Simone Weil’s Deeper Grace
Is Simone Weil “relevant”? She’s certainly not in the way we typically use the word, meaning a quasi-celebrity figure who occupies a few fleeting seconds of our already worn attention spans. Weil is certainly no Kardashian, caught up in the tautology of fame, relevant simply by virtue of appearing on a screen. But the French pseudo-Catholic mystic and writer who basically starved herself to death in 1943 out of solidarity with the French Resistance also evades that other, slightly more sophisticated kind of relevancy that means expressing bespoke thoughts tailor-made for this particular moment in time. Weil wasn’t aiming for an ephemeral target. If she wasn’t a Kardashian, she also wasn’t a Richard Dawkins, manacled to the intellectual zeitgeist. Instead, her continued relevance derives from a much more profound source: necessity. Her passionately dense writing—on education, violence, humility, love, and the nature of God—has stayed relevant by virtue of the inexhaustible demands of the subject. Weil matters because she writes about the very nature of meaning itself.
Anyone already touched by Weil needs no defense of her work, but some uninitiated might wonder why Plough Publishing House recently released a curated sampling of her work as part of their Plough Spiritual Guides series, called Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us. The small book, around 100 pages in all, is, of course, itself evidence of continued interest in Weil. But the format of the project also reveals a surprisingly often overlooked aspect of Weil’s writing: its pragmatism. Situated somewhere between an anthology and self-help manual, Love in the Void is a useful reminder to neophytes and the experienced alike that Weil’s writing is meant to be concrete, accessible, and useful.
Simone Weil was born to a fairly well-off Jewish family in Paris in 1909. After a charmed childhood in which she and her younger brother were considered something like prodigies, Weil graduated from the École Normale Supérieure with her certificate in “General Philosophy and Logic.” She finished first in the exam. Simone de Beauvoir finished second. Weil eventually earned the equivalent of her Masters and began teaching secondary school. Politically, she’d always sided with the Left (though her tastes ran more towards the charming dishevelment of anarchism and The Durutti Column), but those commitments were deepened and contextualized by a life-long sense of the supernatural. In Waiting for God, she writes, “The idea of purity, with all that this word can imply for a Christian, took possession of me at the age of sixteen…when I was contemplating a mountain landscape.”
For Weil, a yearning for social justice and existential connection to the transcendent were inseparable, and both eventually culminated in a series of mystical awakenings in Assisi in 1937. She was nearly 30 years old, agnostic, had never prayed, yet “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” Weil’s encounter with Christ altered her orientation towards the world, and although she continued to write about the things that had always interested her—politics, education, Greek philosophy—she found her thoughts now “bathed in Christian light.” Her life afterwards was itself marked by a kind of grand spiritual austerity, a constant listening for God amidst the din of the fallen world. Her death was distinguished by this same fierce commitment. Living in exile and working to support the Resistance, she died in 1943 of tuberculosis exacerbated by a starvation diet meant to emulate the rations of her fellow Frenchmen behind the lines. As her first biographer Richard Reese wrote, “As for her death, whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.” More than most thinkers, Weil’s life and death are significant to fully understanding her body of work. Her writing, which vacillates easily between analytical exegesis and the reveries of mystic joy, so often appear as, more than simply ideas to ponder, an invitation to change our lives.
That being so, it’s difficult to know where one would begin with an “introductory” guide to Weil. Angles of approach are baffled by her bucking of systemization and overarching emphasis on an existential imperative for changes in consciousness to affect our conduct. Plough has done an admirable job in avoiding the issue altogether by assembling in Love in the Void not a greatest hits, so to speak, but more a condensed version of Weil’s most pertinent and “useful” writing. This is Weil burned down to her essentials.
The beginning section of Love in the Void is taken from the essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” It might seem odd to begin the book with some of Weil’s thoughts on pedagogy—it certainly would be strange for other mystics and philosophers—but in this case it seems like a useful illustration of Weil’s consistency in using each and every human endeavor as a way of cultivating a relationship with the divine. “Students,” Weil writes, “must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of attention which is the substance of prayer.” Of course one should always want to perform a task well, the desire to do so being indispensable to “true effort,” but the underlying goal, Weil tells us, “should aim solely at the power of attention with a view to prayer….” Right out of the gate we have a greatest hits of Weil’s concerns: desire, will, attention, patience, humility—all virtues whose cultivation Weil tells us are imperative to forming a proper relationship with God. But perhaps most significantly, we have the intense and singular focus of Weil on the task of ultimately synthesizing all earthly activities into participation with divine life. Or as she ends the chapter, “Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament.”
