Archive for the ‘Simone Weil’ Category

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The Fourth Part Of A Three-Part Essay – Anne Carson

March 27, 2012

Sappho was an Ancient Greek poet, born on the island of Lesbos. Later Greeks included her in the list of nine lyric poets. Her birth was sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC, but little is known for certain about her life. The bulk of her poetry, which was well-known and greatly admired throughout antiquity, has been lost, but her immense reputation has endured through surviving fragments. The bust pictured above is inscribed Sappho of Eressos, Roman copy of a Greek original of the 5th century BC. In 2002, classicist and poet Anne Carson produced If Not, Winter, an exhaustive translation of Sappho's fragments. Her line-by-line translations, complete with brackets where the ancient papyrus sources break off, are meant to capture both the original's lyricism and its present fragmentary nature.

Part Four
Inasmuch as we are now entering upon the fourth part of a three-part essay, we should brace ourselves for some inconsequentiality. I don’t feel the cause of this inconsequence is me. Rather it originates with the three women we are studying and the cause of it is the fact that they are writers.

When Sappho tells us that she is “all but dead,” when Marguerite Porete tells us she wants to become an “annihilated soul,” when Simone Weil tells us that “we participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves,” how are we to square these dark ideas with the brilliant self-assertiveness of the writerly project shared by all three of them, the project of telling the world the truth about God, love and reality?

The answer is we can’t. It is no accident that Marguerite Porete calls her book a Mirror. To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.

Which brings us to contradiction and its uses. Simone Weil speaks plainly about these:

Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything. Contradiction is our badness and the sense of our badness is the sense of reality. For we do not invent our badness. It is true.

To accept the true badness of being human is the beginning of a dialectic of joy for Simone Weil:

If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God is, we must find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves are not, for it is the same thought.

Nothing and something are two sides of one coin, at least in the mind of a dialectician. As Marguerite Porete puts it:

Nothing is nothing. Something is what it is. Therefore I am not, if I am something, except that which God is.

She also says:

Lord you are one goodness through opened out goodness, absolutely in you. And I am one badness through opened out badness, absolutely in me.

Marguerite Porete’s vision is dialectical but it is not tragic: she imagines a kind of chiastic immersion or mutual absorption by means of which these two absolute opposites — God and the soul — may ultimately unite. She uses various images of this union, for example, iron, which when placed in the furnace actually becomes fire; or a river that loses its name when it flows into the sea. Her common images carry us beyond the dialectical account of God and soul.

For dialectic is a mode of reasoning and an application of the intellectual self. But the soul that has been driven by love into God, the soul consumed as into fire, dissolved as if into water — such a soul has no intact intellect of the ordinary human kind with which to construe dialectical relationships. In other words such a soul passes beyond the place where she can tell what she knows. To tell is a function of self.

This situation is a big problem for a writer. It is more than a contradiction, it is a paradox. Marguerite Porete broaches the matter, early in her Mirror, with her usual lack of compromise:

For whoever talks about God… must not doubt but must know without doubt … that he has never felt the true kernel of divine Love which makes the soul absolutely dazzled without being aware of it. For this is the true purified kernel of divine Love which is without creaturely matter and given by the Creator to a creature and takes away absolutely the practice of telling.

Marguerite delivers herself of a writerly riddle here. No one who talks about God can have experienced God’s Love, she asserts, because such Love “takes away absolutely the practice of telling.” She reinforces this point later by arguing that, once a soul has experienced divine Love, no one but God ever understands that soul again (chapters 19 and 20). We might at this point be moved to question what Marguerite Porete thinks she is doing in the remaining chapters of her book, which number 139 in all, when she gives a step-by-step account of the soul’s progress towards annihilation in God.

We might wonder what all this telling is about. But we are unlikely to receive an answer from Marguerite Porete herself. Nor I think will any prudent writer on matters of God and soul venture to nail such things down. Quite the contrary, to leave us in wonder is just what such a writer feels compelled to do. Let us look more closely at how this compulsion works. We have said that telling is a function of self. If we study the way these three writers talk about their own telling, we can see how each of them feels moved to create a sort of dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the centre of the work and the teller disappears into the telling.

Let’s begin with Simone Weil, who was a practical person and arranged for her own disappearance on several levels. Among other things, she is believed to have hastened her own death from tuberculosis in 1943 by a regime of voluntary self-starvation undertaken out of sympathy for people in France who didn’t have enough to eat. However that may be, when her parents insisted on fleeing France for America in 1942 she briefly and reluctantly accompanied them, leaving behind in the hands of a certain Gustave Thibon (a farmer in whose vineyard she had been working) about a dozen notebooks of personal reflection (which now form a substantial part of her published work). She told him in a letter to use the thoughts in the notebooks however he liked:

So now they belong to you and I hope that after having been transmuted within you they will one day come out in one of your works…. I should be very happy for them to find a lodging beneath your pen, whilst changing their form so as to reflect your likeness…

In the operation of writing, the hand which holds the pen and the body and soul attached to it are things infinitely small in the order of nothingness.

Gustave Thibon never saw Simone Weil again, nor did he follow the instructions of this letter, to transmute her ideas into his own — at least not explicitly. Instead he went through the notebooks, extracted punchy passages, grouped these under headings like The Self, The Void, The Impossible, Beauty, Algebra, Luck, The Meaning of the Universe, and published them as a book with her name on the title page as its author. That is, he made a serious effort to force her back into the centre of herself, and the degree to which she nonetheless eludes this reinstallation is very hard for readers like you or me to judge from outside. But I admire the final, gentle piece of advice that she gives to him at the close of her letter of 1942:

I also like to think that after the slight shock of separation you will not feel any sorrow about whatever may be in store for me and that if you should happen sometimes to think of me you will do so as one thinks of a book read in childhood.

When I think of books read in childhood they come to my mind’s eye in violent foreshortening and framed by a precarious darkness, but at the same time they glow somehow with an almost supernatural intensity of life that no adult book could ever effect. I remember a little book of The Lives of the Saints that was given to me about age five. In this book the various flowers composing the crowns of the martyrs were so lusciously rendered in words and paint that I had to be restrained from eating the pages. It is interesting to speculate what taste I was expecting from those pages. But maybe the impulse to eat pages isn’t about taste. Maybe it’s about being placed at the crossing-point of a contradiction, which is a painful place to be and children in their natural wisdom will not consent to stay there, but mystics love it. So Simone Weil:

Man’s great affliction, which begins with infancy and accompanies him till death, is that looking and eating are two different operations. Eternal beatitude is a state where to look is to eat.

Simone Weil had a problem with eating all her life. Lots of women do. Nothing more powerfully or more often reminds us of our physicality than food and the need to eat it. So she creates in her mind a dream of distance where food can be enjoyed perhaps from across the room merely by looking at it, where desire need not end in perishing, where the lover can stay, at the same time, near to and far from the object of her love.

Food and love were analogous contradictions for Simone Weil. She did not freely enjoy either of them in her life and was always uneasy about her imaginative relationship to them. But after all, eternal beatitude is not the only state where to look is to eat. The written page can also reify this paradox for us. A writer may tell what is near and far at once.

And so, for example, in Marguerite Porete’s original terminology the writer’s dream of distance becomes an epithet of God. To describe the divine Lover who feeds her soul with the food of truth, Marguerite Porete invents a word: le Loingpres in her Old French, or Longe Propinquus in the Latin translation: English might say “the FarNear.” She does not justify this word, simply begins using it as if it were self-evident in Chapter 58 of her book, where she is telling about annihilation. At the moment of its annihilation, she says, God practices upon the soul an amazing act of ravishing. For God opens an aperture in the soul and allows divine peace to flow in upon her like a glorious food. And God does this in his capacity as le Loingpres, the FarNear:

For there is an aperture, like a spark, which quickly closes, in which one cannot long remain…. The overflowing from the ravishing aperture makes the Soul free and noble and unencumbered [and its] peace lasts as long as the opening of the aperture…. Moreover the peace is so delicious that Truth calls it glorious food…

And this aperture of the sweet movement of glory that the excellent FarNear gives is nothing other than a glimpse which God wants the soul to have of her own glory that she will possess without end.

Marguerite Porete’s concept of God as “the excellent FarNear” is a radical invention. But even more radical is the riddle to which it forces her:

… where the Soul remains after the work of the Ravishing FarNear, which we call a spark in the manner of an aperture and fast close, no one could believe. . . nor would she have any truth who knew how to tell this.

Inside her own telling Marguerite Porete sets up a little ripple of disbelief — a sort of distortion in the glass — as if to remind us that this dream of distance is after all just a dream. At the end of her book she returns to the concept one last time, saying simply:

His Farness is the more Near.

I have no idea what this sentence means but it gives me a thrill. It fills me with wonder. In itself the sentence is a small complete act of worship, like a hymn or a prayer. Now hymns and prayers are the conventional way for lovers of God to mark God’s FarNearness, for prayer lays claim to an immediate connection with this Being whose absence fills the world. But Marguerite Porete was a fairly unconventional lover of God and did not engage in prayer or credit its usefulness. Simone Weil, on the other hand, although she was never a Christian herself, had a profound attachment to that prayer Christians call the Our Father. During the summer of 1941 when she worked in the vineyard of Gustave Thibon she found herself repeating this prayer while she worked. She had never prayed before, she acknowledges in her notebook, and the effect was ecstatic:

The very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space … filling every aspect of this infinity of infinity.

Prayer seems to have been for her an experience of spatial contradiction — or perhaps a proof of the impossible truth of God’s motion. In another passage she returns to the Lord’s Prayer and its impossible truth:

Our Father who art in heaven. There is a sort of humor in that. He is your Father, but just try going to look for him up there! We are quite as incapable of rising from the ground as an earthworm. And how should he for his part come to us without descending? There is no way of imagining a contract between God and man which is not as unintelligible as the Incarnation. The Incarnation explodes unintelligibility. It is an absolutely concrete way of representing impossible descent. Why should it not be the truth?

Why should the truth not be impossible? Why should the impossible not be true? Questions like these are the links from which prayers are forged. Here is a prayer of Sappho’s which will offer us one final example of the dream of distance in which a writer tells God:

… [come] here to me from Krete
to this holy temple where is
your graceful grove of apple trees and altars
smoking with frankincense.

And in it cold water makes a clear sound through apple branches
and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.

And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing….
In this place you Kypris having taken up
in gold cups delicately
nectar mingled with festivities:
pour.

This fragment was scratched on a shard of pottery by a careless hand in the third century BC. The text is corrupt and incomplete. Nonetheless we can identify it as a hymn of the type called “kletic,” a calling hymn, an invocation to God to come from where she is to where we are. Such a hymn typically names both of these places, setting its invocation in-between in order to measure the difference — a difference which it is the function of the hymn to decreate — not to destroy, but to decreate. Among the remarks on decreation in Simone Weil’s notebooks is the statement:

God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.

For the writer of a kletic hymn, God’s absence is something tricky, perhaps impossible, to tell. This writer will have to invoke a God who arrives bringing her own absence with her — a God whose Farness is the more Near. It is an impossible motion possible only in writing. Sappho achieves it by various syntactic choices: for example, suppression of the verb in the first stanza of her poem. In my translation I supply an imperative “Come!” in square brackets as the first word of the poem, and the sense may seem to require this, but the Greek text has no such verb. It begins with the adverb “Here.” In fact the imperative verb for which the entire poem, with its slow and onomatopoeically accumulating clauses, seems to be waiting does not arrive until the very last word of our text: “Pour!”

The effect of this suspension is uncanny: as if the whole of creation is depicted waiting for an action that is already perpetually here. There is no clear boundary between far and near; there is no climactic moment of God’s arrival. Sappho renders a set of conditions that at the beginning depend on Aphrodite’s absence but by the end include her presence. Sappho imitates the distance of God in a sort of suspended solution — and there we see Divine Being as a dazzling drop that suddenly, impossibly, saturates the world.

To sum up. Each of the three women we’ve been considering had the nerve to enter a zone of absolute spiritual daring. Each of them undergoes there an experience of decreation, or so she tells us. But the telling remains a bit of a wonder. Decreation is an undoing of the creature in us — that creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside of its definition. We have nowhere else to start. This is the parchment on which God writes his lessons, as Marguerite Porete says.

Marguerite’s parchment burned in 1310. To us this may seem an outrage or a mistake. Certainly the men who condemned her thought she was all wrong and referred to her in the proceedings of her trial not only as “filled with errors and heresies” but as pseudo-mulier or “fake woman.”

Was Marguerite Porete a fake woman?

Society is all too eager to pass judgments on the authenticity of women’s ways of being but these judgments can get crazy. As a case in point, the book for which Marguerite Porete was burned in 1310 was secretly preserved and copied after her death by clerics who transmitted the text as an anonymous devotional work of Christian mysticism, until 1946 when an Italian scholar reconnected the Mirror with the name of its author.

At the same time, it is hard to commend moral extremism of the kind that took Simone Weil to death at the age of thirty-four; saintliness is an eruption of the absolute into ordinary history and we resent that. We need history to remain ordinary. We need to be able to call saints neurotic, anorectic, pathological, sexually repressed or fake. These judgments sanctify our own survival.

By the same token, Sappho’s ancient biographers tried to discredit her seriousness by assuring us she lived a life of unrestrained and incoherent sexual indulgence, for she invented lesbianism and then died by jumping off a cliff for love of a young man. As Simone Weil says:

Love is a sign of our badness.

Love is also a good place to situate our mistrust of fake women. What I like best about the three women we’ve been studying is that they know what love is. That is, they know love is the touchstone of a true or a false spirituality, that is why they play with the figure of jealousy. As fake women they have to inhabit this figure gingerly, taking a position both near and far at once from the object of their desire. The truth that they tell from this paradoxical position is also fake. As Marguerite says briskly:

For everything that one can tell of God or write, no less than what one can think, of God who is more than words, is as much lying as it is telling the truth.

So in the end it is important not to be fooled by fake women. If you mistake the dance of jealousy for the love of God, or a heretic’s mirror for the true story, you are likely to spend the rest of your days in terrible hunger. No matter how many pages you eat.

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Wallace Stevens and decreation here.

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How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God – Anne Carson

March 26, 2012

A professor of the classics, with background in classical languages, comparative literature, anthropology, history, and commercial art, Carson blends ideas and themes from many fields in her writing. She frequently references, modernizes, and translates Greek mythology. She has published fifteen books as of 2010, all of which blend the forms of poetry, essay, prose, criticism, translation, dramatic dialogue, fiction, and non-fiction.

Heather King is a Catholic writer who writes on spiritual matters and although we haven’t corresponded for several months, I was thinking of her as I posted this. We share a common interst in Simone Weil and this post (as well as the concluding one tomorrow) would seem to be one she would read with great interest. Follow that link to her blog, which is a regular read for me and should be for you, too.

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Part One
What if I were to begin an essay on spiritual matters by citing a poem that will not at first seem to you spiritual at all. Fragment 31 of Sappho says:

He seems to me equal to gods that man whoever he is
who opposite you sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking and lovely laughing –
oh it puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming fills ears
and cold sweat holds me and shaking grips me all,
greener than grass I am and dead –
or almost I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty …

This poem has been preserved for us by the ancient literary critic Longinus, who quotes four complete Sapphic stanzas and then the first line of what looks like a fifth stanza and then breaks off, no one knows why. But the first four stanzas seem to compose a unit of music and thought; let’s consider the thought. It comes to us bathed in light but this is the weirdly enclosed light of introspection. Sappho is staging a scenario inside the little theatre of her mind. It appears to be an erotic scenario but the characters are anonymous, their interrelations obscure. We don’t know why the girl is laughing, nor what the man is doing there, nor how Sappho’s response to them makes sense.

Sappho seems less interested in these characters as individuals than in the geometric figure that they form. This figure has three lines and three angles. One line connects the girl’s voice and laughter to a man who listens close. A second connects the girl to Sappho. Between the eye of Sappho and the listening man runs a third. The figure is a triangle. Why does Sappho want to stage this figure? Common sense suggests it is a poem about jealousy. “Lovers all show such symptoms as these,” says Longinus. So let’s think about what the jealousy of lovers is.

The word comes from ancient Greek zelos meaning “zeal” or “hot pursuit.” A jealous lover covets a certain location at the centre of her beloved’s affection only to find it occupied by someone else. If jealousy were a dance it would be a pattern placement and displacement. Its emotional focus is unstable. Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves.

Sappho’s poem sets the stage for jealousy but she does not dance it. Indeed she seems to forget the presence of her dancing partners entirely after the first stanza and shifts the spotlight onto herself. And what we see in the spotlight is an unexpectedly spiritual spectacle. For Sappho describes her own perceptual abilities (visual, oral, tactile) reduced to dysfunction one after another; she shows us the objects of outer sense emptying themselves; and there on the brightly lit stage at the centre of her perception appears — her own Being: “I am … ,” she says at verse 15 (“greener than grass I am”).

This is not just a moment of revealed existence: it is a spiritual event. Sappho enters into ecstasy. “Greener than grass I am…” she says, predicating of her own Being an attribute observable only from outside her own body. This is the condition called ekstasis, literally “standing outside oneself,” a condition regarded by the Greeks as typical of mad persons, geniuses and lovers, and ascribed to poets by Aristotle.

Ecstasy changes Sappho and changes her poem. She herself, she says, is almost dead. Her poem appears to break down and stop. But then, arguably, both of them start up again. I say arguably because the last verse of the poem has a puzzling history and is regarded with suspicion by some scholars, although it appears in Longinus and is corroborated by a papyrus. Let us attempt to see its coherence with what goes before.

“All is to be dared because even a person of poverty. . . ,” says the last verse. It is a new thought. The content of the thought is absolute daring. The condition of the thought is poverty. I don’t want to give the impression that I know what this is saying or that I see where the poem is headed from here, I don’t. Overall it leaves me wondering. Sappho sets up a scenario of jealousy but that’s not the poem is about, jealousy is just a figure. Sappho stages an event of ecstasy but that’s not what the poem is about either, ecstasy is just a means to an end. Unfortunately we don’t reach the end, the poem breaks off. But we do see Sappho begin to turn towards it, towards this unreachable end. We see her senses empty themselves, we see her Being thrown outside its own centre where it stands observing her as if she were grass or dead.

At which point a speculation occurs to me: granted this is a poem all about love, do we need to limit ourselves to a reading of it that is merely or conventionally erotic? After all, Sappho is believed by some historians to have been not just a poet of love and a worshipper of Aphrodite on Lesbos but also a priest of Aphrodite’s cult and a teacher of her doctrines. Perhaps Sappho’s poem wants to teach us something about the metaphysics or even the theology of love. Perhaps she is posing not the usual lovesong complaint, Why don’t you love me? but a deeper spiritual question, What is it that love dares the self to do? Daring enters the poem in the last verse when Sappho uses the word tolmaton: “is to be dared.” This word is a verbal adjective and expresses a mood of possibility or potential. Sappho says it is an absolute potential:

pan tolmaton: all is to be dared.

Moreover she consents to it — or seems to be on the point of consenting when the poem breaks off. Why does she consent? Her explanation no longer exists. So far as it goes, it leads us back to her ecstatic condition. For when an ecstatic is asked the question, What is it that love dares the self to do? she will answer:

Love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty.

Part Two
Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in 1310 for writing a book about the absolute daring of love. The Mirror of Simple Soul is a theological treatise also a kind of handbook for people seeking God. Marguerite Porete’s central doctrine is that a human soul can proceed through seven different stages of beginning with a period of “boiling desire,” to an ecstasy in which the soul carried outside her own Being and leaves herself behind. This departure from her own center is not passive.

Like Sappho, Marguerite first discovers in reality certain absolute demand and then she consents to it. Like Sappho she sees herself split in two by this consent and experiences it as a kind of “annihilation.” Marguerite’s reasoning is severe: she understands the essence of her human self in her free will and she decides that free will has been placed in her by God in order that she may give it back. She therefore causes her will to depart from its own will and render itself back to God with nothing left over. Here is how she describes this event:

… a ravishing expansion of the movement of divine Light is poured into the Soul and shows to the Will [the rightness of what is ... in order to move the Soul] from the place where it is now and ought not to be and   render it back to where it is not, whence it came, there where it out remain. Now the Will sees … that it cannot profit unless it departs from its own will. And thus the Soul parts herself from this will and the Will parts itself from such a Soul and then renders itself and gives and back to God, there where it was first taken, without retaining anything of its own.

Now it is noteworthy, in light of Sappho’s account of ecstasy and its consequences, that Marguerite Porete twice refers to herself at the moment when God’s abundance overflows her as:

‘I who am in the abyss of absolute poverty.’

She also describes her impoverishment as a condition of physical and metaphysical negation: Now such a Soul is nothing, for she sees her nothingness by means of the abundance of divine understanding, which makes her nothing and places her in nothingness.

Throughout The Mirror she speaks of herself as null, worthless, deficient, deprived and naked. But at the same time she recognizes her poverty as an amazing and inexpressible kind of repletion; and of this absolute emptiness which is also absolute fullness she speaks in erotic language, referring to God as “overflowing and abundant Lover” or as “the Spouse of my youth.” Even more interesting for our analogy with Sappho, Marguerite Porete twice proposes jealousy as a figure for her relationship with God. Thus she refers to God as “the most high Jealous One” and speaks of God’s relation to her Soul in this way:

Jealous he is truly! He shows it by his works which have stripped me of myself absolutely and have placed me in divine pleasure without myself. And such a union joins and conjoins me through the sovereign highness of creation with the brilliance of divine being, by which I have being which is being.

Here is an unusual erotic triangle consisting of God, Marguerite and Marguerite. But its motions have the same ecstatic effect as the three-person situation in Sappho’s poem. Marguerite feels herself pulled apart from itself and thrown into a condition of poverty, to which she consents. Her consent takes the form of a peculiarly intense triangular fantasy:

… and I pondered, as if God were asking me, how would I fare if I knew that he preferred me to love another more than himself? And at this my sense failed me and I knew not what to say. Then he asked me how would I fare if it could happen he should love another more than me? And here my sense failed me and I knew not what to say…. Beyond this, he asked me what would I do and how would I fare if it could be he preferred another to love me more than he…. And there I fainted away for I could say nothing to these three things, nor refuse, nor deny.

