Simone Weil’s Reflections on the Cross

At the European Court of Human Rights two British women are trying to establish their right to wear crosses in public. We have been used to hearing about battles in courts throughout the world concerning the public display of crucifixes (or the Ten Commandments), as well as the wearing of religious symbols in general. The fact that these two women have found their religious freedom curtailed in their work-places in the U.K. (one as a nurse and the other as an employee of British Airways), that they were either suspended or fired and that they lost in court is shocking enough; what is new is that ministers of the British Government are contesting their right in the Strasbourg case and are taking an explicitly anti-Christian stance. According to an article by the Daily Telegraph , the argument goes that since there is no requirement by the Christian faith to wear a cross, employers can ban the cross from the work-place and fire employees who wear it nonetheless.

Anti-Christian persecution is nothing new; we are simply seeing its manifestations on many fronts these days. The New Atheists’ secularist attack exemplifies a more aggressive form of persecution (though that too is nothing new, nor are the New Atheists’ arguments for that matter). However, in the after-year wars people were more sensitive to any curtailment of religious freedom and were weary of totalitarianism rearing its ugly head, since they had experienced the anti-Christian ideology of Fascism and of Communism. This is no longer the case, and the anti-Christian spirit has been able to gain momentum and plausibility in the public’s eye by claiming to fight for tolerance while in reality being more intolerant than a religious bigot could ever be.  We are seeing this, of course, in a stark manner in President Obama’s attack on religious freedom in this country though he is trying to frame the debate as the defense of women’s “rights” and access to “essential” health care.

The Cross is a key symbol of Christianity. In order to keep society humane, it is absolutely essential that it continue to be displayed in schools, hospitals, on churches or around people’s necks. Publically displayed crosses should be acceptable to people of all faiths or lack thereof, since it is, as Benedict XVI says in Light of the World (I.5), a non-threatening symbol. However, some people feel uncomfortable in its presence, since they either don’t understand anymore what it stands for or because it challenges their life-style, or both. I would like to contribute to a clarification of its meaning by drawing on the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil (1909-43).

The interest in drawing on Weil for this discussion is manifold. She was not baptized (though she was perhaps baptized on her deathbed, the account is unreliable), and yet she saw the significance of the Cross. Furthermore she had issues with the Catholic Church, issues coinciding with those used by people who are against the public display of crosses today (for example, its missionary activities, its dogmatic proclamations, the Crusades, the Inquisition). Yet she did not have a problem with the Cross itself. Thus, her arguments should carry particular weight.

Finally, Weil had a knack for presenting familiar concepts in a new way. This is essential, for familiarity, as we know, breeds contempt. Familiarity gives one the mistaken sense of knowing something, when one really doesn’t.  Hence Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting, as Chesterton stated, but simply hasn’t been tried. Chesterton therefore imagines in The Everlasting Man a story where a man had to go around the whole world in order to come back to his home and discover its beauty. Similarly the apologist needs to put old truths in a new way, thereby taking off the century-old dust spread by propaganda, prejudices and confusion. Weil achieves this through her reflections on the Cross which therefore appears in a new light.

Thus I will make an excursion into the thought of Weil on the theme of the Cross without directly referring to the question of wearing crosses or their public display. Her analysis gives a deeper understanding of the meaning of the Cross and will thereby shed new light on the debate.

The Cross as Leverage against Force – the Archimedian Point: According to Weil, the Cross is an entry of the supernatural into a fallen world. Instead of “fallen”, however, she prefers to say that we are pulled down by an inner law of gravity, which makes us put ourselves first, choosing more easily what is morally wrong than what is right. This law of pesanteur or gravity finds no counter-force in the universe; the human will on its own is too weak. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. To believe so is like someone, Weil states, who thinks that by jumping up continuously, he will one day be able to fly. Yet in order to fly, another, external element needs to enter the picture; similarly a force coming from the outside not subject to the laws of this world, namely grace or the supernatural, needs to come into play to counter pesanteur.

