Waiting For God
How did a left-wing intellectual become one of the twentieth century's better-known mystics? This is the mystery of Simone Weil's short life.
Born in Paris, her background was middle class, Jewish, and agnostic, and as a gifted student she sailed through school and university. From 1928 to 1931 she attended the elite École Normal Supériuere, coming second in her class in front of Simone de Beauvoir. She loved Greek Stoic philosophy, enjoyed translating Homer and Sophocles, and wrote a commentary on Pythagoras. She enjoyed the English metaphysical poets, read the Bhagavad-Gita and learned Sanskrit, and found inspiration in Francis of Assisi and John of the Cross. Yet she saw spirituality only as an interesting part of culture, and until the last years of her life never prayed.
Through her twenties she worked in various positions as a schoolteacher, but her passion was the well-being of France 's workers. One year she took a leave of absence to work alongside factory hands at a Renault car plant, and for several summers labored with peasants in the vineyards. She was plagued by ill health, and in 1940 moved to be with her parents in Marseilles. There she met a Catholic priest, Father Perrin, who became her friend and mentor for the last years of her life.
Waiting For God includes a number of letters Weil wrote to Father Perrin, plus several essays. The book was never meant to be a whole work, and was published after her death, but provides an excellent entree to Weil's thinking. Look for the edition with an insightful Introduction by Leslie A Fielder.
The outsider saint
In the chapter 'Spiritual Autobiography', Weil tells of being a moody and insecure adolescent, living in the shadow of her genius brother. She didn't mind the lack of outward successes, she says, but the feeling that she was excluded from 'the kingdom of wisdom and truth'. But she had an epiphany in which she realized that you did not have to be a genius to find truth, as long as truth was what you set your heart on.
As a student then teacher of philosophy and agitator for social change, she was intent on solving the world's problems through intellectual means. But in several visits to Catholic sites and churches, including a church where St Francis of Assisi had prayed, she experienced a kind of spiritual collapse after which she considered herself a 'slave to God'.
Weil knew she had a vocation, but simply getting baptized and becoming a nun was never really an option. All her life she had distrusted every kind of institution, so she was not about to sign up to one now, even if it was the Catholic Church. She felt that being a member of something entailed exclusion of others, and although now a believer, she didn't want to separate herself from the mass of humanity who did not believe and be perceived as some religious nut. Moreover, Weil loved other faiths and cultures too much to restrict herself to Christianity. Being a classicist, she could not stomach Christianity's condescension towards the Greek Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius, whose spiritual intentions, she felt, were at least Christianity's equal. And she could not forget the Inquisition, which had killed and tortured thousands in the name of dogma, and the Church's historic eagerness to support war.
In one letter to Father Perrin, Weil accuses him of saying 'false' when what he really meant was 'unorthodox'. She can't accept intellectual dishonesty or the way that the Church through dogma had made it convenient for people not to have to think. Although she fantasized about the sense of belonging that being in the Church would give her, Weil knew that her higher calling was to seek truth outside the square of religion.
The paradox of Weil's spirituality is that although she loved all the rites and ceremonies of the Church, she felt nothing for the institution itself, mistrusting the 'patriotism' that people feel when they belong to a faith. She was frightened at the damage that can be done by collective feeling, noting that she was the type of person who would have been swept up by the rousing nature of Nazi war songs. Given this tendency towards spiritual swooning in the manner of Teresa of Avila, she knew that she had to be as objective about spiritual ideas and belief as she was in relation to, for instance, materialism and atheism.
Love of the world
Weil writes of loves that are a sort of proxy for love of God ('indirect loves') but which we can experience while living on this earth: religious ceremonies, love of our neighbor, the beauty of the world, and friendship.
Our love of increase, luxury and beauty, she suggests, is not for the things themselves, but for what lies behind them. We love objects and art for the door that they open into universal beauty. For many people, Weil says, seeing beauty is often the only way that God can find a way into their minds: "The soul's natural inclination to love beauty is the trap God most frequently uses in order to win it and open it to the breath from on high." The beautiful things of this world are a representation of the true beauty of God which underpins them all.
Similarly, love of our neighbor is not a self-conscious moral act, it is our way of recognizing the divine love behind every person. The good Samaritan stopped and helped not because it was a nice thing to do that made him feel good, but because neighborly love is justice ; it recognizes the right order of a universe powered by love.
Naturalness of obedience
Weil makes the interesting observation that it is foolish to believe that we cannot be obedient to God, since all things in the universe obey divine law in an almost mechanical sense. We have the choice to desire or not desire obedience, but we all obey in the end, since spiritual law is as unerring as the law of gravity. Criminals, she says, are like 'tiles blown off a roof'. Maybe they loosened themselves from the roof to be free, but gravity inevitably caused their fall back to the ground.
She remarks that the more obedient a slave is to his master, the greater the gap which widens between them. But the more a person is obedient to God, the more that person becomes an expression of God.
Like the ancient Stoics, Weil was a universalist, loving the world too much to restrict herself to one faith or interpretation of God. This wariness of organized religion is now such a part of the modern person's outlook that we take it for granted, but in the time she lived, Weil was courageous to stick to this position. Her torment over whether to get baptized (she never was) now seems a little strange, but the will to keep her spirituality private is what we most admire about her now.
In her uncompromising view of life she often went too far, and that includes the circumstances of her death. During the war she was ill, and in solidarity with her compatriots in occupied France, and against doctor's orders, she refused to consume any more than basic rations. It is clear that Weil had always had issues with food, and leaped at opportunities to put principle before health. In this case it killed her, but a martyr's death is perhaps what she wanted.
Waiting For God is a dense work, but if given your full attention can be very satisfying. You know you are in the presence of an original thinker. The author's forays into matters of Catholic theology will not be of interest to most readers, but it is when she talks about herself that we want to read more. Her power lay in the fact that she crossed over from godless modernity to ancient faith, but never lost her wariness when it came to the supposed power and authority of institutions. Like Teresa of Avila, Weil never intended to devote her life to God; rather, she was looking for Truth, and it happened to come into focus through the stained-glass panes of the Church. She saw the beauty in Catholic theology and ritual, but remained an outsider in fact and in spirit.
Source: Tom Butler-Bowdon 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"Friendship has something universal about it. It consists of loving a human being as we should like to be able to love each soul in particular of all those who go to make up the human race."
Born in 1909 in Paris, Weil's father was a doctor. Her brother was the noted mathematician Andre Weil. She began her career as a school philosophy teacher in 1931 at Le Puy, and for the next few years interspersed teaching with various laboring jobs to empathize with the working class.
In 1936 the author joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War but received burns in an accident with hot oil and left for Italy. In Assisi her attraction to the Catholic faith grew, assisted by a love of Gregorian chant. In 1942 Weil traveled to the United States with her parents, then to England where she worked in support of the French Resistance. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, she lived out her last days in an English sanatorium, and died in August 1943.
Writings include Gravity and Grace, consisting of excerpts from her diaries, The Need For Roots, Supernatural Knowledge, Oppression and Liberty, and Lectures on Philosophy.