Notice how Marguerite turns the fantasy this way and that, rotating its personnel and reimagining its anguish. Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves. It is a dance with a dialectical nature. For the jealous lover must balance two contradictory realities within her heart: on the one hand, that of herself at the center of the universe and in command of her own will, offering love to her beloved; on the other, that of herself off the centre of the universe and in despite of her own will, watching her beloved love someone else.

Naked collision of these two realities brings the lover to a sort of breakdown — as we saw in Sappho’s poem — whose effect is to expose her very Being to its own scrutiny and to dislodge it from the centre of itself. It would be a very high test of dialectical endurance to be able to, not just recognize, but consent to this breakdown. Sappho seems to be entering on a mood of consent when her poem stops. Marguerite faints three times before she can manage it. But then, with a psychological clarity as amazing as Sappho’s, Marguerite pushes open the implications of her own pain. Here is her analysis of what she sees when she looks inside Marguerite:

And so long as I was at ease and loved myself “with” him, I could not at all contain myself or have calm: I was held in bondage by which I could not move…. I loved myself so much along “with” him that I could not answer loyally…. Yet all at once he demanded my response, if I did not want to lose both myself and him…. I said to him that he must want to test me in all points.

Marguerite reaches rockbottom here when she faces the fact that loyalty to God is actually obstructed by her love of him because this affection, like most human erotic feeling, is largely self-love: it puts Marguerite in bondage to Marguerite rather than to God. Her reasoning uses the figure of jealousy in two ways. She sees jealousy as an explanation of her own feelings of inner division; she also projects jealousy as a test of her ability to de-centre herself, to move out of the way, to clear her own heart and her own will off the path that leads to God.

For in order to (as she says) “answer God loyally” she cannot stay one with her own heart or with her own will, she cannot love her own love or love herself loving or love being loved. And insofar as she can “annihilate” all these — her term — she can resolve the three angles of the dance of jealousy into a single nakedness and reduce her Being from three to two to one:

“Now this Soul. . . has left three and has made two one. But in what does this one consist? This one is when the soul is rendered into the simple Deity, in full knowing, without feeling, beyond thought…. Higher no one can go, deeper no one can go, more naked no human can be.”

Part Three
Simone Weil was also a person who wanted to get herself out of the way so as to arrive at God. “The self,” she says in one of her notebooks, “is only a shadow projected by sin and error which blocks God’s light and which I take for a Being.” She had a program for getting the self out of the way which she called “decreation.” This word is a neologism to which she did not give an exact definition nor a consistent spelling. “To undo the creature in us” is one of the ways she describes its aim. And when she tells of its method she uses language that may sound familiar. Like Marguerite Porete she expresses a need to render back to God what God has given to her, that is, the self:

We possess nothing in this world other than the power to say “I.” This is what we must yield up to God.

And like Marguerite Porete she pictures this yielding as a sort of test:

God gave me Being in order that I should give it back to him. It is like one of those traps whereby the characters are tested in fairy tales. If I accept this gift it is bad and fatal; its virtue becomes apparent through my refusal of it. God allows me to exist outside himself. It is for me to refuse this authorization.

And also like Marguerite Porete she feels herself to be an obstacle to herself inwardly. The process of decreation is for her a dislodging of herself from a centre where she cannot stay because staying there blocks God. She speaks of a need “to withdraw from my own soul” and says:

God can love in us only this consent to withdraw in order to make way for him.

But now let us dwell for a moment on this statement about withdrawal and consent. Here Simone Well enters upon a strangely daring and difficult negotiation that seems to me to evoke both Marguerite Porete and Sappho. For Simone Weil wants to discover in the three-cornered figure of jealousy those lines of force that connect a soul to God. She does not, however, fantasize relationships with ordinary human lovers. The erotic triangle Simone Weil constructs is one involving God, herself and the whole of creation:

All the things that I see, hear, breathe, touch, eat; all the beings I meet — I deprive the sum total of all that of contact with God, and I deprive God of contact with all that insofar as something in me says “I.” I can do something for all that and for God — namely, retire and respect the tete-a-tete…

I must withdraw so that God may make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless of me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends. I am not the maiden who awaits her betrothed but the unwelcome third who is with two betrothed lovers and ought to go away so that they can really be together.

If only I knew how to disappear there would be a perfect union of love between God and the earth I tread, the sea I hear

If only she could become what Marguerite Porete calls an “annihilated soul,” if only she could achieve the transparency of Sappho’s ecstatic condition “greener than grass and almost dead,” Simone Weil would feel she had relieved the world of an indiscretion. Jealousy is a dance in which everybody moves because one of them is always extra — three people trying to sit on two chairs. We saw how this extra person is set apart in Marguerite Porete’s text by a canny use of quotation marks: remember her plaintive observation:

I loved myself so much along “with” him that I could not answer loyally.

When I read this sentence the first time, it seemed odd to me that Marguerite Porete puts the quotation marks around the “with” rather than around one of the pronouns. But Marguerite knows what she is doing: the people are not the problem here. Withness is the problem. She is trying to use the simplest language and the plainest marks to express a profoundly tricky spiritual fact, viz. that I cannot go towards God in love without bringing myself along. And so in the deepest possible sense I can never be alone with God. I can only be alone “with” God.

To catch sight of this fact brings a wrench in perception, forces the perceiver to a point where she has to disappear from herself in order to look. As Simone Weil says longingly:

If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.

As we saw, Marguerite Porete found a way to translate the beating of her own heart into a set of quotation marks around the word “with.” And Sappho found a way to record the beating of her heart while imagining its absence — for surely this is the function performed in her poem by “the man who opposite you sits and listens close.” This man, Sappho tells us, is “equal to gods”; but can we not read him as her way of representing “the landscape as it is when I am not there”? It is a landscape where joy is so full that it seems to go unexperienced. Sappho does not describe this landscape further but Marguerite Porete offers an amazing account of a soul in some such condition:

Such a Soul. . . swims in the sea of joy — that is in the sea of delights flowing and streaming from the Divinity, and she feels no joy for she herself is joy, and swims and floats in joy without feeling any joy because she inhabits Joy and Joy inhabits her….

It seems consistent with Simone Weil’s project of decreation that, although she too recognizes this kind of joyless joy, she finds in it not an occasion of swimming but one of exclusion and negation:

Perfect joy excludes even the very feeling of joy, for in the soul filled by the object no corner is left for saying “I.”

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Simone Weil by Susan Sontag

October 25, 2011

Susan Sontag

The great Liberal icon of the 60’s reviews Simone Weil’s Selected Essays from 1963. Some cheap shots (“Simone Weil, who displays an unpleasant silence on the Nazi persecution of the Jews”) but a realization of Weil’s greatness. See my little collection of Simone Weil writings and reflections here.

The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force — not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self — these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live.

It is mostly a matter of tone: it is hardly possible to give credence to ideas uttered in the impersonal tones of sanity. There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering — rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.

What revolted the mature Goethe in the young Kleist, who submitted his work to the elder statesman of German letters “on the knees of his heart” — the morbid, the hysterical, the sense of the unhealthy, the enormous indulgence in suffering out of which Kliest’s plays and tales were mined — is just what we value today. Today Kleist gives pleasure, Goethe is to some a duty. In the same way, such writers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet — and Simone Weil — have their authority with us because of their air of unhealthiness. Their unhealthiness is their soundness, and is what carries conviction.

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

Thus I do not mean to decry a fashion, but to underscore the motive behind the contemporary taste for the extreme in art and thought. All that is necessary is that we not be hypocritical, that we recognize why we read and admire writers like Simone Weil. I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas.

Nor is it necessary — necessary to share Simone Weil’s anguished and unconsummated love affair with the Catholic Church, or accept her gnostic theology of divine absence, or espouse her ideals of body denial, or concur in her violently unfair hatred of Roman civilization and the Jews. Similarly, with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; most of their modern admirers could not, and do not embrace their ideas. We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and — only piecemeal — for their “views.” As the corrupt Alcibiades followed Socrates, unable and unwilling to change his own life, but moved, enriched, and full of love; so the sensitive modern reader pays his respect to a level of spiritual reality which is not, could not, be his own.

Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence. It is, roughly, the difference between the hero and the saint (if one may use the latter term in an aesthetic, rather than a religious sense). Such a life, absurd in its exaggerations and degree of self-mutilation — like Kleist’s, like Kierkegaard’s — was Simone Weil’s.

I am thinking of the fanatical asceticism of Simone Weil’s life, her contempt for pleasure and for happiness, her noble and ridiculous political gestures, her elaborate self-denials, her tireless courting of affliction; and I do not exclude her homeliness, her physical clumsiness, her migraines, her tuberculosis. No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves. Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it.

In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world — and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

This new volume of translations from Simone Weil’s work, Selected Essays 1934-43, displays her somewhat marginally. It contains one great essay, the opening essay here titled “Human Personality” which was written in 1943, the year of her death in England at the age of thirty-four. (This essay, by the way, was first published in two parts under the title “The Fallacy of Human Rights” in the British magazine The Twentieth Century in May and June 1959. There it suffered the curious and instructive fate of requiring a defensive editorial in June, when the second part of the essay appeared, replying to criticism of the magazine’s decision to publish the essay “on the grounds that it involves heavy going for some readers.”

It certainly speaks volumes about the philistine level of English intellectual life, if even as good a magazine as The Twentieth Century cannot muster an enthusiastic, grateful audience for such a piece.) Another essay, placed last in the book, called “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations,” also written the year of her death, contains matter central to Simone Weil’s ideas. The remaining essays are on specific historical and political subjects — two on the civilization of Languedoc, one on a proletarian uprising in Renaissance Florence, several long essays on the Roman Empire which draw an extensive parallel between imperial Rome and Hitler’s Germany, and various reflections on the Second World War, the colonial problem, and the post-war future. There is also an interesting and sensitive letter to George Bernanos.

The longest argument of the book, spanning several essays, develops the parallel between Rome (and the ancient Hebrew theocracy!) and Nazi Germany. According to Simone Weil, who displays an unpleasant silence on the Nazi persecution of the Jews, Hitler is no worse than Napoleon, than Richelieu, than Caesar. Hitler’s racialism, she says, is nothing more than “a rather more romantic name for nationalism.” Her fascination with the psychological effects of wielding power and submitting to coercion, combined with her strict denial of any idea of historical progress, led her to equate all forms of state authority as manifestations of what she calls “the great beast.”

Readers of Simone Weil’s Notebooks (two volumes, published in 1959) and her Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks (1958) will be familiar with her attempt to derive everything distinctively Christian from Greek spirituality as well as to deny entirely Chrisianity’s Hebraic origins. This fundamental argument — along with her admiration for Provençal civilization, for the Manichean and Catharist heresies — colors all her historical essays. I cannot accept Simone Weil’s gnostic reading of Christianity as historically sound (its religious truth is another matter); nor can I fail to be offended by the vindictive parallels she draws between Nazism, Rome, and Israel.

Impartiality, no more than a sense of humor, is not the virtue of a writer like Simone Weil. Like Gibbon (whose view of the Roman Empire she absolutely contradicts), Simone Weil as a historical writer is tendentious, exhaustive, and infuriatingly certain. As a historian she is simply not at her best; no one who disbelieves so fundamentally in the phenomena of historical change and innovation can be wholly satisfying as a historian. This is not to deny that there are subtle historical insights in these essays: as for example, when she points out that Hitlerism consists in the application by Germany to the European continent, and the white race generally, of colonial methods of conquest and domination. (Immediately after, of course, she says that these — both Hitler’s methods and the “normal colonial ones” — are derived from the Roman model.)

The principal value of the collection is simply that anything from Simone Weil’s pen is worth reading. It is perhaps not the book to start one’s acquaintance with this writer — Waiting for God, I think, is the best for that. The originality of her psychological insight, the passion and subtlety of her theological imagination , the fecundity of her exegetical talents are unevenly displayed here.

Yet the person of Simone Weil is here as surely as in any of her other books — the person who is excruciatingly identical with her ideas, the person who is rightly regarded as one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit.

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Profession Of Faith: Study For A Declaration Of Obligations Towards Human Beings — Simone Weil

August 9, 2011

From Écrits de Londres et derniéres lettres, Gallimard, 1957, pp. 77-84, and pp. 49-60 of Anthology Profesión de Fe at http://www.institutosimoneweil.net site (in pdf). Translation by Sylvia María Valls March 24, 2010.

Simone’s manifesto:

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There is a reality to be found beyond this world, beyond space and time, beyond man’s mental universe, beyond every territory that human faculties are able to penetrate. To this reality corresponds, at the center of man´s heart, a quest for an absolute good that is always there and which never finds an object in this world. This reality is also revealed down here by the absurdities, the insoluble contradictions that human thought runs up against whenever it moves in this world exclusively. Just as the reality of this world is the only foundation for facts, equally so the other reality is the only foundation for the good.

It is from it and from it alone that there comes into this world all the good that is bound to exist; all the beauty, all the truth, all the justice, all the legitimacy, all the order, all subordination of human conduct to obligations. The only intermediary through which the good is able to descend from its realm to that of human beings are those, among men, who maintain their attention and their love turned towards that other reality. Even though it is beyond the reach of all human faculties, man has the power to  turn his attention and love in its direction. No one is ever to allow himself to suppose that any man, no matter who he may be, is deprived of this power.

This power down here is not real except to the extent that it is exercised. The sole condition for it to be exercised is consent. This consent may be formulated. It also may be that it is not, not even appear clearly to one’s conscience, even while it is taking place in the soul. Often it does not in fact take place even when it is expressed through language. Formulated or not, the only sufficient condition is that it in fact take place.

To whosoever consents in fact to focus his attention and love outside of this world towards the reality that is located beyond all human faculties, accessing this reality is a given. In this case, sooner or later, a good comes down into him that through him shines to all his midst.

The demand for absolute good that resides at the center of the heart, and the power, be it virtual, of turning one’s attention and love beyond this world and to receive from it a portion of that good, form a link that binds together each man without exception to the other reality. Whosoever recognizes that other reality also recognizes that link. Because of it, s/he considers any human being without exception as something sacred one must show respect for.

No other possible mobile exists for the universal respect of all human beings.  Whatever the formula of belief or disbelief one may have chosen, s/he whose heart is inclined to practice that respect recognizes in deed the other reality beyond this world. To whosoever that respect is foreign, to him the other reality also is foreign.

The reality of this world is made up of differences. Unequal objects unequally demand attention. A certain play of circumstances or a certain attraction gathers attention around the person of some human beings. Due to different circumstances and to a certain lack of attraction, others remain anonymous. They escape attention or, when attention is directed towards them, it does not distinguish anything other than the traits of a collectivity.

The attention that inhabits this world is entirely subservient to the effects of these inequalities and can avoid them even less as long as it fails to perceive them. In view of such inequalities, respect towards all beings can not be the same as long as it is not directed towards something that is identical in all. Human beings are different in all the relations that link them to the things of this world, without any exception. There is nothing identical in them other than the presence of a link with that other reality.

All human beings are identical to the extent that they may be thought of as constituted by a central demand for the good around which the psychic and carnal material is arranged. The attention directed beyond this world alone is in contact, in fact, with the essential structure of human nature. Only it has the ever-identical faculty of projecting light upon a being whosoever s/he may be. Whosoever has this faculty also has, in fact, their attention directed beyond this world, be s/he aware of it or not.

The link that ties each human being to the other reality is, like that other reality, out of the reach of all human faculties. The respect rooted in this link from the moment when it is recognized, cannot be manifested. That respect cannot find any kind of direct expression here below. If it is not expressed, it does not exist. There is a possibility of indirect expression for it.

The respect inspired by man’s link with the reality that is alien to this world is manifested to that part of the human being that is situated in this world. The reality of this world is necessity. The part of a being that is locked into it is the part that is abandoned to necessity and submerged in the misery that it provokes. Only one possibility of indirect expression exists for this respect one feels for human beings; this possibility is given to us by the needs of human beings in this world –the earthly needs of the soul and of the body.

What lies at the root of this possibility is a contact established in human nature between the need for the good, which is the essence of a human being, and sensibility. Nothing ever authorizes anyone to think of any man [or woman] that this link does not exist in him.

Thanks to this contact, when, as a result of omissions from the part of other men, the life of a human being is destroyed or mutilated by a wound or a privation either of the soul or of the body, it is not only the sensibility in him that suffers the blow but also his aspiration towards the good. Then, there has been a sacrilege committed against what in a human being is sacred.

The sensibility can, on the contrary, be the only thing affected were the person to suffer a privation or a wound due exclusively to the mechanisms of natural forces, or should he realize that those who apparently are inflicting this privation, far from wishing him any harm are merely submitting to something he himself recognizes as necessary.

The possibility of an indirect expression of respect towards a human being is the foundation for the obligation. The obligation has as its object the earthly needs of the soul and of the body of human beings whosoever these beings may be. Each need has a corresponding obligation. Each obligation responds to a need. There is no other type of obligation relative to human affairs. If one thinks that one sees other, either they are false or it is because of some error that they have not been classified under this category.

Whosoever in fact has his attention and love directed to the reality that is alien to this world recognizes, at the same time, that s/he is constrained, pending the scale of his responsibilities and considering his power, in public and in private life, by the unique and perpetual duty of remedying all the privations of the soul and of the body that are bound to destroy or to mutilate the earthly life of a human being whosoever s/he may be.

The limit established by the frontiers of power and by the level of responsibilities is not legitimate unless everything possible has been done in order to make the need of imposing that limit known to those who suffer its consequences, without any lies and in such a way that they may arrive at consenting to recognize it.

No event or circumstance ever saves anyone from this universal obligation. The circumstances that appear to excuse one in relation to a man or to a category of men only imposes it more absolutely. The thought of this obligation circulates among all men very differently and  in very uneven degrees of clarity.  Human beings are more or less prone to consent or to refuse adopting it as a rule of conduct.

Consent is more often than not mixed with falsehood. When there is no lie involved, practice is not without weaknesses. Refusal makes one fall into crime. The proportion of good and evil in a society depends, on the one hand, of the proportion of consent and the proportion of refusal, and, on the other, of the distribution of power between those who consent and those who refuse.

All power, whatever its nature, left in the hands of someone who has not given to this obligation a clear consent, totally and without lies, is wrongly placed. As pertains to a man who has chosen to refuse this obligation, the exercise of a function, be it large or small, public or private, that leaves in his hands human destinies, consititutes in itself a criminal action.  All those who, knowing his mind, authorize him to exercise such a function, are accomplices.

A state whose official doctrine constitutes a provocation to crime, has placed itself, in its entirety, within the sphere of crime. It lacks even the slightest trace of legitimacy. A system of laws is lacking in the very essence of what constitutes the law when nothing in it has been anticipated in order to prevent such a crime. A system of laws that provides measures in order to prevent some aspects of this crime, but not others, possesses only partially the character of law. A government whose members commit this crime or authorize it among those below them is a traitor to its function.

No matter what kind of collectivity, of institution, of a collective sort of life, whose normal funcitioning implies or involves the practice of such a crime, thereby suffers from a lack of legitimacy, and is subject to reform or suspension.

A man becomes an accomplice to this crime if, having a large, small or minimal part in shaping public opinon, he refrains from condemning it whenever he gets to have knowledge of it or if he sometimes refuses such knowledge in order not to see himself having to condemn it.

A country is not innocent of this crime if public opinion, being free to express itself, does not blame the existence of the practice or if — the freedom of expression having been suppressed — the opinions that circulate clandestinely do not contain this accusation.

The purpose of public life is to put the greatest amount of power possible into the hands of those who in fact consent to being bound by the obligation that ties every man to other human beings and who are knowledgeable in this respect.

The law is the sum total of permanent dispositions that are prone to have such a result. Knowledge of the obligation is two-fold. It includes knowledge of the principle and knowledge of the application. Since the realm of obligation is constituted by human needs in this world, it falls upon intelligence to conceive the notion of need and to discern, distinguish and draw the list of the earthly needs of the soul and of the body.

This study remains subject to revision.

Presentation of the obligations
In order to conceive concretely one’s obligation towards human beings and to subdivide it into several obligations, it is enough to conceive the earthly needs of the body and of the soul. Each need is the object of an obligation.

The needs of a human being are sacred. Their satisfaction cannot be subordinated to reasons of State nor to any consideration such as money, nationality, race, color, nor in relation to the moral value or to any other attribute of the person under consideration, nor to any conditioning of any kind.

The only legitimate limitation to the satisfaction of the needs of a specific human being is the one established by the needs and wants of other human beings. The limit is not legitimate unless the wants of all human beings receive the same level of attention.

The needs of the soul as are considered of the body. The soul has its needs and when they are not satisfied it finds itself in a state akin to that of a hungry and mutilated body.

The human body is above all in need of food, warmth, sleep, hygiene, rest, exercise, clean air.

The needs of the soul can in their majority be ordered into pairs that balance and complete one another.

The human soul needs equality and hierarchy.

Equality is the public recognition, wholesomely expressed in the institutions and customs, of the principle that establishes that an even level of attention is owed to the needs of all human beings. The hierarchy is the scale of responsibilities. Since attention has the tendency of directing itself and lingering at the heights, special dispositions become necessay so that equality and hierarchy become in fact compatible.

The human soul has a need for consented obedience and for freedom.

Consented obedience is that obedience given to an authority because one feels this authority to be legitimate. It is not possible through a coup d’état nor in relation to an economic power of which money is the cornerstone.  Freedom is the power to choose within the margin allowed by the direct constrictions of the power that nature sways and those of an authority accepted as legitimate.  The margin should be sufficiently wide so that freedom does not appear like some piece of fiction, but understood exclusively in relation to innocent things so that certain forms of crime will never be considered lawful. 

The human soul is in need of truth and of freedom of expression.

The need for truth demands that all have access to the culture of the mind without having to suffer either a material or a moral transplant.  It demands that no material or moral pressure be applied in the realm of thought proceeding from an intention that is alien to an exclusive preoccupation with truth –something which implies the absolute prohibition of all propaganda without exception. It demands protection against error and lies, something which turns into a reprehensible fault all material lies that can be publicly avoided. It demands for public health to be protected from poisons in the field of thought.

