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by a modern saint
on May 9, 2005
Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a remarkable saint of the modern era. After being raised in a Jewish middle class family and graduating from the finest schools, she went to work in the inner city as a blue-collar factory worker. She once complained to the supervisor about a coal drill: "This drill was designed to break rocks. It was not designed for human hands" while illustrating the vibrating effects with her arms. She reportedly debated Trotsky on the living conditions of the proletariat into the ground.
Weil died of physical and mental exhaustion at age 34 after an arduous life of fasting, writing, and working in solidarity with the most downtrodden of society. Besides her amazing solidarity with the working class, it is Weil's profound writings that have established her legacy. Contemporary Albert Camus called her "the only great spirit of our time." T.S. Eliot wrote in his forward to one of her books: "We must expose ourselves to the personality of a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of a saint." In his essay titled, "The Importance of Simone Weil," Czeslaw Milosz wrote, "France offered a rare gift to the contemporary world in the person of Simone Weil." Waiting for God (Harper Perennial, 2001) is the best introduction to her spiritual writings, and what follows are some highlights from that work.
The first few chapters consist of letters she wrote to her friend, Father Perrin. Though one gets a better sense of how she felt and struggled daily living out her ideas, it is her four essays in the latter half of the book that show the most profundity and coherence of thought. Every page, nearly every paragraph has such significance, one cannot finish reading an essay without being ravished through the direction of one who knew the spiritual life as deeply as she did.
When I first read the essay "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God," I was having trouble picking up a case to read for law school. It seemed pointless especially since I had already decided to become a pastor rather than an attorney. But Weil showed me that "the key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention." (p.58). She states, "Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer." (p.59) This explains why Weil mastered several languages including Sanskrit and a wide range of academic subjects: they helped her to pray more effectively. She exhorts, "Whoever goes through years of study without developing this attention within himself has lost a great treasure." (p.64)
In another application, Weil insightfully states that studying also helps one love his neighbor. She explains, "Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention." (p.64) Hence studying helps enable the soul to "[empty] itself of all its contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth." (p.65) The immeasurable help that studying can bring to others is captured in this thought: "The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle." (p.64)
In the next essay "The Love of God and Affliction," Weil writes:
"The great enigma of human life is not suffering but affliction. It is not surprising that the innocent are killed, tortured, driven from their country, made destitute . . .since there are criminals to perform such actions. It is not surprising either that disease is the cause of long sufferings, which paralyze life and make it into an image of death, since nature is at the mercy of the blind play of mechanical necessities. But it is surprising that God should have given affliction the power to seize the very souls of the innocent and to take possession of them as their sovereign lord. At the very best, he who is branded by affliction will keep only half his soul." (p.69)
Weil defines affliction as the experience of "physical pain, distress of soul, and social degradation, all at the same time." (p.81) She analogizes it to a nail that God uses to pierce the center of one's soul, to leave the person as it were crucified, where he or she can experience God most intimately as Job and Christ did in view of God's apparent absence.
But Weil warns that amidst affliction, if one does not strain to hear an absent God in silence, or feel the beauty of God in the world's absolute obedience to Him, then the person remains like a slave with half a soul. For "sin is not a distance," according to Weil, "it is a turning of our gaze in the wrong direction." (p.73) In other words, losing hope is a greater sin than acknowledging one's feelings of abandonment by God. She elaborates that just as two strangers may be near but not together and two friends may be apart but still near, "God can never be perfectly present to us here below on account of our flesh. But he can be almost perfectly absent from us in extreme affliction. . . . That is why the Cross is our only hope." (p.75)
In her essay "Forms of the Implicit Love of God," Weil comments on four loves: of neighbor, the order of the world, religious practices, and friendship. Regarding love for our neighbor, she profoundly states, "The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbor and justice." (p.85) She explains that "the supernatural virtue of justice consists of behaving exactly as though there were equality when one is the stronger in an unequal relationship." (p.85) Thus a believer cannot show love to his poor neighbor if he assumes that he is reaching down or doing the impoverished person a favor.
