Campbell Corner Language Exchange

Manifestations of the Supernatural According to Simone Weil

by Diogenes Allen

Presented April 1, 1998, Henry LeRoy Finch Memorial Lecture, Hunter College

I wish to examine the place of Simone Weil’s mystical experience in her thought and to show the inadequacy of the typical responses to mysticism by the disciplines of philosophy of religion, biblical studies, and theology. I will grapple with the issue of the truth of her claim to have had a visitation by Christ. In this examination we will uncover a method of reasoning that allows for the personal affirmation, with intellectual integrity, of the major Christian doctrines that are above the capacity of the mind directly to affirm or deny. This method of reasoning will have far-reaching implications for understanding the nature of theological reasoning and its philosophic integrity. Both the context of Weil’s mystical experience and what she believed she learned from it are crucial. Weil herself gives us the context of her mystical experience in her “Spiritual Autobiography.” She writes,

As soon as I reached adolescence, I saw the problem of God as a problem the data of which could not be obtained here below, and I decided that the only way of being sure not to reach the wrong solution, which seemed to me the greatest possible evil, was to leave it alone. So I left it alone. I neither affirmed nor denied anything. It seemed to me useless to solve the problem, for I thought that, being in this world, our business was to adopt the best attitude with regard to the problems of this world, and the such an attitude did not depend upon the solution of the problem of God. (WG, p. 62)

Her stance is that of the late Enlightenment: metaphysical matters are beyond our capacity, but as they are irrelevant to our earthly problems, it does not matter. Although Weil was at this time an agnostic, she points out that her conception of life, as far as she was concerned, was Christian. She had developed the conviction that pure desire had an efficacy in the realm of spiritual goodness. She had a spirit of poverty, which attracted her to St. Francis of Assisi, a love of Neighbor, which she called justice, and the amor fati of the Stoics, which for her did duty for the will of God. The beauty of a mountain landscape impressed upon her the beauty of personal purity or chastity. But she stressed that to add Christian dogma to this conception of life without being forced to by indisputable evidence would have been to lack honesty.

I should even have thought I was lacking in honesty had I considered the question of the truth of dogma as a problem for myself or even had I simply desired to reach a conclusion on this subject. I have an extremely severe standard for intellectual honesty, so severe that I never met anyone who did not seem to fall short of it in more than one respect; and I am always afraid of failing in it myself. (WG, p. 66)

Even though she set aside the problem of God and Christian dogma, she subsequently had three significant contacts with Catholicism (WG, p. 66). The first occurred after she had worked for a year in a factory, where she had direct contact with affliction, and was taken by her parents to recuperate in Portugal. There she witnessed a religious procession in a very poor fishing village. The heart-rending sadness of the hymns filled her with the conviction “that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves.” (WG, P. 67) That is to say, it is directed to those who are wretched – not that it is embraced only by the lowly.

Her second significant experience took place in Assisi while visiting church in which St. Francis often used to pray. “Something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” (WG, p.67-8) Here she seems to have discovered a force or compulsion that was elevating, in contrast to the force of necessity which when painful is hateful and degrading, but when pleasant is gratifying but not elevating.

Finally, at Solesmes, Weil attended services in Holy Week, she simultaneously was burdened by a splitting headache and experienced a pure and perfect joy in the beauty of the chanting and the words of the service. “ It goes without saying that in the course of the services the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.” (WG, p. 68) What she learned from these three experiences can be summarized as follows. Christianity is a religion primarily for those who are wretched, and one experiences in it a force unlike those forces that are either degrading, or merely pleasant. The elevation to be found in Christianity comes in the midst of suffering.

While at Solesmes, Weil was introduced to the 17th century English Metaphysical Poets. She was particularly struck by George Herbert’s poems. She tells us that she memorized “Love” and used to recite it when she was suffering from violent headaches.