But, in order to exercise itself, intelligence needs to be able to express itself without any authority setting limits.  Hence, a space for independent intellectual investigation is needed left open within reach of all and where no authority will interfere.

The human soul needs, on the one hand, isolation and intimacy, on the other, social life.

The human soul needs personal and collective property.

Personal property is never made up of a sum of money but by the appropriation of concrete objects such as a house, field, furnishing, utensils, which the soul contemplates as an extension of itself and of its body. Justice demands that personal property, thus understood, be as inalienable as freedom is.

Collective property is not defined by a legal title but by a certain feeling within a human milieu that contemplates certain material objects as a prolongation or a crystallization of itself. This feeling is made possible by certain objective conditions.

The existence of a social class defined by the absence of personal and collective property is as shameful as slavery is. 

The human soul needs punishment and honor.

Every human being who, through crime, has placed him/herself outside the good needs to be reintegrated to the good through suffering.  Suffering should be inflicted with a view to directing the soul to recognizing, freely, someday, that it has been inflicted with justice. This reintegration to the good is what punishment is. Every innocent human being, or one who has finished expiating his crime, needs for his/her honor to be recognized just as everyone else’s is.

The human soul needs disciplined participation in a common task of public interest, and personal initiative in that participation.

The human soul needs security and risk.

Fear of violence, of hunger, or of any other extreme hardship, constitutes a sickness of the soul. Boredom resulting from the absence of all risk is also a sickness of the soul.

The human soul needs above all to feel rooted in various natural milieus and to communicate with the universe through them. The homeland, milieus defined by language, by culture, by a common historical past, by the profession, the locality, are examples of natural environments. Everything that results in the uprooting of a human being or which has the effect of preventing him from growing roots is criminal.

The criterion allowing one to recognize that in a certain place the needs of human beings are being satisfied is an expansion or amplification of fraternity, joy, beauty and happiness. Wherever withdrawal, sadness, ugliness prevail, there are privations awaiting to be healed.

Practical application
For this declaration to become a practical inspiration in the life of the country, the first requirement is that it be adopted with this intention by the people. The second requirement is that anyone who exercises power or wishes to exercise a power, no matter of what nature — political, administrative, spiritual or other — be required to commit himself to taking it as his practical rule of conduct.

In this case, the uniform nature of the obligation is to some extent modified by the particular responsibilities that a specific power implies. This is why the formula for assuming commitment would have to add the phrase “…paying the most special attention to those human beings who depend on me.”

The violation of such a commitment be it by word or deed, must always remain exposed to receiving punishment. But the emergence of institutions and customs that will allow for such punishment to take place in the majority of cases requires of several generations. Assenting to this declaration implies a continuous effort to bring about as soon as possible the emergence of said institutions and said customs.

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The Attention of Awaiting God – Simone Weil

September 27, 2010

Simone Weil

A French/English translation of one of Ms. Weil’s more profound ruminations. An adaptation of material  from simoneweil.net. I found reading the French slowed me down to really appreciate the English translation.

In Réflexion sur le bon usage des études scolaires en vue de l’Amour de Dieu (Reflections On The Good Usage Of School Studies In View Of The Love Of God In Attente De Dieu), Weil expands on her idea of attention as the doorway to God.

La prière est faite d’attention. C’est l’orientation vers Dieu de toute l’attention dont l’âme est capable. La qualité de l’attention est pour beaucoup dans la qualité de la prière. La chaleur du coeur ne peut pas y suppléer.

Prayer is made of attention. It is the direction towards God of all the attention that the soul is capable of. The quality of the attention makes for much of the quality of the prayer. It cannot be replaced by the heart’s warmth.

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Seule la partie la plus haute de l’attention entre en contact avec Dieu, quand la prière est assez intense et pure pour qu’un tel contact s’établisse ; mais toute l’attention est tournée vers Dieu.

Only the highest part of the attention comes into contact with God, when the prayer is intense and pure enough for such a contact to occur; but all the attention is directed towards God.

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For Weil, learning attention gives school its spiritual dimension. The repeated practice of this passive faculty is profoundly religious, for attention transforms the student without his realizing it, by putting him in the same metaphysical space in which he can encounter God.

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Bien qu’aujourd’hui on semble l’ignorer, la formation de la faculté d’attention est le but véritable et presque l’unique intérêt des études. La plupard des exercices scolaires ont aussi un certain intérêt intrinsèque ; mais cet intérêt est secondaire. Tous les exercices qui font vraiment appel au pouvoir d’attention sont intéressants au même titre et presque également.

Although today this seems unknown, the training of the faculty of attention is the true goal and almost only value of all study. Most school exercises have a certain intrinsic value, but this is secondary. All exercises that require the same power of attention are of interest, almost equally so.

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Jamais, en aucun cas, aucun effort d’attention véritable n’est perdu. Toujours il est pleinement efficace spirituellement, et par suite aussi, par surcroît, sur le plan inférieur de l’intelligence, car toute lumière spirituelle éclaire l’intelligence.

There is never a case when an effort of attention is lost. It will always be spiritually effective, and, also in the long run, effective on the inferior level of intelligence, for any spiritual light illuminates intelligence.

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Si on cherche avec une véritable attention la solution d’un problème de géométrie, et si, au bout d’une heure, on n’est pas plus avancé qu’en commençant, on a néanmoins avancé, durant chaque minute de cette heure, dans une autre dimention plus mystérieuse. Sans qu’on le sente, sans qu’on le sache, cet effort en apparence stérile et sans fruit a mis plus de lumière dans l’âme. Le fruit se retrouvera un jour, plus tard, dans la prière… cela est certain, cela ne fait aucun doute.

If one seeks the solution to a geometry problem with real attention, and if, after an hour, one has made no progress whatsoever, one has nevertheless progressed during each minute of this hour, in another more mysterious dimension. Without feeling it or knowing it, this apparently sterile and fruitless effort has put more light into the soul. The fruit will be found one day, later, in prayer. .. this much is certain, of this there is no doubt.

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In one of her trademark digressions, Weil ties attention together with faith, knowledge and desire in the space of five brilliant paragraphs. The spiritual seeker must start with a blind faith that is transformed into knowledge through experience. This blind faith is a desire for God which manifests itself by the repeated practice of attention, by awaiting God.

Les certitudes de cette espèce sont expérimentales. Mais si l’on n’y croit pas avant de les avoir éprouvées, si du moins on ne se conduit pas comme si on y croyait, on ne fera jamais l’expérience qui donne accès à de telles certitudes.

Il y a là une espèce de contradiction. Il en est ainsi, à partir d’un certain niveau, pour toutes les connaissances utiles au progrès spirituel. Si on ne les adopte pas comme règle de conduite avant de les avoir vérifiées, si on n’y reste pas attaché pendant longtemps seulement par la foi, une foi d’abord ténébreuse et sans lumière, on ne les transformera jamais en certitudes. La foi est la condition indispensable.

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Certitudes of this kind are arrived at by experience. But if one doesn’t believe them before experiencing them, if at least one does not act as if one believed them, one will never undergo the experience that gives access to such certitudes.

There is here a kind of contradiction. After a certain level, this is the way it is with all bits of knowledge that are useful for spiritual progress. If they are not adopted as rules of conduct before they are verified, if one does not stay attached to them by faith alone, a faith that starts in the dark without light, one will never transform them into certitudes. Faith is the indispensable condition.

Le meilleur soutien de la foi est la garantie que si l’on demande à son Père du pain, il ne donne pas des pierres. En dehors même de toute croyance religieuse explicite, toutes les fois qu’un être humain accomplit un effort d’attention avec le seul désir de devenir plus apte à saisir la vérité, il acquiert cette aptitude plus grande, même si son effort n’a produit aucun fruit visible.

Un conte esquimau explique ainsi l’origine de la lumière : “Le corbeau qui dans la nuit éternelle ne pouvait pas trouver de nourriture, désira la lumière,et la terre s’éclaira.” S’il y a vraiment désir, si l’objet du désir est vraiment la lumière, le désir de lumière produit la lumière.

Il y a vraiment désir quand il y a effort d’attention. C’est vraiment la lumière qui est désirée si tout autre mobile est absent. Quand même les efforts d’attention resteraient en apparence stériles pendant des années, un jour une lumière exactement proportionnelle à ces efforts inondera l’âme.

The best support for faith is the guarantee that if you ask your Father for bread, he will not give you stones. Outside of any explicitly religious belief, every time a human being accomplishes the effort of attention with the sole desire of becoming more apt at apprehending truth, he acquires a greater aptitude, even if his effort does not produce any visible fruit.

An eskimo tale explains the origin of light thus: “The blackbird could not find food in the eternal night and he desired light, and the earth lit up.” If there is true desire, if the object of desire is truly light, the desire for light produces light.

There is true desire when there is an effort of attention. It is truly light that is desired if all other motives are absent. Even if the efforts of attention remained apparently sterile for years, one day a light exactly proportional to these efforts shall inundate the soul.

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Attention is akin to philosophy, a love of truth. Attention requires desire for truth, which is God. Like all desire, attention cannot be driven by effort, but is motivated by the joy of truth seeking. The burning desire that drives attention purifies the soul.

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La volonté, celle qui au besoin fait serrer les dents et supporter la souffrance, est l’arme principale de l’apprenti dans le travail manuel. Mais contrairement à ce que l’on croit d’ordinaire, elle n’a presque aucune place dans l’étude.

L’intelligence ne peut être menée que par le désir. Pour qu’il y ait désir, il faut qu’il y ait plaisir et joie. L’intelligence ne grandit et ne porte de fruits que dans la joie. La joie d’apprendre est aussi indispensable aux études que la respiration aux coureurs.

C’est ce rôle du désir dans l’étude qui permet d’en faire une préparation à la vie spirituelle. Car le désir, orienté vers Dieu, est la seule force capable de faire monter l’âme. Ou plutôt c’est Dieu seul qui vient saisir l’âme et la lève, mais le désir seul oblige Dieu à descendre. Il ne vient qu’à ceux qui lui demandent de venir ; et ceux qui demandent souvent, longtemps, ardemment, il ne peut pas s’empêcher de descendre vers eux.

L’attention est un effort, le plus grand des efforts peut-être, mais c’est un effort négatif. par lui-même il ne comporte pas la fatigue. Quand la fatigue se fait sentir, l’attention n’est presque plus possible, à moins qu’on soit déjà bien exercé ; il vaut mieux alors s’abandonner, chercher une détente, puis un peu plus tard recommencer, se déprendre et se reprendre comme on inspire et expire.

Il y a quelque chose dans notre âme qui répugne à la véritable attention beaucoup plus violemment que la chair ne répugne à la fatigue. Ce quelque chose est beaucoup plus proche du mal que la chair. C’est pourquoi, toutes les fois qu’on fait vraiment attention, on détruit du mal en soi. Si on fait attention avec cette intention, un quart d’heure d’attention vaut beaucoup de bonnes oeuvres.

Will power, that which is used, if necessary, to clench one’s teeth and bear suffering, is the principal tool of the apprentice in manual labor. But, contrary to popular belief, will power has almost no place in study.

Intelligence can only be directed by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy. Intelligence only grows and bears fruits in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable to studies as breathing is to runners.

The role that desire plays in studying is what enables it to be a preparation for spiritual life. For desire, oriented by God, is the only force capable of lifting the soul. Rather, it is God alone who seazes the soul and lifts it, but desire alone that makes God come down. He does not come to those who do not ask him to; and he cannot help himself from coming down to those who ask him often, at length and fervently.

Attention is an effort, the greatest of efforts perhaps, but it is a negative effort, and as such does not include fatigue. When fatigue sets in, attention is almost not possible anymore, unless one is already well exercised; it is better in that case to abandon oneself, to search for a break, and to start again a little later, to ungrasp oneself and grasp oneself like one inhales and exhales.

There is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue. That something is much closer to evil than flesh is. That is why, every time we truly give our attention, we destroy some evil in ourselves. If one pays attention with this intention, fifteen minutes of attention is worth a lot of good works.

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This is as close as Weil comes to a concrete description of the passive action of attention: a concentrated but empty awaiting for truth.

L’attention consiste à suspendre sa pensée, à la laisser disponible, vide et pénétrable à l’objet, à maintenir en soi-même à proximité de la pensée, mais à un niveau inférieur et sans contact avec elle, les diverses connaissances acquises qu’on est forcé d’utiliser. La pensée doit être, à toutes les pensées particulières et déjà formées, comme un homme sur une montagne qui, regardant devant lui, aperçoit en même temps sous lui, mais sans les regarder, beaucoup de forêts et de plaines. Et surtout, la pensée doit être vide, en attente, ne rien chercher, mais être prête à recevoir dans sa vérité nue l’objet qui va y pénétrer.

Attention consists in suspending thought, in leaving it available, empty and subject to penetration by the object, in maintaining the various acquired knowledges one is forced to use near by to thought, but at an inferior level and without contact to thought. Our thought must be, with regard to all the already formed specific thoughts, like a man on a mountian who, looking in front of him, sees without looking at them many forests and plains below him. And especially, thought must remain empty, awaiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that will penetrate it.

Tous les contre-sens dans les versions, toutes les absurdités dans la solutions des problèmes de géométrie, toutes les gaucheries du style et toutes les défectuosités de l’enchaînement des idées dans les devoirs de français, tout cela vient de ce que la pensée s’est précipitée hâtivement sur quelque chose, et étant ainsi prématurément remplie n’a plus été disponible pour la vérité. La cause est toujours qu’on a voulu être actif ; on a voulu chercher. On peut vérifier cela chaque fois, à chaque faute, si l’on remonte à la racine. Il n’y a pas de meilleur exercice que cette vérification. Car cette vérité est de celles auxquelles on ne peut croire qu’en les éprouvant cent et mille fois. Il en est ainsi de toutes les vérités essentielles.

All contradictions in translations, all absurdities in geometry solutions, any awkwardness in style and faulty reasonings in French exercises, all this comes from thought rushing at something hastily, and having prematurely filled itself, it is no longer available for truth. The cause is always having wanted to be active; one wanted to seek. One can verify this every time, for every error, if one goes back to the root. There is no better exercise than this verification. For this truth is among those which can only be believed by experiencing them a thousand and one times. This is the way of all essential truths.

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Les biens les plus précieux ne doivent pas être cherchés, mais attendus. Car l’homme ne peut pas les trouver par ses propres forces, et s’il se met à leur recherche, il trouvera à la place des faux biens dont il ne saura pas discerner la fausseté.

La solution d’un problème de géométrie n’est pas en elle-même un bien précieux, mais la même loi s’applique aussi à elle, car elle est l’image d’un bien précieux. Étant un petit fragment de vérité particulière, elle est une image pure de la Vérité unique, éternelle et vivante, cette vérité qui a dit un jour d’une voix humaine : “Je suis la vérité.”

Pensé ainsi, tout exercice scolaire ressemble à un sacrement.

Il y a pour chaque exercice scolaire une manière spécifique d’attendre la vérité avec désir et sans se permettre de la chercher. Une manière de faire attention aux données d’un problème de géométrie sans en chercher la solution, aux mots d’un texte latin ou grec sans en chercher le sens, d’attendre, quand on écrit, que le mot juste vienne de lui-même se placer sous la plume en repoussant seulement les mots insuffisants.

The most precious goods should not be sought out, but waited for. For man cannot find them on his own, and if he starts to seek them, he will find in their place false goods whose falsehood he won’t be able to discern.

The solution to a geometry problem is not in itself a precious good, but the same law applies to it, because it is an image of a precious good. Being a small fragment of a particular truth, it is a pure image of the only Truth, eternal and alive, this truth that spoke out one day with a human voice saying: “I am the truth.”

In this light, all school exercises resemble sacrements.

There is for each school exercise a specific manner of waiting for truth with desire and without letting oneself seek it out. A manner of paying attention to the elements of a geometry problem without seraching for a solution, to the words of Latin or Greek text without looking for their meaning, of waiting, when one writes, for the right word to come of itself and place itself under the pen, and merely pushing away the insufficient words.

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Weil refers to one of her favored gospel parables — that of the watchful servant in Luke 12:36 — to frame the analogy of seeking truth to seeking God, an analogy that she urges professors and spiritual teachers to emphasize to their students.

… l’analogie entre l’attitude de l’intelligence dans chacun de ces exercices et la situation de l’âme qui, la lampe bien garnie d’huile, attend son époux avec confiance et désir. Que chaque adolescent aimant, pendant qu’il fait une version latine, souhaite devenir par cette version un peu plus proche de l’instant où il sera cet esclave qui, pendant que son maître est à une fête, veille et écoute près de la porte pour ouvrir dès qu’on frappe. Le maître alors installe l’esclave à table et lui sert lui-même à manger.

… The analogy between the attitude of intelligence in each of these exercises and the situation of the soul who, with a lamp well filled with oil, waits for its husband with trust and desire. May each loving adolescent, while he does a latin translation, wish to become through this translation a little closer to the instant where, while his master is at a feast, he waits up and listens near the door to open it as soon as there is a knock. The master will then sit the slave at his table and he will serve him to eat.

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For Weil, the awaiting involved in attention cannot be refused by God. As said above, “If you ask your Father for bread, he will not give you stones.” She goes so far as to say that attention is the act that forces God to come to us with his love.

C’est seulement cette attente, cette attention qui peuvent obliger le maître à un tel excès de tendresse. Quand l’esclave s’est épuisé de fatigue aux champs, le maître à son retour, lui dit : “Prépare mon repas et sers-moi.” Et il le traite d’esclave inutile qui fait seulement ce qui lui est commandé.

Certes il faut faire dans le domaine de l’action tout ce qui est commandé, au prix de n’importe quel degré d’effort, de fatigue et de souffrance, car celui qui désobéit n’aime pas. Mais après cela on n’est qu’un esclave inutile. C’est une condition de l’amour, mais elle ne suffit pas.

Ce qui force le maître à se faire l’esclave de son esclave, à l’aimer, ce n’est rien de tout cela ; c’est encore moins une recherche que l’esclave aurait la témérité d’entreprendre de sa propre initiative ; c’est uniquement la veille, l’attente et l’attention.

It is only this awaiting, this attention that can oblige the master to such an excess of tenderness. When the slave has exhausted himself in the fields, the master at his return, says to him: “Prepare my meal and serve me.” And he treats his slave as a useless one who does only what he is told.

Of course one has to do everything that is commanded in the realm of action, at the price on any degree of effort, of fatigue and of suffering, for he who disobeys loves not. But after all that, one is still nothing but a useless slave. Action is a condition for love, but it does not suffice.

That which forces the master to make himself the slave of his slave, to love him, is none of this; even less a search that the slave would have the temerity to undertake on his own initiative; it is only the waiting up, the awaiting and attention.

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For Weil, attention is the stuff of love, and in particular of the love needed to reach the malheureux, the wretched souls stricken by malheur.

Ce n’est pas seulement l’amour de Dieu qui a pour substance l’attention. L’amour du prochain dont nous savons que c’est le même amour, est fait de la même substance.

Les malheureux n’ont pas besoin d’autre chose en ce monde que d’hommes capables de faire attention à eux. La capacité de faire attention à un malheureux est chose très rare, très difficile ; c’est presque un miracle. Presque tous ceux qui croient avoir cette capacité ne l’ont pas. La chaleur, l’élan du coeur, la pitié n’y suffisent pas.

The love of God is not the only thing whose substance is attention. The love of your neighbor which we know to be the same love, is made of the same substance.

The malheureux need nothing else in this world but men capable of paying attention to them. The capability to pay attention to the malheureux is something very rare, very difficult; it’s almost a miracle. Almost all those who think they have this capacity, don’t. Warmth, the heart’s reaching out, pity, all these are not sufficient.

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Dans la première légende du Graal, il est dit que le Graal, pierre miraculeuse qui a la vertu de l’hostie consacrée rassasie toute faim, appartient à quiconque dira le premier au gardien de la pierre, roi aux trois quarts paralysé par la plus douloureuse blessure : “Quel est ton tourment ?”.

La plénitude de l’amour du prochain, c’est simplement d’être capable de lui demander “Quel est ton tourment ?” C’est savoir que le malheureux existe, non pas comme unité dans une collection, non pas comme un exemplaire de la catégorie sociale étiquetée “malheureux”, mais en tant qu’homme, exactement semblable à nous, qui a été un jour frappé et marqué d’une marque inimitable par le malheur. Pour cela il est suffisant, mais indispensable, de savoir poser sur lui un certain regard.

Ce regard est d’abord un regard attentif, où l’âme se vide de tout contenu propre pour recevoir en elle-même l’être qu’elle regarde tel qu’il est, dans toute sa vérité. Seul en est capable celui qui est capable d’attention.

In the first legend of the Grail — a miraculous stone which has the virtue of a consecrated wafer that sates all hunger — it is said that the Grail belongs to the first person to ask the stone’s gardian, a king almost completely paralysed by a painful wound, “What is your torment?”.

The fullness of love for your neighbor, is simply being capable of asking them “What torments you?”. It’s knowing that the malheureux exists, not as one of many, not as an example of a social category labeled malheureux, but as a man, exactly like us, who was struck one day and marked by the inimitable mark of malheur. To do this it is sufficient, but indispensable, to know to cast a certain gaze upon him.

This gaze is first an attentive gaze, where the soul empties itself of all its own content in order to receive in itself the being who it looks at as he is, in all his truth. This can only be done by those capable of attention.

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Concerning the Our Father by Simone Weil

July 19, 2010

Madonna of Humility, circa 1415–20

Something so familiar and yet so totally transformed in this reading by Simone Weil.  Note the closing reference to paying attention.

Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·
“Our Father which art in Heaven.”

He is our Father. There is nothing real in us which does not come from him. We belong to Him. He loves us, since He loves himself and we are His. Nevertheless He is our Father who is in heaven — not elsewhere. If we think to have a Father here below it is not He, it is a false God. We cannot take a single step toward Him. We do not walk vertically. We can only turn our eyes toward Him. We do not have to search for Him, we only have to change the direction in which we are looking. It is for Him to search for us. We must be happy in the knowledge that He is infinitely beyond our reach. Thus we can be certain that the evil in us, even if it overwhelms our whole being, in no way sullies the divine purity, bliss, and perfection.

ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου·
“Hallowed be thy Name.”

