Waiting for God

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.

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10 Responses to Waiting for God

  1. Jenny says:

    I like what she says about bad experiences of the church too! That’s something I think about a lot: as a Catholic, I see a lot of attitudes in my church that I think are completely unchristian and they make me angry. But I also try to be aware of all the lovely, brilliant, kind, generous churchgoers out there–just because they are less noisy doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

    • Teresa says:

      I had the same experience growing up in the Baptist church. It seemed like all the people who got the attention were nasty pieces of work, even though I knew tons of people in the church who were lovely examples of what a Christian ought to be.

  2. Dear Blogkeeper–

    I loved this review and will link to it. I have only one small quibble to note. With regard to Simone Weil’s view of history reported here (I haven’t read the book and so comment only on the summary here presented), there is an element about it which must undoubtedly be true. Because it happened, it is God’s will. Now that said, I have to be careful to nuance it. When I say it is God’s will, I do not mean it is His ordained will, or what He desired for history and humanity, rather, it is His permissive will–that is, what He allows to happen because otherwise there is a compromise of free will and we become mere puppets in amidst his meddlings with space-time. Having not read Weil, I cannot say where she comes down on this question. But if we believe in God as an active and moving agent, as omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, then at the very least He must allow what does happen because the potential exists in Him to nullify it. That may be what Ms. Weil was getting at. As I said, not having read the book, I cannot comment to that.

    However, it is a minor point and one for fruitful discussion. Let me conclude by reiterating how very much I enjoyed this post.

    shalom,

    Steven

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. There was so much meat to chew on in this book!

      I absolutely agree with you that the distinction between God’s permissive will and his ordained will is crucial, and I don’t think Weil makes that distinction clearly enough. She dances around it a bit in one of the essays where she talks about God surrendering His will and giving us free will, but I found her analysis of what that means to be a bit muddy (which may very well be due to my lack of understanding).

      In a different essay (“Concerning the Our Father”), she says that we are to desire everything that has happened, not because it is good, but because God allowed it. This is the part I found troubling. She does use the word allowed, which is good, but I’m unwilling to accept that God *desires* great tragedies, and so I’m unwilling to desire them myself.

      • Teresa,

        Thank you–that makes it much clearer, and it does fall into that disturbing strain of religious thinking that we sometimes run across. (The idea that that saints in heaven rejoice at the sight of souls in Hell because it demonstrates God’s justice is another example of this same strain–a strain I repudiate and to which I have the same reaction you do.) Thanks again!

        shalom,

        Steven

  3. teadevotee says:

    Extremely interesting post. I’m also guilty of reading a lot ABOUT people without actually reading their own work.

    • Teresa says:

      That habit of just reading *about* people is one I’m trying to get away from, although I do like to supplement my reading of primary texts with some sort of biographical material, even if it’s just Wikipedia.

      I do recommend the Penguin Great Ideas series for short bites of the great thinkers. And if you’re looking for short bites by great devotional writers like Weil, Richard Foster has a couple of collections (Devotional Classics and Spiritual Classics).

  4. I recently picked this up at a book sale. Interesting thoughts….it certainly sounds like something I might enjoy.

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