Seeing Things: The Mystery of the Agony of Simone Weil

I do not know whether the French mystic and writer Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a saint. On balance, I think not. She may have been something even rarer: a true contemplative who still had many deep flaws.

In the plus column, Weil wrote about spiritual questions with a penetration that may be unequaled since John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. When you read through her work, you frequently come upon many authentic gems such as:

  • “The good seems to us a nothingness, since there is no thing that is good. But this nothingness is not unreal. Compared with it everything in existence is unreal.”
  • “Hell is a nothingness which has the pretension and gives the illusion of being.”
  • “Everything, without exception, that is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift, but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed.”

Paul VI regarded her (together with Pascal and Bernanos) as the greatest influences on his intellectual development. Camus, the most humane existentialist, meditated in Weil’s Paris room before he left for Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. And Weil has fascinated many secular intellectuals who are attracted to Catholicism but cannot entirely accept the Church.

In the minus column, she was as exasperating a person as ever lived. In her drive for purity and perfection, she was pigheaded and often disastrously wrong. Her friend Gustave Thibon candidly reports: “This soul who wanted to be flexible to every movement of the divine will, could not bear the course of events, or the kindness of her friends, altering by one iota the positioning of the stakes with which she had marked the path of self-immolation.” Doctors who treated her shortly before her death thought her the most difficult patient they ever had. Her death certificate characterizes her unwillingness to eat as suicide.

So evaluating Weil is difficult. Francine du Plessix Gray has recently made a fresh attempt in Simone Weil, one of the latest biographies in the Penguin Lives Series. Gracefully written, scrupulously researched, and admirably balanced, it is the best short work of its kind in English. Gray does better with the biographical details and political views than with the mysticism, but on the whole paints a fair portrait of a strange figure.

Weil grew up in Paris in a highly assimilated, bourgeois Jewish family. Her father was a doctor and her mother, heir to a business fortune, ran family life rigorously. The children were both pampered and driven. Toys and dolls were banned. Weil and her brother Andre, later a world-famous mathematician, were goaded into intellectual feats. They taught themselves various subjects, spoke to each other in ancient Greek, and memorized long passages from literature. The children had no idea they were Jewish for a decade.

Weil acquired some quirks early on in her life. Intense study led to lifelong migraines. The family had a virtual phobia about germs and washed obsessively. Kissing and physical contact were all but nonexistent. Mme. Weil compulsively watched over their diets. This was the beginning of what is often described as Weil’s “eating disorder” which was connected with a sense of unworthiness and resembled anorexia. But from the beginning Weil also showed unique spiritual traits: At five she refused to eat sugar because it was unavailable to World War I soldiers at the front. She died in England during World War II partly because she would not eat more than she thought rationing allowed her fellow citizens in France.

Her heroism and holiness were mixed with neuroses in ways that are impossible to untangle. In one circle, she became known as “the Categorical Imperative in skirts” (and the skirts she wore were of the least feminine kind). She succeeded at the university but identified with peasants and workers, and took farm and factory jobs. But Weil was so physically frail and clumsy that she was mostly a hazard to herself and others.

Weil went through the usual leftist causes: communism, unions, the International Brigades in Spain, strict pacifism (a stance she later regretted, acknowledging that pacifism had contributed to the Nazi triumph over France). Unlike most leftists, she renounced sex. Rape was the only crime she believed warranted capital punishment. But as her utopian impulses were disappointed by one secular ideology after another, she quite unexpectedly found herself turning to religion.

The first sign came in a Portuguese fishing village where she was transported by the peasant hymns sung during a religious procession. In Italy, she was fascinated with Mass at St. Peter’s and underwent a powerful experience in Assisi: “Something stronger than myself compelled me, for the first time in my life, to go down on my knees.” Finally, during Easter week at the Benedictine Abbey at Solesmes, “the concept of Christ’s passion entered into my being once and for all.”

Her first mystical experience occurred while she was repeating George Herbert’s poem “Love”: “I used to think I was reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that…Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”

Given Weil’s brutal honesty, we should take this literally. She seems to have had similar experiences almost daily. But as with everything else in her life, this mysticism was mixed with eccentricities. She frequently attended Mass. But she hesitated to join the Church. She took a jaundiced and heretical view of Judaism: “I have never been able to understand how it is possible for a reasonable mind to look on the Jehovah of the Bible and the Father who is invoked in the Gospel as one and the same being.” Early Christianity faced this question in various Gnostic sects. It chose continuity; Weil chose Gnosticism. She also thought the Roman Empire a precursor to Nazism and Roman impulses a corruption in the Church.

She was also wary of groups, or rather she felt the attraction so powerfully that she worried that human fellowship might make her unfaithful to truth. Of course, this is a real danger. But Weil explained her position by claiming that Christ only appears where two or three are gathered together; anything more is group-think of the kind that led to Nazism. That this would make nonsense of the twelve apostles or the thousands who heard the Sermon on the Mount oddly never occurred to her.

Gray’s book reveals something previously disputed: Weil was baptized anyway. Simone Deitz performed this service during Weil’s final illness. Weil merely said: “Go ahead, it can’t do any harm.” She had instructed Deitz that if she fell into a coma, she wanted to be baptized. Even more oddly, she had earlier persuaded her brother, who had no prior Christian interests, to baptize his daughter.

All her adult life Weil claimed that it was her particular vocation to be outside the Church as a witness to outsiders. That was only one of the things that made her attractive to intellectuals. At points, she asserted that the Hindu, Babylonian, and Egyptian (but not the Hebrew) Scriptures were literally the same revelations as we find in the gospel, as were certain pagan myths. It was sheer nonsense, and such an intelligent mind could have come to it only because she felt an irresistible vocation to speak to modern unbelief.

Saints in every age have done and said things others thought were simply mad. Certainly to read Weil on the spiritual life—even in such passages—is to meet with a logic and almost a science of the spirit that is nowhere else to be found. More than any other Western spiritual figure, she seems to have discovered a path to contemplation entirely on her own. That strength is also her weakness. Spiritual traditions can blind us, but so can the belief that we have a special revelation. Weil richly repays study. But she is both a beacon and a warning.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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