An Apprenticeship in Affliction:
Waiting with Simone Weil
I DOUBT there is a twentieth-century figure who has inspired more poetry than the French philosopher-mystic Simone Weil. Though her writings were few and fragmentary, their utterly unconventional, severely brilliant insights and her absolute fidelity in living out her own precepts have moved poets to produce literally volumes directly engaging her life and work.
From English-language poets alone we have two book-length reflections on the startling choices Weil made in her life and the challenging profundities of her thought: Stephanie Strickland’s The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil (1993) and Sarah Klassen’s Simone Weil: Songs of Hunger and Love (1999). Both tell Weil’s story more or less chronologically: her childhood in a loving and affluent non-practicing Jewish household in Paris; her brilliant school career reading philosophy and science; her teaching job at a lycée; her trade-union activism in the 1930s; her decision to do factory work (though she kept having accidents on the job and was fired three times); her attempt to fight in the Spanish Civil War (though a clumsy accident sent her home); her absorption in the Christian Gospels and movement toward Catholicism (though she could never quite bring herself to be baptized); her mystical experiences; her flight from occupied France to London in 1940; her death in 1943 at the age of thirty-four, when—in solidarity with her suffering countrymen back in France—she refused food and treatment for tuberculosis. And through it all, her excruciating chronic migraines; her prickliness about food and disregard for her physical appearance; her development of a religious philosophy centering on her concepts of affliction, justice, necessity, attention, and God’s infinite distance yet absolute presence when we wait for him with perfect longing while giving up any hope of receiving his love.
Other contemporary poets engaging Weil’s starkly comfortless wisdom include Edward Hirsch, Maggie Helwig, Anne Carson, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. And Kate Daniels, whose Four Testimonies invents almost unbearably painful incidents at the extreme salvific edge that Weil calls us to: embracing “affliction” (Weil’s key notion that we find God as our center at the point where blind force pierces our soul) and accepting pain as redemptive because it “is the universe, the order and beauty of the world and the obedience of creation to God that are entering our body” (Weil’s words, which Daniels uses as epigraph).
This is tough stuff, not for poets of a romantic disposition. (Robert Cording’s poem using Weil to muse on an apparently senseless fatal car accident is called “Against Consolation.”) These poets reject a sentimental, feel-good Christianity and welcome as long-lost truth Weil’s ruthless slashing of ego and its imaginary claims on the universe.
This was also what made me welcome Weil—no, it was stronger than a welcome; it was sputtering relief, like grabbing onto a life-raft—when I first read her words at the age of thirty-three.
Until that point, I had lived entirely within my ego. Growing up in a household that eschewed religious practice as outmoded, I never heard talk of any reality transcending the self. And my own personality gradually swelled my “self” into the center of my universe. By my early thirties, I’d stuffed into that self an overblown pride in my new PhD in English literature and a worship of what others referred to as my intelligence. At the same time, I began to sense cracks in this prideful self. I would experience what I described in my journal as “cosmic freak-outs”: a universe swirling with meaninglessness, sweeping me up into its vortex. All this culminated in a psychic crash that I came to call my Night of Horror, when I could palpably feel the devil take hold of my “self” and toss it into the void. Sobbing with terror, I vowed to “be better,” to get free of the devil’s grip on my soul. And I called out for the first time to God: not a prayer (I didn’t know what a prayer would be); but I begged that I’d someday be able to pray.
This was the night of December 16, 1977. On January 2, 1978, I opened The Simone Weil Reader, edited by George Panichas, which had been waiting for me on my shelf ever since I’d chosen it from a display of new books at a neighborhood bookstore in the fall.
Why had I bought this book?—and also, half a year before, the new biography of Weil by her friend Simone Pétrement (which I’d also put unread on my shelf)? I’d scarcely heard of Weil, but I must have intuited that I’d need her sometime. I’d heard her labeled as a philosopher, and I was deep into western philosophy, enamored particularly of Aristotle’s and Hegel’s grand systems. I’d heard her labeled a Marxist, and I was toying with current Marxist cultural analysis. I’d heard her labeled a spiritual genius, and I already sensed—especially during that fall of 1977, as my psyche crumbled—that I would need some kind of genius to be the genie of transformation for my desperate spiritual life.
