Friday, October 8, 2010


As you may or may not know, Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a Catholic—or in her case Catholic-in-spirit—nutcase (I use the term with the utmost affection and respect) who took the notion of sacrifice to places I'm increasingly not sure it should go. Born to Jewish parents, at the age of 6, she (completely admirably) refused to eat sugar in solidarity with the soldiers on the Western Front. She was a French intellectual who’d insisted on working in a factory (though she was incompetent, loathed the work, and made no friends), was possibly anorexic (or at the very least masochistic), and upon volunteering as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War promptly stuck her foot in a pot of boiling oil, causing burns from which she later, weakened by her refusal of food, fresh air, and human intimacy, died. Believing herself to have a special mission, Weil refused to join the Church and was in general the patron saint of Those Who Do Things the Hard Way, a club of which I count myself a charter member and which no doubt goes a long way toward explaining my fascination with her life and work.

In a blog called Paying Attention to the Sky, Catholic convert Derek Jeter expounds on Weil's refusal to be baptized:

“I feel,” she wrote once, “that it is necessary to me, prescribed for me, to be alone, an outsider and alienated from every human context whatsoever.” And on another occasion, she jotted in her journal the self-reminder, “Preserve your solitude!” What motivated her was no selfish desire to withdraw from the ordinary concourse of men, but precisely the opposite impulse. She knew that one remains alienated from a particular allegiance, not by vainly attempting to deny all beliefs, but precisely by sharing them all.

To have become rooted in the context of a particular religion, Simone Weil felt, would on the one hand, have exposed her to what she calls “the patriotism of the Church,” with a consequent blindness to the faults of her own group and the virtues of others, and would, on the other hand, have separated her from the common condition here below, which finds us all “outsiders, uprooted, in exile.” The most terrible of crimes is to collaborate in the uprooting of others in an already alienated world; but the greatest of virtues is to uproot oneself for the sake of one’s neighbors and of God. “It is necessary to uproot oneself. Cut down the tree and make a cross and carry it forever after.”

Especially at the moment when the majority of mankind is “submerged in materialism,” Simone Weil felt she could not detach herself from them by undergoing baptism. To be able to love them as they were, in all their blindness, she would have to know them as they were; and to know them, she would have to go among them disguised in the garments of their own disbelief. In so far as Christianity had become an exclusive sect, it would have to be remade into a “total Incarnation of faith,” have to become truly “catholic,” catholic enough to include the myths of the dark-skinned peoples from a world untouched by the Churches of the West, as well as the insights of post-Enlightenment liberals, who could see in organized religion only oppression and bitterness and pride.

“[I]n our present situation,” she wrote, “universality has to be fully explicit.” And that explicit universality, she felt, must find a mouthpiece in a new kind of saint, for “today it is not nearly enough merely to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent.” The new kind of saint must possess a special “genius,” capable of blending Christianity and Stoicism, the love of God and “filial piety for the city of the world”; a passive sort of “genius” that would enable him to act as a “neutral medium,” like water, “indifferent to all ideas without exception, even atheism and materialism .

Simone Weil felt that she could be only the forerunner and foreteller of such a saint; for her, humility forbade her thinking of herself as one capable of a “new revelation of the universe and human destiny… the unveiling of a large portion of truth and beauty hitherto hidden…” Yet she is precisely the saint she prophesied.

Despite her modesty, she spoke sometimes as if she were aware that there was manifest in the circumstances of her birth (she had been born into an agnostic family of Jewish descent) a special providence, a clue to a special mission. While it was true, she argued in her letters to Catholic friends, that the earlier Saints had all loved the Church and had been baptized into it, on the other hand, they had all been born and brought up in the Church, as she had not. “I should betray the truth,” she protested, “that is to say, the aspect of the truth that I see, if I left the point, where I have been since my birth, at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.”

It must not be thought that she was even troubled by the question of formally becoming a Christian; it vexed her devout Catholic friends and for their sakes she returned again and again to the problem; but, as for herself, she was at peace. Toward the end of her life, the mystic vision came to her almost daily, and she did not have to wonder (in such matters, she liked to say, one does not believe or disbelieve; one knows or does not know) if there were salvation outside an organized sect; she was a living witness that the visible Church and the invisible congregation of the saints are never one. “I have never for a second had the feeling that God wanted me in the Church. . . . I never doubted…. I believe that now it can be concluded that God does not want me in the Church.”