God alone has the power to name himself, His name is unpronounceable for human lips. His name is his word. It is the Word of God. The name of any being is an intermediary between the human spirit and that being; it is the only means by which the human spirit can conceive something about a being that is absent. God is absent. He is in heaven. Man’s only possibility of gaining access to him is through His name. It is the Mediator. Man has access to this name, although it also is transcendent. It shines in the beauty and order of the world and it shines in the interior light of the human soul. This name is holiness itself; there is no holiness outside it; it does not therefore have to be hallowed. In asking for its hallowing we are asking for something that exists eternally, with full and complete reality, so that we can neither increase nor diminish it, even by an infinitesimal fraction. To ask for that which exists, that which exists really, infallibly, eternally, quite independently of our prayer, that is the perfect petition. We cannot prevent ourselves from desiring; we are made of desire; but thb desire that nails us down to what is imaginary, temporal, selfish, can, if we make it pass wholly into this petition, become a lever to tear us from the imaginary into the real and from time into eternity, to lift us right out of the prison of self.

ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου·
“Thy Kingdom Come.”

This concerns something to be achieved, something not yet here. The Kingdom of God means the complete filling of the entire soul of intelligent creatures with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit bloweth where he listeth? We can only invite him. We must not even try to invite him in a definite and special way to visit us or anyone else in particular, or even everybody in general; we must just invite him purely and simply, so that our thought of him is an invitation, a longing cry. It is as when one is in extreme thirst, ill with thirst; then one no longer thinks of the act of drinking in relation to oneself, or even of the act of drinking in a general way. One merely thinks of water, actual water itself, but the image of water is like a cry from our whole being.

γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου,·
“Thy will be done.”

We are only absolutely, infallibly certain of the will of God concerning the past. Everything that has happened, whatever it may be, is in accordance with the will of the almighty Father. That is implied by the notion of almighty power. The future also, whatever it may contain, once it has come about, will have come about in conformity with the will of God. We can neither add to nor take from this conformity. In this clause, therefore, after an upsurging of our desire toward the possible, we are once again asking for that which is. Here, however, we are not concerned with an eternal reality such as the holiness of the Word, but with what happens in the time order. Nevertheless we are asking for the infallible and eternal conformity of everything in time with the will of God. After having, in our first petition, torn our desire away from time in order to fix it upon eternity, thereby transforming it, we return to this desire which has itself become in some measure eternal, in order to apply it once more to time. Whereupon our desire pierces through time to find eternity behind it. That is what comes about when we know how to make every accomplished fact, whatever it may be, an object of desire. We have here quite a different thing from resignation. Even the word acceptance is too weak. We have to desire that everything that has happened should have happened, and nothing else. We have to do so, not because what has happened is good in our eyes, but because God has permitted it, and because the obedience of the course of events to God is in itself an absolute good. 

ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς·
“On earth as it is in heaven.”

The association of our desire with the almighty will of God should be extended to spiritual things. Our own spiritual ascents and falls, and those of the beings we love, have to do with the other world, but they are also events that take place here below, in time. On that account they are details in the immense sea of events and arc tossed about with, the ocean in a way conforming to the will of God. Since our failures of the past have come about, we have to desire that they should have come about.

We have to extend this desire into the future, for the day when it will have become the past. It is a necessary correction of the petition that the kingdom of God should come, We have to cast aside all other desires for the sake of our desire for eternal life, but we should desire eternal life itself with renunciation. We must not even become attached to detachment. Attachment to salvation is even more dangerous than the others. We have to think of eternal life as one thinks of water when dying of thirst, and yet at the same time we have.to desire that we and our loved ones should be eternally deprived of this water rather than receive it in abundance in spite of God’s will, if such a thing were conceivable,

The three foregoing petitions are related to the three Persons of the Trinity, the Son, the Spirit, and the Father, and also to the three divisions of time, the present, the future, and the past. The three petitions that follow have a more direct bearing on the three divisions of time, and take them in a different order—present, past, and future.

τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον·
 “Give us this day our daily bread” — the bread which is supernatural

Christ is our bread. We can only ask to have him now. Actually he is always there at the door of our souls, wanting to enter in, though he does not force our consent. If we agree to his entry, he enters; directly we cease to want him, he is gone. We cannot bind our will today for tomorrow; we cannot make a pact with him that tomorrow he will be within us, even in spite of ourselves.

Our consent to his presence is the same as his presence. Consent is an act; it can only be actual, that is to say in the present. We have not been given a will that can be applied to the future. Everything not effective in our will is imaginary. The effective part of the will has its effect at once; its effectiveness cannot be separated from itself. The effective part of the will is not effort, which is directed toward the future. It is consent; it is the “yes” of marriage. A “yes” pronounced within the present moment and for the present moment, but spoken as an eternal word, for it is consent to the union of Christ with the eternal part of our soul.

Bread is a necessity for us. We are beings who continually draw our energy from outside, for as we receive it we use it up in effort. If our energy is not daily renewed, we become feeble and incapable of movement. Besides actual food, in the literal sense of the word, all incentives are sources of energy for us. Money, ambition, consideration, decorations, celebrity, power, our loved ones, everything that puts into us the capacity for action is like bread.

If anyone of these attachments penetrates deeply enough into us to reach the vital roots of our carnal existence, its loss may break us and even cause our death. That is called dying of love. It is like dying of hunger. All these objects of attachment go together with food, in the ordinary sense of the word, to make up the daily bread of this world. It depends entirely on circumstances whether we have it or not. We should ask nothing with regard to circumstances unless it be that they may conform to the will of God. We should not ask for earthly bread.

There is a transcendent energy whose source is in heaven, and this flows into us as soon as we wish for it. It is a real energy; it performs actions through the agency of our souls and of our bodies.

We should ask for this food. At the moment of asking, and by the very fact that we ask for it, we know that God will give it to us. We ought not to be able to bear to go without it for a single day, for when our actions only depend on earthly energies, subject to the necessity of this world, we are incapable of thinking and doing anything but evil. God saw “that the misdeeds of man were multiplied on the earth and that all the thoughts of his heart were continually bent upon evil.” [Genesis 6:5] The necessity that drives us toward evil governs everything in us except the energy from on high at the moment when it comes into us. We cannot store it.

καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν,
ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφίεμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν·
 “And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”

At the moment of saying these words we must have already remitted everything that is owing to us. This not only includes reparation for any wrongs we think we have suffered, but also gratitude for the good we think we have done, and it applies in a quite general way to all we expect from people and things, to all we consider as our due and without which we should feel ourselves to have been frustrated. All these are the rights that we think the past has given us over the future.

First there is the right to a certain permanence. When we have enjoyed something for a long time, we think that it is ours and that we are entitled to expect fate to let us go on enjoying it. Then there is the right to a compensation for every effort whatever its nature, be it work, suffering, or desire. Every time that we put forth some effort and the equivalent of this effort does not come back to us in the form of some visible fruit, we have a sense of false balance and emptiness which makes us think that we have been cheated. The effort of suffering from some offense causes us. to expect the punishment or apologies of the offender, the effort of doing good makes us expect the gratitude of the person we have helped, but these are only particular cases of a universal law of the soul.

Every time we give anything out we have an absolute need that at least the equivalents should come into us, and because we. need this we think we have a right to it. Our debtors comprise all beings and all things; they are the entire universe. We think we have claims everywhere. In every claim we think we possess there is always the idea of an imaginary claim of the past on the future. That is the claim we have to renounce.

To have forgiven our debtors is to have renounced the whole of the past in a lump. It is to accept that the future should still be virgin and intact, strictly united to the past by bonds of which we are ignorant, but quite free from the bonds our imagination thought to impose upon it. It means that we accept the possibility that. this will happen, and that it may happen to us in particular; it means that we are prepared for the future to render all our past life sterile and vain.

In renouncing at one stroke all the fruits of the past without exception, we can ask of God that our past sins may not bear their miserable fruits of evil and error. So long as we cling to the past, God himself cannot stop this horrible fruiting. We cannot hold on to the past without retaining our crimes, for we are unaware of what is most essentially bad in us.

The principal claim we think we have on the universe is that our personality should continue. This claim implies all the others. The instinct of self-preservation makes us feel this continuation to be a necessity, and we believe that a necessity is a right. We are like the beggar who said to Talleyrand: “Sir, I must live,” and to whom Talleyrand replied, “I do not see the necessity for that.”

Our personality is entirely dependent on external circumstances which have unlimited power to crush it. But we would rather die than admit this. From our point of view the equilibrium of the world is a combination of circumstances so ordered that our personality remains intact and seems to belong to us. All the circumstances of the past that have wounded our personality appear to us to be disturbances of balance which should infallibly be made up for one day or another by phenomena having a contrary effect. We live on the expectation of these compensations. The near approach of death is horrible chiefly because it forces the knowledge upon us that these compensations will never come.

To remit debts is to renounce our own personality. It means renouncing everything that goes to make up our ego, without any exception. It means knowing that• in the ego there is nothing whatever, no psychological element, that external circumstances could not do away with. It means accepting that truth. It means being happy that things should be so.

The words “Thy will be done” imply this acceptance, if we say them with all our soul, That is why we can say a few moments later: “We forgive our debtors.”

The forgiveness of debts is spiritual poverty, spiritual nakedness, death. If we accept death completely, we can ask God to make us live again, purified from the evil in us. For to ask him to forgive us our debts is to ask him to wipe out the evil in us. Pardon is purification. God himself has not the power to forgive the evil in us while it remains there. God will have forgiven our debts when he has brought us to the state of perfection.

Until then God forgives our debts partially in the same measure as we forgive our debtors.

καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν,
ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.
 “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

The only temptation for man is to be abandoned to his own resources in the presence of evil. His nothingness is then proved experimentally. Although the soul has received supernatural bread at the moment when it asked for it, its joy is mixed with fear because it could only ask for it for the present. The future is still to be feared. The soul has not, the right to ask for bread for the morrow, but it expresses its fear in the form of a supplication. It finishes with that. The prayer began with the word’ “Father,” it ends with the word “evil.”

We must go from confidence to fear. Confidence alone can give us strength enough not to fall as a result of fear. After having contemplated the name, the kingdom, and the will of God, after having received the supernatural bread and having been purified from evil, the soul is ready for that true humility which crowns all virtues. Humility consists of knowing that in this world the whole soul, not only what we term the ego in its totality, but also the supernatural part of the soul, which is God present in it, is subject to time and to the vicissitudes of change.

There must be absolute acceptance of the possibility that everything natural in us should be destroyed. But we must simultaneously accept and repudiate the possibility that the supernatural part of the soul should disappear. It must be accepted as an event that would come about only in conformity with the will of God. It must be repudiated as being something utterly horrible. We must be afraid of it, but our fear must be as it were the completion of confidence.

The six petitions correspond with each other in pairs. The bread which is transcendent is the same thing as the divine name. It is what brings about the contact of man with God. The kingdom of God is the same thing as his protection stretched over us against temptation; to protect is the function of royalty. Forgiving our debtors their debts is the same thing as the total acceptance of the will of God. The difference is that in the first three petitions the attention is fixed solely on God. In the three last, we turn our attention back to ourselves in order to compel ourselves to make these petitions a real and not an imaginary act.

In the first half of the prayer, we begin with acceptance. Then we allow ourselves a desire. Then we correct it by coming back to acceptance. In the second half, the order is changed; we finish by expressing desire. Only desire has now become negative; it is expressed as a fear; therefore it corresponds. to the highest degree of humility and that is a fitting way to end.

The Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer not already contained in it. It is to prayer what Christ is to humanity. It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change, infinitesimal perhaps but real, taking place in the soul.

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The Love of God and Affliction by Simone Weil

July 15, 2010


[Translation Note: No English word exactly conveys the meaning of the French “malheur.” Our word unhappiness is a negative term and - far too -weak. Affliction is the nearest equivalent but not quite satisfactory. “Malheur” has in it a sense of inevitability and doom.]

This is an example of the power Simone Weil has over me. How does she know all this? It has taken me years to figure half of it out and yet she speaks with a wisdom I haven’t attained at twice her age when she died. And all of this is derived from a simple power of observation.

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In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. Slavery as practiced by ancient Rome is only an extreme form of affliction. The men of antiquity, who knew all about this question, used to say: “A man loses half his soul the day he becomes a slave.”

Affliction is inseparable from physical suffering and yet quite distinct. With suffering, all that is not bound up with physical pain or something analogous is artificial, imaginary, and can be eliminated by a suitable adjustment of the mind. Even in the case of the absence or death of someone we love, the irreducible part of the sorrow is akin to physical pain, a difficulty in breathing, a constriction of the heart, an unsatisfied need, hunger, or the almost biological disorder caused by the brutal liberation of some energy, hitherto directed by an attachment and now left without a guide. A sorrow that is not centered around an irreducible core of such a nature is mere romanticism or literature. Humiliation is also a violent condition of the whole corporal being, which longs to surge up under the outrage but is forced, by impotence or fear, to hold itself in check.

 

St. Terese’ Sick Bed

On the other hand pain that is only physical is a very unimportant matter and leaves no trace in the soul. Toothache is an example. An hour or two of violent pain caused by a decayed tooth is nothing once it is over.

It is another matter if the physical suffering is very prolonged or frequent, but in such a case we are dealing with something quite different from an attack of pain; it is often an affliction.

 

Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death. Here below, physical pain, and that alone, has the power to chain down our thoughts; on condition that we count as physical pain certain phenomena that, though difficult to describe, are bodily and exactly equivalent to it. Fear of physical pain is a notable example.

When thought is obliged by an attack of physical pain, however slight, to recognize the presence of affliction, a state of mind is brought about, as acute as that of a condemned man who is forced to look for hours at the guillotine the that is going to cut off his head. Human beings can live for twenty or fifty years in this acute state. We pass quite close to them without realizing it. What man is capable of discerning such souls unless Christ himself looks through his eyes? We only notice that they have rather a strange way of behaving and we censure this behavior.

There is not real affliction unless the event that has seized and uprooted a life attacks it, directly or indirectly, in all its parts, social, psychological, and physical. The social factor is essential. There is not really affliction unless there is social degradation or the fear of it in some form or another.

There is both continuity and the separation of a definite point of entry, as with the temperature at which water boils, between affliction itself and all the sorrows that, even though they may be very violent, very deep and very lasting, are not affliction in the strict sense. There is a limit; on the far side of it we have affliction but not on the near side. This limit is not purely objective; all sorts of personal factors have to be taken into account. The same event may plunge one human being into affliction and not another.

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, or reduced to slavery, imprisoned in camps or cells, 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.

As for those who have been struck by one of those blows that leave a being struggling on the ground like a half-crushed worm, they have no words to express what is happening to them. Among the people they meet, those who have never had contact with affliction in its true sense can have no idea of what it is, even though they may have suffered a great deal. Affliction is something specific and impossible to describe in any other terms, as sounds are to anyone who is deaf and dumb. And as for those who have themselves been mutilated by affliction, they are in no state to help anyone at all, and they are almost incapable of even wishing to do so. Thus compassion for the afflicted is an impossibility. When it is really found we have a more astounding miracle than walking on water, healing the sick, or even raising the dead.

Affliction constrained Christ to implore that he might be spared, to seek consolation from man, to believe he was forsaken by the Father. It forced a just man to cry out against God, a just man as perfect as human nature can be, more so, perhaps, if Job is less a historical character than a figure of Christ. “He laughs at the affliction of the innocent!” This is not blasphemy but a genuine cry of anguish. The Book of Job is a pure marvel of truth and authenticity from beginning to end. As regards affliction, all that departs from this model is more or less stained with falsehood.

Affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell. A kind of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence there is nothing to love. What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final. The soul has to go on loving in the emptiness, or at least to go on wanting to love, though it may only be with an infinitesimal part of itself. Then, one day, God will come to show himself to this soul and to reveal the beauty of the world to it, as in the case of Job. But if the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell.

That is why those who plunge men into affliction before they are prepared to receive it kill their souls. On the other hand, in a time such as ours, where affliction is hanging over us all, help given to souls is effective only if it goes far enough really to prepare them for affliction. That is no small thing.

Affliction hardens and discourages us because, like a red hot iron, it stamps the soul to its very depths with the scorn, the disgust, and even the self-hatred and sense of guilt and defilement that crime logically should produce but actually does not. Evil dwells in the heart of the criminal without being felt there. It is felt in the heart of the man who is afflicted and innocent. Everything happens as though the state of soul suitable for criminals had been separated from crime and attached to affliction; and it even seems to be in proportion to the innocence of those who are afflicted.

If Job cries out that he is innocent in such despairing accents, it is because he himself is beginning not to believe in it; it is because his soul within him is taking the side of his friends. He implores God himself to bear witness, because he no longer hears the testimony of his own conscience; it is no longer anything but an abstract, lifeless memory for him.

Men have the same carnal nature as animals. If a hen is hurt, the others rush upon it, attacking it with their beaks. This phenomenon is as automatic as gravitation. Our senses attach all the scorn, all the revulsion, all the hatred that our reason attaches to crime, to affliction. Except for those whose whole soul is inhabited by Christ, everybody despises the afflicted to some extent, although practically no one is conscious of it.

This law of sensibility also holds good with regard to ourselves. In the case of someone in affliction, all the scorn, revulsion, and hatred are turned inward. They penetrate to the center of the soul and from there color the whole universe with their poisoned light. Supernatural love, if it has survived, can prevent this second result from coming about, but not the first. The first is of the very essence of affliction; there is no affliction without it.

Christ. . . being made a curse for us. It was not only the body of Christ, hanging on the wood, that was accursed; it was his whole soul also. In the same way every innocent being in his affliction feels himself accursed. This even goes on being true for those who have been in affliction and have come out of it, through a change in their fortunes, that is to say, if the affliction ate deeply enough into them.

Another effect of affliction is, little by little, to make the soul its accomplice, by injecting a poison of inertia into it. In anyone who has suffered affliction for a long enough time there is a complicity with regard to his own affliction. This complicity impedes all the efforts he might make to improve his lot; it goes so far as to prevent him from seeking a way of deliverance, sometimes even to the point of preventing him from wishing for deliverance. Then he is established in affliction, and people might think he was satisfied. Further, this complicity may even induce him to shun the means of deliverance. In such cases it veils itself with excuses which are often ridiculous. Even a person who has come through his affliction will still have something left in him compelling him to plunge into it again, if it has bitten deeply and forever into the substance of his soul. It is as though affliction had established itself in him like a parasite and were directing him to suit its own purposes. Sometimes this impulse triumphs over all the movements of the soul toward happiness. If the affliction has been ended as a result of some kindness, it may take the form of hatred for the benefactor; such is the cause of certain apparently inexplicable acts of savage ingratitude. It is sometimes easy to deliver an unhappy man from his present distress, but it is difficult to set him free from his past affliction. Only God can do it. And even the grace of God itself cannot cure irremediably wounded nature here below. The glorified body of Christ bore the marks of the nails and spear.

One can only accept the existence of affliction by considering it at a distance.

God created through love and for love. God did not create anything except love itself, and the means to love. He created love in all its forms. He created beings capable of love from all possible distances. Because no other could do it, he himself went to the greatest possible distance, the infinite distance. This infinite distance between God and God, this supreme tearing apart, this agony beyond all others, this marvel of love, is the crucifixion. Nothing can be further from God than that which has been made accursed.

This tearing apart, over which supreme love places the bond of supreme union, echoes perpetually across the universe in the midst of the silence, like two notes, separate yet melting into one, like pure and heart-rending harmony. This is the Word of God. The whole creation is nothing but its vibration. When human music in its greatest purity pierces our soul, this is what we hear through it. When we have learned to hear the silence, this is what we grasp more distinctly through it.

Those who persevere in love hear this note from the very lowest depths into which affliction has thrust them. From that moment they can no longer have any doubt.

Men struck down by affliction are at the foot of the Cross, almost at the greatest possible distance from God. It must not be thought that sin is a greater distance. Sin is not a distance, it is a turning of our gaze in the wrong direction.

It is true that there is a mysterious connection between this distance and an original disobedience. From the beginning, we are told, humanity turned its gaze away from God and walked in the wrong direction for as far as it could go. That was because it could walk then. As for us, we are nailed down to the spot, only free to choose which way we look, ruled by necessity. A blind mechanism, heedless of degrees of spiritual perfection, continually tosses men about and throws some of them at the very foot of the Cross. It rests with them to keep or not to keep their eyes turned toward God through all the jolting. It does not mean that God’s Providence is lacking. It is in his Providence that God has willed that necessity should be like a blind mechanism.

If the mechanism were not blind there would not be any affliction. Affliction is anonymous before all things; it deprives its victims of their personality and makes them into things. It is indifferent; and it is the coldness of this indifference — a metallic coldness — that freezes all those it touches right to the depths of their souls. They will never find warmth again. They will never believe any more that they are anyone.

Affliction would not have this power without the element of chance contained by it. Those who are persecuted for their faith and are aware of the fact are not afflicted, although they have to suffer. They only fall into a state of affliction if suffering or fear fills the soul to the point of making it forget the cause of the persecution. The martyrs who entered the arena, singing as they went to face the wild beasts, were not afflicted. Christ was afflicted. He did not die like a martyr. He died like a common criminal, confused with thieves, only a little more ridiculous. For affliction is ridiculous.

Only blind necessity can throw men to the extreme point of distance, right next to the Cross. Human crime, which is the cause of most affliction, is part of blind necessity, because criminals do not know what they are doing.

There are two forms of friendship: meeting and separation. They are indissoluble. Both of them contain some good, and this good of friendship is unique, for when two beings who are not friends are near each other there is no meeting, and when friends are far apart there is no separation. As both forms contain the same good thing, they are both equally good.

God produces himself and knows himself perfectly, just as we in our miserable fashion make and know objects outside ourselves. But, before all things, God is love. Before all things God loves himself, This love, this friendship of God, is the Trinity. Between the terms united by this relation of divine love there is more than nearness; there is infinite nearness or identity. But, resulting from the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Passion, there is also infinite distance. The totality of space and the totality of time, interposing their immensity, put an infinite distance between God and God.