Opening to Panichas’s introduction in those first days of intense seeking for release from my diabolical self-entrapment, I immediately saw that Weil would be a godsend. Panichas was offering her writings as an antidote to the insidious narcissism which had gripped American society in the 1970s. Weil “communicates the grace…that lifts us from the torments and illusions and diabolisms of our self-made abyss,” he wrote. I gasped at the uncanny aptness to my personal crisis, and knew with gratitude that God would be addressing me directly through Weil’s words. And already, a few pages later, Panichas was quoting her scornful dismissal of Aristotle for carrying out “a search for God by means of human reason.” Aristotle’s reliance on reason to reach toward God was precisely why I’d been studying him for months! But no more, I saw. Because here was Weil, in words which struck me as pure truth, declaring that only a “wisdom” like Plato’s, which is not mere human reasoning but rather “an act of love towards God,” can “orient the soul towards grace.”
Scanning the table of contents to decide where to step into Weil’s writings themselves, I settled quickly on the essay “Human Personality” in a section called “Language and Thought”—because personality was my problem, I felt, and “language and thought” my field of professional investigation. What I found there was prose such as I’d never encountered before: incisive as a knife point, cutting deep into my being and tearing apart every comfortable assumption I’d ever lived by, yet also mysteriously reassuring me that through these severely pointed words my life would somehow be saved. Weil’s prose had a quality which I’d now call poetic—in its concision and its grasp of the single sharp image as insight’s wedge into our souls. (No doubt this quality of her writing is part of her appeal to so many poets. Many in fact incorporate her very lines into their poems, so seamlessly that one needs to know her work nearly by heart in order to detect them.)
I took days reading Weil’s essay. I felt compelled to copy its lines into my journal so as to pass them through my body, making sure their points dug in, wanting them to root out the self-delusions I’d been so destructively possessed by. Over the past five years I’d self-consciously crafted an identity as a writer, with language as the adored medium I sought meaning through, yet here was Weil: “A mind enclosed in language is in prison.” All my confidence had been in my intelligence, as the faculty to show me the truth about any subject, yet here was Weil: “Men of the most brilliant intelligence can be born, live, and die in error and falsehood.” My intelligence had been my one source of pride, yet here was Weil in a devastating line which I typed out and pinned to the wall over my desk: “The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell.” Every line like this pierced me with a stab which I hoped (I wasn’t praying yet) would puncture the core of my sinful, erring self. I used physically painful metaphors because already I was suffering what I affectionately named the Pinch.
Probably it was a simple pinched nerve in my neck. But I chose not to phone the doctor for this shooting pain in my left arm which began on New Year’s Day and lasted through January. Always a hypochondriac before, running to the doctor for the least discomfort, I chose to see this pain instead in spiritual terms. On New Year’s Day, my husband and I had done our projected 1978 budget, and because of the salary cut he’d had to take for a new job, we were going to be a couple thousand dollars short. I’d have to make up the difference by getting some paid work instead of spending all my time on my beloved writing projects. Economically we were “feeling the pinch” in a way that directly threatened my treasured identity as a writer. And since I was left-handed, and did all my writing by hand in those pre-computer days, the pain in my left arm literally kept me from writing. Wincing to tears at this double blow to my proudly constructed self, I welcomed this hammering down as a divine gift. It was God’s gentle way, I said, of giving me something of Weil’s own experience of bodily suffering, which for her was an opening to the grace of God that I so longed for.
Edward Hirsch hadn’t yet written “At Solesmes,” one of his trilogy of poems on Weil’s transformative encounters with Catholicism as related in her 1942 “Spiritual Autobiography.” (This autobiography was composed as a long letter to her friend Father Perrin, who published it posthumously in a 1950 collection of her writings which he titled L’Attende de Dieu; its English translation appeared the following year as Waiting for God.) But Hirsch’s “At Solesmes” brings to life for me now Weil’s own welcoming of the suffering body and why I needed to incorporate her very being into my own if I possibly could.
