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The free spirit of Simone Weil

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At a certain moment in her life, Simone de Beauvoir noticed she felt jealous of the heart of Simone Weil that knew how to beat for the entire universe. Simone Weil, a French philosopher of Jewish origin, spiritual thinker and political activist, turned to the Christian belief after some intensely penetrating religious experiences, although she always refused to become a member of a church. About twenty years ago her book  Waiting for God was translated in the Netherlands. In 2003 followed Sought by God. Thereafter nothing anymore. Not until 2020 the book Love is light was published, followed by What are we fighting for? And What is sacred in man? Recently the translation of the book L’Enracinement has been published under the title ‘Rooting – What do we owe to humankind? (Declaration of duties towards Mankind)’.

What is the reason that now an increasing number of her books is being translated? What was driving Simone Weil when she wrote:

The lack of insight into the needs of the human soul has caused a world adrift?

 

Simone Weil is born in Paris on February 3rd, 1909. Although her parents have a Jewish origin, she and her brother André – later famous as a mathematician – are raised as agnostics. Religion played no role in the family, however, all the more did culture and science. Thanks to her 3 years older brother Simone acquires at a young age knowledge of both math and physics as well as knowledge of spiritual science. She learns to think in a methodical way and based on this knowledge she, later on, formulates her spiritual thoughts. When she concludes:

Two powers rule the universe: light and gravity,

she writes about how gravity not only works in nature but also in society, in personal relations, and in one’s own soul.  She writes about how light powers and gravity, two opposites, can harmoniously merge when a person is prepared to fully accept its weight. When someone as it were has the wish to willingly suffer provided that is in the advantage of the light. She supposes she is standing in her brother’s shadow, but discovers that each person can reach the truth, as long as he or she craves for the truth and is continuously directed towards it with all his attention.

 This becomes a returning theme in her life. For her, attention is the spiritual level enabling us to learn to live with heaviness, with weight, to be able and willing to surpass ‘your ego, the egocentric will’. For attention has to do with opening up, with biding, awaiting, Waiting for God, for light that descends. It presupposes faith and love.  The light makes it possible to love the gravity, the heaviness, and therefore even when it hurts us and we are suffering from it. Absolute pure attention brought to its highest possible grade is equal to praying, she states. Several times a day she concentrates on two ‘prayers’: Our Father, to which she added her own remarks – which can be found in her book Waiting for God – and the poem Love by George Herbert.

I often forced myself to recite the poem, with all my attention and my entire soul tending towards the tenderness that the poem lines contained. I thought I recited it because it was a beautiful poem, but without being aware of it, this reciting became a prayer.

However, with praying and seeking you will not find God yourself, as she emphatically states. A human being does not find God, it is always God who finds the human being.

We cannot take a single step into heaven. God traverses the universe and comes to us.

To her attention apparently is much more than a way to obtain knowledge; attention brings light into the soul. Successfully she participates in the ‘École Normale Supérieure’ (university), where she is taught by the philosopher Emile Chartier (1868-1951), who published under the name of Alain. Her fellow students are Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. She writes an essay about Descartes and graduates in 1931 summa cum laude in philosophy. She becomes a teacher and teaches during some years, is however dismissed because she would supposedly be too left orientated and because she is a member of the workers movement and joins in demonstrations.

Despite the agony of tremendously strong migraine attacks and a weak physical constitution she decides to share the life of the workers in the Renault factory as an unskilled worker. Very hard work, actually too hard. But she wishes to experience the ‘situation of the worker’ from within. She seeks the physical contact with reality and wonders about the effect of the mind-numbing physical work on all those less-fortunate people at the construction line.

She experiences and deeply finds what alienation and exhaustion of body and soul are. This experience of being de-rooted will later on take an even bigger place in her thoughts, when she discovers that

the church has generated too many mistakes at a very early stage, (…)

That Europe was spiritually de-rooted, cut off from ancient times, where all elements of our civilization find their origin. 

