Saturday, August 25, 2018

Encountering the Enigmatic Simone Weil

Back in 1939 Winston Churchill referred to “the action of Russia” as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That same description is apt for Simone Weil, a 30-year-old French woman who was living in Paris at that time.
Who Was Simone Weil?
Born in 1909 to secular Jewish parents, Simone Weil died 75 years ago (on Aug. 24, 1943) at the age of 34. Often described as a philosopher, mystic, and political activist, it is fitting to take some time to think about the life and work of this enigmatic person.  
Weil (pronounced “vey”) was a brilliant child and received a good education. At the age of 22 she finished her formal education, having majored in philosophy, and began her short teaching career.
The next year, 1932, she engaged in a demonstration for unemployed workers—and was transferred to another teaching position by school authorities. After teaching in three different schools in three years, in 1935 she took a leave of absence in order to work in factories.
Severe migraine headaches made it necessary for her to quit both manual work and teaching. In 1938 and the years following she had mystical experiences of God, but she was never baptized.
After living in the U.S. for a few months in 1942, Weil went to England to work with the Free French organization there. In April the next year she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and then died in August, partly (or largely) because of refusing to eat.  
What Did Simone Weil Emphasize?
From among many and varied matters Weil emphasized in her life and writings, let's consider briefly only the following three:
1) Attention
In preparing to write this article, I read Love in the Void (2018), a book of selected writings by Weil. In that book’s first paragraph by Weil, she asserts that “prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”
Early this week, June and I watched “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” an intriguing 2001 documentary by Julia Haslett. Early in the film are these striking statements by Weil:
Attention is the purest and rarest form of generosity.
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.
2) Identification
From childhood Simone had an exceedingly strong sense of identification or empathy / solidarity with others. Even as a five-year-old she refused to eat sugar because French soldiers fighting in WWI had none.
In her lectures on philosophy in 1933-34, she declared: “Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”
Thus, as Laurie Gagne, the editor of Love in the Void, wrote, “Because of her great love for the oppressed, Simone Weil spent a good part of her life trying to comprehend their suffering, usually by attempting to share it in one way or another.” That is why she chose to work some in factories.
3) Affliction
“The Love of God and Affliction” is the last chapter of Love in the Void. Here Weil talks about the significance of affliction, which is extreme suffering that is both physical and psychological.
Affliction is of great importance to Weil because by it she came to understand the love of God seen in and through the passion of Christ. Affliction led her to experience God’s love deeplyand then to share that love.
In her introduction to Love in the Void, editor Gagne wrote that even though the attending physician declared Weil’s death a suicide because she refused to eat adequately, “we can say she died of an excess of love.”
Robert Coles, Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (1987)
Stephen Plant, Simone Weil: A Brief Introduction (2007)
Eric O. Springsted, Simone Weil & the Suffering of Love (1986)


  1. Here are significant comments from local Thinking Friend Marilyn Peot:

    "Thank you for bringing her to our attention.

    "One quote of hers I have held dear and have it on my desk: 'My solitude held in its grasp the grief of others till my death.'

    "You picked up her main spirituality which is challenging but 'right on.' The book I have read several times and have scribbled in the margins and underlined is 'Waiting for God.' Her letters to her priest friend are included as well as several essays--two of my favorites are on the 'Our Father' and 'Forms of Implicit Love of God.'

    "You struck gold!"

    1. Thanks, Marilyn, for your comments. I was hoping to hear from you, and you did not disappoint!

  2. Here are more significant comments--these from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing Simone Weil to our attention.

    "Every time I read about Simone Weil, I am deeply moved; she was certainly one of the most remarkable persons of the 20th, or of any, century. Her fusion of mysticism with compassion for the poor and the weak is certainly intriguing and challenging.

    "The other great female saint of the 20th century, also Jewish, was Edith Stein, who did so much to help the victims, of which she was one, during the Holocaust. You may have written about her in one of your earlier posts.

    "Both Weil and Stein are stark reminders of our responsibilities to those who are suffering."

    1. Thanks for your comments also, Eric.

      No, I haven't written about Edith Stein and I know little about her. She seems to be highly regarded in the Religion Department of Rockhurst University. During one of my early semesters when I was teaching there, I saw a reference to her and asked for information about her. But there is much more I would like to learn, and may well choose to do that as some point.

    2. Well, I just looked Stein up to see when I might, conceivably, write about her, and found that she died in Aug 1942 at Auschwitz--so I might write about her next August.

      And I see now why she was/is highly regarded at Rockhurst. Although she was born into an observant Jewish family, she converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Discalced Carmelite nun. She is canonized as a martyr and saint of the Catholic Church, and she is one of six co-patron saints of Europe.