Instead a believer must seek to reaffirm the dignity of this person made in God's image before seeking to help him. (p.88) Weil comments that "[i]t is not surprising that a man who has bread should give a piece to someone who is starving. What is surprising is that he should be capable of doing so with so different a gesture from that with which we buy an object. Almsgiving when it is not supernatural is like a sort of purchase. It buys the sufferer." (p.91) The beauty of the inseparability of justice and love is that it creates solidarity between rich and poor, and allows the coexistence of generosity and respect. In this way of "creative attention" we become God-like. Weil elaborates:
"God alone has this power, the power really to think into being that which does not exist. Only God, present in us, can really think the human quality into the victims of affliction, can really look at them with a look differing from that we give to things, can listen to their voice as we listen to spoken words. Then they become aware that they have a voice, otherwise they would not have occasion to notice it. . . . God is present at the point where the eyes of those who give and those who receive meet." (p.93-4)
Regarding love of the order of the world, Weil writes, "[T]he soul's natural inclination to love beauty is the trap God most frequently uses in order to win it and open it to the breath from on high." (p.103). She describes the beauty of the world as "Christ's tender smile for us coming through matter." (p.104) Weil however laments that too many treat the dim reflections of God's beauty on earth as the final and only reality (as manifested in luxury, art, science). (p.106-8) This locating the absolute in pleasure is the "crime of idolatry." (p.111)
On the love of religious practices, the thought most associated with Weil's contribution to spirituality is that "one of the principal truths of Christianity, a truth that goes almost unrecognized today, is that looking is what saves us." (p.125) She offers the illustration: "The bronze serpent was lifted up so that those who lay maimed in the depths of degradation should be saved by looking upon it." (p.125) Weil is adamant that "the will cannot produce any good in the soul." (p.126) She writes:
"That we have to strive after goodness with an effort of our will is one of the lies invented by the mediocre part of ourselves in its fear of being destroyed. Such an effort does not threaten it in any way . . . not even when it entails a great deal of fatigue and suffering. For the mediocre part of ourselves is not afraid of fatigue and suffering; it is afraid of being killed." (p.127)
To the contrary, Weil emphasizes that "the effort that brings a soul to salvation is like the effort of looking or of listening; it is the kind of effort by which a fiancée accepts her lover. It is an act of attention and consent." (p.126) In other words, "[t]he crucifixion of Christ is the model of all acts of obedience." (p.126) Thus, Weil exhorts, "it is at those moments when we are, as we say, in a bad mood, when we feel incapable of the elevation of soul that befits holy things, it is then that it is most effectual to turn our eyes toward perfect purity. For it is then that evil, or rather mediocrity, comes to the surface of the soul and is in the best position for being burned by contact with the fire." (p.125)
She distinguishes between morality, which depends on the will, and religion, which consists of desire, and concludes, "It is desire that saves" and again "to long for God and to renounce all the rest, that alone can save us." (p.127-8) Acknowledging the counterintuitive nature of true sanctification that is contrary to the commonly held view of it being a matter of sheer strenuous will power, Weil nevertheless exclaims: "There is an easiness in salvation which is more difficult to us than all our efforts" and "this waiting for goodness and truth is . . . something more intense than any searching." (p.127-8) She perceptively observes that "the notion of grace, as opposed to virtue depending on the will, and that of inspiration, as opposed to intellectual or artistic work, these two notions, if they are well understood, show the efficacy of desire and waiting." (p.129)
Weil's comments on friendship are brief, so I will be brief. She defines it as "a supernatural harmony, a union of opposites." (p.132) She explains, "In all human things, necessity is the principle of impurity. All friendship is impure if even a trace of the wish to please or the contrary desire to dominate is found in it." (p.135) Thus "in a perfect friendship . . .the two friends have fully consented to be two and not one, they respect the distance which the fact of being two distinct creatures places between them. Man has the right to desire direct union with God alone." (p.135)
She concludes her essay on the four loves with a few more precious insights only one of which I'll mention. She encourages people to cherish the certainty of one's hunger for God as invaluable even if one is uncertain of His presence. For the greatest argument for the existence of God, as with bread or water, is hunger and thirst. (p.138)
In her essay "Concerning the Our Father," Weil explicates the Lord's Prayer sentence by sentence. His prayer had special meaning for her because through it, she once wrote in her diary, Christ daily "descended and took her." I leave it to the reader to discover its riches.