All of us are attracted to thinkers on the edge. Those who, despite their fragility and even their errors, have made the effort to articulate their thoughts, life, faith and behavior in a unitary way. Perhaps this is why the Confessions of St. Augustine–written more than 1600 years ago–are still so up-to-date. When intellectuals attempt to explain their lives, they capture our attention: when we follow them in understanding their lives better, we also understand our own better, which helps us to be more coherent ourselves. As Kierkegaard wrote in his diary, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”. To live on the edge implies a constant struggle between two poles: the past and the future as they articulate themselves creatively in the present. This tension is almost always enriching, since it ignites the flame that illuminates and warms our own lives and that of those around us.
A few weeks ago I attended an international conference on Simone Weil hosted by doctoral students, held at the Charterhouse Aula Dei, near Zaragoza, and organized by Maria del Sol Romano, a Mexican philosopher. In addition to attending interesting talks, I had the occasion to see the frescoes that the young Goya painted in the upper part of the church in 1773. I was transfixed by the joyful spirituality of Chemin Neuf, the French community that has, for two years now, been in charge of caring for this impressive set of artworks, and I thought that Simone Weil—who always lived at the doors of the Catholic faith—would have been overjoyed to participate in this academic encounter. It was not difficult to image Weil in Zaragoza, since she herself had been there in August of 1936, near Pina, with one of the International Brigades under the command of Durruti. In fact, she had to be evacuated a few days later, without even having fired a single shot, since she had burned her leg by stepping on a skillet full of boiling oil.
My first contact with Simone Weil goes back forty years, when I read Charles Moeller’s severe criticisms of her in his book “Literatura del siglo XX y cristianismo“: “The growing aberrations in her thought showed the terrible danger that is constituted, in the spiritual life, by a hypertrophied and solitary intelligence. The system of Simone Weil is one of the most tremendous proofs that I know of for the necessity of a Church with a teaching authority. […] The thought of Simone Weil […] constitutes one of the most grave dangers that Christian consciences can confront. It was necessary to denounce it.” It is true that, in a final note, Moeller adds that Joseph Marie Perrin and Gustave Thibon, in a recent book, “offer a much more prudent judgment about Simone Weil’s thought […] but this does not change the central idea at all, but rather totally the contrary.”
Although from time to time I came across light-filled quotes of Weil in remote authors, I did not meet her again until someone put her book “Waiting for God” into my hands. I was fascinated right from her first essay, “Reflections on the right use of school studies with a view to the love of God”, in which she masterfully writes about the problem of attention. She was a French, atheist philosopher who, although born to a Jewish family, underwent a mystical experience—a personal encounter with Jesus Christ—and became a shining light of intelligence and love.
From that time I have returned to read her periodically. She has obscure texts, but others are totally resplendent. For example, I prepared a lesson for film professionals on the basis of these words of hers on literature and morality: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Therefore “imaginative literature” is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both). It only escapes from this alternative if in some way it passes over to the side of reality through the power of art—and only genius can do that.”
A few months ago I discovered that the poet Christian Wiman had come to faith thanks to Simone Weil’s passage about the two prisoners confined in a jail. Between them there is a thick stone wall, but over the course of the years they learn to communicate via taps on the stone. “The wall is what separates them, but is also the only means they have of communicating. ‘It is the same with us and God’ she says. ‘Every separation is a link’“. For Wiman and for me, the stone is poetic language. On the other side of our creative effort God is always to be found.
In her last years, Simone Weil went to Mass every Sunday and often during the week. She felt a tremendous sorrow at not being able to partake of the sacraments. In one of her final texts she made a profession of faith in what the church teaches, out of love for the truth that these mysteries contain. But she adds, “I do not recognize any right for the Church to limit the operations of the intelligence or the illuminations of love in the realm of thought. I recognize her mission as the deposit of the sacraments and conserver of the sacred texts, a giver of guidance on certain essential points, but only as indicators for the faithful. I do not recognize that she has the right to impose those commentaries that surround the mysteries of the faith as though they were the truth itself, and much less the right to use fear and the threat of exclusion from the sacraments as a means of imposing them.”
This was 1943. Her biographer Simone Pétrement illustrates her doctrinal difficulties with the example of the opinion—then considered as infallible dogma, and which Weil could not accept—that unbaptized babies, if they died, could not enter into Paradise and would remain for all eternity in Limbo. There were still 20 years to wait until the Second Vatican Council, which began an era of freedom and plurality of thought within the Church and, among many others things, eliminated the doctrine of Limbo from the Catechism: “As regards children who have died without Baptism,” states the Catechism (n. 1261), “the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God”. This affirmation would have quieted all Weil’s discomfort about this issue.
Recalling Moeller’s criticisms, I was excited to read the very positive quote of Weil that Pope Benedict XVI read during his encounter with artists in November 2009. I copy it here: “In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God.” There is, as it were, an incarnation of God in the world, and it is indicated by beauty. The beautiful is the experimental proof that the Incarnation is possible. Hence all art of the highest order is religious in essence.” This is very true, and holds one of the keys to the 20th century.
As Susan Sontag wrote concerning Weil, “We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and—only piecemeal—for their ‘views.'” “In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies.” Weil is certainly not the owner of the truth, but her readers recognize that the Truth shines through her. She is a thinker on the edge: her reckless life and her luminous words give us much to think about.
Biographical profile of Simone Weil (1909-1943)
Simone Weil was a French philosopher, Christian mystic and political activist. Her life was marked by compassion for the suffering of others. She died of tuberculosis and malnutrition in Ashford, England, while waiting to be transferred to France in order to aid the combatants in WWII. Albert Camus said of her that “she was the only great spirit of our time”.
For further reading:
Weil, Simone: Waiting for God (Madrid: Perennial) 1992, 240 pages.
Pétrement, Simone: Simone Weil: A Life (Schocken) 1988, 592 pages.
Mauro, Florence: Simone Weil, la irregular. Trabajadora, filósofa 1909-1943, produced by Zadig Productions and Arte France, 2008 <http://vimeo.com/45973910>