This Easter I was praying at home — typically I would be traveling back and forth to church during the Triduum, starting with the foot washing on Holy Thursday and ending with the Saturday vigil. I would be singing, sitting still, looking around to see who I knew and trying to maintain a sense of seriousness as I was confronted with the sorrow and joy of the liturgy — but not this year. The pandemic changed what I had thought were unchangeable plans. Of course, there were online options, but instead of being online I opted for a few pillows in front of my fireplace, with a small candle, praying the Way of the Cross. When praying all by myself I felt at peace in the stillness and in my willingness and intention to pray. After Easter I decided to pray the Way of the Cross every night. Some nights my head would turn toward my bookcase and I would think, Simone Weil is among those books. Each night, Simone Weil would float into my consciousness. I finally pulled Waiting for God from the shelf and dusted it off.
When I read Simone Weil’s Waiting for God years ago, I was not ready for her. I do not remember why I sought her out; most likely I was reading another book and came across her name. Probably it was one of Thomas Merton’s. I was not so much inspired by her as I was frightened by her ardent desire to live justly and humbly. She was not simply for the poor; she became the poor. She worked alongside workers in a Renault factory — not as a reporter often does today for the purpose of gaining access to a “story,” but in order to know what she was writing about and ultimately as a form of solidarity. She marched in the streets, joined the Loyalists fighting in Spain’s civil war, and picked grapes alongside French peasants in a vineyard in the south of France. She refused luxury of any kind, and often would not eat more than a soldier’s rations. She writes that she fell in love with the Lord’s prayer in Greek and memorized it because she thought it would be good for her to do. She believed it to be the only prayer necessary as, according to Weil, it encompasses all other forms of prayer. There were times, she writes, when she would say it over and over again throughout the day. At the end of Waiting for God she goes through the Lord’s Prayer line by line and gives her thoughts on each petition. Each line is first written out in Greek.
Simone Weil frightens me in the way that Dorothy Day frightens me because she lived, or tried to live Jesus’ commandment, the most important one: love thy neighbor. And to Simone Weil, thy neighbor was more than people in your hometown or state or nation:
“It is true that we have to love our neighbor, but, in the example that Christ gave as an illustration of this commandment, the neighbor is a being of whom nothing is known, lying naked, bleeding, and unconscious on the road. It is a question of completely anonymous, and for that reason completely universal love.”page 98
There is no compromising in her understanding of Jesus’ command. We have to love — and with that comes all the things we do when we love: help, hold, tend, care for, teach, respect, etc…, and we do it all, not just for the people we know and like, but for strangers too. We cannot just care for those who show up to our places of worship or who live like we do. We are under obligation, if we want to follow Christ, to love and care for complete strangers. Reading Simone Weil I walk away thinking I fall very short of what Christ wants me to do. Christ’s commandment does not have any asterisks next to it where at the very bottom of the page we can feel relieved because we do not have to care for people who seemingly do not care for themselves or who do not particulary care for us. There is no escape clause in following Christ. We must care for everyone, and we fail when we excuse ourselves in the name of any convenient human rationalizations such as the invisible hand running things, or as simply Darwinian survival of the fittest. We are obliged to help even if our stranger neighbor has underlying conditions, which place him at greater risk of being harmed.
The first half of Simone Weil’s Waiting for God is made up of six letters she wrote to Father Perrin, who she states was her only true friend and confident. In these letters she explains why she cannot receive the sacrament of Baptism. In her attempt to explain why she feels she is unable to enter formally into the Church she expounds on her struggles with institutions in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Simone Weil was unflinching in her determination to set standards for herself that at times seemed ridiculous and which eventually led to her untimely death at age thirty-four.
Without a doubt, Simone Weil is a difficult writer to follow. As Leslie Fiedler states in his introduction to Waiting for God: “Simone Weil’s writing as a whole is marked by three characteristic devices: extreme statement or paradox; the equilibrium of contradictions; and exposition by myth” (p.29). This is absolutely the case for Simone Weil the writer and Simone Weil the individual. She worked ceaselessly to understand all points of view and capture the complexity of all sides.
Simone Weil was a philosopher and teacher by profession. She was a scholar of Antiquity and maintained that the New Testament had its roots in Greece and not the Jewish Scriptures. She thought the Roman Empire was purely totalitarian, and believed the Catholic Church, in many ways, had taken on a form similar to the Roman Empire. Greece, however, was a different story; it was where Democracy flourished.
