Not Returning Evil for Evil: Simone Weil’s Advice in Troubled Times

by John Stamps

I’ve been thinking…

In a world convulsed with horrific suffering, what can we do that won’t contribute to the sum total of misery and evil? We hunger and thirst for justice. But we also don’t want to get caught up in a vicious cycle of violence and revenge. We don’t want to return evil for evil.

Simone Weil—the French philosopher, disillusioned Marxist, Christian mystic, political activist, social misfit, and world-class klutz—can perhaps provide us serious spiritual help in these troubled times. If you don’t know who she is, let me introduce you. Simone was a brilliant French intellectual and a serious disciple of Jesus Christ.

Like many intellectuals, Simone’s aspirations as a political activist vastly exceeded her abilities. She was a classic schlemiel at every physical occupation she ever tried. She desperately wanted solidarity with the common working man, but she was an utterly inept worker at the Renault factory. Despite her physical ineptitude, she was a great intellectual in the classic French tradition. In her graduating class at the École Normale Supérieure, she placed first while the lesser lumière Simone Beauvoir placed second. I’m not at all surprised that the French government honored her with her very own postage stamp. However, I am very surprised, indeed stunned, by her quote they put on it: “L’attention est la seule faculté de l’âme qui donne accès à Dieu.” That is: “Attention is the only faculty of the soul that gives access to God.”

She wrote this in April 1942 from Marseilles, soon on her way to New York City. Her family and she have fled Paris, just out of Hitler’s reach. The Soviet armies had recently beaten back the Nazi invasion at Stalingrad, but it was still a godawful time in a godawful war. And yes, she’s also Jewish. She successfully kept baptism from the Roman Catholic Church at arm’s length and hectored otherwise sympathetic priests with her own idiosyncratic Christian theology.

Here is what I think her famous quote means. We have no direct access to God. God is a secret, indeed a mystery. We cannot pry open the doors to heaven. But we can wait for God. (Waiting for God is the title of her most famous and accessible book.) And we can pay attention. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.”

Lest we think for a moment that Simone Weil doesn’t know whereof she speaks, she most certainly does. Even though her family was Jewish, she grew up in a thoroughly secular French household. Neither parent were practicing Jews. More to the point, they were completely agnostic. But from an early age, she was deeply attracted to the Christian faith. To her complete surprise, she had three extraordinary encounters with God. As you might expect with someone who enjoyed such a … ahem… rich inner life (my apologies to Ignatius J. Reilly), she suffered from violent migraine headaches. Her own peculiar way of dealing with migraines was reciting poetry, especially George Herbert’s extraordinarily beautiful “Love.” (The poem starts out, “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back…” and ends “So I did sit and eat.” If you haven’t read it, you should.) As she recounts the experience:

Often at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.

Just to be clear, Weil the philosopher was a bit at odds with Weil the Christian believer. She believed in God; she didn’t believe that you could prove the existence of God. She couldn’t conceive of any possible way to break the logjam of her agnosticism. God the problem was insoluble, unless the answer came from God Himself. Later in life, Simone Weil reflected on her experiences with the living God: “In all my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God, I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.”

Even so, so-called “mystical” experience is no substitute for the cold, hard analytical search for truth. We cannot shirk the difficult work of seeking truth with our whole minds. In short, we need to learn to pay attention.

Ever the pedantic school teacher, she thought young people could start their search for God by paying attention to their school work, geometry of all things. (Weil was something of a Platonist.) The rest of us uninterested in mathematics could start by paying attention to our neighbors, that is, not their flaws but their needs.

But how do we deal with the evils we encounter? Weil argued that only contact with divine purity can deliver us from evil. Otherwise, evil does not get absorbed, but it bounces back to us. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth leaves the world blind and toothless. “If through attention and desire we put a part of our evil onto something perfectly pure, it cannot soil it; it remains pure; it does not return the evil; thus we are delivered from it.”

If we pay attention—really pay attention—to those places where God secretly dwells—the order and beauty of the universe, our neighbor, praying the Lord’s Prayer, or the Holy Eucharist—we most certainly can be delivered from the heavy burden of evil.

