Nearly 60 years ago an ocean liner from North Africa nudged its way into New York harbor bearing hundreds of exhausted Jewish refugees from Vichy France. Among them was a pale, intense teacher of philosophy with only a year to liveSimone Weil. At that time she was almost unknown outside France. Since her death her ideas and her struggle with Christianity have fascinated many people.
She arrived in New York with her parents on July 6, 1942. Her brother André (1906-98), a greatly gifted mathematician, had arrived earlier and was teaching at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Simone Weil was to stay only four months in the United States. But during her time in America she wrestled with religious questions as part of her search for the truth. She poured her thoughts into her journal, among them a meditative prayer on Christ that still has the power to shock, as we shall see.
Simone Weil was born in Paris on Feb. 3, 1909. Even as a student she was deeply concerned with issues of justice and peace. After graduation from the école Normale Superieure, she taught philosophy in a series of towns in the provinces. She was also attracted to socialism as part of her concern for the poor. Her creativity, articulateness and advocacy were at their disposal, and she quickly made a name for herself on the French Left. But if she was a socialist, she was a maverick one. In August 1933 a Marxist periodical carried a prophetic article written by Weil (it can be found in her book Oppression and Liberty). The article startled many conventional socialists. She argued that the Soviet Union was not a workers’ state, despite all the claims made for it. She pointed out that the U.S.S.R. shared a characteristic with all modern states in depending on a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, which then made all the important decisions. Denunciation rained down on her, including an attack from Trotsky.
From late 1934 to the summer of 1935, Simone Weil tried to follow the life of a manual worker. She gave up teaching to operate heavy machinery in engineering factories and in the Renault auto plant. It was grueling work, and in her journal she catalogued the daily humiliation of the workers. She herself suffered painful burns while operating an industrial furnace. She noted how this time of high unemployment made all workers vulnerable to the whims and moods of the supervisors, but that women suffered the most.
Worn out by her factory work, Simone Weil accompanied her parents on a holiday to Spain and Portugal in August 1936. While in Portugal she had her first thought-provoking experience of Christianity. She was still physically and spiritually exhausted from her factory work. In Waiting for God, a posthumously published collection of her letters and essays, she recalls, The affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul. One evening in a Portuguese fishing village, she met the wives of the fishermen who were visiting the boats, carrying candles and singing poignantly sad hymns. Suddenly she felt that Christianity was the religion of slaves, and that she, like other slaves, could not help belonging to it. For Weil, deeply concerned with the poor and vulnerable, these were words of approval and represented a spiritual turning-point. Visiting Assisi the next year, she found herself in the chapel where St. Francis used to pray. She recorded, Something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees. We learn from Waiting for God that during a stay at the French Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes in 1938, she was profoundly moved by contemplating the suffering of Christ and the power of the sacraments. As some later point, while reciting George Herbert’s poem Love, she felt Christ taking possession of her.
In a technical sense, Simone Weil and her brother were Jewish, but they had been brought up virtually unaware of their heritage as Jews. Her growing attraction to Christ did not therefore mean rejection of Judaism, for her background had been that of a rationalistic, articulate French skepticism. Neither, on the other hand, did her experiences lead her to become a Christian in any formal sense. It did mean that she now included the Christian tradition in her lifelong search for truth. She spent hours reading the gospels in Greek and meditating on Christ. After she and her parents fled to Marseilles ahead of the German army in 1940, she prayed for long periods in Catholic churches there.
Marseilles could only be a temporary refuge, and the Weil family were lucky to get away. On their arrival in New York, they moved into an apartment on Riverside Drive, not far from Columbia University. On Sundays she attended a Baptist church in Harlem, where she was the only white person in the congregation. In a letter to a friend she wrote that she found the fervor of the service a true and moving expression of faith. She was also attending Mass at Corpus Christi on West 121st Street. (A year earlier she might have crossed paths in that church with Thomas Merton.)
Religious questions filled her mind, and she poured them into her New York notebook. Although she was strongly attracted to the Catholic Church, she found it hard to contemplate joining any church because of her continuing suspicion of religion as a social power. She was appalled by what organized religion could do when it became powerful, citing as examples the Israelites slaughtering their enemies and the Catholic Church’s record of banning, excommunication and inquisition. She was similarly suspicious of Protestantism, which she felt to be too closely linked with individual nations and insufficiently global in perspective. In her New York journal (published after her death in First and Last Journals) she wrote that The virtue of humility is incompatible with the sense of belonging to a social group chosen by God, whether a nation or a Church.
She felt quite clear that it was her own vocation to be on the threshold of the church. She had frequently discussed Catholicism with J. M. Perrin, a Dominican priest she first met in Marseilles. He urged her to seek baptism. But shortly before leaving for New York she had written to him, saying, I have always remained at this exact point, on the threshold of the Church, without moving. It was the place where she made her spiritual home.
This sense of waiting on the threshold was a key element of her larger spiritual perspective, in which she stressed the importance of an attitude of attentive, receptive waiting. In New York she wrote in her journal: Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life. In her letters and journals she was slowly and hesitantly carving out an account of how attentiveness could enable spiritual growth. It was, she believed, the person of receptivity and openness who would discover the truth. Deep truth had a way of eluding those who set out to grasp it by willpower.