  3. Nice piece on Weil, Leroy. I've read some of her stuff and have always been inspired by her commitment to workers and the poor; although she was a bit over the top with it by not eating.

    1. Thanks, Anton. -- Yes, if she could have recovered from TB by eating adequately, which may or may not have been possible, it is a real shame she chose to die by not eating rather than to eat in order to continue her meritorious work for the poor and oppressed.

  4. Simone Weil gets significant attention from Catholics who intensely involved with spirituality and spiritual practice. People are drawn to her, I think, because of intense way she related to others: real attention, real compassion, living out her ideals. With her hard-headedness and concern for the working classes, she reminds me of a French Dorothy Day, although, unfortunately, she did not live as long. How interesting it would have been if her time on earth had been longer. How I would have liked to see what she would have said or done, if in conversation or dialog with other French thinkers of her generation: Sartre, Camus, one of the worker priests, Jacques Maritain, et al

    1. Thanks for your substantial comments, Larry.

      Yes, I think there are some significant similarities between Simone Weil and Dorothy Day--and, yes, I wish Simone could have lived and been active as long as Dorothy was.

      When reading/thinking about Simone, I was also reminded some of Francis and Clare of Assisi.

      It's interesting that you mentioned Camus. I didn't know until preparing for the writing of this article that he reportedly wrote to Simone's mother in 1951, and in that letter he referred to Simone as "the only great spirit of our times."

  5. Thanks for posting about Weil, Leroy. Oddly enough, I've been thinking about her a lot lately, especially with regard to two particular points:

    1) The first reading I assign for every class I teach is her essay, "On the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God." This post is timely, since I will be starting a new teaching term this Thursday, and we will discuss this essay when we meet online. It's a wonderful piece on the art (and spirituality) of attention, and I think it goes well with just about any course subject one might teach in the humanities.

    2) About six months ago I came across her short essay, "Metaxu," in her book Gravity and Grace. In it, she reflects on the ability of points of separation to also serve paradoxically as points of human connection: "Every separation is a link." Lately I've been considering how the converse is also true. Every point of connection is also a potential separation. We can see this illustrated in the way that human beings are more connected than every before — we walk around with mini-computers in our pockets that can establish instantaneous contact with a person on the opposite side of the planet — and yet rates of social anxiety, depression, loneliness, and alienation have never been higher.

  6. Joshua, good to hear from you again!

    I was impressed by your use of "On the Right Use of School Studies . . . ." I had not read it prior to the reading of the new (2018) book "Love in the Void," which contains eleven of Weil's essays; "On the Right Use . . ." is the first one.

    Many years ago I read Weil's "Gravity and Grace," but I don't remember much about it and remembered nothing of "Metaxu," which sounds quite interesting. I just found this quotation from it, which amplified what you wrote:

    "Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link."

  7. Bro. Leroy, one of the reasons I so thoroughly enjoy reading your comments is finding the window into the lives of others of whom I am unfamiliar. Weil is truly an impressive personality. I see similarities with Lottie Moon, the Baptist missionary, who though living far longer also died because of a refusal to eat instead giving her food ration to hungry Chinese.

    As I approach retirement one of my "bucket list" goals is to do a more intensive study on the spiritual disciplines. At present I am only gathering resources, but in collecting a list of the disciplines it occurred to me "attention" should be included and perhaps even deemed one of the more important. Some people are born with it almost as a gift. Others like myself must make a conscious effort to show attention. Weil was remarkable to have had such insight at her age.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Tom. As I was discussing this article with June before writing it, we talked about that very thing, that is, the similar way Lottie Moon's death was partially due to malnutrition because of her giving her food away. I appreciate you pointing that out.

      Until my study for writing this article, I had not given proper attention to "attention." I am glad you are now seeing the importance of attention, and even though I don't have a lot of years left, I pray that I can give more attention to whom and to where it needs to be given.

  8. This morning, aa Thinking Friend in central Missouri send the following substantial comments:

    "​Thank you, Leroy, for this enlightening blog. I had heard of Simone but really didn't know a thing about her. What a wonderful woman!

    "I passed it along to my Bible study class because we were inspired by Phyllis Tickle's book 'Age of the Spirit' to take a long look at the book of Acts. We are going straight through it and noting how the Spirit worked, wondering what ways and why we are not noticing Spirit's work among us today, and inspired as we go along.

    "One of the things we noticed was the attention given to looking people directly in the eyes and asking them to look into ours, as Peter and John did to the lame man. The Greek word 'atenzio' has had new meaning and example to us. We also notice how human touch and even shadow had power and strength.

    "This blog spoke to me as an underscoring of those empathetic understandings that we all need in order to stand with the poor and vulnerable."