Lovers or friends desire two things. The one is to love each other so much that they enter into each other and only make one being. The other is to love each other so much that, with half the globe between them, their union will not be diminished in the slightest degree. All that man vainly desires here below is perfectly realized in God. We have all those impossible desires within us as a mark of our destination, and they are good for us when we no longer hope to accomplish them.

The love between God and God, which in itself is God, is this bond of double virtue: the bond that unites two beings so closely that they are no longer distinguishable and really form a single unity and the bond that stretches across distance and triumphs over infinite separation. The unity of God, wherein all plurality disappears, and the abandonment, wherein Christ believes he is left while never ceasing to love his Father perfectly, these are two forms expressing the divine virtue of the same Love, the Love that is God himself.

God is so essentially love that the unity, which in a sense is his actual definition, is the pure effect of love. Moreover, corresponding to the infinite virtue of unification belonging to this love, there is the infinite separation over which it triumphs, which is the whole creation spread throughout the totality of space and time, made of mechanically harsh matter and interposed between Christ and his Father.

As for us men, our misery gives us the infinitely precious privilege of sharing in this distance placed between the Son and his Father. This distance is only separation, however, for those who love. For those who love, separation, although painful, is a good, because it is love. Even the distress of the abandoned Christ is a good. There cannot be a greater good for us on earth than to share in it. 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. This is the only possibility of perfection for us on earth. That is why the Cross is our only hope. “No forest bears such a tree, with such blossoms, such foliage, and such fruit.”

This universe where we are living, and of which we form a tiny particle, is the distance put by Love between God and God. We are a point in this distance. Space, time, and the mechanism that governs matter are the distance. Everything that we call evil is only this mechanism. God has provided that when his grace penetrates to the very center of a man and from there illuminates all his being, he is able to walk on the water without violating any of the laws of nature.

When, however, a man turns away from God, he simply gives himself up to the law of gravity. Then he thinks that he can decide and choose, but he is only a thing, a stone that falls. If we examine human society and souls closely and with real attention, we see that wherever the virtue of supernatural light is absent, everything is obedient to mechanical laws as blind and as exact as the laws of gravitation. To know this is profitable and necessary. Those whom we call criminals are only tiles blown off a roof by the wind and falling at random. Their only fault is the initial choice by which they became such tiles.

The mechanism of necessity can be transposed to any level while still remaining true to itself. It is the same in the world of pure matter, in the animal world, among nations, and in souls. Seen from our present standpoint, and in human perspective, it is quite blind. If, however, we transport our hearts beyond ourselves, beyond the universe, beyond space and time to where our Father dwells, and if from there we behold this mechanism, it appears quite different. What seemed to be necessity becomes obedience.

Matter is entirely passive and in consequence entirely obedient to God’s will. It is a perfect model for us. There cannot be any being other than God and that which obeys God. On account of its perfect obedience, matter deserves to be loved by those who love its Master, in the same way as a needle, handled by the beloved wife he has lost, is cherished by a lover. The beauty of the world gives us an intimation of its claim to a place in our heart. In the beauty of the world brute necessity becomes an object of love. What is more beautiful than the action of gravity on the fugitive folds of the sea waves, or on the almost eternal folds of the mountains?

The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it. On the contrary, this adds to its beauty. If it altered the movement of its waves to spare a boat, it would be a creature gifted with discernment and choice and not this fluid, perfectly obedient to every external pressure. It is this perfect obedience that constitutes the sea’s beauty.

All the horrors produced in this world are like the folds imposed upon the waves by gravity. That is why they contain an element of beauty. Sometimes a poem, such as the Iliad, brings this beauty to light.

Men can never escape from obedience to God. A creature cannot but obey. The only choice given to men, as intelligent and free creatures, is to desire obedience or not to desire it. If a man does not desire it, he obeys nevertheless, perpetually, inasmuch as he is a thing subject to mechanical necessity. If he desires it, he is still subject to mechanical necessity, but a new necessity is added to it, a necessity constituted by laws belonging to supernatural things. Certain actions become impossible for him; others are done by his agency, sometimes almost in spite of himself.

When we have the feeling that on some occasion we have disobeyed God, it simply means that for a time we have ceased to desire obedience. Of course it must be understood that, where everything else is equal, a man, does not perform the same actions if he gives his consent to obedience as if he does not; just as a plant, where everything else is equal, does not grow in the same way in the light as in the dark. The plant does not have any control or choice in the matter of its own growth. As for us, we are like plants that have the one choice of being in or out of the light.

Christ proposed the docility of matter to us as a model when he told us to consider the lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin. This means that they have not set out to clothe themselves in this or that color; they have not exercised their will or made arrangements to bring about their object; they have received all that natural necessity brought them. If they appear to be infinitely more beautiful than the richest stuffs, it is not because they are richer but a result of their docility.

Materials are docile too, but docile to man, not to God. Matter is not beautiful when it obeys man, but only when it obeys God. If sometimes a work of art seems almost as beautiful as the sea, the mountains, or flowers, it is because the light of God has filled the artist. In order to find things beautiful which are manufactured by men uninspired by God, it would be necessary for us to have understood with our whole soul that these men themselves are only matter, capable of obedience without knowledge. For anyone who has arrived at this point, absolutely everything here below is perfectly beautiful. In everything that exists, in everything that comes about, he discerns the mechanism of necessity, and he appreciates in necessity the infinite sweetness of obedience. For us, this obedience of things in relation to God is what the transparency of a window pane is in relation to light. As soon as we feel this obedience with our whole being, we see God.

When we hold a newspaper upside down, we see the strange shapes of the printed characters. When we turn it the right way up, we no longer see the characters, we see words. The passenger on board a boat caught in a storm feels each jolt as an inward upheaval. The captain is only aware of the complex combination of the wind, the current, and the swell, with the position of the boat, its shape, its sails, its rudder.

As one has to learn to read or to practice a trade, so one must learn to feel in all things, first and almost solely, the obedience of the universe to God. It is really an apprenticeship. Like every apprenticeship, it requires time and effort. He who has reached the end of his training realizes that the differences between things or between events are no more important than those recognized by someone who knows how to read, when he has before him the same sentence reproduced several times, written in red ink and blue, and printed in this, that, or the other kind of lettering. He who does not know how to read only sees the differences. For him who knows how to read, it all comes to the same thing, since the sentence is identical. Whoever has finished his apprenticeship recognizes things and events, everywhere and always, as vibrations of the same divine and infinitely sweet word. This does not mean that he will not suffer.

Pain is the color of certain events. When a man who can and a man who cannot read look at a sentence written in red ink, they both see the same red color, but this color is not so important for the one as for the other.

When an apprentice gets hurt, or complains of being tired, the workmen and peasants have this fine expression: “It is the trade entering his body.” Each time that we have some pain to go through, we can say to ourselves quite truly that it is the universe, the order, and beauty of the world and the obedience of creation to God that are entering our body. After that how can we fail to bless with tenderest gratitude the Love that sends us this gift?

Joy and suffering are two equally precious gifts both of which must be savored to the full, each one in its purity, without trying to mix them. Through joy, the beauty of the world penetrates our soul. Through suffering it penetrates our body. We could no more become friends of God through joy alone than one becomes a ship’s captain by studying books on navigation. The body plays a part in all apprenticeships. On the plane of physical sensibility, suffering alone gives us contact with that necessity which constitutes the order of the world, for pleasure does not involve an impression of necessity. It is a higher kind of sensibility, capable of recognizing a necessity in joy, and that only indirectly through a sense of beauty. In order that our being should one day become wholly sensitive in every part to this obedience that is the substance of matter, in order that a new sense should be formed in us to enable us to hear the universe as the vibration of the word of God, the transforming power of suffering and of joy are equally indispensable. When either of them comes to us we have to open the very center of our soul to it, just as a woman opens her door to messengers from her loved one. What does it matter to a lover if the messenger be polite or rough, so long as he delivers the message?

But affliction is not suffering. Affliction is something quite distinct from a method of God’s teaching.

The infinity of space and time separates us from God. How are we to seek for him? How are we to go toward him? Even if we were to walk for hundreds of years, we should do no more than go round and round the world. Even in an airplane we could not do anything else. We are incapable of progressing vertically. We cannot take a step toward the heavens. God crosses the universe and comes to us.

Over the infinity of space and time, the infinitely more infinite love of God comes to possess us. He comes at his own time. We have the power to consent to receive him or to refuse. If we remain deaf, he comes back again and again like a beggar, but also, like a beggar, one day he stops coming. If we consent, God puts a little seed in us and he goes away again. From that moment God has no more to do; neither have we, except to wait. We only have not to regret the consent we gave him, the nuptial yes. It is not as easy as it seems, for the growth of the seed within us is painful. Moreover, from the very fact that we accept this growth, we cannot avoid destroying whatever gets in its way, pulling up the weeds, cutting the good grass, and unfortunately the good grass is part of our very flesh, so that this gardening amounts to a violent operation.

On the whole, however, the seed grows of itself. A day comes when the soul belongs to God, when it not only consents to love but when truly and effectively it loves. Then in its turn it must cross the universe to go to God. The soul does not love like a creature with created love. The love within it is divine, uncreated; for it is the love of God for God that is passing through it. God alone is capable of loving God. We can only consent to give up our own feelings so as to allow free passage in our soul for this love. That is the meaning of denying oneself. We are created for this consent, and for this alone.

Divine Love crossed the infinity of space and time to come from God to us. But how can it repeat the journey in the opposite direction, starting from a finite creature? When the seed of divine love placed in us has grown and become a tree, how can we, we who bear it, take it back to its origin? How can we repeat the journey made by God when he came to us, in the opposite direction? How can we cross infinite distance?

It seems impossible, but there is a way — a way with which we are familiar. We know quite well in what likeness this tree is made, this tree that has grown within us, this most beautiful tree where the birds of the air come and perch. We know what is the most beautiful of all trees. “No forest bears its equal.” Something still a little more frightful than a gibbet — that is the most beautiful of all trees. It was the seed of this tree that God placed within us, without our knowing what seed it was. If we had known, we should not have said yes at the first moment. It is this tree that has grown within us and has become ineradicable. Only a betrayal could uproot it.

When we hit a nail with a hammer, the whole of the shock received by the large head of the nail passes into the point without any of it being lost, although it is only a point. If the hammer and the head of the nail were infinitely big it would be just the same. The point of the nail would transmit this infinite shock at the point to which it was applied.

Extreme affliction, which means physical pain, distress of soul, and social degradation, all at the same time, is a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul, whose head is all necessity spreading throughout space and time.

Affliction is a marvel of divine technique. It is a simple and ingenious device which introduces into the soul of a finite creature the immensity of force, blind, brutal, and cold. The infinite distance separating God from the creature is entirely concentrated into one point to pierce the soul in its center.

The man to whom such a thing happens has no part in the operation. He struggles like a butterfly pinned alive into an album. But through all the horror he can continue to want to love. There is nothing impossible in that, no obstacle, one might almost say no difficulty. For the greatest suffering, so long as it does not cause the soul to faint, does not touch the acquiescent part of the soul, consenting to a right direction.

It is only necessary to know that love is a direction and not a state of the soul. If one is unaware of this, one falls into despair at the first onslaught of affliction.

He whose soul remains ever turned toward God though the nail pierces it finds himself nailed to the very center of the universe. It is the true center; it is not in the middle; it is beyond space and time; it is God. In a dimension that does not belong to space, that is not time, that is indeed quite a different dimension, this nail has pierced cleanly through all creation, through the thickness of the screen separating the soul from God.

In this marvelous dimension, the soul, without leaving the place and the instant where the body to which it is united is situated, can cross the totality of space and time and come into the very presence of God.

It is at the intersection of creation and its Creator. This point of intersection is the point of intersection of the arms of the Cross.

Saint Paul was perhaps thinking about things of this kind when he said: “That ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.” [Epistle to the Ephesians 3:17-19.]

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The Spiritual Autobiography of Simone Weil

July 2, 2010

Simone Weil

The following is a letter from Simone Weil to her spiritual advisor Father Perrin and was published in “Waiting For God” with an introduction by Leslie Fielder in 1951.

P.S. To Be Read First
This letter is fearfully long — but as there is no question of an answer — especially as I shall doubtless have gone before it reaches you — you have years ahead of you in which to read it if you care to. Read it all the same, one day or another.

From Marseilles, about May 22

Father,

Before leaving I want to speak to you again, it may be the last time perhaps, for over there I shall probably send you only my news from time to time just so as to have yours.

I told you that I owed you an enormous debt. I want to try to tell you exactly what it consists of. I think that if you could really understand what my spiritual state is you would not be at all sorry that you did not lead me to baptism. But I do not know if it is possible for you to understand this.

You neither brought me the Christian inspiration nor did you bring me to Christ; for when I met you there was no longer any need; it had been done without the intervention of any human being. If it had been otherwise, if I had not already been won, not only implicitly but consciously, you would have given me nothing, because I should have received nothing from you. My friendship for you would have been a reason for me to refuse your message, for I should have been afraid of the possibilities of error and illusion which human influence in the divine order is likely to involve.

I may say that never at any moment in my life have I ‘sought for God.’ For this reason, which is probably too subjective, I do not like this expression and it strikes me as false. As soon as I reached adolescence, I saw the problem of God as a problem the data of which could not be obtained here below, and I decided that the only way of being sure not to reach a wrong solution, which seemed to me the greatest possible evil, was to leave it alone. So I left it alone. I neither affirmed nor denied anything. It seemed to me useless to solve the problem, for I thought that, being in this world, our business was to adopt the best attitude with regard to the problems of this world, and that such an attitude did not depend upon the solution of the problem of God.

This held good as far as I was concerned at any rate, for I never hesitated in my choice of an attitude; I always adopted the Christian attitude as the only possible one. I might say that I was born, I grew up, and I always remained within the Christian inspiration. While the very name of God had no part in my thoughts, with regard to the problems of this world and this life I shared the Christian conception in an explicit and rigorous manner, with the most specific notions it involves. Some of these notions have been part of my outlook for as far back as I can remember. With others I know the time and manner of their coming and the form under which they imposed themselves upon me.

For instance I never allowed myself to think of a future state, but I always believed that the instant of death is the center and object of life. I used to think that, for those who live as they should, it is the instant when, for an infinitesimal fraction of time, pure truth, naked, certain, and eternal enters the soul. I may say that I never desired any other good for myself. I thought that the life leading to this good is not only defined by a code of morals common to all, but that for each one it consists of a succession of acts and events strictly personal to him, and so essential that he who leaves them on one side never reaches the goal.

The notion of vocation was like this for me. I saw that the carrying out of a vocation differed from the actions dictated by reason or inclination in that it was due to an impulse of an essentially and manifestly different order; and not to follow such an impulse when it made itself felt, even if it demanded impossibilities, seemed to me the greatest of all ills. Hence my conception of obedience; and I put this conception to the test when I entered the factory and stayed on there, even when I was in that state of intense and uninterrupted misery about which I recently told you. The most beautiful life possible has always seemed to me to be one where everything is determined, either by the pressure of circumstances or by impulses such as I have just mentioned and where there is never any room for choice.

At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties. The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth.

After months of inward darkness, I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment. He thus becomes a genius too, even though for lack of talent his genius cannot be visible from outside. Later on, when the strain of headaches caused the feeble faculties I possess to be invaded by a paralysis, which I was quick to imagine as probably incurable, the same conviction led me to persevere for ten years in an effort of concentrated attention that was practically unsupported by any hope of results.

Under the name of truth I also included beauty, virtue, and every kind of goodness, so that for me it was a question of a conception of the relationship between grace and desire. The conviction that had come to me was that when one hungers for bread one does not receive stones. But at that time I had not read the Gospel.

Just as I was certain that desire has in itself an efficacy in the realm of spiritual goodness whatever its form, I thought it was also possible that it might not be effective in any other realm.

As for the spirit of poverty, I do not remember any moment when it was not in me, although only to that unhappily small extent compatible with my imperfection. I fell in love with Saint Francis of Assisi as soon as I came to know about him. I always believed and hoped that one day Fate would force upon me the condition of a vagabond and a beggar which he embraced freely. Actually I felt the same way about prison.

From my earliest childhood I always had also the Christian idea of love for one’s neighbor, to which I gave the name of justice — a name it bears in many passages of the Gospel and which is so beautiful. You know that on this point I have failed seriously several times.

The duty of acceptance in all that concerns the will of God, whatever it may be, was impressed upon my mind as the first and most necessary of all duties from the time when I found it set down in Marcus Aurelius under the form of the amor fati of the Stoics. I saw it as a duty we cannot fail in without dishonoring ourselves.

The idea of purity, with all that this word can imply for a Christian, took possession of me at the age of sixteen, after a period of several months during which I had been going through the emotional unrest natural in adolescence. This idea came to me when I was contemplating ~ mountain landscape and little by little it was imposed upon me in an irresistible manner.

Of course I knew quite well that my conception of life was Christian. That is why it never occurred to me that I could enter the Christian community. I had the idea that I was born inside. But to add dogma to this conception of life, without being forced to do so by indisputable evidence, would have seemed to me like a lack of honesty. I should even have thought I was lacking in honesty had I considered the question of the truth of dogma as a problem for myself or even had I simply desired to reach a conclusion on this subject. I have an extremely severe standard for intellectual honesty, so severe that I never met anyone who did not seem to fall short of it in more than one respect; and I am always afraid of failing in it myself.

Keeping away from dogma in this way, I was prevented by a sort of shame from going into churches, though all the same I like being in them. Nevertheless, I had three contacts with Catholicism that really counted.

After my year in the factory, before going back to teaching, I had been taken by my parents to Portugal, and while there. I left them to go alone to a little village. I was, as it were, in pieces, soul and body. That contact with affliction had killed my youth. Until then I had not had any experience of affliction, unless we count my own, which, as it was my own, seemed to me, to have little importance, and which moreover was only a partial affliction, being biological and not social. I knew quite well that there was a great deal of affliction in the world, I was obsessed with the idea, but I had not had prolonged and first-hand experience of it.

As I worked in the factory, indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul. Nothing separated me from it, for I had really forgotten my past and I looked forward to no future, finding it difficult to imagine the possibility of surviving all the fatigue. What I went through there marked me in so lasting a manner that still today when any human being, whoever he may be and in whatever circumstances, speaks to me without brutality, I cannot help having the impression that there must be a mistake and that unfortunately the mistake will in all probability disappear. There I received forever the mark of a slave, like the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves. Since then I have always regarded myself as a slave.

In this state of mind then, and in a wretched condition physically, I entered the little Portuguese village, which, alas, was very wretched too, on the very day of the festival of its patron saint. I was alone. It was the evening and there was a full moon over the sea. The wives of the fishermen were, in procession, making a tour of all the ships, carrying candles and singing what must certainly be very ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness. Nothing can give any idea of it. I have never heard anything so poignant unless it were the song of the boatmen on the Volga. There the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.

In 1937 I had two marvelous days at Assisi. There, alone in the little twelfth-century Romanesque chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, an incomparable marvel of purity where Saint Francis often used to pray, something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.

In 1938 I spent ten days at Solesmes, from Palm Sunday to Easter Tuesday, following all the liturgical services. I was suffering from splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow; by an extreme effort of concentration I was able to rise above this wretched flesh, to leave it to suffer by itself, heaped up in a corner, and to find a pure and perfect joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and the words. This experience enabled me by analogy to get a better understanding of the possibility of loving divine love in the midst of affliction. It goes without saying that in the course of these services the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.

There was a young English Catholic there from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance — for I always prefer saying chance rather than Providence — made of him a messenger to me. For he told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered the poem of which I read you what is unfortunately a very inadequate translation. It is called “Love.” I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.

In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God. I had vaguely heard tell of things of this kind, but I had never believed in them. In the Fioretti the accounts of apparitions rather put me off if anything, like the miracles in the Gospel. Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.

I had never read any mystical works because I had never felt any call to read them. In reading as in other things I have always striven to practice obedience. There is nothing more favorable to intellectual progress, for as far as possible I only read what I am hungry for at the moment when I have an appetite for it, and then I do not read, I eat. God in his mercy had prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it should be evident to me that I had not invented this absolutely unexpected contact.

Yet I still half refused, not my love but my intelligence. For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before failing into his arms. After this I came to feel that Plato was a mystic, that all the Iliad is bathed in Christian light, and that Dionysus and Osiris are in a certain sense Christ himself; and my love was thereby redoubled.

I never wondered whether Jesus was or was not the Incarnation of God; but in fact I was incapable of thinking of him without thinking of him as God.

In the spring of 1940 I read the Bhagavad-Gitta. Strange to say it was in reading those marvelous words, words with such a Christian sound, put into the mouth of an incarnation of God, that I came to feel strongly that we owe an allegiance to religious truth which is quite different from the admiration we accord to a beautiful poem; it is something far more categorical.

Yet I did not believe it to be possible for me to consider the question of baptism. I felt that I could not honestly give up my opinions concerning the non-Christian religions and concerning Israel — and as a matter of fact time and meditation have only served to strengthen them — and I thought that this constituted an absolute obstacle. I did not imagine it as possible that a priest could even dream of granting me baptism. If I had not met you, I should never have considered the problem of baptism as a practical problem.

During all this time of spiritual progress I had never prayed. I was afraid of the power of suggestion that is in prayer — the very power for which Pascal recommends it. Pascal’s method seems to me one of the worst for attaining faith.

Contact with you was not able to persuade me to pray. On the contrary I thought the danger was all the greater, since I also had to beware of the power of suggestion in my friendship with you. At the same time I found it very difficult not to pray and not to tell you so. Moreover I knew I could not tell you without completely misleading you about myself. At that time I should not have been able to make you understand.

Until last September I had never once prayed in all my life, at least not in the literal sense of the word. I had never said any words to God, either out loud or mentally. I had never pronounced a liturgical prayer. I had occasionally recited the Salve Regina, but only as a beautiful poem.

Last summer, doing Greek with T—,  I went through the Our Father word for word in Greek. We promised each other to learn it by heart. I do not think he ever did so, but some weeks later, as I was turning over the pages of the Gospel, I said to myself that since I had promised to do this thing and it was good, I ought to do it. I did it. The infinite sweetness of this Greek text so took hold of me that for several days I could not stop myself from saying it over all the time. A week afterward I began the vine harvest. I recited the Our Father in Greek every day before work, and I repeated it very often in the vineyard.