Simone Weil believed that this discipline of attention was necessary if we are to know God. But she also believed that it was necessary if we are to know, and to help, other persons. In this way her philosophy of attention seeks to unite contemplation and action. In an essay written before she left France, published in Waiting for God, she says, Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.
The distress of another person leaves us uncomfortable. It is not easy to look the homeless person in the eye, to witness the ravaged face of a hospital patient in pain, or to listen attentively to a story of great suffering. It is normal to be tempted to flee. Simone Weil reminds us that the first principle of helping another is not action. It is to see and respect the other. She repeatedly notes that the greater the suffering of the other person, the harder it is truly to see and hear that person. This kind of attention requires discipline of the self to make room for the other.
Reading Weil reminds one how glibly we can talk about compassion, as if it were an easy thing, sometimes making it sound like little more than pity, with all the dangers this implies of being patronizing. Weil says that true compassion requires us to allow suffering to disturb us and even sometimes to take us over. Compassion is in some ways unnatural in the sense that it goes against the grain. In Waiting for God she notes that witnessing suffering can make us shudder and want to flee: Thought revolts from contemplating affliction, to the same degree that living flesh recoils from death. Sometimes Weil can sound like Dorothy Day, who was under no illusions about the cost of compassion.
Simone Weil found herself facing her own suffering in New York. She felt isolated from the war and unable to make any contribution to the struggle that was going on. Feeling useless and dispirited, her thoughts turned to Christ on the cross. One day in the apartment above Riverside Drive, she wrote in her journal a meditative prayer that can still shock those who read it. In the name of Christ, she asks that she may become totally paralyzed, lose all sensation and all rationality. Then she asks that all these powers and faculties may be remade until they respond perfectly to God’s will and God’s truth. She concludes, May all this be stripped away from me, devoured by God, transformed into Christ’s substance, and given for food to afflicted men whose body and soul lack every kind of nourishment. And let me be a paralyticblind, deaf, witless and utterly decrepit. She is asking to be broken, remade and finally devoured by a needy world.
The prayer is deeply disturbing, strangely pessimistic in its view of human nature, with its presupposition that God cannot work through human nature without first destroying it. The petition to be left a human husk is bizarre. Many commentators have noted that there is a streak of masochism in Simone Weil. Yet it is important not to overlook the point of her oblation, her longing to become lifegiving food for others. This is a strange and yet haunting use of the language of communion and real presence, for she is praying that she may be purified until she can become that loving, serving Christ, who is consumed daily by the world. This image of becoming eucharistic food is scattered in her writings, as she ponders from time to time the meaning of Christian commitment in a world hungry for love and for healing.
The language of being eaten may sound shocking. But is it really any more shocking than the language of sharing in the crucifixion of Christ? Simone Weil had read the suffering of the world in the faces of the unemployed, in the industrial accidents in the factory, in the streets of Vichy France. She knew that to give oneself to the needs of the world could wear a person away. Those who were open to Christ, waiting attentively on God, would find that God entered into their lives to the extent that sharing in the suffering of the world emptied them out. Transformed by Christ, they would then become his presence in the world, even as this consumed them.
In a way, this was why she wanted to return to Europe. In New York she was isolated from some of the most appalling suffering the human race had known. She left New York for England on Nov. 10, 1942. Once in London, her distress increased. Although she was given a research job in the Free French administration, she still felt thoroughly useless. However, she had no appreciation of her own limitations. She wanted to be parachuted into France, but a more unlikely special agent could hardly be imagined. On Aug. 24, 1943, she died of heart failure brought on by tuberculosis and self-starvationshe had refused to eat more food than was allowed to people in the occupied zones of Europe.
Simone Weil’s writings make uneasy reading. They contain brilliant insights into the human condition mingled with intense, convoluted musings about God, the world and life. Sometimes what she writes reveals a person who has been deeply wounded and who covers up her scars. Her writings speak, too, of her desire to reconcile the two realities of human suffering and divine love. In some respects her restless searching reflects the questing of many in our world today. Like her, we try to understand how God can be present in a world where people suffer so grievously. Like her, we try to discern how spirituality can enable and strengthen action for justice.
Simone Weil reminds us of the importance of attention, of learning to look again in a world where a culture of distraction often dissipates our awareness. She calls upon us not to flee suffering, whether our own or that of others. By being attentive to suffering, we can find the next step as we discover our common humanity with those who suffer. If in these circumstances we continue to be open to God, then the divine presence will fill our emptiness. By becoming Christ we can become Christ’s eucharistic bread for a hungry world.
In an age when the language of human development and spiritual enrichment is often found in the churches, Simone Weil sounds a discordant note. She is quite blunt about the fact that compassion requires attention, and attention will be a kind of diminishment. Yet there is something refreshing about her astringency, and her decision to remain on the threshold of the church is intriguing. After all, there is a long Jewish and Christian tradition of prophets choosing to live on the margin of society. Thomas Merton wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that Simone Weil and Charles Péguy preferred not to be in the middle of the Catholically approved and well-censored page, but only on the margin. And they remained there as question marks: questioning not Christ, but Christians.