From Palm Sunday to Easter Tuesday,
from Matins to Vespers and beyond, from
each earthly sound that hammered her skull
and entered her bloodstream, from the headaches
This first stanza sets the scene in nearly Weil’s own words as translated in Waiting for God: “In 1938 I spent ten days at Solesmes, from Palm Sunday to Easter Tuesday, following all the liturgical services. I was suffering from splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow….” But Hirsch recasts her words so that the throbbing beat of his poetic line replicates for us the hammering blows that she experienced in her skull, even in her whole bloodstream. These were the chronic headaches from which Weil suffered, so acutely that she sometimes felt unable to survive the exhausting pain. The poet’s interest, however, is in what she did spiritually with this suffering. Though the stanza ends with her suffering from the headaches, the next stanza has her taking hold of them to make them the object of her own determined action:
she sent into the universe and took back
into her flesh…
Weil made of her piercing chronic pain a connecting link to the universe, a link she elaborated in her core concepts of affliction and necessity. In the act of creation God allows the brute forces of the universe—whirling atoms, earthquakes, the fragility of our own bodies—to impose themselves on us. The mechanism of these blind forces, which Weil called “necessity,” penetrates us as “affliction.” In her essay “The Love of God and Affliction,” which I devoured that winter, she writes that affliction is a “nail applied to the very center of the soul…. The man whose soul remains oriented towards God while a nail is driven through it finds himself nailed to the very center of the universe; the true center…which is God.”
This was the center I longed to be affixed to during that winter of the Pinch: I longed to be wrenched away from my self as center and nailed instead to God. So I took the pinched nerve as Weil’s nail, a blessedly tiny nail, hardly a pinprick compared to what Weil had suffered, but following her lead I sent the Pinch happily into the necessity of the universe and took it back into my flesh as blessing. I wanted it to stay until my soul would be oriented towards God.
The economic pinch—the need for a paying job—played into my casting of the Pinch as a (mercifully gentle) affliction. Weil named “distress of soul and social degradation” as obligatory components of true affliction, and I was definitely experiencing both. Having to sacrifice my writing time to a job was distressing in itself, and then there was plenty of social degradation in the job search. The college teaching jobs I was professionally trained for wouldn’t be available till the fall, nine months away, and we needed money immediately. So I accepted the humiliation of walking my neighborhood’s commercial streets, painfully stopping in every store to ask if they had openings. I followed up on newspaper ads for anything. When I left the house for an interview to model fur coats for men buying them for their girlfriends at a sleazy downtown shop (I who never even wore make-up), my son wrinkled his brow with a ten-year-old’s perceptiveness: “That’s not you,” he said.
Hirsch invites us into Weil’s multifaceted concept of affliction by incorporating into this moment at Solesmes her previous experience of factory work. In a nice Weilian touch—since affliction for Weil seizes and possesses the soul while planting itself in the body—the poet introduces her factory experience not as the memories she never forgot but as “the memories that never forgot her”:
the factory whistle and the branding-iron
of the masters, the sixty-hour work week
and the machine that belched into her face,
the burns that blossomed on her arms—
All these images come out of Weil’s subsequent reflections on her year of factory work, which she had entered into as an intellectual project: as a young leftist social analyst, she wanted to taste the worker’s life so as to discover methods for improving working-class conditions. But she wasn’t long at the job before her intellectual detachment was obliterated. Along with her fellow workers, she found herself in servitude to “the factory whistle”: the time-clock which kept them bound to the merciless schedule of the machinery, robbing them of their free human spirits. Stripping them further of their humanity were the whims of the foremen, the masters who ordered the workers from task to task while the machines were accorded the value that rightly belongs to people. Hirsch captures this all, almost comically, in the machine “that belched into her face.” And her burns: Weil was accident-prone and was injured more than once on the job. But the “burns” of the poem are also from “the branding-iron / of the masters.” Weil later wrote that during that year of factory work, she received “the mark of a slave, like the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves.” She told a friend: “The combination of personal experience and sympathy for the wretched mass of people around me implanted so deep in my heart the affliction of social degradation that I have felt a slave ever since.”