Since that time I have made a practice of saying it through once each morning with absolute attention. If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention. Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse.

The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition.

At times the very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space where there is neither perspective nor point of view. The infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception is replaced by an infinity to the second or sometimes the third degree. At the same time, filling every part of this infinity of infinity, there is silence, a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound. Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence.

Sometimes, also, during this recitation or at other moments, Christ is present with me in person, but his presence is infinitely more real, more moving, more clear than on that first occasion when he took possession of me.

I should never have been able to take it upon myself to tell you all this had it not been for the fact that I am going away. And as I am going more or less with the idea of probable death, I do not believe that I have the right to keep it to myself. For after all, the whole of this matter is not a question concerning me myself. It concerns God. I am really nothing in it all. If one could imagine any possibility of error in God, I should think that it had all happened to me by mistake. But perhaps God likes to use castaway objects, waste, rejects. After all, should the bread of the host be moldy, it would become the Body of Christ just the same after the priest had consecrated it. Only it cannot refuse, while we can disobey. It sometimes seems to me that when I am treated in so merciful a way, every sin on my part must be a mortal sin. And 1 am constantly committing them.

I have told you that you are like a father and brother at the same time to me. But these words only express an analogy. Perhaps at bottom they only correspond to a feeling of affection, of gratitude and admiration. For as to the spiritual direction of my soul, I think that God himself has taken it in hand .from the start and still looks after it.

That does not prevent me from owing you the greatest debt of gratitude that I could ever have incurred toward any human being. This is exactly what it consists of.

First you once said to me at the beginning of our relationship some words that went to the bottom of my soul. You said: “Be very careful, because if you should pass over something important through your own fault it would be a pity.”

That made me see intellectual honesty in a new light. Till then I had only thought of it as opposed to faith; your words made me think that perhaps, without my knowing it, there were in me obstacles to the faith, impure obstacles, such as prejudices, habits. I felt that after having said to myself for so many years simply: “Perhaps all that is not true,” I ought, without ceasing to say it — I still take care to say it very often now — to join it to the opposite formula, namely: “Perhaps all that is true,” and to make them alternate.

At the same time, in making the problem of baptism a practical problem for me, you have forced me to face the whole question of the faith, dogma, and the sacraments, obliging me to consider them closely and at length with the fullest possible attention, making me see them as things toward which I have obligations that I have to discern and perform. I should never have done this otherwise and it is indispensable for me to do it.

But the greatest blessing you have brought me is of another order. In gaining my friendship by your charity (which I have never met anything to equal), you have provided me with a source of the most compelling and pure inspiration that is to be found among human things. For nothing among human things has such power to keep our gaze fixed ever more intensely upon God, than friendship for the friends of God.

Nothing better enables me to measure the breadth of your charity than the fact that you bore with me for so long and with such gentleness. I may seem to be jolting, but that is not the case. It is true that you have not the same motives as I have myself (those about which I wrote to you the other day), for feeling hatred and repulsion toward me. But all the same I feel that your patience with me can only spring from a supernatural generosity.

I have not been able to avoid causing you the greatest disappointment it was in my power to cause you. But up to now, although I have often asked myself the question during prayer, during Mass, or in the light of the radiancy that remains in the soul after Mass, I have never.once had, even for a moment, the feeling that God wants me to be in the Church. I have never even once had a feeling of uncertainty. I think that at the present time we can finally conclude that he does not want me in the Church. Do not have any regrets about it.

He does not want it so far at least. But unless I am mistaken I should say that it is his will that I should stay outside for the future too, except perhaps at the moment of death. Yet I am always ready to obey any order, whatever it may be. I should joyfully obey the order to go to the very center of hell and to remain there eternally. 1 do not mean, of course, that I have a preference for orders of this nature. I am not perverse like that.

Christianity should contain all vocations without exception since it is catholic. In consequence the Church should also. But in my eyes Christianity is catholic by right but not in fact. So many things are outside it, so many things that I love and do not want to give up, so many things that God loves, otherwise they would not be in existence. All the immense stretches of past centuries, except the last twenty are among them; all the countries inhabited by colored races; all secular life in the white peoples’ countries; in the history of these countries, all the traditions banned as heretical, those of the Manicheans and Albigenses for instance; all those things resulting from the Renaissance, too often degraded but not quite without value.

Christianity being catholic by right but not in fact, I regard it as legitimate on my part to be a member of the Church by right but not in fact, not only for a time, but for my whole life if need be.

But it is not merely legitimate. So long as God does not give me the certainty that he is ordering me to do anything else, I think it is my duty.

I think, and so do you, that our obligation for the next two or three years, an obligation so strict that we can scarcely fail in it without treason, is to show the public the possibility of a truly incarnated Christianity. In all the history now known there has never been a period in which souls have been in such peril as they are today in every part of the globe. The bronze serpent must be lifted up again so that whoever raises his eyes to it may be saved.

But everything is so closely bound up together that Christianity cannot be really incarnated unless it is catholic in the sense that I have just defined. How could it circulate through the flesh of all the nations of Europe if it did not contain absolutely everything in itself? Except of course falsehood. But in everything that exists there is most of the time more truth than falsehood.

Having so intense and so painful a sense of this urgency, I should betray the truth, that is to say the aspect of truth that I see, if I left the point, where I have been since my birth, at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.

I have always remained at this exact point, on the threshold of the Church, without moving, quite still, greek for waiting patiently (it is so much more beautiful a word than patientia!) ; only now thy heart has been transported, forever, I hope, into the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar.

You see that I am very far from the thoughts that H—, with the best of intentions, attributed to me. I am far also from being worried in any way.

If I am sad, it comes primarily from the permanent sadness that destiny has imprinted forever upon my emotions, where the greatest and purest joys can only be superimposed and that at the price of a great effort of attention. It comes also from my miserable and continual sins; and from all the calamities of our time and of all those of all the past centuries.

I think that you should understand why I have always resisted you, if in spite of being a priest you can admit that a genuine vocation might prevent anyone from entering the Church.

Otherwise a barrier of incomprehension will remain between us, whether the error is cn my part or on yours. This would grieve me from the point of view of my friendship for you, because in that case the result of all these efforts and desires, called forth by your charity toward me, would be a disappointment for you. Moreover, although it is not my fault, I should not be able to help feeling guilty of ingratitude. For, I repeat, my debt to you is beyond all measure.

I should like to draw your attention to one point. It is that there is an absolutely insurmountable obstacle to the Incarnation of Christianity. It is the use of the two little words anathema sit. It is not their existence, but the way they have been employed up till now. It is that also which prevents me from crossing the threshold of the Church. I remain beside all those things that cannot enter the Church, the universal repository, on account of those two little words. I remain beside them all the more because my own intelligence is numbered among them.

The Incarnation of Christianity implies a harmonious solution of the problem of the relations between the individual and the collective. Harmony in the Pythagorean sense; the just balance of contraries. This solution is precisely what men are thirsting for today. The position of the intelligence is the key to this harmony, because the intelligence is a specifically and rigorously individual thing. This harmony exists wherever the intelligence, remaining in its place, can be exercised without hindrance and can reach the complete fulfillment of its. function. That is what Saint Thomas says admirably of all the parts of the soul of Christ, with reference to his sensitiveness to pain during the crucifixion.

The special function of the intelligence requires total liberty, implying the right to deny everything, and allowing of no domination. Wherever it usurps control there is an excess of individualism. Wherever it is hampered or un-easy there is an oppressive collectivism, or several of them.

The Church and the State should punish it, each one in its own way, when it advocates actions of which they disapprove. When it remains in the region of purely theoretical speculation they still have the duty, should occasion arise, to put the public on their guard, by every effective means, against the danger of the practical influence certain speculations might have upon the conduct of life. But whatever these theoretical speculations may be, the Church and the State have no right either to try to stifle them or to inflict any penalty material or moral upon their authors. Notably, they should not be deprived of the sacraments if they desire them. For, whatever they may have said, even if they have publicly denied the existence of God, they may not have committed any sin. In such a case the Church should declare that they are in error, but it should not demand of them anything whatever in the way of a disavowal of what they have said, nor should it deprive them of the Bread of Life.

A collective body is the guardian of dogma; and dogma is an object of contemplation for love, faith, and intelligence, three strictly individual faculties. Hence, almost since the beginning, the individual has been ill at ease in Christianity, and this uneasiness has been notably one of the intelligence. This cannot be denied.

Christ himself who is Truth itself, when he was speaking before an assembly such as a council, did not address it in the same language as be used in an intimate conversation with his well-beloved friend, and no doubt before the Pharisees he might easily have been accused of contradiction and error. For by one of those laws of nature, which God himself respects, since he has willed them from all eternity, there are two languages that are quite distinct although made up of the same words; there is the collective language and there is the individual one. The Comforter whom Christ sends us, the Spirit of truth, speaks one or other of these languages, whichever circumstances demand, and by a necessity of their nature there is not agreement between them.

When genuine friends of God — such as was Eckhart to my way of thinking — repeat words they have heard in secret amidst the silence of the union of love, and these words are in disagreement with the teaching of the Church, it is simply that the language of the market place is not that of the nuptial chamber.

Everybody knows that really intimate conversation is only possible between two or three. As soon as there are six or seven, collective language begins to dominate. That is why it is a complete misinterpretation to apply to the Church the words “Wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Christ did not say two hundred, or fifty, or ten. He said two or three. He said precisely that he always forms the third in the intimacy of the tête-a-tête.

Christ made promises to the Church, but none of these promises has the force of the expression “Thy Father who seeth in secret.” The word of God is the secret word. He who has not heard this word, even if he adheres to all the dogmas taught by the Church, has no contact with truth.

The function of the Church as the collective, keeper of dogma is indispensable. She has the right and the duty to punish those who make a clear attack upon her within the specific range of this function, by depriving them of the sacraments.

Thus, although I know practically nothing of this business, I incline to think provisionally that she was right to punish Luther.

But she is guilty of an abuse of power when she claims to force love and intelligence to model their language upon her own. This abuse of power is not of God. It comes from the natural tendency of every form of collectivism, without exception, to abuse power.

The image of the Mystical Body of Christ is very attractive. But I consider the importance given to this image today as one of the most serious signs of our degeneration. For our true dignity is not to be parts of a body, even though it be a mystical one, even though it be that of Christ. It consists in this, that in the state of perfection, which is the vocadon of each one of us, we no longer live in ourselves, but Christ lives in us; so that through our perfection Christ in his integrity and in his indivisible unity, becomes in a sense each one of us, as he is completely in each host. The hosts are not a part of his body.

This present-day importance of the image of the Mystical Body shows how wretchedly susceptible Christians are to outside influences. Undoubtedly there is real intoxication in being a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. But today a great many other mystical bodies, which have not Christ for their head, produce an intoxication in their members that to my way of thinking is of the same order.

As long as it is through obedience, I find sweetness, in my deprivation of the joy of membership in the Mystical Body of Christ. For if God is willing to help me, I may thus bear witness that without this joy one can nevertheless be faithful to Christ unto death. Social enthusiasms have such power today, they raise people so effectively to the supreme degree of heroism in suffering and death, that I think it is as well that a few sheep should remain outside the fold in order to bear witness that the love of Christ is essentially something different.

The Church today defends the cause of the indefeasible rights of the individual against collective oppression, of liberty of thought against tyranny. But these are causes readily embraced by those who find themselves momentarily to be the least strong. It is their only way of perhaps one day becoming the strongest. That is well known.

You may perhaps be offended by this idea. You are not the Church. During the periods of the most atrocious abuse of power committed by the Church, there must have been some priests like you among the others. Your good faith is not a guarantee, even were it shared by all your Order. You cannot foresee what turn things may take.

In order that the present attitude of the Church should be effective and that she should really penetrate like a wedge into social existence, she would have to say openly that she had changed or wished to change. Otherwise who could take her seriously when they remembered the Inquisition? My friendship for you, which I extend through you to all your Order, makes it very painful for me to bring this up. But it existed. After the fall of the Roman Empire, which had been totalitarian, it was the Church that was the first to establish a rough sort of totalitarianism in Europe in the thirteenth century, after the war with the Albigenses. This tree bore much fruit.

And the motive power of this totalitarianism was the use of those two little words: anathema sit.

It was moreover by a judicious transposition of this use that all the parties which in our own day have founded totalitarian regimes were shaped. This is a point of history I have specially studied.

I must give you the impression of a Luciferian pride in speaking thus of a great many matters that are too high for me and about which I have no right to understand anything. It is not my fault. Ideas come and settle in my mind by mistake, then, realizing their mistake, they absolutely insist on coining out. I do not know where they come from, or what they are worth, but, whatever the risk, I do not think I have the right to prevent this operation.

Good-by, I wish you all possible good things except the cross; for I do not love my neighbor as myself, you particularly, as you have noticed. But Christ granted to his well-beloved disciple, and probably to all that disciple’s spiritual lineage, to come to him not through degradation, defilement, and distress, but in uninterrupted joy, purity, and sweetness. That is why I can allow myself to wish that even if one day you have the honor of dying a violent death for Our Lord, it may be with joy and without any anguish; also that only three of the beatitudes (mites, mundo corde, pacifici) will apply to you. All the others involve more or less of suffering.

This wish is not due only to the frailty of human friendship. For, with any human being taken individually, I always find reasons for concluding that sorrow and misfortune do not suit him, either because he seems too mediocre for anything so great or, on the contrary, too precious to be destroyed. One cannot fail more seriously in the second of the two essential commandments. And as to the first, I fail to observe that, in a still more horrible manner, for every time I think of the crucifixion of Christ I commit the sin of envy.

Believe more than ever and forever in my filial and tenderly grateful friendship.

SIMONE WEIL

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Reasonable Damnation, Unreasonable Love: Herbert’s The Temple

June 29, 2010

George Herbert

Anthony Esolen shares a reading of George Herbert’s poem “Love”, the final poem of Herbert’s volume, the Temple. In both biographies of Simone Weil (here and here) you will see the poem noted as one of her “anthem poems,” by which I mean it was a poem she lived her life by.

One of the problems of poetry is that it requires a certain discipline to read. Unless you spend time with a poem, constantly returning and re-reading, or getting a chance to listen to a poet perform the piece, the meaning may elude you. In this case we have a professional scholar sharing his interpretation of the poem. More than an interpreter, Esolen is a true blessing.

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LET US BEGIN WITH the final poem of Herbert’s volume The Temple, as it will show us most clearly the love for which we have been made. In “Love (III) the soul is the “reasonable” party, and Love — Christ — is the gentle but firm ironist. The poem is a dramatic dialogue between the mere man, who is right about everything, and Christ, who makes everything right. Here is the poem in its entirety. (Here and throughout, I have modernized Herbert’s orthography,

Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back,
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
     If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here.”
     Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling made reply,
     “Who made the eyes, but I?”

“Truth, lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
     “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down;’ says Love, “and taste my meat.”
     So I did sit and eat.

“Love bade me welcome,” says the speaker, and we should not be too hasty to personify this love. Christ bids him welcome, but as an act of love because there is no reason why the soul should be welcome. In truth, he is not well come,” and he knows it: “Yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin.” That soul may be timid, but its timidity is rational. It fears the center, as a poorly dressed man would fear the spotlight. It is afraid to be loved, and knows it should not be loved. How much more fitting it would be if the soul could slink away to the justice it deserves.

Fitting indeed, for this soul flatly cites Scripture to its own damnation: it is “guilty of dust and sin.” Into this one strange phrase (how is one guilty of “dust”?), Herbert compacts a theology of justice. He alludes to Christ’s parable comparing the kingdom of God to a wedding feast that a king gave for his son. When one of the guests arrived unsuitably dressed for the occasion, the king ordered him bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness, where there was wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 22 11-13).

 To be “guilty of dust” is to be mortal, to suffer death, the wages of sin. The “dust” lies on the clothing of the arriving soul — but it is also what the body is made of, and what the body must return to is a consequence of sin. No sin, no offending dust; but there is sin, and so there is death, and so there is also the dust of a deeper  mortality that soils the garments we bring when we meet our Maker. We cannot fit ourselves for the wedding feast, just as we cannot bring ourselves to life. We are all that poor man in the parable.

The soul in Herbert’s poem would courteously spare the king the trouble. It sees itself in that shameful light, and is eager to fall away from Love and embrace the darkness. The love of God is more terrifying than his justice for in love his essence shines forth more radiantly. That love exalts dust. It raises the tattered mortality we are robed with, and it forgives sin when there is no reason in our natures or in the world why it should do either.

The trans-logic of God’s forgiveness is celebrated by Herbert’s daring reversal of the parable from Scripture. The soul flings Christ’s own words back at him, to prove why he should not show mercy. But, in seeming to violate his own just law, Love fulfills his just mercy, giving us what we cannot have expected, and thus, from Love, what is above all to be hoped.

Love is “quick-eyed” — as a solicitous bridegroom orchestrating the celebration, careful to observe any hesitation or discomfort among his guests. The lord of the universe, who spies the secrets of man’s inmost heart, is here a cheerful, tactful young man, the prime servant for the feast held in his honor. That homely reduction is part of the message of the Incarnation and the Atonement: who would have thought that God could or would become man?

The rational soul resists the invitation. No surprise our rational souls, in action, are but bundles of pride laced up with a thread or two of logic. We do not deserve the invitation, we say, when secretly we feel that the invitation offends high sense of our tragic insignificance. But if the soul will not move to the center, the center will move to it. So the young groom, the host of the feast, Creator of life and light, asks the stunningly understated question “Do you lack anything?”

How can such a question be answered? Love asks it, as if he were asking the newly arrived guest whether he needed a trifle, like a place to leave his coat, or a drink, or a chair. Yet, as with the phrase “guilty of dust and sin,” the question implies a theology. In the presence of its redeemer the soul lacks everything. Christ’s question is both invitation and gentle accusation. The speaker understands it so. What does he lack? Knowing that he falls infinitely short of the glory of God, and infinitely short of the love he owes to the Lord who has loved him, he fashions a reply which he thinks leaves no room for exception. “A guest… worthy to be here.”

The lack is not in what the speaker has, but in what he is. That lack is total. He himself, what God meant him to be, is lacking, is absent, all that remains is for the sinner he has become to make himself absent too. The speaker knows he lacks the slightest quality to merit the host’s attention.  But this host is called Love, and that literally makes a difference “Love said, ‘You shall be He.”

The sentence is not to be construed rhetorically. The soul will not simply be considered or named a worthy guest, but will actually be one, by the creative fiat of Love. What in an earthly host would be a polite pretense (“You are worthy after all.”) or a jocular exercise of authority (“You are worthy, because it is my day, and I say you are”) is here a command and an act. Love supplies the lack by making the speaker a worthy guest, drawing good not only out of evil but out of nothingness.

Still the soul holds to its view of the fitness of things: “I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, / I cannot look on thee.” Why should it be loved? It is not natural, for the soul has been unkind,” a perversion of its “kind” or “nature,” a frustration of its innate purpose. It is not just, for the soul has scorned or misused the free gifts of God, ungratefully returning evil for good. The last thing ingratitude merits is another free gift, another grace, the last thing kindness can arouse is the warmth of natural affection.

Yet the soul, overcome with shame and love, utters its truest and least calculated phrase: ‘“Ah my dear.” In this phrase the speaker acknowledges the transcendent worth of Christ he is ‘dear’ or “priceless,” the one whose precious blood redeemed or bought us back from the bondage of sin.  He also confesses that he longs for Christ as the only object of his deepest and truest love. Yet he uses the phrase as a way of excusing himself from love!

One endearing irony of Christian love is that it should be at once so modest and so bold, the bride in the Song of Songs who, drunk with love, dares to ask her Creator and Redeemer for a kiss. With the exclamation ah my dear the soul wavers in its small rationality. It moves uncertainly between the shy bravery of true love and  the proud diffidence of rejection. The soul is that of a sinner, caught between desire and disdain; wanting much to be loved, and wanting much not to be loved. On its own it can do nothing. All is up to Love, who takes the speaker’s hand. The gesture is firmly paternal and gently respectful of the poor sinner’s dignity. Then Love fixes the speaker’s gaze with a smile, and, not scorning to use the lowly pun as an instrument of grace, asserts his sovereignty over all things material and spiritual “Who made the eyes but I?”

At this, the speaker’s last hold upon his paltry dignity slips away. A note of desperation enters his abrupt reply “‘Truth, Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame / Go where it doth deserve.” Herbert touches upon a psychological profundity that only the strongest believers or the strongest resisters perceive: most sou1s would find it more comfortable not to be saved. The speaker does not plead justice, though that is the logical content of his plea. He begs for mercy, the mercy of mere justice! He argues for justice as a strange form of compassion. “Look at how filthy I am;” says the embarrassed beloved. “Please, please let me leave this place I deserve no better” But the soul leans upon a straw, in calling the name of justice for mercy’s sake, and instead is reminded that the claims of justice have already been mercifully fulfilled “And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

Of course the soul knows, to its anguish. Beaten from his last ward, the speaker capitulates, but upon condition: “My dear, then I will serve.” I will agree to my salvation, so long as I retain the appropriate judgment attendant upon my sin. Since I do not deserve to be here, if I must be here, let me be saved only somewhat. Let me, in a dainty reserve that looks like humility, serve the others, and thus not be so searing a focus of Love. Yet even that will not do. For Love is jealous, and will have all. “You must sit down; says Love, and taste my meat.” You must submit to your exaltation. Emptying yourself of all self-centered judgments of worthiness or unworthiness, you must allow yourself to be the center of Love’s attention. You, Simon Peter, must have your feet washed. You must be served by Love.

It is fitting that Herbert should recall that moment at the Last Supper. In “Love” we have the servant, Christ, present at his wedding feast, at which he himself, the Paschal sacrifice, is served. As Love by his own power supplies the :worthy guest, so Love himself is the feast he serves. Christ’s giving of himself is not figurative. When Love insists that the soul taste “his meat,” he means not the food that belongs to him, but the food he is: “For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (John 6:55).

