Psalm for Simone Weil

by editor

 

From the highest heaven God throws a rope. Man either grasps it or not.

–          From the New York Notebooks of Simone Weil

 

Sir, what is humanity

that you pay such attention to us,

or men and women

that you let us love one another?

 

Words slide from you, dropping down

to where you stride

over glaciers and rocks

and down the icy walks of the sea,

 

trailing behind you a rope, my Friend,

that we can grasp

or at our choosing,

cast away.

 

Simone Weil was not what most people would call a happy or well-adjusted person.  She was tormented by migraines. She was almost certainly anorexic and her death at 34 was probably due as much to self-starvation as tuberculosis.  In 1930s Europe she was in the midst of radical movements, yet never really a part of them. As the Holocaust descended over Europe, she scribbled letters and notes, unable to strike effectively against the Nazis. As far as anyone knows, she never had an intimate relationship, emotional or physical, with any man or woman.  And for all her intense intellectuality, all of her books are posthumous, based on her journals and letters. 

She grew up in a supportive and  secular Jewish family, and at the age of ten she informed her parents that she was she was a Bolshevik and would be reading the communist newspapers.  Her parents were sympathetic to the exiled Leon Trotsky and hosted a meeting for him in their Paris apartment in 1930, where young Simone met him.  But she was incapable, however, of surrendering her independent judgment to any ideology and by the time she was in the university, she wrote papers sharply critical of Marxist theory.

After unsuccessful efforts at teaching and organzing factory workers, Simone joined the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Simone was not much of a soldier and failed even at target practice. After an injury involving a cooking pot and boiling oil she returned to France just before her entire unit was massacred. 

Returning from Spain, she was probably severely depressed. And it was at this point that “after months of inward darkness,” she became very conscious of a personal God. “We do not have to search for him” she wrote in her journal. “We only have to change the direction in which we are looking.”

She experienced a divine comforter beyond doctrine and dogma: “He cannot refuse to come to those who implore him long, often and ardently.” And “if we agree to his entry, he comes. As soon as we cease to want Him, He vanishes.”

Yet Simone saw no contradiction between this loving God and atheism: “An atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.” And she seemed to think that the soul did not outlast the body.

Her association with Roman Catholicism seems to have grown out a friendship with the priest Joseph-Marie Perrin.  That personal relationship may be why she turned toward Catholicism, rather than seeking out equally rich spiritual traditions within Judaism, in an effort to explain her experience of God.  One might think that the close association between fascists and Catholic hierarchy would have made the church unappealing to her, but evidently she was able to separate her personal experience of the divine from any feelings about the institution.

In 1942 she fled to the US with her parents to escape the Nazis but was soon back in England where she offered her services to DeGaulle’s Free French. Her proposal to organize a unit of nurses who would parachute into France to aid the resistance went nowhere. And as she insisted on limiting her own food intake to the same rations allotted to those in occupied France, she contracted tuberculosis and died in 1943.

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