It is because she was capable of remaining on the threshold of organized religion, “without moving, quite still… indefinitely . . .“ that Simone Weil speaks to all of us with special authority, an Outsider to outsiders, our kind of saint, whom we have needed (whether we have known it or not) “as a plague-stricken town needs doctors.”

In other words, she refused baptism to be in solidarity with the souls in hell. I, too, am prone to think, if not that I have a special mission, that I am special, in some way annoyingly invisible to the rest of the world; and though I am far, far from an expert on Simone Weil, I have always viewed her refusal to be baptized, for reasons I couldn't define, as faintly suspect.

But over the course of the last couple of days, I may have begun to crack the code. As so often is the case, my epiphany came from sober drunks: two engaging, attractive but otherwise perfectly ordinary young woman, neither of whom, I'd wager, have ever heard of Simone Weil. One spoke of how, after getting drunk after work, she took to driving (narrow, winding, mountain road) Mulholland Drive home, hoping she'd go off in a cliff in a blackout and figuring that, since she technically wouldn't have been a suicide, her mother wouldn't feel as bad as she might have otherwise.

The second woman also spoke of her bad track record in the driving department and of her habit, in her drinking days, of riding a scooter instead of operating a motor vehicle so that if she got in an accident, she'd only kill herself and not hurt anyone else. "That was a nice enough thought," she'd now realized, "but I also saw I didn't really know how to take care of or love myself." 

Such are the profound metaphysical questions, I'm proud to say, that occupy the minds of we garden-variety ex-drunks. But more to the point, these gals had both been thinking, as I so often have, like Simone Weil. They'd been willing to sacrifice themselves, but for the wrong reasons and out of subtly misguided motives.

For one thing, Church tradition has it that Christ himself descended into hell for three days after his death: he's already in solidarity with the souls in hell (and so are we, simply by virtue of being human). But to say "I'm not going to technically kill myself, I'm just going to drive along Mulholland in a blackout and hope I die," or "I'm going to ride my scooter and kill only myself" is to give the living the type of help they don't need and didn't ask for (as both of these women had seen, which was why they were telling the story at all). Someone's going to have to scrape your mangled body off the side of the road. Your mother's going to have to grieve for you whether you were a suicide or not. To refuse to be baptized so as not to leave one's brothers and sisters behind is like an alcoholic saying, "I'm going to keep living in the hell of drinking so as not to leave behind the drunks." But the way to help all drunks, past, present, and future, is not to keep drinking, but to get sober yourself. Which requires a quality that Weil, perhaps fatally, seemed to lack: not the willingness to help others, but the willingness to ask for help herself. For all her supposed solidarity with "the workers," it apparently never occurred to her to befriend any of them. It never occurred to her that the workers themselves might have spiritual insight, wisdom, experience, strength, and hope that could shed light on her situation (plus tell her a much-needed joke or two). 

None of us are equipped to know the workings of another person's soul. I have to believe our suffering goes toward relieving the suffering of others no matter how it's undergone. But especially for those of us who like to think of ourselves as "intelligent," maybe the real suffering  consists is in realizing our utter ignorance, brokenness and poverty. It's in casting our lot with the rest of humanity and realizing that religion is both sublime and in the utterly mundane and seemingly ordinary. I'm sure there's a special place in heaven for the ones who did go off the cliff, or crash the scooter into a tree, or voluntarily starve themselves to death ostensibly so another could live. But what really helped me yesterday was hearing that the gal who used to ride her scooter wasted has sobered up, stopped smoking pot, trained herself over the course of two years to get up early, and is now going to college.

Next up: exploring this same idea of misguided "martyrdom" vis-a-vis me and my sainted mother!



  1. “In a moment of intense physical suffering,” Simone Weil tells us, “when I was forcing myself to feel love, but without desiring to give a name to that love, I felt, without being in any way prepared for it (for I had never read the mystical writers) a presence more personal, more certain, more real than that of a human being, though inaccessible to the senses and the imagination…” She had been repeating to herself a piece by George Herbert, when the presence came. “I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem,” she writes, “but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer.”

    I think it is worthy of our time to read the poem and reflect on what she must have read and thought. Do you ever memorize poetry and repeat it to yourself the way Simone did here? Happily I found a wonderful piece by a scholar, Anthony Esolen, who spent time with this poem and reflected on it here:

    I think he captures the essence of it and it has become (for me) something I share with Simone Weil. See if it works the same magic for you.

    Thank you for your kind words.