Love invites the soul to taste of Love, to be nourished by it, to be refreshed and re-created by it. So it is both true and misleading to say that the salvation of an individual soul is the center of Herbert’s Christian universe. The soul attains that honored rank, or rank is granted that honored rank, by emptying itself, rejecting the decisiveness its sin, and accepting Christ, who is center and circumference both. The human is subsumed in Incarnation: in sharing this great communion, it is not the man who assimilates the food to himself, but the food that assimilates the man to itself. Of all the mysteries of Gods love for his people, this is the improbable. There is nothing left to say. The poem and Herbert’s volume end on a note of submission and sublime simplicity “So I did sit and eat.”

Why should God so love the human soul? I do not know. If I thought I knew, I would not be Christian.

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An Introduction to the Life and Writings of Simone Weil – Leslie Fielder

June 25, 2010
 

Simone Weil

I was surprised to find that Simone Weil’s Waiting for God came with a lengthy intro to her life and writings by Leslie Fielder, one of the premier literary and cultural critics of the last century (He passed in 2003 at age 85). Written in 1951, in addition to testifying to Weil’s initial impact in the world it seeks to introduce Weil to an American audience. I found it quite detailed –it mentions everything I have ever found out about her and adds some penetrating observations.

SINCE HER DEATH, Simone Weil has come to seem more and more a special exemplar of sanctity for our time — the Outsider as Saint in an age of alienation, our kind of saint. In eight scant years, this young Frenchwoman, whom scarcely anyone had heard of before her sacrificial death in exile at the age of has come to possess the imagination of many in the Western world. Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Jew, agnostic and devout, we have all turned to her with the profound conviction that the meaning of her experience is our meaning, that she is really ours.

Few of us, to be sure, would find nothing to dissent from in her religious thought; fewer still would be capable of emulating the terrible purity of her life; none could measure himself, without shame, against the absolute ethos toward which she aspired. And yet she does not seem strange to us, as other mystics and witnesses of God have seemed strange; for though on one side her life touches the remote mysteries of the Divine Encounter, on the other it is rooted in a world with which we are familiar.

She speaks of the problems of belief in the vocabulary of the unbeliever, of the doctrines of the Church in the words of the un-churched. The askesis, the “dark night of the soul,” through which she passed to certitude, is the modern intellectual’s familiar pattern of attraction toward and disillusionment with Marxism, the discipline of contemporary politics. The day-to-day struggles of trade unionism, unemployment, the Civil War in Spain, the role of the Soviet Union, anarchism, and pacifism — these are the determinants of her ideas, the unforeseen roads that led her to sanctity. Though she passed finally beyond politics, her thought bears to the end the mark of her early interests, as the teaching of St. Paul is influenced by his rabbinical schooling, or that of St. Augustine by his training in rhetoric.

Before her death, scarcely any of Simone Weil’s religious writings had been published. To those in France who thought of her still, in terms of her early political essays, as a somewhat unorthodox Marxist moving toward anarchism, the posthumous Christian books must have come as a shock. Surely, no “friend of God” in all history, had moved more unwillingly toward the mystic encounter. There is in her earlier work no sense of a groping toward the divine, no promise of holiness, no pursuit of a purity beyond this world — only a conventionally left-wing concern with the problems of industrialization, rendered in a tone at once extraordinarily inflexible and wonderfully sensitive.

The particular note of conviction in Simone Weil’s testimony arises from the feeling that her role as a mystic was so unintended, one for which she had not in any sense prepared. An undertone of incredulity persists beneath her astonishing honesty: quite suddenly God had taken her, radical, agnostic, contemptuous of religious life and practice as she had observed it! She clung always to her sense of being an Outsider among the religious, to a feeling that her improbable approach had given her a special vocation, as an “apostle to the Gentiles,” planted at “the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.” She refused to become, in the typical compensatory excess of the convert, more of the Church than those born into it; she would not even be baptized, and it is her unique position, at once in and out of institutionalized Catholicism, that determines her special role and meaning.

To those who consider themselves on the safe side of belief, she teaches the uncomfortable truth that the unbelief of many atheists is closer to a true love of God and a true sense of his nature, than the kind of easy faith which, never having experienced God, hangs a label bearing his name on some childish fantasy or projection of the ego. Like Kierkegaard, she preached the paradox of its being easier for a non-Christian to become a Christian, than for a “Christian” to become one.

To those who believe in a single Revelation, and enjoy the warm sensation of being saved in a cozy circle of friends, she expounded the doctrine of a gospel spread in many “languages,” of a divine Word shared among rival myths, in each of which certain important truths, implicit elsewhere, are made explicit. For those to whom religion means comfort and peace of mind, she brings the terrible reminder that Christ promised not peace but the sword, and that his own last words were a cry of absolute despair, the “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) which is the true glory of Christianity.

But she always considered that her chief mission was to those still “submerged in materialism,” that is, to most of us in a chaotic and disenchanted world. To the unbeliever who has rather smugly despised the churchgoer for seeking an easy consolation, she reveals the secret of his own cowardice, suggesting that his agnosticism may itself be only an opiate, a dodge to avoid facing the terror of God’s reality and the awful burden of his love.

She refused to cut herself off from anyone, by refusing to identify herself completely with anyone or any cause. She rejected the temptation to withdraw into a congenial group, once associated with which, she could be disowned by all outside of it. She rather took upon herself the task of sustaining all possible beliefs in their infinite contradictions and on their endless levels of relevance; the smugness of the false elect, the materialism of the shallowly rebellious, self-deceit and hypocrisy, parochialism and atheism — from each she extracted its partial truth, and endured the larger portion of error. She chose to submit to a kind of perpetual invisible crucifixion; her final relationship to all those she would not disown became that of the crucified to the cross.

The French editors of Simone Weil’s works, Gustave Thibon, a lay theologian who was also her friend, and Father Perrin, the nearest thing to a confessor she ever had, have both spoken of Simone Weil’s refusal to be baptized as a mere stage in her development, a nonessential flaw in her thinking, which, had she only lived longer, would probably have been remedied. M. Thibon and Father Perrin are, of course, Catholics, and speak as they must out of their great love for Mlle Weil, and their understandable conviction that such holiness could not permanently have stayed outside of the Church; but from Simone Weil’s own point of view, her outsideness was the very essence of her position. This is made especially clear in the present volume.

“I feel,” she wrote once, “that it is necessary to me, prescribed for me, to be alone, an outsider and alienated from every human context whatsoever.” And on another occasion, she jotted in her journal the self-reminder, “Preserve your solitude!” What motivated her was no selfish desire to withdraw from the ordinary concourse of men, but precisely the opposite impulse. She knew that one remains alienated from a particular allegiance, not by vainly attempting to deny all beliefs, but precisely by sharing them all.

To have become rooted in the context of a particular religion, Simone Weil felt, would on the one hand, have exposed her to what she calls “the patriotism of the Church,” with a consequent blindness to the faults of her own group and the virtues of others, and would, on the other hand, have separated her from the common condition here below, which finds us all “outsiders, uprooted, in exile.” The most terrible of crimes is to collaborate in the uprooting of others in an already alienated world; but the greatest of virtues is to uproot oneself for the sake of one’s neighbors and of God. “It is necessary to uproot oneself. Cut down the tree and make a cross and carry it forever after.”

Especially at the moment when the majority of mankind is “submerged in materialism,” Simone Weil felt she could not detach herself from them by undergoing baptism. To be able to love them as they were, in all their blindness, she would have to know them as they were; and to know them, she would have to go among them disguised in the garments of their own disbelief. In so far as Christianity had become an exclusive sect, it would have to be remade into a “total Incarnation of faith,” have to become truly “catholic,” catholic enough to include the myths of the dark-skinned peoples from a world untouched by the Churches of the West, as well as the insights of post-Enlightenment liberals, who could see in organized religion only oppression and bitterness and pride.

“[I]n our present situation,” she wrote, “universality has to be fully explicit.” And that explicit universality, she felt, must find a mouthpiece in a new kind of saint, for “today it is not nearly enough merely to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent.” The new kind of saint must possess a special “genius,” capable of blending Christianity and Stoicism, the love of God and “filial piety for the city of the world”; a passive sort of “genius” that would enable him to act as a “neutral medium,” like water, “indifferent to all ideas without exception, even atheism and materialism .

Simone Weil felt that she could be only the forerunner and foreteller of such a saint; for her, humility forbade her thinking of herself as one capable of a “new revelation of the universe and human destiny… the unveiling of a large portion of truth and beauty hitherto hidden…” Yet she is precisely the saint she prophesied.

Despite her modesty, she spoke sometimes as if she were aware that there was manifest in the circumstances of her birth (she had been born into an agnostic family of Jewish descent) a special providence, a clue to a special mission. While it was true, she argued in her letters to Catholic friends, that the earlier Saints had all loved the Church and had been baptized into it, on the other hand, they had all been born and brought up in the Church, as she had not. “I should betray the truth,” she protested, “that is to say, the aspect of the truth that I see, if I left the point, where I have been since my birth, at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.”

It must not be thought that she was even troubled by the question of formally becoming a Christian; it vexed her devout Catholic friends and for their sakes she returned again and again to the problem; but, as for herself, she was at peace. Toward the end of her life, the mystic vision came to her almost daily, and she did not have to wonder (in such matters, she liked to say, one does not believe or disbelieve; one knows or does not know) if there were salvation outside an organized sect; she was a living witness that the visible Church and the invisible congregation of the saints are never one. “I have never for a second had the feeling that God wanted me in the Church. . . . I never doubted…. I believe that now it can be concluded that God does not want me in the Church.”

It is because she was capable of remaining on the threshold of organized religion, “without moving, quite still… indefinitely . . .“ that Simone Weil speaks to all of us with special authority, an Outsider to outsiders, our kind of saint, whom we have needed (whether we have known it or not) “as a plague-stricken town needs doctors.”

To what then does she bear witness? To the uses of exile and suffering, to the glory of annihilation and absurdity, to the unforeseen miracle of love. Her life and work form a single document, a document which we can still not read clearly, though clearly enough, perhaps, for our needs. On the one hand, the story of Simone Weil’s life is still guarded by reticence; and on the other hand, her thought comes to us in fragmentary form. She completed no large-scale work; she published in her lifetime no intimate testimony to the secret religious life that made of her last few years a series of experiences perhaps unequaled since St. Theresa and St. John of the Cross. If she has left any detailed account of those experiences we have not yet seen it.

Since her death, four volumes of her work have been published in France. La Pesanteur et La Grace (Gravity and Grace), is a selection from her diaries, chosen and topically rearranged by Gustave Thibon; the effect is that of a modem Pensées — no whole vision, but a related, loosely linked body of aphorisms, always illuminating and direct, sometimes extraordinarily acute. We do not know, of course, what M. Thibon has chosen to omit; and he has not even told us how large a proportion of the notebooks he has included in his selection.

L’Enracinernent (The Need for Roots) is the longest single piece left by Simone Weil. Begun at the request of the Free French Government in exile, it takes off from a consideration of the religious and social principles upon which a truly Christian French nation might be built and touches upon such subjects as the humanizing of factory work, the need for freedom of purely speculative thought, and the necessity for expunging from our books a false notion of the heroic which makes us all guilty of the rise of Hitler. It is a fascinating though uneven book, in parts ridiculous, in parts profound, but motivated throughout by the pity and love Simone Weil felt in contemplating a society that had made of the apparatus of government an oppressive machine by separating the secular and religious.

The third book, of which the present volume is a translation, is in many ways the most representative and appealing of the three. It is not, of course, a whole, but a chance collection, entrusted to Father Perrin during the time just before Simone Weil’s departure for America. It includes some material, originally written as early as 1937, though recast in the final years of her life; but in the main it represents the typical concerns of the end of Simone Weil’s life, after she had reached a haven of certainty. Among the documents (which survived a confiscation by the Gestapo) are six letters, all but one written to Father Perrin, of which letter IV, the “Spiritual Autobiography,” is of special importance. Among the essays, the meditation on the Pater Noster possesses great interest, for this was the single prayer by which Simone Weil attained almost daily the Divine Vision of God; and the second section of the study called “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” I find the most moving and beautiful piece of writing Simone Well ever did.

Another volume of her collected essays and meditations, under the title La Connaissance Surnaturelle (Supernatural Knowledge) has recently appeared in France, and several other volumes made up of extracts from her notebooks are to be published soon. Simone Weil apparently left behind her a large body of fragments, drafts, and unrevised sketches, which a world that finds in her most casual words insights and illuminations will not be content to leave in manuscript.

Several of her poems and prose pieces, not included in any of these volumes, have been published in various French magazines (notably in Cahiers de Sud) and three or four of her political essays have appeared in this country in Politics. But the only really consequential study, aside from those in the three books, is her splendid, though absurdly and deliberately partial, interpretation of the Iliad, which, has been excellently translated into English by Mary McCarthy and published in pamphlet form under the title of The Iliad: or, the Poem of Force.

These are the chief sources of her thought; and the introductions to the volumes edited by M. Thibon and Father Perrin provide, along with briefer personal tributes printed at the time of her death, the basic information we have about her life. In a profound sense, her life is her chief work, and without some notion of her biography it is impossible to know her total meaning. On the other hand, her books are extensions of her life; they are not literature, not even in the sense that the writings of a theologically oriented author like Kierkegaard are literature. They are confessions and testimonies — sometimes agonized cries or dazzled exclamations — motivated by the desire to say just how it was with her, regardless of all questions of form or beauty- of style. They have, however, a charm of directness, an appealing purity of tone that makes it possible to read them (Simone Weil would have hated to acknowledge it!) for the sheer pleasure of watching a subtle mind capture in words the most elusive of paradoxes, or of contemplating an absolute love striving to communicate itself in spite of the clumsiness of language.

Her Life

We do not know, as yet, a great deal about the actual facts of Simone Well’s life. Any attempt at biographical reconstruction runs up against the reticence and reserve of her parents, who are still living, and even more critically, it encounters her own desire to be anonymous—to deny precisely those elements in her experience, which to the biographer are most interesting. She was born in 1909, into a family apparently socially secure (her father was a doctor) and “completely agnostic.” Though her ancestors had been Jewish, the faith had quite disappeared in her immediate family, and where it flourished still among remoter relatives, it had become something cold, oppressive, and meaninglessly legalistic to a degree that made Simone Weil all of her life incapable of judging fairly the merits of Judaism. She appeared to have no sense of alienation from the general community connected with her Jewishness (though in appearance she seems to have fitted exactly a popular stereotype of the Jewish face), but grew up with a feeling of belonging quite firmly to a world whose values were simply “French,” that is to say, a combination of Greek and secularized Christian elements.

Even as a child, she seems to have troubled her parents, to whom being comfortable was an end of life, and who refused to or could not understand her mission. They frustrated again and again, with the greatest of warmth and good will, her attempts to immolate herself for the love of God. Her father and mother came to represent, in an almost archetypal struggle with her, the whole solid bourgeois world, to whom a hair shirt is a scandal, and suffering only a blight to be elirninated by science and proper familial care. Yet she loved her parents as dearly as they loved her, though she was from childhood quite incapable of overt demonstrations of affection.

At the age of five, she refused to eat sugar, as long as the soldiers at the front were not able to get it. The war had brought the sense of human misery into her protected milieu for the first time, and her typical pattern of response was already set: to deny herself what the most unfortunate were unable to enjoy. There is in her reaction, of course, something of the hopeless guilt of one born into a favored position in a society with sharp class distinctions. Throughout her career, there was to be a touch of the absurd in her effort to identify herself utterly with the most exploited groups in society (whose own major desire was to rise up into the class from which she was trying to abdicate), and being continually “rescued” from the suffering she sought by parents and friends. A little later in her childhood, she declared that she would no longer wear socks, while the children of workers had to go without them. This particular gesture, she was later to admit in a typically scrupulous bit of self-analysis, might have been prompted as much by an urge to tease her mother as by an unselfish desire to share the lot of the poor.

At fourteen, she passed through the darkest spiritual crisis of her life, feeling herself pushed to the very verge of suicide by an acute sense of her absolute unworthiness, and by the onslaught of migraine headaches of an unbearable intensity. The headaches never left her afterward, not even in her moments of extremest joy; her very experiences of Divine Love would come to her strained through that omnipresent pain which attacked her, as she liked to say, “at the intersection of body and soul.” She came later to think of that torment, intensified by the physical hardships to which she compulsively exposed herself, as a special gift; but in early adolescence, it was to her only a visible and outward sign of her inner misery at her own total lack of talent.

The root of her troubles seems to have been her relation-ship with her brother, a mathematical prodigy, beside whose brilliance she felt herself stumbling and stupid. Her later academic successes and the almost universal respect accorded her real intelligence seem never to have convinced her that she had any intellectual talent. The chance phrase of a visitor to her mother, overheard when she was quite young, had brought the whole problem to a head. Sirnone Weil never forgot the words. “One is genius itself,” the woman had said, pointing to the boy; and then, indicating Simone, “the other beauty!” It is hard to say whether she was more profoundly disturbed by the imputation of a beauty she did not possess, or by the implicit denial of genius.

Certainly, forever afterward, she did her best to destroy what in her was “beautiful” and superficially charming, to turn herself into the anti-mask of the appealing young girl. The face in her photographs is absolute in its refusal to be charming, an exaggeration, almost a caricature of the intellectual Jewess. In a sentence or two, Father Perrin recreates her for us in her typical costume; the oversize brown, beret, the shapeless cape, the large, floppy shoes, and emerging from this disguise, the clumsy, imperious gestures. ‘We hear, too, the unmusical voice that completes the ensemble, monotonous, almost merciless in its insistence. Only in her writing, is Simone Weil betrayed into charm; in her life, she made a principle of avoiding it. “A beautiful woman,” she writes, “looking at her image in “the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.”

But though her very appearance declares her physical humility, we are likely to be misled about Simone Weil’s attitude toward her own intelligence. Father Perrin tells us that he never saw her yield a point in an argument with anybody, but on the other hand, he is aware, as we should be, too, of her immense humbleness in the realm of ideas. Never was she able to believe that she truly possessed the quality she saw so spectacularly in her own brother, the kind of “genius” that was honestly to be envied in so far as it promised not merely “exterior success” but also access to the very “kingdom of truth.”

She did not commit suicide, but she passed beyond the temptation without abandoning her abysmal sense of her own stupidity. Instead, she learned painfully the uses of stupidity. To look at a mathematical problem one has inexcusably missed, she writes, is to learn the true discipline of humility. In the contemplation of our crimes or our sins, even of our essential proneness to evil, there are temptations to pride, but in the contemplation of the failures of our intelligence, there is only degradation and the sense of shame. To know that one is mediocre is “to be on. the true way.”

Besides, when one has no flair for geometry (it is interesting that her examples come always from the field of her brother’s special competence) the working of a problem becomes not the really irrelevant pursuit of an “answer,” but a training in “attention,” which is the essence of prayer. And this in turn opens to us the source of a higher kind of genius, which has nothing to do with natural talent and everything to do with Grace. “Only a kind of perversity can force the friends of God to deprive themselves of genius, because it is enough for them to demand it of their Father in the name of Christ, to have a su1erabundance of genius. . .“ Yet even this final consideration never brought her absolute peace. She wrote toward the end of her life that she could never read the parable of the “barren fig tree” without a shudder, seeing in the figure always a possible portrait of herself, naturally impotent, and yet somehow, in the inscrutable plan of God, cursed for that impotence.

However she may have failed her own absolute standards, she always seems to have pleased her teachers. At the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where she studied from 1928 to 1931, finally attaining her agregée de philosophic at the age of 22, she was a student of the philosopher Alain, who simply would not believe the report of her early death years afterward. “She will come back surely,” he kept repeating. “It isn’t true!” It was, perhaps, under his instruction that the love of Plato, so important in her thought, was confirmed in her once and for all.

But at that point of her career she had been influenced by Marx as well as the Greek philosophers; and it was as an earnest and committed radical, though one who had never joined a particular political party, that she took up her first teaching job at Le Puy. It was a time for radicals — those utterly bleak years at the pit of a world-wide depression. She seems, in a way not untypical of the left-wing intellectual in a small town, to have horrified the good citizens of Le Puy by joining the workers in their sports, marching with them in their picket lines, taking part with the unemployed in their pick and shovel work, and refusing to eat more than the rations of those on relief, distributing her surplus food to the needy. The bourgeois mind seems to have found it as absurd for this awkward girl to be playing ball with workers, as to be half-starving herself because of principles hard to understand. As for crying for a Revolution!

A superintendent of instruction was called in to threaten Simone Weil with revocation of her teacher’s license, at which she declared proudly that she would consider such a revocation “the crown of her career!” There is a note of false bravado in the response, betraying a desire to become a “cause,” to attain a spectacular martyrdom. It is a common flaw in the revolutionary activity of the young; but fortunately for Simone Weil, this kind of denouement, of which she would have been ashamed later, was denied her. She was only a young girl, harmless, and her license was not revoked. Irked at the implied slur, perhaps, and certainly dissatisfied in general with halfway participation in the class struggle of a teacher-sympathizer, she decided to become a worker once and for all, by taking a job at the Renault auto plant.

It is hard to know how to judge the venture. Undoubtedly, there is in it something a little ridiculous: the resolve of the Vassar girl of all lands to “share the experience” of the working class; and the inevitable refusal behind that resolve to face up to the fact that the freedom to choose a worker’s life, and the consciousness of that choice, which can never be sloughed off, make the dreamed-of total identification impossible. And yet for the sake of that absurd vision, Simone Weil suffered under conditions exacerbated by her sensibility and physical weakness beyond anything the ordinary worker had to bear; the job “entered into her body,” and the ennui and misery of working-class life entered into her soul, making of her a “slave,” in a sense she could only understand fully later, when her religious illumination had come.

She was always willing to take the step beyond the trivially silly; and the ridiculous pushed far enough, absurdity compounded, becomes something else–the Absurd as a religious category, the madness of the Holy fool beside which the wisdom of this world is revealed as folly. This point Simone Weil came to understand quite clearly. Of the implicit forms of the love of God, she said, “[I]n a sense they are absurd, they are mad,” and this she knew to be their special claim. Even unhappiness, she learned, in order to be pure must be a little absurd. The very superiority of Christ over all the martyrs is that he is not anything so solemn as a martyr at all, but a “slave,” a criminal among criminals, “only a little more ridiculous. For unhappiness is ridiculous.”

