English-speaking Christianity enjoys an embarrassment of riches when it comes to talented defenders of the faith. But there are also treasures outside of the Anglophone tradition. One such is Simone Weil who lies buried in the Bybrook Cemetery in Ashford. Her life and thought merit careful attention, particularly with regards to the most intractable of theological problems – evil and pain. Simone Weil was born in Paris in 1909. Her father was a doctor and her mother a devoted guardian of her children’s education. Life was a comfortable upper middle-class existence. Both Simone and her brother André were extraordinarily bright. Weil became one of the first women to graduate from the prestigious École Normale Supérieur. She received the degree of agrégée de philosophie which was awarded exclusively to the top few graduates each year. In fact, she pipped the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir by finishing top in their class.
The socialist cause
After graduation, Weil became a philosophy teacher at a girls’ secondary school. She described herself as a Marxist and a trade unionist. She devoted herself to giving evening classes to workers and supporting strikes – much to the outrage of her students’ affluent parents. In 1933 she participated in the General Strike in protest at unemployment and wage cuts. The exiled hero of the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky even stayed as a guest in her parents’ home that year.
Her most dramatic involvement in the socialist cause came in 1936 when she volunteered to fight on the Republican side against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Weil’s clumsy nature and short-sightedness meant her commanders refused to give her combat duties. This clumsiness likely led to her burning her foot badly while cooking for her comrades. Because of this she was taken by her parents to recuperate in Assisi.
In her teens, Weil defined herself as an agnostic. But in 1935 she had the first of three profound mystical experiences that converted her to Christianity. While on holiday in Portugal she was enchanted by the sound of a group of villagers singing hymns during an outdoor service. Her second experience came while visiting the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi. She found the small chapel where St Francis would pray and, for the first time in her life, she prayed too. Her third revelation was the most powerful. She had learned George Herbert’s poem Love III and while reciting it, she suddenly felt Christ come down and take possession of her. From then on, her writings took on a more spiritual nature.
In Her Own Words
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Pain and suffering are a kind of currency passed from hand to hand until they reach someone who receives them but does not pass them on.
On the ego
The grace of God is the only force in the spiritual universe that causes a person to grow against the gravity of their own ego.
I suffer more from the humiliations inflicted by my country than from those inflicted on her.
When living in Marseilles having fled the Nazi occupation of May 1940, Weil received spiritual direction from a Dominican friar and became a good friend of Gustave Thibon, a Catholic writer who later edited her work. In 1942 she left France with her parents for the safety of the United States, but her true desire was to join the French Resistance. Eventually she travelled to London where she joined the Resistance who decided to train her to work as a secret wireless operator in France, reporting to London on the German military. Ill health in the form of tuberculosis prevented this dangerous dream and as her condition rapidly deteriorated, she was admitted to a sanatorium in Ashford. She died there aged 34.
Weil did not shrink from suffering for her beliefs and risking her life in order to achieve a political goal. That is one reason why she was able to approach the problems of evil and suffering from new perspectives.
In her essay The Love of God and Affliction, Weil argues that just as God finds his creation good (Genesis 1:21), so he wishes his creation to find itself good too. That is why he has created human beings who can appreciate the goodness of what he has made. We are, as Weil describes, souls attached to bodies for just such a purpose. Beauty is part of the cosmos’ goodness and Weil uses the undulating folds of the sea’s waves as an example. She explains that evil and suffering appear to be part of the price for the world’s beauty. Ships sink at sea, but the sea is no less beautiful to us. If the sea altered its movement to spare ships, it would become a conscious being exercising choice like a human being, and no longer an immense liquid that is nevertheless perfectly obedient to every external pressure. It is that obedience that Weil describes as beautiful and it is beauty that points human attention to God, its creator.
There are types of evil and pain that are able to improve human beings and bring out their best side. A person who has endured a crisis might look back on it and be glad of the maturity it produced in them, even though they suffered the stress the situation brought. For the Christian, suffering at the hands of others and the natural world provides the occasion to learn to trust in the God who in all situations “works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).
But what of those evils that are so great, no good can conceivably come from them? Weil calls such suffering ‘affliction’ or ‘malheur’. She denies that affliction is invincible because of the constancy of God’s love from which the believer cannot be separated (Romans 8:35-39). In the midst of affliction, contact with God’s love can be joyous. She argues the afflicted believer ought to recognise that their suffering can itself be a contact with God’s love. We should imagine being reunited with a friend who on seeing us again embraces us so hard that it hurts. It hurts as much as when a person who wishes us harm might grip us, but in this case it is the love of a friend that grasps us tightly. As we are separated from God by his creation, it is through the material of his creation that God takes hold of us. That grip can be so strong it hurts, and yet it is an indirect contact with his love.
This idea might seem strange or even offensive to us because it appears to make God responsible for much of our suffering. To understand Weil’s point, it is important to explore how she interpreted the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.
Evil and suffering appear to be part of the price for the world’s beauty
The father and son
The Father and Son are united through their love for one another, but through his incarnation, God the Son became separated by a distance from his Father by entering the material world. While alive on earth, Christ was afflicted by becoming sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) and as a result he was separated from his Father completely, for holiness and sin cannot have anything to do with each other. The Son consented to being separated from the Father for our salvation because not only do the Father and Son love us, they love each other. They remain united over the great distance that divides them because of the love that exists at both ends. This distance is a measure of the love between Father and Son: it demonstrates that no matter how far apart the Son is from the Father, their mutual love transcends the distance.
The same is true of the believer who finds themselves at a distance from God because of their sin and because they live in the physical universe which causes them to suffer, and which contains agents of evil. But they can experience, as Christ did, the Father’s love as something that reaches over the distance and takes hold of them. It is the greatest of loves because it reaches the furthest and makes what is unlovable the recipient of perfect love.
Acting rather than thinking
Weil was a woman who suffered deeply, whether through her great capacity for empathy for those suffering, or whether through her own sufferings. She might have enjoyed a cosseted existence, at least until the Second World War’s outbreak, and even then she had the option of a safe refuge in New York, but Weil was convinced that a person only becomes who they truly are through acting, rather than only thinking. She could not stand aside and ignore the plight of the working class during the Great Depression, or her fellow French citizens under the jackboot of Nazism. It is no surprise that such an active person as Weil would see the Christian’s reaction to evil and pain not as a passive suffering, but as an active response in which the believer holds on to God as much as God holds on to them.
When her good friend Thibon saw Weil for the last time, he described the tuberculosis-ridden and possibly anorexic Weil as an “absolutely transparent soul” ready to be “reabsorbed into original light”. Weil had found the greatest expression of God’s love in this world at the extremity of her own suffering, and that is what gave her a supernatural peace. That extreme suffering was not so much the pain of her dying body as the knowledge that so many remained suffering under Nazi rule. As her first biographer, Richard Rees, perceptively wrote, Simone Weil “died of love”.
Peter Harris teaches English and History at a secondary school and is writing his PhD on Christopher Hitchens’ antitheism with Trinity Theological College and Seminary. He is also a freelance writer and blogs at thehouseofsocrates.wordpress.com