Simone Weil: Love is the Intermediary Between Us and the Divine

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Simone Weil believes God took possession of her as she listened to poetry. Image by Janet Cameron

Simone Weil believed God took possession of her as she listened to poetry. Image by Janet Cameron.

Simone Weil’s life was tragically short. This uniquely gifted woman was born into an agnostic Jewish family in 1909, although later she became a committed and devout Christian.

During her lifetime, Weil never went to a synagogue, and claimed she had no connection with Judaism as a religion. She died of tuberculosis in 1943.

She was the daughter of a physician who forbade her to become a doctor herself, and the presence of her gifted brother, who was three years older, further diminished her. Simone Weil published a number of poems and articles, although it was not until after her death, that the public recognised her originality and genius.

Plato’s work greatly influenced Simone Weil and she was antagonistic toward Descartes.

Spiritual and Political Labelling

The poet, T.S. Eliot, describes Weil as “a woman of genius – akin to that of the saints.”

She endured another “label” in her early youth, and one rather less complimentary than T.S. Eliot’s, that of “The Red Virgin.” Later, she turned her back on communism due to its inherent bureaucracy. Her name for herself was “The Platonic Christian,” which elegantly sums up the strength of her faith and her spiritual mysticism. Her Christian belief was close to that of Catholicism, and she was also a woman with a strong sense of political purpose, social justice and moral idealism.

After the Russian Revolution, a classmate accused her of being a Communist, and she answered: “Not at all; I am a Bolshevik.”

An Acute Empathy for the Suffering of Others

At aged six years, or in some sources, five years, Simone Weil empathised so deeply with the soldiers of the First World War that she refused to eat sugar, because they had none. She limited her own food so that it equalled soldiers’ rations. Her empathy for others was frequently at her own expense.

Although a pacifist, she went to Spain, because she wanted to volunteer for the Republican side in the Civil War, and she supported the French resistance in England.

On the BBC Radio 4 programme, In Our Time, Steven Plant of the University of Cambridge, says, “Her life and thoughts are illustrations each of the other.” In other words, Weil lived as she thought; her life and her thought fed upon each other.

She was, at various times in her life, a factory worker, a teacher and a political activist.

The Nature of Truth and Goodness

The In Our Time philosophers discuss Weil’s idea of what is truth. Truth, she says, is impersonal. Truth is not an opinion.

2×2=4… that is truth. The deepest truths have that quality of geometry.

Personal truths are different. Personal relationships, for example, may become corrupted… a corrupted imperfection, and therefore a distraction from God.

Plant says Weil has two Gods, a good God, and an evil God. She also has two religions, a good religion of mysticism and truth, and a bad religion that is false, nationalistic and self-assertive. Judaism, she claims, has much in common with this false, nationalistic religion. This element of her thought can seem disturbing, because she carries these views to extremes.

David Levy of the University of Edinburgh also mentions Weil’s two kinds of “good.” The first is “Good in the World” and the second is “Absolute Good.” Absolute good is God’s perfection.

Weil reconciles the goodness of God in a world of suffering as follows:

“She argued that the presence of evil and suffering in the world was evidence of God’s love, and that Man had no right to ask anything of God, or of anyone whom they love. Love which expects rewards was not love at all in Weil’s eyes.”

How to Engage with God

Weil believes the realisation of truth is available to everyone, that human beings need to pay attention and truth will come to them. She is fond of telling a metaphor, says David Levy, that of a wall separating two prisoners who cannot communicate except by banging on the wall. In this way, they relate to each other, if imperfectly. In the same way as they are separated from each other, so are we separated from God, but He is accessible to us. We just need to “bang on the wall.”

We engage the world by forms of the implicit love of God. Beauty, friendship, religious ceremonies – all these can lead Mankind to God.

Original image courtesy of BBC Radio, design by Decoded Past.

Weil believes that the realisation of truth is available to everyone. Original image courtesy of BBC Radio, design by Decoded Past.