    Have you seen this photo of her. Very rare to see her smiling

  2. I can't think of anything less important to the significance of Weil's life than whether or not she was baptized.
    Far more significant, to me, is the evidence that she never put herself on an equal footing with others, as evidenced by her refusal of "food, fresh air and human intimacy." To say that others are more deserving of the gifts of live and love arrogates the role of God. It is saying "I know better than you, God, I am that not worthy." It is the opposite of humility. In that way it is parallel to the self-centered thinking of the alcoholic that says "I'm the piece of shit the world revolves around." I think the spiritual road is the search for right-sizedness, the realization that we are all the equal children of God.

  3. Thanks, Heather...that explains to me why whenever I read any of Weil's quotes on friendship, I felt something was askew...and I think her refusal to be baptized is actually another manifestation of what Mark said = baptism says we are not our own, that we belong to not only a community, but Someone. Of course we are not worthy in and of ourselves - but God wants us nonetheless. That is the both/and, the scandal, the mystery of Christianity.
    Speaking of mystery, when do we get to hear more about the exchange with Msgr Albacete?

  4. Lord, I can't even get through the Wikipedia entry on her. I'm a smart puppy, but French philosophical jargon makes my eyes glaze over.

  5. One should approach Simone Weil with care, as I've learned over the past 30 years. On the one hand, her thoughts on the absence and love of God have been indispensable to me. On the other hand, her thoughts about hunger, about looking vs. eating, incline me to extrapolate that the adoration of the Eucharist is superior to the reception of it. Perhaps my neuroses are more to blame for this than anything.

    A Dominican once reacted to my mention of her by saying, dismissively, "She was a Cathar." I don't share his dismissiveness, but I think he had a point about her being a Cathar. She wrote approvingly of the Cathari and certainly died like one.

  6. Thank you for all these thoughtful, heartfelt comments. I did not mean in any way, as I think you all understood, to diminish or dismiss or maybe most to the point purport to understand Simone Weil's profound suffering, profound love, profound writings on which, as I said, I don't remotely pretend to hold myself out as an expert...

    Partly because of my own neuroses, which tend toward faux or misplaced "holiness" and "martyrdom," I'm often drawn to others who actually ARE holy...which, to me, Weil, in some strange way, certainly was...

    For Catholics, the sacrament of baptism is of SUPREME importance--(Mark, if you're at all interested, you might like Flannery O'Connor's novel The Violent Bear It Away, or may have rad it already)--not, as Alisha points out, because baptism makes a person inherently "better" or mover loved in the eyes of God, but because it "says we are not our own, that we belong not only to a community, but to Someone." It's a ritualized consecrating of our soul to our brothers and sisters and to God. So in refusing to be baptized, Weil was not only depriving herself, (it seemed to me) but in a sense depriving the people she was trying to help...This is a terrible analogy (because the sacramental dimension is missing), but I was just trying to get at the idea that if you're going to save the other people on the plane, you put on your own oxygen mask first. You don't refuse to put yours on out of solidarity with the people who may not be able to put theirs on. (But then again, maybe you do! That's the thing: maybe for certain people that WOULD in fact be the ultimate act of love. I was trying to reflect on the nature of one facet of love and sacrifice, in other words; again, because my own motives are often so (unbeknownst to me) skewed.

    But in the end of course none of us can know another's motives, thoughts, heart or soul. Simone Weil's suffering was so real, so intense, and so obviously undertaken on behalf of others that I can only bow my head in homage. I'm thinking of how when I see a panhandler who doesn't look "so bad," I have to remind myself that the very fact that the person is panhandling prima facie means he or she is in need. And anyone who lives and dies as Simone Weil did is prima facie worthy of profound admiration and respect. She died out of love, whatever her "reasoning." So she is a mystery, a challenge, an example, and I hope this isn't too presumptuous, a friend...

    Derek, that photo of her smiling is incredible...and I will read the George Herbert poem, with gratitude and interest. Anthony Esolen as you may or may not know writes for Magnificat. I just listened to some lectures by him on Dante, links to which I found on

    Long live Simone...

