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Somehow over the course of my life, I stumbled across the name Simone Weil, but knew next to nothing about her. This introduction to her thought, published in 2018, came highly recommended, and at 105 pages, it seemed a gentle enough introduction to tackle on a recent flight to DC.

Simone Weil has been labeled a mystic and a martyr. She was French, born to a Jewish family, and lived a short 34 years, dying in 1943. She had an intensely, almost excessively, sympathetic heart. Though not a member of a formal religion, she took personal vows of chastity and poverty. After graduating highest in her class, she initially taught at girls’ schools until she decided to join the ranks of the manual workers in a series of factory jobs. The difficult, unsafe work undermined her health, but also served to turn her in the direction of Christianity. This led to direct spiritual experiences with the divine, with Christ. She returned to teaching, but when the war broke out, she supported the French Resistance. She brought her parents out of France to safety in New York, then returned to London to continue her work for the Free French. She began to fast in solidarity with the soldiers at the front, weakening herself so much by daily deprivation that tuberculosis claimed her life. The doctor in attendance declared her death a suicide.

With such a back story, one would be as cautious at imbibing Weil’s philosophies as one would be of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s after discovering he had forced his mistress to give up all five of their babies to an orphanage where, given the conditions of orphanages at the time, chances are they perished.

And yet, as with Rousseau, every human soul has a measure of wisdom to impart and it is worth the effort to seek that good, and leave what may be unwise to the side. (I hope someone would be willing to do the same for me one day.) Let me share with you, then, some gems of wisdom Simone Weil has given us, and for which I am grateful.

I. The Power of Real Attention

One of the more interesting of Weil’s ideas is that real, effortful attention given by the soul to any non-evil pursuit enlarges the mind and the heart, preparing it to love and to meet God.

“Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted . . . It always has an effect on the spiritual plane . . . If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another, more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul . . . The solution of a geometry problem, [b]eing a little fragment of particular truth, [is] a pure image of the unique, eternal, and living Truth . . . Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament.”

I agree with this assertion, though I feel that we must qualify the pursuits that can lead to that sacrament. After all, to give but one example, there are some individuals so hooked on video games that they cease to eat or even move. There have been a few deaths from utter absorption in video games. What absorbs us must have that “little fragment of particular truth,” as Weil puts it. If this is the case, then as she explains further:

“If there is a real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention . . . Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul. Every effort adds a little gold to a treasure no power on earth can take away . . . [T]his is the substance of prayer . . . [God] cannot refuse to come to those who implore him long, often, and ardently” (3–5; 8; 11).

According to Weil, this attention is not to be forced; it is not a muscular effort of willpower, producing fatigue. Rather, this attention must come from a wellspring of joy, the joy of learning. However, this joyous giving of attention does not exist unopposed within the human heart. In fact, though Weil died long before the era of smartphones and the internet, she speaks to us today when she says:

“Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves” (9).

I have felt this in my own life, and I sometimes wonder if the withering of faith in our time has something to do with the immense array of distractions placed before us. It is as if our adversary undercuts our ability to offer real attention, or channels such real attention we are still able to muster into addictive activities that do not reflect Truth.

II. Justice, Love, and Equality

Weil believed that, “The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbor and justice.” She asserted that justice “is a form of nourishment,” and that “Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the coexistence possible of compassion and gratitude, on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted—a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others” (16–17).

This is an unusual formulation; we often juxtapose justice and mercy/charity as some form of opposing forces. But what if they are not opposites? What if they are married? What if they are of one heart and one mind?

To Weil, justice is not about power, but about equality: “The even balance, an image of equal relations of strength, was the symbol of justice from all antiquity . . . The supernatural virtue of justice consists of behaving exactly as though there were equality when one is the stronger in an unequal relationship . . . This is the most Christian of virtues.”

What Weil means by this is something quite deep: the renunciation of power in favor of the even balance of justice is a defining attribute of God. God has the power to command and compel every living soul, but God restrains Himself: “On God’s part, creation is not an act of self-expansion but of restraint and renunciation . . . God denied himself for our sakes in order to give us the possibility of denying ourselves for him. This response, this echo, which it is in our power to refuse, is the only possible justification for the folly of the love of the creative act.” I suppose this is another way of saying, “We love Him because He first loved us.”

This also means that justice is no unfeeling tyrant, but rather is the alternative to dictatorship. We know that dictum holds here on earth, preferring rule of law to tyranny, but we seldom think this proposition is operative in heaven, as well. It is justice that brings the possibility of true agency and true freedom. Because there is justice in heaven, it is not a dictatorship. And the cause of God’s renunciation of dictatorship in favor of rule of law/justice is His love of us, and His desire to have us one day as friends and not as servants, to bring us to share in His fullness as equals.