Simone Weil and “Unselfing”

Weil believes we have no will of our own. In her Notebooks, she speaks of the Zen method, quoted by Iris Murdoch.

“The primitive Zen method seems to consist of a gratuitous search of such intensity that it takes the place of all attachments. But, because it is gratuitous, it cannot become an object of attachment in so far as it is actively pursued, and the activity involved in this fruitless search becomes exhausted. When exhaustion point has been almost reached, some shock or other brings about detachment.”

In the chapter “Consciousness and Thought,” in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Iris Murdoch says of Weil:

“The imageless austerity of Zen is impressive and attractive. It represents to us ‘the real thing’; what it is like to be stripped of the ego and how different this is… Simone Weil felt a natural affinity with this extremism, which, indeed, she practised in her own life. She, at the same time, loved Plato and the mystical Christ.”

Simone Weil describes this distance as decreation, a form of un-selfing.

Decreation

On the In Our Time programme, David Levy of the University of Edinburgh explains what Weil means when she speaks of decreation. This is a term with a specialised meaning. It relates to the act of creation. When God created us, He limited Himself, in His perfection and power, to “create space for us.”

Therefore, if we decreate ourselves to some extent, we reverse some of that act of creation and, as a result, we come closer to God.

Causes of Conflict

Weil committed herself to politics and political activism.

Gary Goodwin in his Registry of Mysticism quotes from her work, The Need for Roots, 1949:

“What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war. Gasoline is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict.”

Pain and Grief

For states of pain and grief which transcend mere unhappiness, she employs the term “malheur.” Murdoch suggests this could be translated as “affliction” although there is no accurate translation into English. Most “afflictions” normally can be alleviated in some way. Malheur is something that demolishes the spirit, and leaves the human being with no relief and no hope.

However, paradoxically, Weil says that malheur can be a route to a knowledge of God. In Our Time explains how we can feel melancholy, for example, after a love affair has ended. This can lead us to becoming more lucid about our faults. In that moment, we may stop fooling ourselves and recognise that we are selfish or self-serving.

Murdoch quotes from Weil’s Notebooks, Volume 2: “…exposure to God condemns what’s evil in us.”

Weil’s Mysticism – Three Profound Experiences

Simone Weil had three or four powerful, mystical experiences. She makes it plain, says Beatrice Han Pile, of Essex University, on the programme In Our Time, that she never sought God, but that He came to find her.

The first was at Assisi, when Weil felt a force so powerful and stronger than her will, so that she felt compelled to fall to her knees.

A year later, a further experience occurred while she was in a Benedictine Monastery. She had a terrible, splitting headache and had huddled in a corner, then she found herself leaving her miserable flesh and rising in accord with the music.

Another mystical happening was during a poetry recitation of George Herbert’s poem, “Love bade me welcome while my Soul drew back.” Weil reports that Christ came down and took possession of her.

Naturally, all these experience had a profound and lasting effect on Weil.

Health Issues

Gary Goodwin explains how Simone Weil had many problems in her life, including an obsession with hand-washing which she imposed on her family due to a terrible fear of microbes. Outsiders were not permitted to kiss her children and she had difficulties with food beginning in her childhood.

As a result she suffered from malnutrition and it’s suggested on the Mystical Experience Registry that this lack of food may have affected her brain and contributed to her mystical experiences.

It is also possible that they simply made her susceptible to such experiences.

Obedience and Necessity

“Simone Weil’s obedience and necessity are better understood as a confrontation with what is not just unintelligible, but pointless,” says Iris Murdoch.

Murdoch is saying that Weil is not trying to propel us towards moral improvement. She is focused mainly on the idea of obligations. “Moral change comes from an attention to the world whose natural result is a decrease in egoism through an increased sense of the reality of, of course, other people, but also other things.”

This, Murdoch explains, is close in meaning to Oriental wisdom – that, ultimately, as human beings, we have no will.

Levy quotes Weil’s famous wisdom: “To stop saying ‘I’ one needs to pay attention.”

© Copyright 2014 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


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