‘In spite of everything, he does love me’ – Simone Weil and her enigmatic visitor
Simone Weilwas born in Paris on 9 February, 1909. She was a French social activist, a spiritual writer, a philosopher and a mystic of Jewish origin (1). She is considered one of the 19th century most enigmatic and fascinating women. Albert Camus wrote that she was “the only great spirit of our times”(2). T. S. Eliot described her as “a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints”(3).
Not many people know that she is also considered the prototype of the Chinese ‘Culture Christians’, a group of scholars who sparked a hope of a new cultural season for Christianity in China since the 1990s. They are attracted by the anti-establishment, irregular, and anti-institutional elements of Simone Weil’s Christian faith, and her existence as a Christian without baptism and church. As we will see, she refused until nearly the end of her life, to enter the Catholic Church, objecting to the dogmatic pronouncements and condemnations.
Many people, who have difficulty believing and being part of a church, find her story fascinating. Her struggles and failures, and even her death, touch and speak to the heart of many contemporaries, as she discovered Christianity after passing through syndicalism, anarchism, communism and the in-depth study of oriental religions.
The religion of slaves
Simone worked in a factory to share the plight of the workers. In December 1931, she hosted fugitive Soviet leader Leon Trotsky at her parents’ house. In 1936, she volunteered for service in the Spanish Civil War. Her revolutionary enthusiasm, mitigated by her refusal to participate in direct combat, resulted in bitter failure, as she accidentally injured herself and had to withdraw.
Simone worked in a Renault factory for some time in 1935, but she became physically and spiritually exhausted. Her parents then took her to Portugal to recuperate. During this time, Simone took part in a religious procession in a fishermen’s village.
The little Portuguese village was, like me, very wretched. I was alone. There was a full moon over the sea. The wives of the fishermen were, in procession, making a tour of all the ships, carrying candles and singing what must certainly be very ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness. Nothing can give any idea of it. I have never heard anything so poignant. There the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others (4).
This statement is remarkably different from the Marxist doctrine of religion as the opium of the people. This first mystical-like episode in her life marks the beginning of her distancing herself from Marxism and her inclination toward Christianity.
In 1938, in Assisi, she felt the compulsion to fall to her knees in prayer.
There, alone in the little twelfth century Romanesque chapel [the Porziuncola], an incomparable marvel of purity where Saint Francis often used to pray, something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees (5).
The following year, while spending Holy Week at the Benedictine monastery in Solesmes in France, Simone experienced something that “marked her forever.” She was emotionally wretched, and was afflicted with a particularly painful round of headaches, a condition that devastated her all her life.
In the darkness of the chapel she tried, through tremendous concentration, to identify the pain she was suffering with the passion of Christ. She described her experience with poignant words, saying that
I was able to rise above this wretched flesh, to leave it to suffer by itself, heaped up in a corner, and to find a pure and perfect joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and the words. In the course of these services the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all (6).
A young Englishman there introduced her to a poem, entitled ‘Love’ by the seventeenth century English poet, George Herbert. Simone was moved by the poem and memorized it:
Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely 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. (…) I felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face (7).
After this mystical experience, Simone started the daily recitation of the Our Father:
The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me, and it exceeds my expectation at each repetition. At times the very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space where there is neither perspective nor point if view. (…) Sometimes during this recitation Christ is present with me in person. His presence is infinitely more real, more moving, more clear than on that first occasion when he took possession of me (8).
Always with the excluded
In 1941, in Marseilles, Simone met Joseph Marie Perrin, a Dominican friar with who, like Simone, was afflicted by suffering. They began an intense correspondence and discussed the possibility of Simone of receiving baptism. But Simon wanted to stay outside the church, with those who were excluded by ecclesiastical condemnations by “the use of the two little words: anathema sit” (9), a Latin expression which mean ‘to be excommunicated’.
One of her paradoxical expressions was that she was ready to die for the church, but not to enter it. For this drastic empathy with the outcast, she, Simone, was defined as the “saint of the excluded” (André Gide). When she was arrested in Marseille in 1942, for activity against the French pro-Nazi government, the judge threatened to throw her in the same jail cell occupied by women prostitutes. Far for feeling humiliated, her reply disconcerted the judge. She said it would be a honor for her to be associated with the prostitutes, and she was looking forward to sharing a prison cell with them.
The private holocaust
In the last days of her short and dramatic life, Simone asked to be baptized. Along with Charles De Gaulle and Maurice Schumann, Simone joined the French resistance in London. In May, 1944, Simone was admitted to the Middlesex Hospital in London, suffering from tuberculosis. She asked for the French chaplain, the Abbé de Naurois, who refused to baptize her on account of her “Jewish stubbornness”. She called then her female friend, Simone Deitz – herself a Christian convert of Jewish descent – to baptize her ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’.
Simone Weil died on August 24, 1944. She was only 34 years old. The death was the consequence of her dedication to her ideals. She refused to receive treatment and sufficient food in solidarity with French people who were suffering under Nazi occupation. The self-sacrifice was rightly defined as a private holocaust.
Come with me…
After her death, a text was found which describes, in a mysterious fashion, her troubled relationship with Jesus and the church. Using the obscure language of the mystics, Simone narrates the parable of her life; her dramatic and unconventional experience of Jesus, which Simone described as an encounter with an enigmatic guest with whom she shares some unforgettable days in a mysterious attic. This dramatic and fascinating narrative is still little known outside the circle of Simone Weil’s readers and experts. I will write here an abstract, hopefully the readers would be interested enough to look for the entire text:
He entered my room and said: ‘Come with me and I’ll teach you of things you cannot even imagine.’ I followed him.
He made me go climb an attic with an open window from which I could see the whole city.
We were alone. He spoke. It was no longer winter. It wasn’t yet springtime. The tree branches were bare, without buds, out in the cold and sun.
Daylight would climb, dazzle, and fade, and then the moon and starlight would come in through the window. Then once again the morning sun would arise.
Occasionally he would grow silent and take a loaf of bread from the shelf, and we would share it. That bread truly had the taste of bread. I have never found that taste since.
He would pour out for both of us wine that tasted of the sun and earth where the city had been built.
Sometimes we would stretch out on the attic floor, and the sweetness of sleep would come over me. Then I would wake up again and drink in the sunlight.
He had promised me a teaching, but he didn’t teach me at all. We talked about all kinds of things, in no particular fashion, like old friends.
One day he told me, ‘Go away now.’ I fell to my knees, I flung my arms around his legs, I begged him not to chase me away. But he threw me out onto the stairs.
I went downstairs stunned, my heart shattered. I walked around in the streets. Then I realized I had no idea where that house was.
I have never tried to find it again. I understood that he had only come to get me by mistake. My place is not in that attic. It is anywhere at all, in a prison cell, in the waiting room of a train station, anywhere at all – but not in the attic.
I can’t keep myself from repeating sometimes, with fear and trembling, some of what he told me. How can I be sure of remembering exactly? He isn’t here to tell me.
I know quite well that he doesn’t love me. How could he love me? And yet something deep within, a particle of myself, can’t help thinking, all the while trembling with fear, that perhaps, in spite of everything, he does love me (10).
(1) All the quotations are from (edited by) George A. Panichas, The Simon Weil Reader. New York: David McKay Company, 1981.
(2) Ibid. xvii.
(3) Ibid. xvii.
(4) Ibid. 14-15.
(5) Ibid. 15.
(6) Ibid. 15.
(7) Ibid. 15-16.
(8) Ibid. 18.
(9) Ibid. 22.
(10) Ibid. 410-411.