Thursday the Second Week in Ordinary Time
The French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil wrote: “Distance is the soul of the beautiful.”
In the gospel this morning Jesus is nearly trampled to death by the crowd and must pull away. “
“Jesus withdrew toward the sea”…then withdrew into the sea on a boat.
In John’s gospel, similarly, after the multiplication of loaves, the crowd tries to seize Jesus and carry him off to make him king. They don’t see the miracle as a “sign” of the transcendent but want only to lock in the bread supply, to eradicate the distance…
Jesus withdraws again and again through the gospels echoing a pattern in the Hebrew scriptures. The Lord reveals himself, the people try to reduce him to their own terms and he withdraws, opening distance, leading them out beyond what they know.
The distance created by this withdrawal is not cold, aloof, or indifferent but bracing: the inner life becomes a great adventure and challenge because we are moving into greater reality.
It’s perhaps in this sense we can understand another line from Weil: “There are people for whom everything is salutary which brings God nearer to them. For me it is everything which keeps him at a distance.”
Jesus withdrew: the Greek word for withdrawal here, anachoresis, was an important one for the desert fathers, it’s how they spoke of their withdrawal from human society, “going apart from all for the sake of all” as Evagrius says, opening a space in which something of the beauty of the gospel might be perceived.
As monks today we also withdraw and must guard our distance from the world.
Within community too our solitude (the opposite of isolation) is meant to deepen.
Just as the crowds nearly trample Christ to death, there are ways we can encroach on the solitude of our brother. Weil writes, “The beautiful is that which we cannot wish to change … To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.”
We can encroach on others by projecting onto them what we can’t accept in ourselves; by trying to change or control; by overdependence, or in any way using others to meet our own, perhaps unrecognized, needs…
Growth in the school of charity means learning to respect what Augustine called the “luminous borders of friendship,” the luminosus limes amicitiae
…and the secret to this is a genuinely contemplative prayer…in which we embrace the crucified sign of contradiction and the thoughts of our hearts are revealed ….as thoughts.
We withdraw, we gain distance from our thoughts, feelings and conditioning… like Jesus floating out from shore, away from the press of the crowd.
We discover that we are not our thoughts, that we are space, distance, emptiness…
Then we see into the beauty of our true nature and can love ourselves in a new way:
“To love a stranger as oneself,” Weil writes, “implies the reverse: to love oneself as stranger.”