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. (WG, p. 69)

The poem is about Jesus sacrificing himself for those who are wretched and offering his crucified body at a banquet to nourish the wretched. In her experience of Christ in the midst of her suffering, Weil did not see him. She merely felt herself in the presence of love. Why then does she say “Christ himself came down and took possession of me?” It is the intersection of wretchedness and elevation by love that was the core of her three previous significant experiences with Christianity. Here the poem she recites is about Christ in whom affliction and love intersect. So it is not surprising that Weil identifies the love by which she is possessed as the presence of Christ. Weil tells us,

in all my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God. (WG, p. 69)

She continues, making a point of crucial importance,

Yet, I still half refused, not my love but my intelligence. For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. (WG, p. 69)

This means that she does not regard her mystical experience as itself sufficient to establish the reality of God or the truth of Christian dogmas. Nor does she follow the common route found in the philosophy of religion, which focuses exclusively on the mystical or religious experience itself, to see if such experience is sufficient to establish either the reality of God or the truth of Christian dogmas. Nor does she claim that mystical experience is the source of Christian dogmas, or replaces Christian dogma, as so many biblical scholars and theologians think mystics are committed to. Finally, Simone Weil is not like Friedrich Schleiermacher, who stakes everything on the bedrock of a pure feeling of absolute dependance, and who treats Christian doctrines as the inadequate verbal articulation of the feeling.

Rather, Weil engages in intellectual work in order fully to convince her mind of the reality of God. Her method is, on the one hand, to use the intersection of wretchedness and love as a key to the interpretation of Christian dogmas. She gave remarkably fresh accounts of the doctrines of creation, incarnation, and crucifixion. Then, on the other hand, she employs these doctrines to cast light on such things as work, oppression, war, the destructive power of nature operation on our bodies, which at the same time reveal great beauty to our minds and senses. She uses Christian doctrines to illuminate our self-understanding, personal relations, such as friendship, and social and political issues. Various philosophical questions, literary questions, including myths and legends are all examined in terms of the light given to various conflict of the good and necessity by a supernatural perspective. The illumination given to various aspects of what is here below by Christian dogma convinces her mind of the reality of God. It is not a mystical experience by itself, but that experience and the light Christian dogmas shed elsewhere that brings intellectual conviction.

The intellectual analyses of things here below from the point of view of a divine, suffering love yield an understanding of various things of this world, and at the same time mediate contact with a divine love. Unlike so much of biblical study and theological construction, Weil’s intellectual work is directed toward giving a person nourishment through contact with God’s love. In this, Weil is very much in the ancient and medieval theological tradition in which the Bible and theology are concerned with enabling us to increase our knowledge and love of God. To know God is to know the things of this world as they are related to a divine, suffering love. Secure in that knowledge the mind finds a satisfaction and the heart a good that is not subject to necessity, that is, that cannot be destroyed.

For Weil, as in orthodox Christianity, Christian doctrines, such as creation, incarnation, trinity, and the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist, are “above the intellect.” That is, the mind cannot and should not submit to them directly, because the kind of reasoning and the criteria we use for and against various truth - claims are not applicable to matters which are above the intellect. What then can we do? We can do nothing, as Weil did before she had a mystical experience. But after her mystical experience, she realized that a person can understand even what one cannot fully comprehend. That understanding can prove to be enough for one to become attracted by the suffering love that Christian doctrines portray. Even though doctrines are above the power of the intellect to affirm or deny, they can still evoke love within us. With a perception of suffering love, and the evocation of love within us, we can now analyze an immense range of things, as she did, and come to a new understanding of them.

To use one of Weil’s one images, the mind illumined by love is like a flashlight casting light where otherwise much remains in the darkness. She wrote,

Faith is an experience that the intelligence is lighted by love...The organ in us through which we see truth is intelligence; the organ in us through which we see God is love. (Panichas, p. 419)

Although the Christian mysteries cannot be affirmed or denied directly by the intellect, when loved, those mysteries illumine the mind and enable the mind to gain a new understanding of many things here below. That understanding convinces the mind of the truth of the mysteries. The mind makes its affirmations, then, not by a direct examination of the mysteries, but indirectly by the illumination they give elsewhere. But for the mysteries to be a source of understanding which can lead to the conviction of their reality, intellectual work must be done.