She continues: “The religions which have a conception of this renunciation, this voluntary distance, this voluntary effacement of God, his apparent absence and his secret presence here below, these religions are true religion.” Only when God denies Himself the full expression of His powerful will are we, His children, established as true agents. “True creation means self-loss” (28). God’s restraint represents God’s faith in us and His true love for us:

“God is also the perfect friend. So that there should be between him and us, bridging the infinite distance, something in the way of equality, he has chosen to place an absolute quality in his creatures, the absolute liberty of consent, which leaves us free to follow or swerve from the God-ward direction he has communicated to our souls. He has also extended our possibilities of error and falsehood so as to leave us the faculty of exercising a spurious rule in imagination, not only over the universe and the human race, but also over God himself, insofar as we do not know how to use his name aright. He has given us this faculty of infinite illusion so that we should have the power to renounce it out of love” (67).

That “faculty of infinite illusion” has, in today’s world, become supercharged. Those who love Truth more than the virtual realities swirling around us every moment must be tenacious lovers, indeed.

III. The Void

As can be imagined given her life story, the contrast between the love of God and the affliction suffered by every mortal on earth was a constant theme in Weil’s thought. She suffered throughout her life from severe migraines, in addition to the immense deprivation to which she subjected her body. The first was an affliction given to her; the second an affliction she chose for herself. In the latter effort she went too far—and we cannot follow her there. But in each of our lives comes affliction—real affliction. It is an affliction of the body, felt in the body, the mind of the body, and the heart of the body. We know it is different from temporary pain because affliction has the power to enslave our souls in heavy chains: “Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death,” avers Weil. Given her intimate acquaintance with affliction, what does Weil make of its paradoxes?

Affliction, to Weil, is a double-edged sword; it can cast one into the abyss if our choice is to flee it through drugs and degradation—but alternatively, if squarely and bravely faced, it can also hollow out a void within us that enables us to rise above the ego. We are so full of ourselves and our imaginings, says Weil. To touch the Real, most of us require the humbling of affliction. As the ego shrinks from that humbling encounter with the reality of pain and suffering, a space—a void—is created where the grace of the love of God can enter.

If there is no void, says Weil, we cannot give way for the seed God desires to plant within us, and we cannot know when that seed grows that it is a true seed. Because of what the void enables, we touch the grace inherent in that planting and thereby touch the reality of the seed’s Truth.

Weil comments further, “Affliction in itself is not enough . . . Unconsoled affliction is necessary. There must be no consolation. No apparent consolation. Ineffable consolation then comes down” (77). The void is experienced as being poor in spirit, as wondering why God has forsaken us: “our misery gives us the infinitely precious privilege of sharing in this distance placed between the Son and his Father” (100).

Weil elaborates, “Affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell. A kind of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence there is nothing to love. What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final. The soul has to go on loving in the emptiness, or at least to go on wanting to love . . . Then one day, God will come to show himself to this soul and to reveal the beauty of the world to it, as in the case of Job. But if the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell . . .

“Those who persevere in love hear this note from the very lowest depths into which affliction has thrust them. From that moment they can no longer have any doubt . . . This nail [of affliction] has pierced cleanly through all creation, through the thickness of the screen separating the soul from God. In this marvelous dimension, the soul, without leaving the place and the instant where the body to which it is united is situated, can cross the totality of space and time and come into the very presence of God . . . This point of intersection is the point of intersection of the arms of the cross” (93, 98, 105).

But why isn’t joy enough? Why is affliction so pivotal to the journey of the human spirit? Weil opines: “Through joy the beauty of the world penetrates our soul. Through suffering it penetrates our body. We could no more become friends of God through joy alone than one becomes a ship’s captain by studying books on navigation. The body plays a part in all apprenticeships. On the plane of physical sensibility, suffering alone gives us contact with that necessity which constitutes the order of the world” (100–101).

* * *

I am glad to have found Simone Weil at this time in my life, and while I cannot commend some of the choices she made in her life, I do commend some of her thoughts, such as those presented in this short review. Though we live in an age when fleeing from any twinge of suffering seems the obvious thing to do, perhaps Weil can resurrect for us an understanding of why each and every one of us will face affliction. To face the void and love anyway; to make room for God by enduring suffering; to see real attention as an act of love; to understand that God has chosen not to use His omnipotence because He values our potential to become His friends . . . these are thoughts well worth contemplating.

Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, V.H. (2019) "Get This: Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us, by Simone Weil, edited by Laurie Gagne, Walden, New York, Plough Publishing House, 2018," SquareTwo, Vol. 12 No. 1 (Spring 2019), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerWeilReview.html, accessed <give access date>.

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COMMENTS: 1 Comment

I. Tom Rogers

Allow me to insert that among the most significant spiritual mentors I encountered in my earlier adulthood are SIMONE WEIL, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Learned Hand, Reinhold Niebuhr and Alkeksandr Yelchaninov, besides Lowell Bennion, Hugh B. Brown and Fydor Mikhailovich Dostoeveky. I also wrote an essay or two about Weil back then.

And thanks.

Tom Rogers, BYU Emeritus Professor of Russian