Simone Weil was as severe as a prophet in her writing and as strident, unrelenting and open in her analysis. In a letter to her confident, Fr. Perrin, she writes about the sacraments:
“The sacraments have a specific value, which constitutes a mystery in so far as they involve a certain kind of contact with God, a contact mysterious but real. At the same time they have a purely human value in so far as they are symbols or ceremonies. Under this second aspect they do not differ essentially from the songs, gestures, and words of command of certain political parties; at least in themselves they are not essentially different; of course they are infinitely different in the doctrine underlying them”page 45
She goes on the write that most religious get the sacraments all mixed up with the social and that is a mistake. But, she also acknowledges that this could be a stage in later discernment. Following her seems to take the reader one step forward and then back. But, she is not interested in reducing all things to a mere fraction of their worth. Simone Weil does not shy away from complexity or turn a blind eye to it; but rather she opens to the complexity and contradiction surrounding human desire to embrace the mysteries of God. She is not interested in demystifying; nor explaining away the mystery. There is no desire for God to reveal the “code” of the universe to her. She maintains an awe for God and at the same time can look at the universe and mathematics as that which makes the awe possible. For Weil the mysteries of the universe are mysteries that we live with and by which we are nourished.
During Simone’s lifetime she experienced two world wars and participated briefly in the Spanish civil war. She also was a political activist fighting for workers rights and was enthusiatic proponent of Marxism and Communism. But her interest and belief in politics could not sustain her nor measure up to how she began to conceive of justice after reading the Gospels and encountering Christ’s message.
The children of God should not have any other country here below but the universe itself, with the totality of all the reasoning creatures it ever has contained, contains, or ever will contain. That is the native city to which we owe our love.page 97
There are those who take the Bible and seem to find justification for hate and discrimination. Perhaps they think of themselves as faithful to a literal interpretation of a particular verse. But, as Marilynne Robinson has asked, why don’t these people ever take the love in the Bible literally? Simone Weil is one who took the Bible for its word on love:
Our love should stretch as widely across all space, and should be as equally distributed in every portion of it, as in the very light of the sun. Christ has bidden us to attain to the perfection of our heavenly Father by imitating his indiscriminate bestowal of light. Our intelligence too should have the same complete impartiality.page 97
It is not really that Simone Weil upends everything. Her writing on the Gospels is certainly not radical. Her thoughts on love are not incompatible with how we think about Jesus’ message to love one another. What is radical, though, is that Simone Weil is not encumbered by Church dogmas, and this allowed her full thought to overflow onto the page. She did not have to worry about, as she stated, anathema sit – excommunication. She had the freedom intellectually to think about the Bible without obeying institutions. She was fiercely protective of her solitude in order that she could have sufficient space for her thoughts. Having preserved independence as a thinker she could then fulfill her obligation to write what naturally came into her mind.
“Everybody knows that really intimate conversation is only possible between two or three. As soon as there are six or seven, a 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-à-tête.”Page 80
Yet, Simone Weil, as much as she seems antagonistic to the Church, was not against her entirely. In the very next paragraph from the one I quoted above she actively defends as “indispensable” the Church as the “collective keeper of dogma (80)” It is not that she could not chose a side or simply said what she thought at the moment. She never yielded to chaos. Rather, she fiercely held onto all contradictions without trying to blend them together in order to declare as triumphant the overall good of an institution or an idea. No. She states how bad institutions can be without giving them an inch, and then identifies the importance they have for the individual:
“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.”page 79
The beauty of Simone Weil’s thought is that it is not destructive in any way. She did not call for a revolution in the name of creating something different. She knew creativity was not a destructive force, but rather a life giving one. In her argument against the Church she maintains the Church has certain obligations, but she does not give it the complete authority over the individual. For it is our obligation to think and to act as a child of God and not of the state or nation. The institution can be helpful, and even a pragmatic way to hold information, to initiate and encourage, love, faith and intelligence, but the institution is not God and should not be obyed as if it were God. We all know this deep in our hearts, but it takes courage to keep remembering it because it reminds us that we will not be protected by institutions or served by them if we allow them to think for us.
Simone Weil had to leave the south of France in 1942 due to the Nazi occupation. She came to the United States briefly with her parents, but could not stay in a land she judged to be too far away from danger. She was loyal to her countryman, and quickly returned to England with all sorts of plans to enter the war, but after a year her body was too weak to sustain her strict sense of comradarie with the poor and in August of 1943 she died.
What she writes concerning her baptism gives a glimpse into the way of Simone Weil:
“It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me. “page 51