Simone Weil states with surprising boldness:

It is the part played by joy in our studies that makes of them a preparation for spiritual life, for desire directed towards God is the only power capable of raising the soul. Or rather, it is God alone who comes down and possesses the soul, but desire alone draws God down. He only comes to those who ask him to come; and He cannot refuse to come to those who implore Him long, often and ardently.

Dionysius the Areopagite, St Gregory of Nyssa, or St Maximus Confessor couldn’t have expressed it better. Of course we must purify our wandering desires. But we must desire Him as any ardent lover would their beloved; otherwise, our search for God is a total charade.

Atrocities smack us in the solar plexus daily. Paris, Orlando, Dallas, back to France in Nice, Baton Rouge … And these are just the evils our media happens to find interesting at the time. I can’t begin to fathom the untold horrors. At very least we can pay attention to the sources of goodness and purity that lie around close at hand and not return evil for evil. If you’re not a card-carrying Christian, Simone would still say, find a source of genuine purity and goodness and pay attention to it. We all need to do our bit to rebuild and repair this shattered world.

Finally, let’s be clear, or as clear as we can be when we speak about impenetrable mysteries. Simone Weil does not offer us a theodicy. In no way does she attempt to justify the ways of God to man, to quote Milton. In this world, we are exposed to grievous evils and afflictions, without any say so on our part. And we must not misunderstand the nature of the good that God offers us. Allegiance to the crucified and risen Jesus offers us a true good quite different than any of the limited, earthly goods we can acquire from wealth, power, or the intellect. “The supernatural greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.”

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I cheerfully confess here that everything I know about Simone Weil or pretend I know about Simone Weil, I learned from Diogenes Allen, my philosophy professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, of blessed memory. Out of sheer principle, everybody should read Dr Allen’s Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil. But you could certainly do worse than read his 2001 article “The Divine Encounter” in Touchstone magazine. May his memory be eternal.

John Stamps is currently Staff Information Developer at BMC Software in Santa Clara, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Houston Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.

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9 Responses to Not Returning Evil for Evil: Simone Weil’s Advice in Troubled Times

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    Great post. This could serve as a nice introduction to Weil.

    Ever the pedantic school teacher, she thought young people could start their search for God by paying attention to their school work, geometry of all things. (Weil was something of a Platonist.) The rest of us uninterested in mathematics could start by paying attention to our neighbors, that is, not their flaws but their needs.

    She was very much a Platonist — hence, her attraction to Gnostic sects like the Cathars and her revulsion at the Old Testament. Weil’s Gnostic tendencies are part of the fascination for me, because it’s damn hard to find a real Gnostic nowadays, i.e., a true ascetic and not a spirituality dilettante. The importance of geometry is that mathematics is not personal. It doesn’t involve the subject. In order to perform well in math, the subject must lose his subjectivity and conform entirely to the object. It’s a type of “decreation,” to use her technical term for self-abnegation. Also, her brother became an accomplished mathematician at Princeton, so that has something to do with her fondness for using geometry to illustrate her mysticism. As children, they translated Greek together and worked on complicated mathematical problems.

    In addition to her essay on school studies in Waiting for God, I recommend looking at Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks. It is a difficult work, but it’s not hard to find fascinating nuggets, given her aphoristic style.

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    • John Stamps says:

      Thank you for your kind words and interesting observations, Kevin. I have some random responses.

      1) I did a quick Google search on “Simone Weil Old Testament” and immediately hit a reference to John Hellman’s introduction to her. He mentions exactly the points that you do!

      Then I did another quick Google search on “Simone Weil gnostic” and I found your post from June 11, 2015. I forgot I had chimed in there as well. Brilliant minds think alike. I liked your observations:
      “Weil is a heretic, but she is a noble heretic. She is a heretic that the church needs in order to survive and thrive. In the marriage feast of the new creation, I will drink wine with Simone Weil. I will wipe her tears, and she will kiss mine.”

      Heretic possibly. Idiosyncratic definitely. Simone Weil writes eloquently and wisely about the Eucharist. Pretty amazing she never took it. But I too am definitely looking forward to participating in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb with her.

      2) A short piece that newcomers to Simone Weil might enjoy is her “REFLECTIONS ON THE RIGHT USE OF SCHOOL STUDIES WITH A VIEW TO THE LOVE OF GOD.”

