I’m not sure where I first learned about the early-20th-century French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil, but I’ve been curious about her for years. Given my penchant for learning about great thinkers by reading their own words, rather than others’ words about them, this short collection of letters and essays seemed like a great way to get started with Weil.
The book opens with a series of letters Weil wrote in 1942 to her friend Father Joseph Perrin. In these letters, she writes about her spiritual journey, focusing particularly on her decision not to be baptized and, by doing so, join the church. Here, she writes of her fear:
What frightens me is the Church as a social structure. Not only on account of its blemishes, but from the very fact that it is something social. It is not that I am of a very individualistic temperament. I am afraid for the opposite reason. I am aware of very strong gregarious tendencies in myself. My natural disposition is to be very easily influenced, too much influenced, and above all by anything collective.
Weil’s fear is certainly understandable. Any student of church history will know that many believers have been led astray through the terrible choices of some church leaders. I know I’ve let the “wisdom of the crowd” guide me to some unfortunate conclusions. It happens to the best of us. However, such fear does not, for me, overshadow the benefit of being part of a community, and of a church community in particular. I do appreciate that Weil does not seem to see herself as superior to the church. She actually seems to feel some regret that she is, in her view, too weak-willed to trust herself to withstand the potentially negative pressures that might come with church membership. And she clearly states that she will be baptized if she receives a clear message from God that she should do so.
A section of a long essay that appears later in the collection, “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” builds on the discussion of why people reject the church:
The form that the love of religion takes in the soul differs a great deal according to the circumstances of our lives. Some circumstances prevent the very birth of this love; others kill it before it has been able to grow very strong. In affliction, some men, in spite of themselves, develop a hatred and contempt for religion because the cruelty, pride, or corruption of certain of its ministers have made them suffer. There are others who have been reared from their earliest youth in surroundings impregnated with a spirit of this sort. We must conclude that in such cases, by God’s mercy, the love of our neighbor and the love of the beauty of the world, if they are sufficiently strong and pure, will be enough to raise the soul to any height.
There’s a lot of truth in this, and I love Weil’s suggestion that God’s mercy is great enough to raise souls that find it impossible to love the church. I was speaking to a friend recently about this in regards to people who reject Christianity out of disgust at the (patently unchristian, IMO) attitudes of people like Fred Phelps. I think if that’s all some people see of the church, God would probably prefer that they reject it.
I also loved her thoughts on study in “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”:
Twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of the kind of frowning application that leads us to say with a sense of duty done: “I have worked well!”
Wow! How often have I spent hours reading without really taking in the words before my eyes, just so I can check off a box and say I’m done. But what’s the joy in that? Where’s the learning? In the same essay, Weil writes that “the joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.” Having spent the last couple of semesters resenting my school assignments instead of taking pleasure in them, this really spoke to me. When I don’t take joy in my studies, I end up just throwing papers together, doing the bare minimum so I can move on to something that does give me pleasure. And then I don’t end up learning nearly as much as I do when immersing myself in something that I chose to do.
In all her essays, Weil seems intent on a God-focused spirituality. Whatever the church has done, God is all-powerful and wholly good. Any hope we have comes from God. For Weil, God is the greatest and most important thing any of us can contemplate. This does not, however, mean that every thought we have must directly focus on God at every moment. We are also to love our neighbors, and this at times means taking our explicit thoughts away from God. The important thing in Weil’s mind seems to be that we avoid thoughts of ourselves.
As much as I admire Weil’s attitude of self-denial, I’m not convinced that it is tenable for most people. In fact, I think some of her readings of scripture that lead to this conclusion are on the tortured side. For instance, in the final essay in this collection, “Concerning the Our Father,” she sees the bread in the Lord’s Prayer (“Give us this day our daily bread”) as something totally spiritual, not as daily sustenance. If I read the Greek correctly, this verse is all about physical sustenance—it’s a prayer that we get what we need to get through the day. Yes, Jesus calls himself the bread of life, but that doesn’t mean literal bread should be beyond our concern. In Weil’s case, this extreme view actually took a tragic turn. According to Wikipedia, some have attributed her death at the young age of 34 to her decision to starve herself, either as a show of solidarity to war victims or in response to her reading of Schopenhauer.
I also take issue with some of Weil’s views on history (because it happened, it must be God’s will), and her discussion of affliction seemed overly muddy and hard to follow. Overall, though, I found Weil’s writings to be insightful and interesting. I’m not entirely in agreement with her in every particular, nor do I entirely understand her thought, but that’s not an uncommon situation when I read philosophical writings. There was enough of value here to make it worth my time.