An attack of pleurisy finally brought Simone Weil’s factory experience to an end (there were always her parents waiting to rescue her), but having rested for a while, just long enough to regain some slight measure of strength, she set off for Spain to support the Loyalists, vowing all the while that she would not ever learn to use the gun they gave her. She talked about Spain with the greatest reluctance in later years, despite the fact, or perhaps because it was undoubtedly for her, as for many in her generation, a critical experience: the efflorescence and the destruction of the revolutionary dream. From within and without the Marxist hope was defeated in a kind of model demonstration, a paradigm for believers. Simone Weil was fond of quoting the Homeric phrase about “justice, that fugitive from the camp of the victors” but in those years it was absent from the camp of victor and vanquished alike. Not even defeat could purify the revolution!

While the struggle in Spain sputtered toward its close, Simone Weil endured a personal catastrophe even more anticlimactic; she was wounded — by accident! The fate that preserved her throughout her life for the antiheroic heroism of her actual death, brought this episode, too, to a bathetic conclusion. Concerned with the possibilities of combining participation and nonviolence, pondering the eternal, she forgot the “real” world of missteps and boiling oil, and ineptly burned herself, a victim of that clumsiness which seems to have been an essential aspect of her denial of the physical self. Badly hurt and poorly cared for, she was rescued from a field hospital by her parents—once more coming between her and her desired agony!

The Spanish adventure was her last purely political gesture; afterward, during the Second World War, she was to work up some utterly impractical plan for being parachuted into France to carry spiritual solace to the fighters in the underground resistance; and she was even to consider at one point going to the Soviet Union, where she could doubtless not have lived in freedom for a month. Among the Communists in France she had been known as a Trotskyite, and had once been threatened with physical violence for delivering an anti-Stalinist report at a trade union convention. But at a moment when the Russians were retreating before the German attack, she felt obliged to “add a counterweight,” in order to restore that equilibrium which could alone make life here below bearable. One can barely imagine her in the field with the Red Army, this quixotic, suffering “friend of God,” flanked by the self-assured killers of “Fascist Beasts,” and carrying in her hand the gun that would doubtless have blown off her fingers had she tried to fire it.

These later projects were, as their very “impossibility” attests, different in kind from her early practical ventures: the picketing with the unemployed, the participation in Spain. She had passed into the realm of the politics of the absurd, of meta-politics, having decided that “the revolution is the opiate of the people,” and that the social considered in itself is “a trap of traps…an ersatz divinity…irremediably the domain of the devil.” The lure of the social she believed to be her special temptation.

Against the love of self she was armored by her very temperament. “No one loves himself,” she wrote in her journal. “Man wants to be an egoist and cannot.” But a nostalgia for collective action seemed ever on the point of overwhelming her defenses. Simply to join together with others in any group whatsoever would have been for her “delicious.” “I know that if at this moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans singing Nazi songs in chorus,” she once said, “a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi…. “Yet, the “we” can lead away from God, she knew, as dangerously as the “I.” “It is wrong to be an ‘I,’ but it is worse to be a ‘we,’” she warned herself. “The city gives us the feeling of being at home. Cultivate the feeling of being at home in exiled”

Yet charity took her continually back into the world of social action. “Misery must be eliminated in so far as possible from life in society, for misery is useful only in respect to grace, and society ‘is not a society of the elect. There will always be enough misery for the elect.” If there is a certain inconsistency in her position, it is easy to forgive. Even the “wrong” politics of her revolutionary youth she would not write off as wholly mistaken; she never repented her early radicalism, understanding it as a providential discipline, through which she had been unconsciously learning how to emancipate her imagination from its embroilment with the social. “Meditation on the social mechanism is a purification of the first importance in this regard. To contemplate the social is as good a means of purification as retiring from the world. That is why I was not wrong in staying with politics for so long.”

It was after her Spanish experience that Simone Weil reached the critical point of conversion; but the decisive event in her spiritual education had been, she always felt, her work in the factory. She had not known what she was seeking at the machine, but she had found it nonetheless; branded with the red mark of the slave, she had become incapable of resisting “the religion of slaves.” In one sense, Simone Weil insisted afterward, she had not needed to be converted; she had always been implicitly, in “secret” even from her lower self, a Christian; but she had never knelt, she had never prayed, she had never entered a Church, she had never even posed to herself the question of God’s existence. “I may say that never in my life have I ‘sought for God,’” she said toward the end of her life; but she had been all the time waiting, without daring to define what she awaited.

Taken off by her parents to Portugal to recuperate from her bums and her chagrin, she made her way to Solesmes, where, listening to a Gregorian chant at the moment when her migraine was at its worst, she experienced the joy and bitterness of Christ’s passion as a real event, though still so abstractly that she did not attach to it any name. And there, too, she had met.a young English Catholic, who introduced her to the work of the British metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, and so gave her a key to the beyond, in the place of conventional prayer to which she had not yet been able to turn.

Like no saint before her, Simone Weil distrusted the conventional apparatus of piety and grace; and it is typical of her role that it was through forms of art acceptable to the most skeptical anti-Christian (Gregorian chant and metaphysical poetry — two of the special rediscoveries of our irreligious time) that she approached her encounter with God.

“In a moment of intense physical suffering,” she tells us, “when I was forcing myself to feel love, but without desiring to give a name to that love, I felt, without being in any way prepared for it (for I had never read the mystical writers) a presence more personal, more certain, more real than that of a human being, though inaccessible to the senses and the imagination…” She had been repeating to herself a piece by George Herbert, when the presence came. “I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem,” she writes, “but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer.” It is worth quoting the poem as a whole, for its imagery is vital, as we shall see later, to an understanding of Simone Weil’s essential thought.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of lust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Even after such an experience, this astonishingly stubborn friend of God could not for more than five years bring herself conventionally to pray (though she tells us that in 1937 she knelt for the first time, at the shrine in Assisi), finally persuading herself to say the Patter Nosier daily with so special a concentration that apparently at each repetition, Christ himself “descended and took her.” It is her remarkable freedom from, her actual shamefastness before the normal procedures of Christian worship that lend a special authority to Simone Weil’s testimony. Nothing comes to her as a convention or a platitude; it is as if she is driven to reinvent everything from the beginning. Of her first mystical experience she writes, “God had mercifully prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it would be clear to me that I had not fabricated an absolutely unexpected encounter.” Surely, no mystic has ever been so scrupulously his own skeptical examiner.

Afterward, Simone Weil found in St. John of the Cross and the Bhagavad-Gita accounts of encounters similar to her own; and she even decided upon rereading her old master Plato in the light of her new experience that he, too, must have achieved the mystical union. Before her own encounter, she had thought that all such alleged experiences could be only a turning of the natural orientation of the sexual desire toward an imaginary object labeled God — a degrading self-indulgence, “lower than a debauch.” To distinguish her own secret life from such ersatz mysticism became one of the main objects of her thought.

After her first mystical union, the inner existence of Simone Weil becomes much more important than anything that superficially happens to her. Even the War itself, the grossest fact of our recent history, shrinks in the new perspective. Nonetheless, Simone Weil continued to immerse herself in the misery of daily life. Driven by her constant desire not to separate herself from the misfortune of others, she refused to leave Paris until it was declared an open city, after which she moved with her parents to Marseilles.

But there she was caught by the anti-Jewish laws of the Vichy Government which made it impossible for her to teach any longer; and so she went to Gustave Thibon, a lay theologian, in charge of a Catholic agricultural colony in the South of France. Under his guidance, she worked in the vineyards with the peasants (whom she astonished and bored with lectures on the Upanishads!), sleeping as they slept, and eating their meager fare until her feeble health broke down once more. M. Thibon at first immensely mistrusted her motives — a radical intellectual “returning to the soil” — then became closely attached to her, and it was to him that she entrusted her journals and occasional jottings, which he finally decided to publish after her death despite her request to the contrary.

The chief external influence on Simone Weil during these last years of her spiritual progress was not M. Thibon, but Father Perrin, with whom she was apparently able to talk as she had never been able to before, and to whom she communicated what of her secrets could be spoken at all. He was truly and deeply her friend. One has the sense of Simone Weil as a woman to whom “sexual purity” is as instinctive as breath; to whom, indeed, any kind of sentimental life is scarcely necessary. But a few lines in one of her absolutely frank and unguarded letters to Father Perrin reveal a terrible loneliness which only he was able to mitigate, to some degree, and a vulnerability which only he knew how to spare. “I believe that, except for you, all human beings to whom I have ever given, through my friendship, the power to harm easily, have sometimes amused themselves by doing so, frequently or rarely, consciously or unconsciously, but all of them at one time or another…”

It is no evil in them, she hastens to add, that prompts this infliction of pain, “but an instinct, almost mechanical, like that which makes the other animals in the chicken yard fall on the wounded hen.” The figure of the wounded hen is one to which she returns elsewhere, and in contemplating it, one knows suddenly the immense sensitivity beneath the inflexible surface, her terrible need not to be laughed at or pitied for her patent absurdities. One remembers another heart-rending figure she used once to describe herself, “Indeed for other people, in a sense I do not exist. I am the color of dead leaves, like certain unnoticed insects.” And the phrases from her journal recur, “never seek friendship…never permit oneself to dream of friendship… friendship is a miracle!”

It was with. Father Perrin that Simone Weil argued out the question of baptism: Would she lose her intellectual freedom in entering the Church? Did Catholicism have in it too much of those “great beasts” Israel and Rome? Did Christianity deny the beauty of this world? Did excommunication make of the Church an instrument of exclusion? Her friendship for the priest made her problem especially difficult: she did not want to hurt him personally by refusing baptism at his hands, nor did she certainly want to accept merely out of her love for him.

là the end, she decided to wait for an express command from God, “except perhaps at the moment of death.” Searching, she believed, leads only to error; obedience is the sole way to truth. “If,” she wrote in one of her most splendid paradoxes, “it were conceivable that one might be damned by obeying God and saved by disobeying him; I would nonetheless obey him.” The role of the future spouse is to wait; and it is to this “waiting for God” that the title of the present collection refers. Simone Weil finally remained on the threshold of the Church, crouching there for the love of all of us who are not inside, all the heretics, the secular dreamers, the prophesiers in strange tongues; “without budging,” she wrote, “immobile… only now my heart has been transported, forever I hope, into the Holy Sacrament revealed on the altar.”

In May, 1942, she finally agreed to accompany her parents, who had been urging her for a long time, and set sail for America. Before her departure she remarked ruefully to a friend, “Don’t you think the sea might serve me as a baptismal font?” But America proved intolerable to her; simply to be in so secure a land was, no matter how one tried to live, to enjoy what most men could not attain. She finally returned to England, where she tried desperately to work out some scheme for re-entering France, and where she refused to eat any more than the rations allowed her countrymen in the occupied territory. Exhausted and weakened by her long fast, she permitted herself to be borne off into the country by well-meaning protectors, but on August 24th in 1943, she succeeded at last in dying, completing the process of “de-creation” at which she had aimed all her life.

Her Method

Simone Well’s writing as a whole is marked by three characteristic devices: extreme statement or paradox; the equilibrium of contradictions; and exposition by myth. As the life of Simone Weil reflects a desire to insist on the absolute even at the risk of being absurd, so her writing tends always toward the extreme statement, the formulation that shocks by its willingness to push to its ultimate conclusion the kind of statement we ordinarily accept with the tacit understanding that no one will take it too seriously. The outrageous (from the natural point of view) ethics of Christianity, the paradoxes on which it is based are a scandal to common sense; but we have protected ourselves against them by turning them imperceptibly into platitudes. It is Simone Weil’s method to revivify them, by recreating them in all their pristine offensiveness.

“He who gives bread to the famished sufferer for the love of God will not be thanked by Christ. He has already had his reward in this thought itself. Christ thanks those who do not know to whom they are giving food.” Or “Ineluctable necessity, misery, distress, the crushing weight of poverty and of work that drains the spirit, cruelty, torture, violent death, constraint, terror, sickness — all these are God’s love!” Or “Evil is the beautiful obedience of matter to the will of God.”

Sometimes the primary function of her paradoxes is to remind us that we live in a world where the eternal values are reversed; it is as if Simone Weil were bent on proving to us, by our own uncontrollable drawing back from what we most eagerly should accept, that we do not truly believe those things to which we declare allegiance. “[E]very time I think of the crucifixion of Christ I commit the sin of envy.” “Suffering: superiority of man over God. We needed the Incarnation to keep that superiority from becoming a scandal!”

Or sometimes it is our sentimentality that is being attacked, that ersatz of true charity which is in fact its worst enemy, “[Christ] did not however prescribe the abolition of penal justice. He allowed stoning to continue. Wherever it is done with justice, it is therefore he who throws the first stone.” “Bread and stone are love. We must eat the bread and lay ourselves open to the stone, so that it may sink as deeply as possible into our flesh.”

Or the paradox may have as its point merely the proving of the impossibility of God’s justice, the inconsequentiality of virtue and grace. “A Gregorian chant bears testimony as effectively as the death of a martyr.” “…a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them. Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need.”

Corresponding to Simone Well’s basic conviction that no widely held belief is utterly devoid of truth is a dialectical method in which she balances against each other contrary propositions, not in order to arrive at a synthesis in terms of a “golden mean,” but rather to achieve an equilibrium of truths. “One must accept all opinions,” she has written, “but then arrange them in a vertical order, placing them at appropriate levels.” Best of all exercises for the finding of truth is the confrontation of statements that seem absolutely to contradict each other. “Method of investigation –” Simone Weil once jotted down in a note to herself, “as soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.”

When she is most faithful to this method, her thought is most satisfactory; only where some overwhelming prejudice prevents her from honoring contradictions is she narrow and un-illuminating — as for instance, toward Israel, Rome, Aristotle, or Corneille. These unwitting biases must be distinguished from her deliberate strategic emphases, her desire to “throw the counterweight” on the side of a proposition against which popular judgment is almost solidly arrayed; as she does most spectacularly by insisting, in the teeth of our worship of happiness and success, that “unhappines?’ is the essential road to God, and the supreme evidence of God’s love.

One can see her method of equilibrium most purely in her remarks on immortality of the soul, in her consideration of the rival Protestant and Catholic theories of the Eucharist, and especially in her approach to the existence of God. “A case of contradictories, both of them true. There is a God. There is no God. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am sure my love is no illusion. I am quite sure there is no God, in the sense that I am sure there is nothing which resembles what I can conceive when I say that word.

There are three main factors that converge in Simone Weil’s interest in the myth (this is yet another aspect of her thought with which the contemporary reader of Jung and Joyce and Eliot and Mann feels particularly at home): first, there is the example of her master, Plato, who at all the great crises of his thought falls back on the mythic in search of a subtle and total explication; second, there is her own belief in multiple revelation, her conviction that the archetypal poetries of people everywhere restate the same truths in different metaphoric languages; and third, there is her sense of myth as the special gospel of the poor, a treasury of insights into the Beauty of the World, which Providence has bestowed on poverty alone, but which, in our uprooted world, the alienated oppressed can no longer decipher for themselves.

To redeem the truths of the myths, they must be “translated.” Sometimes this is a relatively simple process of substituting for unfamiliar names, ones that belong to our own system of belief: Zeus is God the Father, Bacchus God the Son; Dionysus and Osiris “are (in a certain manner) Christ himself.” In the fragment of Sophocles, Electra is the human soul and Orestes is Christ; but in this latter example we are led, once we have identified the protagonists, to a complex religious truth: as Electra loves the absence of Orestes more than the presence of any other, so must we love God, who is by definition “absent” from the material world, more than the “real,” present objects that surround us.

In a similar manner, other folk stories and traditional poems can lead toward revelations of fundamental truths: the “two winged companions” of an Upanishad, who sit on a single branch, one eating the fruit of the tree, the other looking at it, represent the two portions of the soul: the one that would contemplate the good, the other (like Eve in the Garden) that would consume it. Or the little tailor in Grimm’s fairy tale who beats a giant in a throwing contest by hurling into the air a bird rather than a stone teaches us something about the nature of Grace. And finally, we discover from “all the great images of folklore and mythology” what Simone Weil considers to be the truth most necessary to our salvation, namely, “it is God who seeks man.”

The fate of the world, she knew, is decided out of time; and it is in myth that mankind has recor4ed its sense of its true history, the eternal “immobile drama” of necessity and evil, salvation and grace.

Her Essential Thought

It is no accident that Simone Weil has left behind no single summation of her thought; for she is not in any sense a systematic thinker. Some of her profoundest insights were flashed off as detached aphorisms; and, as we have seen, she sought, rather than avoided, inconsistency. To reduce her ideas to a unified body of dogma would be, therefore, misleading and unfair; yet there are certain central concepts to which she always returned, key images that she might extend or vary, but which she could never entirely escape. These figures which adumbrate the core of her commitment are those of eating, looking, and walking toward; of gravity (pesanteur) and light; of slavery, nudity, poverty, and decreation.

The first group seems almost instinctive, rooted below the level of thought in Simone Well’s temperament itself, and provides a way into the others. The whole pattern of her life is dominated by the concepts of eating and not eating; from her childhood refusal of sugar, through her insistence at Le Puy on eating only as much as the relief allowance of the unemployed, to her death from semi-starvation in England, her virtue seems naturally to have found its expression in attitudes toward food. The vcry myths that most attracted her: the Minotaur, Eve and the apple, the two birds of the Upanishad are based on metaphors of eating; and the final line of the poem of George Herbert, which was the occasion of her first mystical experience, reads, we remember, “So I did sit and eat.”

There are two kinds of “eating” for Simone Weil, the “eating” of beauty and the beloved here below, which is a grievous error, “what one eats is destroyed, it is no longer real,” and the miraculous “eating” in Heaven, where one consumes and is consumed by his God. “The great trouble in human life is that looking and eating are two different operations. Only beyond the sky, in the country inhabited by God, are they one and the same single operation… It may be that vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always, or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at.”

Here below we must be content to be eternally hungry; indeed, we must welcome hunger, for it is the sole proof we have of the reality of God, who is the only sustenance that can satisfy us, but one which is “absent” in the created world. “The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread [God], but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry. It can only persuade itself of this by lying, for the reality of its hunger is not a belief, it is a certainty.”

Not to deny one’s hunger and still not to eat what is forbidden, there is the miracle of salvation! It is true even on the level of human friendship, “a miracle by which a person consents to view from a certain distance, and without coming any nearer, the very being who is necessary to him as food.” And how much more true on the level of the divine! “If [Eve] had been hungry at the moment when she looked at the fruit, if in spite of that she had remained looking at it indefinitely without taking one step toward it, she would have performed a miracle analogous to that of perfect friendship.”

It is “looking” which saves and not “eating.” “It should also be publicly and officially recognized that religion is nothing else but a looking.” Looking, the mere turning of the head toward God, is equated by Simone Weil with desire and that passive effort of “waiting for God” which titled one of her books; while eating is equated with the will, and the false muscular effort to seize that which can only be freely given. Man’s “free will” consists in nothing but the ability to turn, or to refuse to him, his eyes toward what God holds up before him. “One of the principal truths of Christianity, a truth that goes almost unrecognized today, is that looking is what saves us. The bronze serpent was lifted up so that those who lay maimed in the depths of degradation should be saved by looking upon it.”

Besides the temptation to consume what should only be regarded, man is beset by the longing to march toward the inapproachable, which he should be willing merely to look at from afar; and worst of all, he ends by persuading himself that he has approached it. “The great error of the Marxists and of all the nineteenth century was to believe that by walking straight ahead one had mounted into the air.” What we really want is above us, not ahead of us, and “We cannot take a single step toward heaven. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If however we look heavenward for a long time, God comes and takes us up.” We are free only to change the direction of our glance; we cannot walk into heaven; we cannot rise without being lifted by grace.  

The vertical is forbidden to us because the world is the province of gravity and dead weight (pesanteur). The whole universe, as we know it through the senses and the imagination, has been turned over by God to the control of brute mechanism, to necessity and blind force, and that primary physical law by which all things eternally fall. The very act of creation entailed the withdrawal of the Creator from the created, so that the sum total of God and his world and all of its creatures is, of course, less than God himself. Having withdrawn from the universe so that it might exist, God is powerless within it, ineffective except as his grace penetrates on special occasions, like a ray of light, the dark mechanical realm of unlimited misery.

Yet we must love this world, this absence of God by virtue of which we are, for only through it, like the smile of the beloved through pain, can we sense the perfectly non-present Being who alone can redeem it. “In the beauty of the world, brute necessity becomes an object of love. What is more beautiful than the action of gravity on the fugitive folds of the sea waves or on the almost eternal folds of the mountains?”

This world is the only reality available to us, and if we do not love it in all its terror, we are sure to end up loving the “imaginary,” our own dreams and self-deceits, the utopias of the politicians, or the futile promises of future reward and consolation which the misled blasphemously call “religion.” The soul has a million dodges for protecting itself against the acceptance and love of the emptiness, that “maximum distance between God and God,” which is the universe; for the price of such acceptance and love is abysmal misery.

And yet it is the only way. “If still persevering in our love, we fall to the point where the soul cannot keep back the cry ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ if we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, not joy, something that is the central essence, necessary and pure, something not of the senses, common to joy and sorrow: the very love of God.”

The final crown of the life of holiness is the moment of utter despair in which one becomes totally a “slave,” naked and abandoned and nailed to the cross in imitation of the absolute spiritual poverty of Christ. “Extreme affliction… is a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul, whose head is all necessity spreading throughout space and time… He whose soul remains ever turned toward God though pierced with a nail finds himself nailed to the center of the universe… at the intersection of creation and its Creator. . . at the intersection of the arms of the Cross.”

On the cross, deceit is no longer possible; we are forced to “recognize as real what we would not even have believed possible,” and having yielded ourselves in love to spiritual poverty, spiritual nudity, to death itself, even to the point of provisionally renouncing the hope of immortality, we are ready for the final gesture of obedience: the surrender of the last vestiges of selfhood. In the ultimate “nuptial yes,” we must de-create our egos, offer up everything we have ever meant by “I,” so that the Divine Love may pass unimpeded through the space we once occupied, close again on Itself. “We are created for this consent, and for this alone.”

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