Given Weil’s monkish austerity, it’s an understandable misconception that she was opposed to sensuality. In truth, she stood with Augustine in understanding that we learn to love God first through loving the world. And so the sections of the book taken from the essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” sections that deal with loving God, your neighbor, and beauty, are on some level all functionally related in that each kind of love demands something similar of us. Weil writes, “The implicit love of God can have only three immediate objects, the only three things here below in which God is really though secretly present. These are religious ceremonies, the beauty of the world, and our neighbor. Accordingly there are three loves.” Of course, she tells us that these loves are a “sacrament.”
It’s in writing about the cultivation of these loves that Weil’s work takes on a less ruminative and more practical aspect, if one can call it that. The practicalities of love (which is ultimately a love of God) are addressed with the pragmatic recommendation that we open a void inside of ourselves completely free of our own ego and patiently wait for God to enter. Weil’s reasoning goes something like this: “Either God is not almighty or he is not absolutely good, or else he does not command everywhere where he has the power to do so.” Weil, opting for the latter, believes that at the heart of God’s creative act is not “self expansion” but “restraint and renunciation.” That “God denied himself for our sakes in order to give us the possibility of denying ourselves for him” is an emptying of self-being that echoes in every creative human act as well. Work of the highest order, be it poetry or science, “means self-loss.” And so, Weil tells us with a typical bit of poetic flourish, “Love for our neighbor, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius.” This creative genius, as Weil defines it, is the ability to anticipate and hope for the void, the empty space inside of ourselves where we meet God. She also seems to insinuate that the void can be entered through the created world as well: “The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth.” And since the “beauty of the world is the cooperation of divine wisdom in creation,” if one enters and wanders the labyrinth to eventually arrive at its center, they’ll find “God [there] waiting to eat him.”
This is highly poetic, highly mystical, language, but it does provide a concise description of what it means to orient ourselves towards love. Much of the rest of Love in the Void is taken from entries in Weil’s daily notebooks, and so her concision becomes even more intense, almost like a series of proverbs. This aphoristic style lends itself to Weil’s eschatological imagination. Each phrase surprises, appears universal and self-contained, and in a small way reenacts the moments of grace that Weil implores us to prepare for. The language remains mystical and poetic, but the knowledge itself is uncomplicated. If anything, her words are almost too simple to understand. Take the following for example:
Men owe us what we imagine they will give us. We must forgive them this debt. To accept the fact that they are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God.
I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.
That is perhaps one of the pithiest takes on the emotional and intellectual requirements of forgiveness I’ve ever read. Again, Weil returns to the theme of creating a space for the Other as a metaphor for God’s own act of creation. This metaphor is applicable even when managing our own emotions and resisting the claustrophobia of our own self-image. Others are more than the sum of our ideas about them. We are also more than the sum of our own ideas about ourselves. Most of the rest of the slim book consists of these sorts of aphorisms, many of which are stunning, reading like Christian koans:
The world must be regarded as containing something of a void in order that it may have need of God. That presupposes evil.
Love is not consolation, it is light.
We do not have to acquire humility. There is humility in us. Only we humiliate ourselves before false gods.
The great value of Weil, and something Love in the Void highlights well, is that in standing opposed to our historical moment, she advocates for a deeper moment of grace. The void in ourselves where God finds us is also a temporal void, not entirely disconnected from but absolutely transcending the events of our anodyne lives. Weil tells us in the final chapter of the book that “There are two forms of friendship: meeting and separation.” “When two beings who are not friends are near other,” Weil explains, “there is no meeting.” Likewise, two beings who are not friends don’t feel the pang of separation. This metaphor of distance in relation to an “absent” God is perhaps Weil at her finest. “Even the distress of the abandoned Christ is a good,” she contends. “God can never be perfectly present to us here below on account of our flesh. But he can be almost perfectly absent from us in extreme affliction. This is the only possibility of perfection for us on earth. That is why the cross is our only hope.”
It’s wild, unorthodox in many ways, and always confrontational. Weil’s antagonism towards easy secular definitions of reality are what make her worth reading. And as Love in the Void shows, the secret source of her relevance is truly at its heart a well-needed reminder that the passing fads of the world are themselves irrelevant in a much deeper sense.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.