      3) But there’s another Simone Weil piece that I don’t think is translated into English. At least I cannot find it. It’s her “PENSÉES SANS ORDRE CONCERNANT L’AMOUR DE DIEU.” An aspiring graduate student in theology looking to make a name for himself (hint hint) should translate and annotate it. My former prof Diogenes Allen had to translate one of the Weil bon mots I used in my blog piece.

      “Mais si par l’attention et le désir nous transportons une partie de notre mal sur une chose parfaitement pure, elle ne peut pas en être souillée ; elle reste pure ; elle ne nous renvoie pas ce mal ; ainsi nous en sommes délivrés.”

      See Allen’s great book,”Spiritual Theology: The Theology of Yesterday for Spiritual Help Today,” on pages 90, 95.

      4) It bothers me that she was revulsed at the Old Testament. Painful to say, I think she was revulsed with herself. She had a good heart and a beautiful soul. She sounds to me like another famous Platonist, Plotinus, who “seemed ashamed of being in the body.” Maybe she longed, with St Paul, to be further clothed with God’s heavenly building, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

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      • Kevin Davis says:

        Sorry for the late reply, John. I have the Allen book on three outsiders, but I have not read it yet. I am learning French, and I’m something of a francophile — so I would like to look at some of her work in the French at some point. I wish that there was more interest in Weil. The aspiring doctoral student has few choices nowadays with supervisors who have expertise in Weil studies.

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        • John Stamps says:

          I found PENSÉES SANS ORDRE CONCERNANT L’AMOUR DE DIEU online. Even better, you can download an MS Word version of the document. http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/weil_simone/pensees_sans_ordre/pensees_sans_ordre.html

          If all else fails, throw the verbiage into Google translate and see what pops out.
          “Mais si par l’attention et le désir nous transportons une partie de notre mal sur une chose parfaitement pure, elle ne peut pas en être souillée ; elle reste pure ; elle ne nous renvoie pas ce mal ; ainsi nous en sommes délivrés.”

          magically becomes:

          “But if by the attention and desire we carry some of our bad on a perfectly pure thing , it can not be defiled ; it remains pure ; it does not return us wrong ; and we are delivered .”

          Liked by 1 person

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    John, I met Dick Allen at a conference at the Virginia Theological Seminary, right around 1990. He gave a series of lectures on Christianity and post-modernism. He as a wonderful lecturer and a true man of faith. I remember him telling us that he had one foot in the Greek Orthodox Church and another in the Presbyterian Church–apparently there were no Orthodox Churches near where he was raised (correct me if I’m wrong about that).

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    • John Stamps says:

      The ever irascible “Doctor Allen” terrified me. I never ever would have called him “Dick Allen.” I barely can now. The happiest moment of my checkered academic career was getting an A- from him in a truly difficult class. And he is the reason I am Eastern Orthodox today, although I didn’t realize it at the time. And yes, he was a brilliant lecturer and wonderful Christian man. But he did not suffer fools gladly. When he died, he was attached clergy at a local Episcopalian church in Princeton. He liked Orthodox Christians, But honestly, I think he was leery of the Orthodox Church. That said, every page of “Spiritual Theology” drips of Eastern Orthodoxy.

      If you were a PTS student considering doing a PhD in philosophy, he would sit you down in his office and together you would go over insurance actuarial tables that listed the number of projected philosophy positions opening in a given year, the number of professors retiring, and so on. His advice – unless you graduated from one of a handful of top-tier schools, you would have little chance of gainful employment in the future. Best career advice I was ever given.

      I was deeply sad when he died of cancer. I proudly possess a hand-written letter from him from right about a year before he died. Its tenderness startled and touched me. Still does.

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  4. Thanks for your thoughtful reflection. I am reminded of a number of quotes from Weil’s “Gravity and Grace” : ” Attention, taken to the highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love,” “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” “If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself,” “Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in man and the only extreme attention is religious.” (all taken from p.170 of the Nebraska Press Edition.)

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    • John Stamps says:

      Thank you, Caleb, Simone Weil has so many wonderful and important things to say about paying attention, it’s difficult to find 1 or 2 representative statements that best summarize her, over and beyond her famous saying on the French postage stamp. Now I realize I need to re-read “Gravity and Grace,” and soon!

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