When Blaise Pascal experienced spiritual awakening, he was already immersed in the Christian story world. But there were other story worlds that had a claim on him. Born in 1623, Pascal was the very model of an enlightenment person. A child prodigy, he discovered for himself the first thirty-two propositions of Euclid at the age of twelve, and started working on one of the world’s first mechanical calculators when he was a teenager. As a young adult, he proved the existence of the vacuum. A little later in life, he set-up the world’s first public transportation system by having public carriages follow a set route through the streets of Paris. His genius made him internationally famous, and he was swept up into the gambling and drinking life of high society. He couldn’t let any experience go to waste, even the experience of becoming a high-society party person. He formulated the theory of probability as he watched his friends gamble. He was a Roman Catholic and he participated in the rituals and customs of the church, but his attention was elsewhere.
At the same time that he was achieving fame and status, his close-knit family was becoming more and more religious. His father, Etienne, had a fall and was taken care of by two pious bonesetters who brought the family into contact with the Jansenists of Port Royal. The contact with the Jansenists transformed Blaise into a fervent Christian. His prayer life deepened, he went on a retreat, and then, on November 23, 1654, when he was thirty-one years old, he experienced spiritual awakening. Being a scientist, he took out his watch as the moment of awakening descended upon him, and noted the time. When it was over, he quickly wrote down notes about what he had experienced. He never shared these notes with anyone. Instead, he sewed them into the lining of his clothing, and they were discovered after he died. This is what he wrote:
The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology. Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others. From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight, FIRE. GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. GOD of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Your GOD will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD. He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel. Grandeur of the human soul. Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. I have departed from him: They have forsaken me, the fount of living water. My God, will you leave me? Let me not be separated from him forever. This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified. Let me never be separated from him. He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel: Renunciation, total and sweet. Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director. Eternally in joy for a day's exercise on the earth. May I not forget your words. Amen.
He begins by acknowledging his place in a world where the lives of saints were very important — where saints’ feast days were noted and their stories brought to mind daily. He steps into his moment of awakening by evoking communion with these saints, by inviting them to move with him through his experience. For two hours, his primary experience is FIRE. Maybe he wrote the next lines in the midst of this fire, maybe just after. But the word, FIRE, stands starkly alone, the only word he can summon to describe the power of the experience. It is not, he acknowledges, an experience that is brought about by, or can even be understood by, philosophy or learning. It resembles the experiences of the patriarchs in Genesis, and brings him into community with them. More, it brings him into deep relationship with Jesus Christ. He can inventory the state of his soul, the certitude, the joy, the peace, and he finds himself reflected in this experience, understands that it elevates him, but also elevates all of humanity, for it is wondrous that human beings are capable of experiencing this grandeur. Yet at the same time we are afraid to embrace these awakenings, afraid that we will be abandoned by the God who gave them to us, afraid that our small souls will reject and run away from them. The only solution is renunciation, a willful setting aside of the small and broken part of our natures, and submission to something higher, to the health and reckless love of our large souls.
I think it’s safe to say that Pascal’s revelation was wounded. He understood that he had wounded Jesus through his actions, and in wounding Jesus he had also wounded himself. Yet he also understood how deeply loved and forgiven he was. “I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.” He sees himself as one of the disciples who fled from the crucifixion, who could not make themselves stay and watch Jesus suffer. Yet he has been accepted back into the love of Christ and the community of discipleship, and he never wants his own actions to separate him again. Pascal’s Memoriam beautifully illustrates what Evelyn Underhill means by the Wound of Divine Love. We understand our own suffering in the light of Christ’s suffering. We understand that we have caused ourselves, our neighbors, and God, to suffer. We want this cycle of suffering to end, and we are assured that it will end, yet we have our fears, our doubts. It’s in our fears and doubts that the wound resides.
For my last example of this understanding of awakening, I will lead you even further back in time, to the fourteenth century anchorite Julian of Norwich. Unlike Kamienska or Pascal, Julian’s story world was Christian to the core. She lived surrounded by the legends, feasts, festivals, art, and music of the church. She was an anchorite, which meant that she lived inside the wall of a church, so there was little that she could see from her window that could distract her from the Christian story. When she experienced her awakening, it was entirely in the context of the church, and she wrote about it so vividly that people have turned to her ever since to understand what it means to be awake.
Suffering was a large part of her world. During her life, the Black Death ravished Europe, and she lived through three successive waves of the pandemic. The first wave arrived in England when she was a small child, and the suffering she witnessed led her to ask God for three things, which she called gifts, but which many of us might have trouble understanding in that way. She asked to participate in Christ’s passion, to experience a life-threatening illness, and to be given the triple-wound of contrition, compassion, and unbearable yearning. These gifts didn’t arrive until May 8, 1373, when she was thirty years old. At that time, she experienced the life-threatening illness that she’d asked for in her youth. For five days, she lay dying. A priest administered last rites. During this time of great suffering, her thoughts were on God.
“I would have liked to live longer simply so that I could have learned to love God better.” The people who were nursing her propped her up in bed “so that I could align my heart to God’s will and so that I could more easily think of God as my life ebbed away.”
The priest held a crucifix in front of her face and she stared at it to the exclusion of all else. She asked God to allow her to participate in Christ’s passion.
“I did not desire any kind of physical vision or revelation from God. All I wanted was the kind of compassion that naturally flows into the soul in response to the suffering of our Lord, who for the sake of love agreed to incarnate as a mortal man. I wished to suffer along with him, inside my own human body, if God would only give me the grace to do so.”
The crucifix began to bleed, and Julian’s heart filled with joy. She received a vision of Christ’s simple loving.
“I saw that he is everything that is good for us, everything that soothes and helps us. He is our clothing; he wraps himself around us, enfolding us in his love. His tender love is our shelter; he will never leave us.”
And then Christ showed her “a small thing, the size of a hazelnut,” and when she asked what it was, she heard him say, “it is all that is created.” In her own words, she understood that
“it lasts, and will last forever, because God loves it. Everything that is has its being through the love of God.”
When she wrote about this experience later on, she described it as a number of “showings” by which she came to understand both God and herself. The third gift she asked for, the triple-wound of contrition, compassion, and unbearable yearning, is woven throughout these showings. She came to understand how personal suffering can transmute into compassion for others. She investigated the myriad ways in which we resist suffering and compassion, and try to twist away from God so that our small, egoistic selves won’t have to die with Christ on the cross. And she came to understand that we can engage with grace and experience union with God, a process that she called “oneing.”
Once we clearly see and truly know our self, we shall clearly see and know our God in the fullness of joy. And so it is bound to be that the closer we come to our ultimate bliss, the more our own nature and God’s grace fan the flame of our yearning. In this life, we can acquire knowledge of ourselves through the assistance and support of our own exalted nature. And, through mercy and grace, we can increase our self-knowledge and continue to grow. But we can never know ourselves completely until the last moment of this passing life, at which point every kind of pain and woe will come to an end. And so, both by nature and grace, we are rightfully endowed with the yearning to know ourselves will all our might. In the fulfillment of this knowledge, we shall come to clearly and truly know our God in the fullness of never-ending joy.Julian, Mirabai Starr, and Richard Rohr. 2022. The showings of Julian of Norwich: a new translation. Newburyport: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Incorporated.