We cannot lift the world out of its hinges, as Archimedes put it; only with the help of a point situated outside can this happen. The Cross acts precisely as such a lever. “The Cross is a balance where a weak and light body, but who was God, lifted the weight of the whole world. ‘Give me a fulcrum, and I will lift up the world.’ This fulcrum is the cross” (PG 98).

Setting the Balance Right – the Significance of Suffering: Furthermore Weil compares the soul to scales which are out of balance. They go erratically back and forth, until a needle is inserted in her middle, giving them stability. This is what suffering, one’s personal cross does; that is why suffering is essential. It transforms the person, giving her the capacity to perceive reality adequately which she was incapable of doing previously. We tend to see ourselves as the center of the universe: “Just as God, being outside the universe, is at the same time the center, so each man imagines he is situated in the center of the world. The illusion of perspective places him at the center of space; an illusion of the same kind falsifies his idea of time; and yet another kindred illusion arranges a whole hierarchy of values around him.” Something needs to catapult us out of this position. The Cross is this catapult. Put differently one could say that suffering is a reality-check, something that draws us out of the web of dreams and lies we tend to weave around oneself, for we live in a “waking dream peopled by our fictions.”

Only the Cross can Illuminate Affliction. Weil wrote that “the Cross of Christ is the only source of light that is bright enough to illumine affliction.” For great suffering is characterized by its seeming pointlessness. There does not appear to be an answer to the question why something tremendously painful is happening to me.  Simone Weil went through terrible suffering herself, since she had excruciatingly painful headaches which made her unfit to work over longs periods of time.  She experienced great anguish thinking of all the suffering her compatriots were undergoing under the German occupation. The suffering of others made her sweat blood, as she wrote. Though she saw the potential spiritual fruitfulness of suffering, she also realized that it could destroy people if they didn’t respond to it rightly. Hence she was aware of the urgency to show people how to deal with suffering adequately and saw this as her vocation during the terrible period of World War II.

On a natural level there is no answer to horrific suffering: one cannot say that a mother, who loses her sanity after the death of her five children, is going to grow from the experience.  Some suffering is so profound that it breaks the human person; only God can enter it; no human empathy can do so, except if it is shaped by caritas which is supernatural, divine love. Great suffering without transcendence, without an answer from God is unbearable. Thus the Cross is the symbol of the Divine answer to human suffering, albeit one that does not express itself in words.

The Only Answer to Suffering is Love: When Job in the Old Testament was crushed by affliction, he cried out to God asking Him for its reason. To ask God why He is allowing  great suffering to happen to oneself is the natural consequence of extreme suffering, as Weil states, and one that Christ Himself experienced on the Cross, when asking God why He had abandoned Him.  For affliction is not only difficult to bear because it is painful, but also because it seems pointless and does not seem to lead anywhere (though one may catch glimpses of its fruitfulness, one generally does not do so during its apogee). Job was not given a direct answer to his question, though his friends’ idea that it must be the consequence of some previous guilt, was proven wrong. In responding to Job, God only points out the greatness of the universe, of His creation; if Job is incapable of understanding that, how much less will he, or we, be able to grasp the role of affliction in the divine plan. Yet, the answer God gives, which does not seem to be one, proves to be much more satisfying than any wordy explanation could have been. Weil says that God’s answer is silence, but a silence much more meaningful than any words. It is the silence of love which speaks to the heart. One will experience “the very silence as something infinitely more full of significance than any response, like God himself speaking. It [the soul] knows then that God’s absence here below is the same thing as the secret presence upon earth of the God who is in heaven.”

God’s silence – to mix metaphors – emits a hardly perceptible glimmer of light in the dark night of the soul. But as the latter grows closer to God, she is able to experience His love ever more strongly. His love, which at first blinded her by its intensity, has purified her to the extent that she can sense Him more clearly now.

