The French writer, philosopher, and mystic Simone Weil (1909–43) has always been a complex figure. Almost all of her writings have been published posthumously and have invited both praise and criticism among disparate groups of people. Weil rejected her class upbringing and Judaism, she embraced working-class people (although she rejected Marxism), and she loved Christ but chose never to be baptized into the Christian church. There is nothing moderate about Weil—she lived an extreme life bordering on madness while devoting her life to a rigorous regimen of study and political engagement. She studied with Simone de Beauvoir and debated with Leon Trotsky, and Albert Camus called her, of all the thinkers reckoning with the monumental philosophical crises raised by the world wars, “the only great spirit of our times.” Her final and most radical act was self-induced starvation in solidarity with French citizens during World War II.
Weil is a perennial thinker, and her thought deserves to be revisited. It’s nourishing and refreshing to find a collection of her writings in a new book, Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us (Plough Publishing House). This small book contains different aspects of Weil’s writings: thoughts on intellectual life, justice, personal detachment, and longing for God, with a short introduction for each chapter. It will serve as an excellent introduction to Weil for those unfamiliar with her work. And for those already acquainted with Weil’s thought, this short volume is a meditative exercise and a much-needed source of reflection amid the demands of modern life.
Weil was born in Paris to an affluent, agnostic Jewish family and attended and graduated from the prestigious École Normale Supériuere, after which she taught at girls’ schools from 1931–38. Feeling distant from her heritage, she explored Jewish history and tradition, but chose not to practice her ancestors’ religion. After teaching proved to be a case of too much intellect and not enough action, Weil left the teaching post to write on workers’ conditions and to picket with striking laborers. Her early essays on workers’ rights were published in leftist publications, but Weil later became disillusioned with Marxist thought. Typical for her intense character, Weil even took a job at the Renault car factory for a short time. But her small physique and bouts of headache prevented her from staying on at the plant.
Weil explained that she considered herself always “on the threshold . . . at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.”
It was when her health began to deteriorate in her early thirties that she turned to Catholicism and that her mystical experiences began to intensify. Yet she couldn’t abandon Plato or Homer (two of her biggest intellectual influences) or her Jewish heritage and accept the claim of exclusivity of the Catholic Church. In her spiritual autobiography, addressed to Fr. Jean Perrin, Weil explained that she considered herself always “on the threshold . . . at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.” Her philosophical and theological concerns merged with her political ones as, in World War II, she refused to eat more than the French people were allowed under German occupation, despite being afflicted with tuberculosis. As a consequence, her body gave up, and she died at age thirty-four.
Weil’s religious thought offers a way to understand this fatal act and come to terms with the unimaginable destruction of war. As the title of this new book suggests, the notion of “void” is a theme that runs through Weil’s work, but it’s not a negative term. On the contrary, the void is only the beginning of one’s spiritual life. Weil’s spiritual aim is for us to allow our minds and hearts to recognize grace: “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.” For us to live in fullness and to witness the light in this world, we have to allow ourselves to see darkness. Without darkness and death, illumination of the spirit would be inauthentic, if not impossible.
Weil’s spiritual ecstasies came from not only her union with God, but also her insistence on the primacy of justice. For her, justice doesn’t simply come from the law but from something innate. She writes that “the just must be thanked for being just, because justice is so beautiful a thing, in the same way we thank God because of his great glory. Any other gratitude is servile and even animal.” For Weil, it is justice that humanizes the other person and thus humanizes ourselves. In her views on justice, then, Weil continued to be influenced by the Jewish tradition, which places a strong emphasis on justice as the bedrock of personal relationships in comparison to Christianity’s tendency to focus on forgiveness.One of the most intriguing and conflicting aspects of Weil’s thought is her notion of justice, which figures prominently in the book. She certainly wouldn’t be characterized as a “social justice warrior” who promotes sanctimonious moralism. For Weil, justice converges into one aspect of life—encounters with God and other human beings, such as those on the French front. But unlike other mystics, for whom union with Christ was an interior experience of a relation between lover and beloved, Weil is a relational mystic for whom justice is one of the most important aspects of religious and spiritual experience. Her asceticism, so clearly visible at the end of her life, is inextricably connected to the suffering of the other.
For Weil, compassion is already a sacrament, and doing good for others is already a holy act.
According to Weil, everything in life is relational, and human relations are intention. We ought to choose self-denial, but only to help us love our neighbor. Imagining nameless people, stranded in a ditch, forgotten and overlooked by others, Weil writes that these very strangers are our neighbors, and “to treat our neighbor who is in affliction with love is something like baptizing him.”
In order to empathize with others, we have to understand that we tend to “live in the world of unreality and dreams. To give up our imaginary position at the center, to renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul, that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence.”
For Weil, compassion is already a sacrament, and doing good for others is already a holy act. No official ritual or symbol can take the place of an actual washing of the feet. In this sense, her mysticism is more grounded in ethics than its Christian analogues, and it takes away the attention from the mystic herself. Justice is a constant vigilance and a deeply felt anxiety for the other person. We all wait to hear and to be heard, to see and to be seen, to have the certainty that we are not alone. And yet, there is always distance we experience from God and from our fellow human beings. This distance is long, but for a small moment, our minds and hearts become illuminated in order not only to see God and others, but also know that we are being seen as well.
Weil’s thought is bound to Christian faith, yet she moves fluidly through her diverse influences in theology and philosophy. Because of this, Weil remains a woman of many paradoxes. Love in the Void acknowledges that and invites us to explore it more closely. Perhaps it is this tension that makes people visit and revisit her work. In some ways, we see ourselves in her intellectual lucidity, spiritual intoxication, and courage. She is both a fellow traveler and a guide through the regions of being who helps others to see the “face of love.”