  7. I believe that Simone Weil's primary reason for not joining the Church is not directly touched upon above. In a letter to her friend, Father Perrin, Simone Weil wrote:

    I should like to draw your attention to one point. It is that there is an absolutely insurmountable obstacle to the incarnation of Christianity. It is the use of the two little words "anathema sit." I remain with all those things that cannot enter the Church, the universal repository, because of those two little words. I remain with them all the more because my own intelligence is numbered with them... The proper function of the intelligence demands total freedom... In order that the present attitude of the Church might be effective wand that she might really penetrate like a wedge into social existence, she would have to say openly that she had changed or wished to change... After the fall of the Roman Empire, which had been totalitarian, it was the Church that was the first to establish a rough sort of totalitarianism in Europe in the thirteenth century, after the war with the Alibgensians... And the motive power of this totalistarianism was the use of those two little words "anathema sit." [excerpted from "Simone Weil - an Anthology, ed. Sian Miles. The elispses are Miles']

  8. Thanks for this: now I know what "anathema sit" means! I’m sure Weil's decision not to be baptized was based on intellectual and moral considerations that would be far beyond me. Having lived for many years as a slave myself, to alcohol, my point was simply that it is possible to "overthink." My own experience was that when you're really a slave, when your ship is truly sinking, you don't think like an intellectual, you think like a child. You think "I don't want to die!" You think “I need a TON of help”...baptism being a major, to me essential form of help...what's interesting is that we're called to BOTH bring our whole intellect to bear AND to be like "little children"...

  9. It is indeed difficult to reconcile much of Weil's thought (and deed) with orthodoxy. But that said, one of her aphoristic sayings, which I think demands serious contemplation was: "Contradiction is the lever of transcendence."

  10. Amen! And a wonderful quote...not, say, a doorway or a window but "the lever"...

  11. Her "Notebooks" are an ore-rich mine that I never tire of digging into. It is a pity that they haven't been made more accessible.

  12. I see they have them at the downtown L.A. Public Library, but reference only...I will have to go down there and take a look...

  13. You won't regret the time spent, I think.

  14. I don't know if this comment belongs here at all, but could Weil have had Aspergers? Her focus was intense, she didn't connect well with other people and she ruminated. Was hers a great mind with areas of genius and small cognitive holes that let the light through in an unusual pattern (religion as a special interest)? With genius in any area (and writing is a particular strength of many people with Aspergers), people are keen to overlook the peculiar aspects of a person. Oftentimes their writing grows in importance after their lifetime (at which point all the attendant eccentricity is merely a footnote instead of important evidence of a neurologically impaired perspective). I say this, not as an insult, but because I also have Aspergers, and these are familiar weaknesses. Each of us are broken in ways that only God knows, but to hold up someone who eschewed baptism as a religious contemplative of any sort seems like sophistry. just one person's opinion...

  15. Of course your comment belongs here! Although "intense focus, didn't connect well with other people, and she ruminated" immediately made me think: oh wow, maybe I have Asperger's!...which I know is no laughing matter, but I offer by way of sympathy, solidarity, and recognition that the more broken among us are often the ones who seem find our way to Christ...more to the point, you understood exactly MY point: that a conscience, no matter how well-formed, that purports to be more well-formed than Christ's--WHO WAS HIMSELF BAPTIZED--has perhaps formed itself a little TOO "well"...

  16. I'm familiar with that letter regarding the "anathema sit" and I thought then, as I think now, that Simone didn't really understand the nature of the Church's authority and the need to make declarations about what Catholics are to believe. Anathema Sit does not really mean "you are cast out by us." It means, "You have separated yourself from us." It also means, we want you back, if you can bring yourself to accept the teaching that comes from God, which is required of us to believe.

    I think coming around to that understanding of the Church's authority would have to make a difference.

    But I also think, to some extent, she was sitting in judgment on the Church, not the fallible people who make up the Church, but the infallible authority of the Church, ultimately, God.

    Hopefully, she was doing so out of misunderstanding: as Bishop Sheen said, most people judge what the THINK the Church is, not what the Church really is.

  17. I enjoyed reading this post so much. It has given me new light into Christ's baptism, something I had been wishing for as of late as I pray the Luminous Mysteries.

    Thank you.

  18. Seems you "hit the nail" with your comment on Jesus's baptism. Thank you.

  19. Your comment on baptism was beautiful and insightful. Thank you so much, Heather. And I also loved the piece. Things can make so much sense in your own head, but you don't have the whole picture. What an interesting soul Simone was. Thank you for introducing me to her. God bless!

  20. Simone Weil was baptized on her deathbed. The information was withheld for years in deference to her Jewish mother while she was alive. Google it.

  21. Thank you for the article, I would like to refer to her short book, "Letter to a Priest", it is simple and direct, and I must add that I've found out that she fills the only criterior which the Letter of St.John says to test the spirits to see if they are good or bad. She had Christ in her flesh while on Earth!

  22. Like there are two kinds of circumcisions, in flesh and in spirit, there are also two kinds of baptizme, in water and in the living water. I do believe that Simone Weil was and is baptized in the latter kind of water, that is the true baptizme!


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