The symbol for this loving presence of God within suffering is the Cross. God does not remove suffering, evil and death, but He transforms them. We see the power of love when family members suffer, particularly toward the end of life. People who are old or terminally ill generally only desire euthanasia until their family and friends assure them of their love and support during this trying time. Even if their pain remains great, they find new meaning in life. Thus love truly is the greatest power in the face of death and suffering.

God on the Cross gives the promise of His presence in the depths of our agony. This is particularly consoling, since we are assured of His presence even if we are abandoned by everyone else, but also because He, like no other, can descend into the depths of our pain. He alone understands the human heart fully. Thus the Cross stands for a promise, a sign of hope that man will never be left alone.

Transforming Evil into Suffering:  However, for some the Cross is not a symbol of hope or a promise of love, but rather an expression of aggression and evil.  For them, it stands for the Crusades, and the Inquisition. Some go so far as to think that religion is always at the root of violence, and thus the Cross as a religious symbol stands per definitionem for violence.  This is not the time and place to go into the historical background of the Crusades or the Inquisition. In any case, instead of perceiving the Cross as an expression of evil, Weil saw it as its best remedy, for it shows how to transform evil into suffering. The temptation is great to respond to evil with evil, to an injustice inflicted with violence, anger, revenge or resentment. The Cross gives us the key how to break out of that vicious cycle.

This does not mean, however, that Weil was a masochist. She was not against the use of force for the sake of self-defense (apart from an earlier pacifist phase which she shared with many intellectuals of her time, but which she rejected upon Hitler’s occupation of Prague and which she later deeply regretted). But even if one needs to use force, the danger is great to lower oneself to the same level as one’s opponent, to allow legitimate defense to become revenge. This tit-for-tat is a kind of “goodness” which is on the same plane of evil, while absolute, supernatural goodness comes from another dimension.

Humanly speaking one cannot help but respond in kind to evil, even if one tries desperately not to do so. One is hurt and needs to get rid of that suffering; it seems unbearable, and the easiest way of doing so is by transferring that suffering to another – either back to the person who has hurt one, if she is not too powerful, or to a scapegoat. Weil wrote in her notebooks that “man has…the capacity to transform his suffering into sin and thus not to feel the suffering.” Only if one manages to transform the evil received into one’s own suffering will it not be transmitted further. But this is tremendously difficult and goes against every human instinct. Yet “one has to ask for a situation such that all the evil one does, falls only and directly unto oneself. That is the Cross.”

To achieve this, evil needs to be brought in contact with absolute goodness which cannot be corrupted.  For Weil, authentic beauty is such a manifestation of God which “we can apply … like a fire onto our blemishes; the impurity we throw on [beauty] is burnt without sullying it; it cannot be, being absolutely pure, being the real presence of God.” This consummation of evil happens not only through the experience of beauty, but even more so through the Eucharist. Hence adoration is key to burning away evil in one’s heart, something which Weil experienced herself, since she spent hours in adoration every day during the last years of her life.

If the evil inflicted on oneself is not burnt away through an external source of goodness – a process which implies suffering since the evil then turns inward and takes on the form of suffering rather than turning outward and inflicting evil on others – then it will fester in one’s heart. Resentment will be the consequence though it might try to take on the appearance of goodness. Thus Nietzsche was very perceptive in his analysis of resentment in the guise of a morality which is anything but moral.  However, his mistake was to think that this bourgeois goodness was indeed the good, while in reality it was only a counterfeit. This conventional morality with its semblance of goodness is the logical consequence of failing to burn away evil with the help of absolute goodness. For if one does not humbly acknowledge that one lacks goodness, then one will pretend to possess it.