I can here only briefly illustrate that intellectual work, since it is so extensive. In fact, it comprises the entire corpus of Simone Weil. In the five remaining years of her short life after her visitation by Christ, she never ceased her intellectual inquiry. She sought to understand all things in terms of the light shed by the intersection of wretchedness and an elevating love, and sought to make that love more accessible to us through a reorganization of our social and political life, as well as accessible in our personal lives.

Consider, for example, her essay, “Iliad: Poem of Might.” Force or compulsion in war is necessity, the source of wretchedness, in its most naked form. Homer’s account of the Trojan war shows the sway of force over both victors and victims until it reduces both to things. The person who wields a sword and strikes another down becomes as much a thing-like object, acting mechanically, as the person who is struck down.

The true hero, the real subject, the core of the Iliad, is might. The might which wielded by men rules over them, and before it man’s flesh cringes. (Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, Trans. E.C. Geissbuhler, p. 24)

Homer portrays both the Trojans, who are his enemies, and the Greeks, who are his compatriots, with the same sympathy and compassion. The Iliad is not a story of Greek triumph. It is about people caught in coils too strong for them to manage, subject to forces which even the gods, who are immensely stronger than humans, cannot control or manage. Necessity reveals itself more and more clearly as events go on, until victor and vanquished cease to be people, and have become reduced to things, obedient to forces that have established dominion over them.

It is this which makes Iliad a unique poem, this bitterness, issuing from its tenderness, and which extends, as light of the sun, equally over all men...The destitution and misery of all men is shown without dissimulation or disdain, no man is held above or below the common level of all men, and whatever is destroyed is regretted. The visitors and the vanquished are shown equally near to us, in an equal perspective, and seen, by that token, to be fellows as well of the poet as of the auditors. (p. 48-9)

Weil claims that no person could so honestly portray people at war, and have the whole work bathed in such beauty, compassion, and a sense of solidarity with both victors and vanquished alike, as does Homer, without knowledge of a power utterly different from compulsion, of a power utterly different from necessity, namely divine grace.

One cannot perceive the presence of God in a man, but only in the reflection of that light in his manner of conceiving earthly life. Thus, the true God is present in the Iliad and not in the book of Joshua.

The author of the Iliad depicts life as only a man who loves God can see it. the author of Joshua as only a man who does not love God can see it.

One who does not testify so well for God by speaking about Him as by expressing, either in actions or words, the new aspect assumed by the creation after the soul has experienced its Creator. Indeed, the truth is that the latter is the only way. (Panichas, p.427)

For this reason, Weil claims that

In a certain way, Patroclus occupies the central position in the Iliad, where it is said “he knew how to be tender toward all, “ wherein nothing of a cruel or brutal nature is even mentioned concerning him. (Geissbuhler, p. 44)

Again and again in various ancient Greek writings, she sees the contrast between necessity or gravity, as she often calls it, and grace. She sees the contrast between brute power and social power, which can reduce people to things, on the one hand, or a witness to another power, on the other hand. Again and again, she claims that those who portray such forces have an intimation of grace or divine love. Such people see themselves separated only by chance from those who are reduced to rubble. They know they could just as easily, for all they could plan or do, become caught in the mechanism and be crushed by it as well. So they are no better, no more meritorious than those who are crushed. “The cold brutality of the facts of war is in no way disguised just because neither victors nor vanquished are admired, despised or hated.” (Panichas, p. 50)

Such humility in the ancient writers indicates that they have learned to think of themselves and others as limited, dependent beings. They have recognized the sway of gravity, and yet, have not given their full allegiance to it. To withhold one’s allegiance from gravity, even when one knows of no other power that can defeat it or redeem it, is the result of the presence of divine grace, whether it is realized or not.

Weil claims that this has happened in many faiths and not just among the ancient Greeks. She documents it in the ancient Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (having taken the trouble to learn the original language) and in the sacred Hindu Upanishads. Her basic claim is that there has always been a witness to the Cross of Christ, even when it has not been known as such. For the forces which led to Jesus’ crucifixion are the same forces operative in war, social life, and natural material processes. The Cross symbolizes these forces that reduce us to things, and at the same time, the love that can be present in and through them.

