Simone Weil is not a Christian mystic. She’s not Christian period.

Simone Weil is not a Christian mystic.  She’s not Christian period.  Nor Jewish.

Often called a Christian mystic, nothing could be further from the truth.  Wikipedia labels Weil’s “school” as “modern Platonism,” which is only slightly less misleading.  Weil developed a post-Christian, post-Western theology in her later work.  Lissa McCullough argues that Weil’s universalism can be characterized as religious pragmatism, and that seems about right

Religious conceptions prove their value by their effectiveness in bringing about an attitude of amor fati — perfect humility, obedience, longing for justice, and action that is consistent with the ineluctable truth of finitude and death.  (p 236)

Weil was particularly interested in Buddhism.

Weil is a harsh critic of the institutionalized church, likening it to the Great Beast, a collection of egos bent on the sanctification of their satisfaction. 

Not your ordinary Christian

The crucifixion of Christ is where force meets submission to force, and submission is made holy.  Weil shares this view with several contemporary theologians.  God wins by losing, Christ’s power made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  The incarnation and crucifixion are enough for Weil.  Resurrection spoils it; sacrifice not salvation is what religion is all about.

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Simone Weil: The Need for Roots

Simone Weil: The Need for Roots

Because she concentrates on the relationship between the individual and the universal, man and God, Weil generally regards the collectivity, society, as an idol.  Whether we know it or not, most of us worship this idol, which means thinking and acting the way people in our position in society are supposed to think and act.  The world begins and ends with the society in which we live.

The need for roots

It comes as a surprise, then, to see how important the community is to Weil.  The Need for Roots, was written during the early months of 1943; she would be dead by the end of that summer.  Weil argues that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”  The damage that springs from rootlessness is the curse of contemporary life.  “Whoever is uprooted, himself uproots others.”

Though she spent a lifetime arguing against “the collective,” the Great Beast that is society, she recognizes that the collectivity is “the sole agency for preserving these spiritual treasurers accumulated by the dead.”  (Roots, 41, 45, 8).

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Paying Attention with Simone Weil

Paying Attention with Simone Weil.

Well known, at least among those who study Weil (perhaps a few thousand), is her concept of attention.  Less well known is the way in which Iris Murdoch, Oxford don and novelist, adapted the term.  The idea is a good one, but Weil gets it mixed up with self-denial, her desire to be nothing more than “a certain intersection of nature and God.” (Love of God, pp 462-463)

For Weil, attention (attention) means to suspend thinking, leaving one’s mind detached, empty, ready to be entered by the other.  Attention means not always trying to know, not categorizing, but waiting, as though the other could participate in forming the idea we have of it.  “Attention is the highest and purest form of generosity.”  Attention is the opposite of a thought that has seized upon some idea too hastily, and thinks it knows (Weil, Reflections, pp 48-49).  For Weil, attention requires self-emptying.  In attention,

the soul empties itself of all its contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all its truth. (Reflections, p 51)

Weil is mistaken.  I have no other way of knowing an other’s suffering (or joy) except by trying to find comparable experiences in myself.  It’s the only way we can know: to be open but not empty.  I know others not by knowing myself, but by feeling myself resonating with the experiences of others.  The more in touch with my feelings, the better I can experience the feelings of others.

Iris Murdoch

The term “attention” was adapted and adopted by Iris Murdoch, who was deeply influenced by Weil, more so than by any other woman.

The enemies of art and of morals, that is the enemies of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis.

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“The great mystery of life is not suffering but affliction.”

“The great mystery of life is not suffering but affliction.”—Simone Weil

Simone Weil (1909-1943), born Jewish, stood on the edge of converting to Christianity for most of her adult life.  Perhaps she was baptized, perhaps not, the evidence is unclear.  She is best known as a Christian mystic, though that ignores her very down to earth work, such as her involvement in the trade union movement, and with the international volunteers in Spain.  Weil starved herself to death in sympathy with the occupied French.  If you think that makes sense, you may stand closer to Weil than you think, closer than you should.

If biography were philosophy, we could dismiss Weil as emotionally disturbed.  Disturbed or not, she wrote brilliant essays on a variety of topics.  As she grew older, most were about God.  It is her essay on “The Love of God and Affliction” that I am concerned with.  It’s a brilliant essay, and it’s quite wrong.

The mystery of affliction

What does Weil mean by the mystery of affliction (malheur)?  It is not surprising, she says, that the innocent are killed, or that people suffer from disease.  Criminals and germs (nature) account for that.  But it is surprising that God would have given affliction the power to seize the souls of the innocent and possess them as though they were the worst people on earth.

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