The Cross as Scandal: While the Cross alone gives the ultimate answer on how to deal with evil and is a sign of hope for the afflicted, it is also, as St Paul stated, a scandal. Though it sends a message of hope, this message is not a pleasant one, for it does not give facile answers nor does it allow one to keep up the illusion of a protected, satisfied life. It confronts one with the reality and the inevitability of suffering, of the existence of evil with its dire consequences, namely the killing of the most innocent being imaginable, God Himself. Thus it is a constant challenge, and it is not surprising that people feel uncomfortable being confronted with it in public places or seeing it dangling around people’s necks. It would be surprising if it were any different.

However, it is not a symbol that should be discarded light-heartedly. Its disappearance bodes the coming of a society which lives a lie, which wants to avoid suffering at all costs, and which denies evil, thereby becoming its collaborator. Rejecting the Cross ultimately leads to answering evil with evil. A society without the Cross becomes a place where the weak, the sick, the vulnerable do not have a place. For the logic of love is replaced by the logic of power. The law of the Cross is replaced by social Darwinism and its “survival of the fittest.” If I do not want to bear pain, I will lash out, or I will ignore those who are suffering, or more astutely, I will disguise this rejection of the Cross as “compassion” by claiming to eliminate suffering while in reality eliminating the sufferer (this last option is a counterfeit of Christianity and therefore the most dangerous one). Being in a position where I cannot be hurt will become my ultimate goal, but this can only be achieved by becoming ever more powerful, autonomous and hard-hearted. In contrast, to accept the weak, handicapped, vulnerable means ultimately carrying their cross with them, and letting it become one’s own.

The Cross lies at the very heart of man’s vocation as Simone Weil said. “The crucifixion is the conclusion, the accomplishment of a human destiny. How could a being whose essence it is to love God and who finds himself situated in space and time have any other vocation than the cross?” Without it, human beings become enclosed in their own little self-satisfied world; theirs is an immanence which makes them shrink to an empty shell – for they have lost their heart which is the very backbone of man. Only the Cross gives them a heart big enough to love others and transform the world.

On one level, the Cross is a symbol which can potentially speak to all human beings. It is a sign of hope, of love, of responding to evil in the most positive way imaginable, and of learning how to deal with suffering. Yet, as we have seen, it is also a challenge. As St Paul said, it is folly to the Greeks and a stumbling-block for the Jews. It makes people uncomfortable since it does not proclaim a temporal utopia – though it promises an inner peace and happiness that foreshadows heaven. It is therefore not surprising that it is under attack. This is the old mysterium iniquitatis, love being rejected. Already St Francis cried because Love is not loved. By prohibiting people from wearing crosses or from displaying them in public places, we are removing that love one step further from public awareness. The consequence will not be more freedom, tolerance and self-fulfillment, but rather greater strife and suffering, and less capacity to deal with them.  It is to be hoped therefore that these two British women will find their religious freedom protected in Strasbourg; not so much for their own sakes – though that too – or even for the sake of other Christians, but for the sake of all human beings. By excluding the Cross, we are ultimately eliminating man, for we are destroying that which is the most precious in him.

Marie Meaney

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Marie Meaney received her doctorate and an M. Phil. in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. She is the author of Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature: Her Christological Interpretations of Classic Greek Texts (Oxford University Press, 2007). Her booklet Embracing the Cross of Infertility (HLI) has also appeared in Spanish, German, Hungarian and Croatian. Before the birth of her daughter, she was a teaching fellow at Villanova University.

  • poetcomic1

    The cross is a powerful symbol.  The crucifix with corpus is not a ‘symbol’ it is ‘too real’ for modern man.   The 21st century world is a virtual world of abstractions, fantasy, ‘spin’, fleeting passions – but the suffering is all too real and as von Balthasar said, “The shortest distance between any two human beings is Christ crucified.”  The enemies of the cross are the enemies of truth.

  • TMorson

    Unfortunately this article does not address the issue being contested by the employers. It is all religious symbols that are banned in their work places. The real issue is one of freedom of the individual to express his or her religious beliefs on the employer’s property. Can our freedoms be limited in this way and if yes, what does this say about a society’s claim to espouse freedom?

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