And she sighs:

How our lives would change, when one would learn to acknowledge that Greek geometry and christian faith were generated from one and the same source.

When in 1940 Paris is occupied by Germany, she leaves with her parents to Marseille. There she becomes involved in the resistance and has to flee with her parents to New York in 1942. She feels unhappy, has the feeling that she has abandoned France and wishes to join the French resistance again. She is not allowed to go back to France, but after repeated requests she obtains a visa to go to London, where the French government in exile gives her the order to write down her thoughts about the spiritual rebuilding of France.

When writing she wonders what is needed in order to reach a healthy society; how people can root in a new way during and after a chaotic period of time.

She works in a tremendously dedicated way. The boek L’Enracinement -  Rooting – What do we owe to humankind – is her last exertion. Weakened, it appears that she is nonresistant to tuberculosis, which causes her death at the age of 34 years. A death from solidarity, we could say, because she refused to eat more than the population in the occupied German zones.

Her philosophical legacy consists of many thousands essays, political pamphlets, diary notes, aphorisms and letters, which were posthumously published by Albert Camus’ efforts among others, who called her the greatest spirit of his time. The period between the 26th and 28th year of her life appears to be crucial. In 1935 she travels to Portugal with her parents and experiences there her first living contact with the spirituality of the Christian faith.

She experienced the physical and economic exploitation as a factory workers. When she witnesses a procession in a fisherman’s village, she experiences the

sudden certainty that Christianity is by far the religion of slaves, and that slaves cannot do otherwise than to join, me, amidst the others, included,

she writes in Waiting for God.

Slaves are human beings who with all their heart surrender to God, just like ‘slaves’.

Being completely in service of, or even more than just being in service of, but entirely and totally being of that love itself. ‘Slaves’ are those who posses an obedient mind out of ‘free consent’ to love. For her it is about to learn to stand in ‘total availability’ for the light, the Christ.

Only when obedience was agreed to, exists true freedom. The core of her attention is not only the love for God. Charity is one with God and belongs to it. In her vision the fullness of charity proves itself in the ability to ask the fellow human being: ‘What is the nature of your suffering?’ Just as Parcival in the grail legend was supposed to give attention to the sick king Amphortas.

In 1937 she is in Assisi, in the small chapel of St. Francis, and there, she writes,

For the first time in my life I was forced down on my knees.

The following year she spends ten days in the monastery of Solesmes. During the messes of the silent Easter week and tormented by severe headaches, she is yet overwhelmed by the experience of divine love, right through the physical pain.

Through suffering I have sensed the presence of a love that is similar to what one reads in the smile of a beloved one.

Despite her agnostic education she realizes she is profoundly christian.

In all my life I have never, ever, searched for God

she writes in 1941.

And yet: Christ himself has descended and has taken possession of me.

During those mystical experiences, Simone Weil undergoes that in one indivisible moment, time and space no longer matter, and God and the soul, heaven and earth, seem to merge. Then the soul and God as the bride and groom speak the language of love within a human being.

God has agreed to a language with his friends and every event of life is a word that is spoken in this language. All those words are synonyms, but each word has its own nuance that cannot be translated, as is the case for every language. The communal meaning underlying all words is: 'I love you'.

However, she is entering the church. As a free spirit, she does not fit in within the cadres of the church. The church calls itself ‘catholic’, the ‘over-all church’ would therefore contain all religious convictions, be all-encompassing, but, as Simone notices, it is not. It initiates crusades,  banning curses and the inquisition.

Out there, there are so many things that I love and I cannot let go, there is so many that God loves. Otherwise it would not exist. The entire immensety of centuries gone by, the most recent twenty excluded. All countries where colored races are dwelling; all traditions from those countries, labeled as heresy. Such as Manicheism as well as the tradition of the Albigenses. All that stems from the Renaissance (…).

The love for all that what is standing outside visible Christianity keeps me outside the church.

Simone Weil was at that time one of the few people who was as curious for Hindu and Buddhist traditions as for the Cathars and the classic Greek tradition. Moreover she taught herself Sanskrit in order to be able to read the Bhagavad Gita.

