to be mistaken for it. It is like it just as a false diamond is like a real one so that those who have no spiritual discernment are effectively taken in. For the matter of that, a social and human participation in the symbols and ceremonies of the sacraments is an excellent and healthy thing in that it marks a stage of the journey for those who travel that way. Yet this is not a participation in the sacraments as such. I think that only those who are above a certain level of spirituality can par¬ participate in the sacraments as such. For as long as those who are below this level have not reached it, whatever they may do, they cannot be strictly said to belong to the Church.

As far as I am concerned, I think I am below this level. That is why I said to you the other day that I consider myself to be unworthy of the sacraments. This idea does not come, as you imagined, from scrupulosity. It is due, on the one hand, to a consciousness of very definite faults in the order of action and human relations, serious and even shameful faults as you would certainly agree, and, moreover, fairly frequent. On the other hand, and still more strongly, it is founded on a general sense of inadequacy. I am not saying this out of humility, for if I possessed the virtue of humility, the most beautiful of all the virtues perhaps, I should not be in this miserable state of inadequacy.

To finish with what has to do with me, I say this. The kind of inhibition that keeps me outside the Church is due either to my state of imperfection or to the fact that my vocation and God’s will are opposed to it. In the first case, I cannot get rid of my inhibition by direct means but only indirectly, by becoming less imperfect, if I am helped by grace. To bring this about it is only necessary, on the one hand, to avoid faults in the domain of natural things, and on the other, to put ever more attention and love into my thoughts of God. If it is God’s will that I should enter the Church, he will impose this will upon me at the exact moment when I shall have come to deserve that he should so impose It.

In the second case, if it is not his will that I should enter the Church, how could I enter it? I know quite well what you have often repeated to me, that is to say, that baptism is the common way of salvation – at least in Christian countries – and that there is absolutely no reason why I should have an exceptional one of my own. That is obvious. And yet supposing that, in fact, it should not be given me to take that step, what could I do? If it were conceivable that in obeying God one should bring about one’s own damnation while in disobeying him one could be saved, I should still choose the way of obedience.

It seems to me that the will of God is that I should not enter the Church at present. The reason for this I have told you already and it is still true. It is because the inhibition that holds me back is no less strongly to be felt in the moments of attention, love, and prayer than at other times. And yet I was filled with a very great joy when you said the thoughts I confided to you were not incompatible with allegiance to the Church, and that, in consequence, I was not outside it in spirit. I cannot help still wondering whether in these days, when so large a proportion of humanity is submerged 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.

– from Waiting for God – essays and letters collected and posthumously published in 1951. Weil was a Jewish woman who loved the Catholic Church and might have been baptized were it not for her premature death in 1943 at the age of 34. This excerpt is from a letter to the Dominican priest, Fr. Joseph-Marie Perrin.