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.”

n-849-n.jpgIf 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.

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

  1. Tom says:

    Great piece. She was amazing, even if enigmatic, i.e., she was not a pacifist (well, seems to have been one early on, but later abandoned that). I struggle to fit that into her comments. I’m confused by those (DBH included) who promote God as ontological peace and beauty but who also promote violence as a necessary (last-ditch) effort to confront evil in the world.

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  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I try and reconcile God as peace and beauty with resorting to violence to confront evil by remembering we have neither the knowledge or power of God, nor can we always clearly hear his voice.
    In confronting evil we are often faced with three potential responses: confronting evil nonviolently, confronting evil with violence or not effectively confronting evil at all. The issue about pacificism is whether, if one cannot find a way to effectively counter evil nonviolently, it is better to not effectively confront evil at all than to resort to violence in doing so. This problem remains even if one asserts that it is always (at least in theory) possible to effectively confront evil with non-violence, since if you cannot in practice in fact discern what the nonviolent solution might be, you still have to decide what the next best option is.
    God, whose wisdom and power are infinite, does not have this problem.

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  3. Grant says:

    I am someone committed to non-violence (the hurting or coercing of another) and one who sees it as a clear non-negotiable of fully living the Gospel, of accepting both the teaching of loving our enemies, blessing and not cursing them, doing good to them, carrying the pack a mile extra then asked (which related to enemy occupying Roman soldiers), of the sword being removed from St Peter’s hand and being instructed that those that live by the sword shall die by it. And seeing this lived out fully by the Lord in practice, and by His followers in enemy occupied Judea where fellow Jews were being killed and tortured by the Romans in the thousands, of your fellow people and family often brutalized and beaten down, the idea that this is just for civil situations never seemed to fly and be anachronistic (as I don’t think that kind of public vs private distinctions existed in that manner during the 1st century AD). And if just war could ever be justified it would have been precisely in such a situation that the Jews found themselves in them, yet the Lord instructed against it, and said such was a path to destruction. And given it seems that all Christians in the first few generations also seem to have seen this part of the Gospel as being universal in application, that they were not permitted to take arms (being then described as the only army that doesn’t shed blood, and if soldiers or magistrates became Christians they were forbidden from taking, or causing be taken, a life, or they would be excluded from Communion), has always confirmed to be me my understanding of that revelation. It would change of course, just war theologies would arise as the Roman Empire(s) and their successors became Christian, and more or less, at least in practical terms it became the dominant or accepted practice with only clergy and monastics (usually) being forbidden from violence.

    This isn’t arguing for it, I usually keep such views and positions to myself, as this isn’t the place to discuss them, having as it does a different focus, and I don’t want to bring irrelevant discussions up here. But rather as someone who believes that such teachings apply fully and maximally, that Christians are as forbidden from ever using violence as they are from say adultery, I do think about such issues as Iain raises. For me, as for Evelyn Underhill, in facing a time or situation of destruction or evil of such magnitude (such as the times, particularly at the end of her life, she being one who transitioned from a firm supporter of just war into the Great War to one of anti-war and non-violence into 1920s and 30s and was firmly non-violent as the Second World War began) I would hope to keep my eyes focused on the victory of the Cross, and that defeat of all evil in it, already accomplished. And for myself, the truth of the Resurrection and the New Creation, this already is, and if I believe it and know it to be real, that death is defeated, then nothing any evil happens now is permanent at all, it does not nor never can have the last say, over anything, ever.

    As this is true, I must then reflect in that light, how can any harm, hurting and most of all killing of another, of siding with death, ever be right, for me, it would be acting not only against love and life, but of siding with death against Christ and the truth of His Victory, after all if Life has defeated death and will swallow it up, and we live both towards and as conduits of that victory, how can I accepting engaging back into the way of death and of the violence of the fallen and death-enslaved world. I would be it seems joining in that very evil, serving death and visiting upon people. And to engage in a violence solution would for me count as a lack of faith both in the Cross and Resurrection, and a refusal of the path of the Cross, and would also be not putting my faith in God to work through all things to bring about His good purposes despite whatever evil happens, knowing that He has and will overcome it, and it cannot succeed neither temporarily, and in the end will be swept away, death will be swallowed by life, and will be destroyed.

    Of course this doesn’t mean doing nothing in the face of evil, the opposite, you act against it as in the civil rights actions, or in the last days of India, numerous forms of peaceful resistance and action, of helping free people in trouble and so on (we all know various stories and examples so I don’t labour at it). And it doesn’t mean doing nothing if someone is attacked in front of you, not harming someone, doesn’t mean you can attempt to pull the attack off, restrain them, or put yourself in front of the person being harmed, so they can get away, call for help and so on. And hopefully it would bring us who hold it to think creatively of how to function and effectively use it at various levels, personal, local, national and global and so on.

    But the rub is, right now, this is a very easy position for me to take, if I’m honest I don’t know what I would do in a situation where my life or my loved ones lives were at risk, and say I had a gun or knife before me. Would I use it, or try another way, even at the risk of my own life to stop it, I don’t know. I would like to believe I would remain as so many Christians before me and right now, do, just like I despite not being a big fan of pain at all, could be brave and courageous as those who have faced torture and martyrdom, as those who hide Jews and others hunted by the Nazis, I just pray if I ever face such situations God would grant me such courage and bravery to do this, because I never feel very brave in myself at all.

    I suppose one thing that does frustrate me sometimes, is when the game of just war vs non-violence pacifism is often engaged in with simple binary situations (such as being framed as do you take action or not, with action being violent action, with no other possibilities considered, and no being doing nothing in the face of some evil fictional scenario) and arguments whose only point is to justify just war (and equally sometimes the opposite, by I usually see the former, with non-violent side usually responding, but we are a minority so that is to be expected). The problem is that this just seeks to justify a held position, and so acts to justify further aggressive and violent responses in the future, rather then thinking and mediating more deeply on such situations and thinking creatively in terms of dealing with situations in which violence arises (and learning to respond better and with wisdom to avoid such events in the future, both the Great War and World War II are good examples of situations that had powers acted differently over the decades, first before the Great War, and then after, could have avoid the rise of Nazism possibly all together) and in how to respond it such situations. Even where just war is held it should be the last resort and only in certain situations, which means creatively engaging in ways to avoid war and killing at all cost. But to often for war and violence serve just to justify current attitudes and military and other violent responses that our societies already are engaged in, and to justify that situation. That does frustrate me, where such such arguments are really deployed simply to justify current violence and wars, rather then truly thinking about the situation and of violence and killing as a horror, and of what can be done to respond and face situations and can at least if at all possible procude an outcome that won’t resort to those destruction and grief.

    Anyway, those are some thoughts from someone who is a non-violent/pacifist Christian 🙂 . Not to convince anyone, just some thoughts I’ve thought think of this.

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