We see a similar pattern of intellectual work in Weil’s reflections on one of the most basic convictions of western society: the absolute value of every human being. Weil considered it in the context of her reflections on capitalism and Marxism. She points out that in western liberal democracy every person has inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. No government can violate these rights or take them away from us justly. Every person has equality before the law. If you work in a factory and get paid the wage that supply and demand establish for your work, your rights are not violated. No one has deprived you of life, liberty or property. No injustice has been committed.

What is wrong with this view? Marx criticized it because it exploits the worker. The worker is the producer of wealth, yet the worker receives only a wage – a part of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is taken as profits by the owners of the means of production. The worker is thus exploited because the worker’ s right to the product of labor is violated.

Although both theories have different views of what human rights are, both seek to protect these rights. However, neither shows that every person has absolute value. People have value in terms of what they produce. The theory of liberal democracy allows the marketplace to determine the value of a person’s labor, The Marxist values labor differently. But neither political nor economic shows that people have an absolute value. Their value is relative to their work; their value is relative to each other. Not only is absolute value not even broached by these theories, they do not consider the depth of harm and injury which be done to a person. For this we must look elsewhere.

One of the places for Weil was the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man is robbed, beaten, and left as a heap of battered flesh beside a road. A Levite and a priest pass by without helping. She asks, “Do they violate the injured man’s rights? Could anyone take them to court for not helping? Could they be said to have acted unjustly?” A theory of alienable rights, which a government must protect, a theory of equality before the law, would not convict the Levite or the priest who passed by of injustice. Yet Jesus once praised those who gave drink to the thirsty, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the prisoner. He called them just. They had performed acts of justice.

In the New Testament the same Greek word is translated as “just” and “righteous.” The Good Samaritan was a righteous or just person. He performed a just act. This story reflects a different view of justice in the New Testament from that of democratic liberalism. The New Testament view of justice is not limited to the protection of rights. Its view of justice is deeper because it has a deeper view of what people are and the harm that can be done to them. This is why it seems strange to us to consider the act of the Good Samaritan as an act of justice. To those who think in terms of liberal democratic theory, it is an act of mercy, not justice. But sense can be made of the New Testament view of justice.

The man who was beaten and robbed no longer had any possession to cause anyone to take notice of him. He had no clothes to indicate his social position; were he a person of distinction, perhaps notice would have been taken of him. Since his relative value cannot be estimated, what claim did he have to consideration? If his claim is based on rights – if rights are the bottom line – then he has no claim. What applies to him applies to all of us. Any of us can be reduced to anonymity in which we have no claim on others. We can be left without family, money, friends. Talk to any refugee who has been reduced to nothing or fears it. what basis does he or she have for making a claim on anyone? All such a person can do is beg, beg for mercy. People may listen or they may turn away. But no injustice is committed. That is, no injustice is committed if rights are the final and ultimate ground for a claim to consideration by others.

