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.”
(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, as well as his essay “George Herbert and Simone Weil.” But you could certainly do worse than read his 2001 article “The Divine Encounter” in Touchstone magazine. May his memory be eternal.)
(24 July 2016)
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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.