She testifies from her own core belief.

Each time when a human being with a pure heart prayed to Osiris, Dionysos, Krishna, Buddha, Tao, et cetera, the son of God answered to this prayer by sending the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit had an effect on his soul, not by forcing him or her to give up his own tradition of faith, but to transmit to him, to her, the light – in the best case the fullness of the light – within this particular tradition.

 For Simone Weil  God simply is: the Good. The soul: merely listening, the receptive, the holy and impersonal part within oneself.

This might be the reason why it took so much time before any new translations were published. For Simone writes a lot and easily about the soul. However, what to do with a soul – when we were aimed at and busy with the development of the ratio, the provable, with science?

Apparently now the time is ripe and we can begin to perceive too:

There is a reality that is outside of this world. This means: outside space and time, outside the mental universe of man, outside the reach of human abilities.

To that reality the longing for the absolute good responds, a longing living in the most inner depth of the heart of each person, which has no purpose whatsoever in this world. (…)

Although it is not within reach of all human abilities, a person has the power to aim his attention and his love towards it. (…).

Everyone who agrees to aim his attention and love towards that reality outside our world, the reality beyond all human abilities, has the opportunity to succeed. Sooner or later the good will descend upon him or her and radiate through him.

According to Simone Weil a human being has an eternal destination. This gives us one obligation: attention for the soul. Only through the soul the Good of the other world can penetrate into this world. Thereto it is necessary to apply ‘the architecture of the soul’ within a human being, the geometric form of the cross.

In the first profound silence that touches the entire soul and makes her amenable for the supra-natural love, the Cross rises up. A silence that might only last a moment, the seed of the almost invisible tiny little mustard seed that is sown by the Sower, which will one day become the vertical beam of the Cross.

The vertical beam: longing for the Good and the Grace, the sharpening of the attention and practicing the waiting for God. The horizontal beam: the physical world in which laws of nature, such as gravity and transitoriness rule. Is western man not mainly hanging on to the horizontal beam, which makes him an egocentric and ‘uprooted’ person?

The rooting’ might be the most important and less acknowledged need of the human soul.

This important need of the soul would – according to Simone Wiel – need to be directive in all political and economic policy of society.

 

Citations:

 

That what is holy in a human being is not his person, but all that is not person-bound within him. All that is not person-bound is holy, and only that. (…)

That what is holy in science is the truth. That what is holy in art, is the beauty. The truth and  the beauty are impersonal. (…)

To him or her in whose eyes only personal unfolding counts, the meaning of the holy has been lost completely out of sight. (…)

And whoever penetrates into the domain of the impersonal, he, she is confronted with a responsibility towards all fellow human beings.

Only the light that comes from above gives the tree the necessary power to root firmly in the earth. In reality, the tree is rooted in heaven.

 

 

Love 

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
from my first entrance in,
drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
if I lacked anything.

"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here"

Love said, "You shall be he."

"I, the unkind, ungrateful?

Ah, my dear,

I cannot look on thee."

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame

go where it doth deserve."

"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"

"My dear, then I will serve."

"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."

 So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert   (1593-1633)

 

Sources:

[1] Weil, Simone, Wachten op God [Waiting for God], Bijleveld, Utrecht 1997

[2] Weil, Simone, Door God gezocht [Sought by God], Ten Have, Baarn 2003

[3] Weil, Simone, Liefde is licht [Love is Light], Kok Boekencentrum, Utrecht 2020

[4] Weil, Simone, Waar strijden wij voor? Over de noodzaak van anders denken [What are we fighting for? About the necessity of different thinking], IJzer, Utrecht 2021

[5] Weil, Simone, Verworteling – Wat we de mens verplicht zijn [Rooting – What do we owe to humankind?], IJzer, Utrecht 2022

[6] Lange, Frits de, Licht en zwaar [Light and heavy], Kok Boekencentrum, Utrecht 2013

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