Weil did not believe that the bottom line was rights. We do have a claim on others and others have obligations to us because we all have absolute value. But in earthly terms if we are stripped of all that we have – possessions and social standing – people can pass us by without committing an injustice. None of us can ensure that we will not be stripped of all we gave. Indeed, as Weil never failed to pint out, it is a condition we shall all actually be in one day, when we become reduced to dust. If rights are our only claim to consideration, no harm has been done to us, no injustice, no violation has been committed. Unless we have absolute value, then we have no grounds for complaint. If we do have absolute value, then indeed we have been harmed; we do have a reason to cry out in adversity: Why? Why must I bear this kind of life? Why must I live this way day after day? Why am I neglected? Why must I die? If we have absolute value, to be deprived is a reason to cry out. And when something of absolute value cries out, it is unjust not to answer. It is unjust to allow that which is of absolute value to be wretched, mangled, twisted, neglected, unnoticed, unwanted, resented, hated. But what gives us absolute value? Nothing earthly can. In every way we are unequal – in ability, good fortune, health, and the like. We only have relative value, limited value, conditional value. Our value is determined by our standing compared to other people. Weil claimed that only what is utterly and wholly free of defilement and corruption has absolute value. Only what is absolutely and wholly good can give us absolute value. We have absolute value only because we have been made to receive that good. Without that good, we have no absolute value. We must keep our eyes closed to what is around us and before us: a physical universe that is utterly indifferent to us and a great, deep, empty abyss toward which we are headed. The cry of the human heart – which makes sense only if we are being violated – is met with silence when it looks to anything earthly. Only those who recognize in their own hearts the harm we can suffer, the anguish of what it is to be a human being, can act as the Good Samaritan acted. They can see that it is unjust to allow that cry to be unanswered. They can recognized that it is an outrage to allow that brokeness to lie unnoticed and unattended.

Weil thought that the reality of absolute good and correspondingly absolute value are above the power of the intellect to establish. Weil thinks they are above the intellect because the intellect cannot give absolute certainty. Yet in these matters, she claimed there is absolute certainty. It is in our very bones; it is in our cry of anguish. It resides in our every wretched life that feels that somehow I was made for more than this kind of life. This for her is a manifestation of the supernatural good in our lives.

Ernest Bevin, who led the dockworker’s union in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, stressed that the most important goal of the labor movement was for the workers to gain a sense of human dignity and to stop feeling like second-class people. In the 1930s a Parliamentary Commission was appointed to hear the case of the dockworkers. The management was represented by an eminent King’s Counsel. The dockers chose Ernest Bervin to present their case, even though he had little education and legal or economic training. Bevin mastered the immensely complicated economic and legal facts relevant to the inquiry in a short time and presented their case magnificently. He became known as “Docker’s K.C.,” and it became a point of pride among the dockers that one of their own was able to make their case. For Weil this too would become a manifestation of the supernatural in our lives.

According to Weil, Marx’s theory of oppression did not show a full awareness of the real nature of oppression. The injury to people is not finally expressible in economic terms. In far too many situations, it is the experience of work that oppresses. We have learned from Arthur Miller how humiliating it can be to be a salesman. In management too, humiliation must be endured in order to move up or stay in place, and dismissal can mean utter collapse. A theory of oppression that is only or primarily economic does not allow the depths of oppression to be articulated, and thereby actually leads to an increase in human oppression.

Weil believed that Jesus can open our eyes to the depths of injury that human beings endure. Consider, for example, the emphasis on lepers in the Gospels. Lepers were socially uprooted from the fabric of society. They were forced to live outside of towns and villages and to call out as a warning to anyone who approached them, “Unclean!” It is no accident that the Gospels frequently mention that Jesus healed lepers – restored them to the social fabric – nor is an accident that his imitator St. Francis kissed their sores. By that very disgusting act, Francis restored the outcast to personhood. He affirmed the absolute value of those whose social value was less than nothing.

These are a few examples of Weil’s attempt to show that God and the supernatural mysteries of Christianity, though above reason, nonetheless when loved, give illumination to our intellectual work. her method of reasoning suggests to me that in order to evaluate mystical experience in the philosophy of religion, or theology, we should not look exclusively at the experience itself, as is now commonly done. Rather, we should examine and evaluate the understanding that a supernatural perspective can give us of things such as war, the nature of justice, and the like. As Weil put it,

If I light an electric torch at night out of doors I don’t judge its power by looking at the bulb, but by seeing how many objects it lights up.

The brightness of a source of light is appreciated by the illumination it projects upon non-luminous objects.

The value of a religious or, more generally, a spiritual way of life is appreciated by the amount of illumination thrown upon the things of this world.

Only spiritual things have value, but only physical things have a verifiable existence. Therefore the value of the former can only be verified as an illumination projected on to the latter. (Panichas, p. 430-1)

This is certainly a novel approach, and one that should not only be considered by philosophers of religion, but by theologians as well.