Midweek Mysticism: Simone Weil — wartime French mystic
Most mystics are not household names. They fade into the background by choice, occasionally writing about their experiences, often for a small circle of associates. Here is a typical example.
Simone Weil was a teacher in pre-war France, who only became known when a priest with whom she corresponded published her letters and manuscripts.
At first, she was attracted to the Catholic Church, but resisted its blandishments because of an innate mistrust of institutional religion.
She died in England in 1943 at the tragically early age of 34 when, it was rumoured, she starved herself to death. She did not produce a tidy corpus of work but her “philosophic genius” and increasingly contemplative cast of mind, could well have resulted in major work later in life.
Simone was typically French. A powerful intellect, developed young by the influence of an elder brother, guided her down the well-trodden Gallic route of revolutionary politics and a Rousseauvian romanticism about “the workers”.
She was by all accounts something of a rebel at her first posting as a school mistress when she organised the disaffected workmen of the village in their dispute with the authorities. Later, she was involved with a group called the Révolution Prolétarienne, and went to Spain on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
Perhaps the turning point in her life came when she settled in Marseilles, presumably as a result of the persistent ill health which was to dog her until the end of her life. There she met the Dominican, Father Perrin, who was to become her unofficial spiritual director for the few years she had left.
In the south, she worked on the soil, almost as a kind of romantic necessity. Her mysticism became more pronounced and she took to the study of Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy.
As the fall of France became a reality, Simone left for New York, only to be recalled and sent to England to work for the French provisional Government in exile. Her health worsened to the extent that she was transferred to a sanatorium in Ashford in Kent, where she died in August 1943.
As it is with most mystics, the bare outlines of her life fail to do justice to what went on interiorly. The outward stubborn rebellions against human authority sit uneasily alongside her consistent longing for contact with the spiritual reality.
Yet she takes a cool, attentive view of the art of contemplation. Listen to her voice here, which always has confident authority: “… prayer consists of attention. It is the turning of the soul’s total attention towards God. The quality of the prayer is determined by the quality of the attention. Warmth of heart is not enough. Only the peak of attention makes contact with God, and only when it is intense and pure enough to make contact …”
This is not the message of her English contemporary, Evelyn Underhill, but of a much sharper, colder intellect; one detects a rather damaged personality here, perhaps.
But her instincts remain true — and very French: “It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is God’s business to think about me.” And again: “I feel that it is necessary and ordained that I should be alone, a stranger and an exile in relation to every human circle without exception.”
Simone sounds like a true contemplative in her views on spiritual experiences: “The word of God is the secret word. He who has not heard this word, even if he adheres to all the dogmas taught by the Church, has no contact with truth.”
She is firm on the view that personal mysticism is at the core of religion, rather than the corporatism of many in the Church: “When genuine friends of God — such as Eckhart to my way of thinking — repeat words they have heard in secret amidst the silence of the union of love, and these words are in disagreement with the teaching of the Church, it is simply that the language of the marketplace is not that of the nuptial chamber.
“Everybody knows that really intimate conversation is only possible between two or three. As soon as there are six or seven, collective language begins to dominate. That is why it is a complete misinterpretation to apply to the Church the words ‘Wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ Christ did not say 200, or 50, or ten. He said precisely that he always forms the third in the intimacy of the tête-à-tête.”
Her own spiritual experiences are written up in the letters to Father Perrin. She was much taken by George Herbert’s poem, Love, which she took to reciting, especially when she had the blinding headaches to which she was prone: “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, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
She then tries to explain what is happening to her: “In 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 … In this sudden possession of me by Christ neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile of a beloved face.”
The absence of her senses and imagination here points to an advanced stage of spiritual realisation: a showing of the nature of reality; the unity of Being, in a Christian context.
Simone continues: “I had never read any mystical works … God in his mercy had prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it should be evident to me that I had not invented this absolutely unexpected contact.”
Later, she begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer with the same close attention: “Sometimes also, during this recitation or at other moments, Christ is present with me in person, but his presence is infinitely more real, more moving, clearer than on that first occasion when he took possession of me.”
From these direct mystical experiences, Simone Weil’s contemplative creed is formed, and still in conflict with the institutional Church: “The image of the Mystical Body of Christ is very attractive. But I consider the importance given to this image today as one of the most serious signs of degeneration. For our true dignity is not to be parts of a body, even though it is a mystical one, even though it be that of Christ. It consists of this, that in the state of perfection, which is the vocation of each one of us, we no longer live in ourselves, but Christ lives in us; so that through our perfection, Christ in his integrity and in his indivisible unity, becomes in a sense each one of us, as he is completely in each host.”
Simone Weil died in England, a country she loved for its “kindness”. It was a life highly concentrated and hidden, so typical of mystics everywhere.
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
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