A slave ever since. So envisioning her there at Solesmes three years later, Hirsch is right to recall these “memories that never forgot her.” And to generalize her experience to “us” in the following stanza, because Weil characteristically wrote in terms of “we,” all humankind:
from whatever weighs us down to whatever
lifts us up, from whatever mutilates us
to whatever spirits us away, from soul
descending to soul arising, moment by moment
Hirsch’s incanted prepositions “from…to…” have subtly changed their function. At the poem’s start they mark the passage of time: from Palm Sunday to Easter Tuesday. But now they mark distance in spiritual space. In this new function, they serve wonderfully for conveying the sense of cosmic seesaw in Weil’s vision of how the human soul, God, and the created universe interact for our salvation. The soul is pretty much the passive subject of the created world’s obedience to God, the “order and beauty of the world,” as she calls it: the blind force of “whatever weighs us down to whatever / lifts us up.” Yet an infinitesimal part of the soul remains free to say either yes or no to being swung up and down, to being mutilated by affliction. That free part of the soul can turn toward God in patient longing. It cannot step toward God, or even seek God: Weil was ruthless in condemning these now-popular tropes of spiritual journeying. All it can do is wait in time, “moment by moment,” looking toward God. In the poem cycle “Hunger and the Watchman: for Simone Weil,” Maggie Helwig addresses Weil: “If someone asks your name, you can only say— / here is the point I watch at.” Meanwhile God, who is infinite love, waits in eternity for the soul to only turn toward him in a yes. “God waits patiently until at last I am willing to consent to love him,” Weil wrote.
All that January of 1978, I waited on pins and needles for God’s grace to move my soul to its yes to him, as I read Weil daily. Not only did I read her: I copied whole pages out in my journal in both French and English, not knowing which language would work better in etching her words, her wisdom, into my soul. I was also reading the Gospels daily, in Greek and English. Opening them for the first time here at the age of thirty-four, I was immediately and absolutely certain of their salvific truth. With grateful joy, I hung on every Gospel passage. But it was Weil whom I needed to lead me toward living their message, because she spoke directly to the Pinch. When its physical pain would spread to my head and back, forcing me to bed, I’d give thanks for this tiny touch of Weil’s “affliction,” confident that it would be the means of my salvation, by which I meant my being able to consent to God’s love. I was still afraid to give this consent, afraid to give up “my very self,” as Mark 8:35 instructed me, because as bad as that self was it was the only one I knew. But if I couldn’t yet consent to God’s love, I could long with my whole being for that consent.
Then at the end of the month, I got the flu. The high fever raised the Pinch’s pain to excruciating intensity. In bed I writhed in tears. With Hirsch’s Weil, I
felt the body heaped up and abandoned
in the corner, the skin tasted and devoured.
Following Weil, I determined to be patient with the pain. Always before, my body’s demands had vanquished me; I’d been helpless in their grip. But now she had showed me how to slip free of that grip: how to move my attention to the tiny part of my soul that was separate from the pain, and to watch it from there. And after only a few hours I was astonished to watch the pain disappear. I still had fluish achiness, of course; but the Pinch dissolved away, as (Hirsch’s stanza continues)
she felt an invisible hand wavering
over the rags she was leaving behind.
A week later when the flu had gone, I almost missed the Pinch. But I said goodbye to it tenderly, because I figured that God had done his work through it. For several years afterwards, on the anniversary of the Pinch’s farewell I’d write in my journal a prayer of thanks for it, thanks to God for coming to me in the Pinch. At this point in the winter of 1978, though, I still couldn’t quite pray. I was suspended in Weil’s waiting, fixing my attention toward where I longed to look toward God.
Hirsch crafts this suspension by composing his entire poem up to here as a single sentence. The first four stanzas hang in a litany of prepositional phrases full of the paradoxically passive activity of the soul as it waits for God in Weil’s way. Then two main clauses say what “she felt” in her body there at Solesmes, according to her own account of the experience: the phrase “heaped up and abandoned in the corner” is literally hers. All this is a set-up for the divine action of the final stanza’s final line. But more prepositional suspension must precede the culminating act:
Between the voices chanting and her own recitation,
between the heartbeats transfigured to prayer,
between the word forsaken and the word joy,
God came down and possessed her.
The “voices chanting” are those of the monks at Solesmes, a Benedictine abbey famous for its Gregorian chant. “Her own recitation” refers to habits and experiences which in the “Spiritual Autobiography” Weil actually places a bit after the time at Solesmes, but Hirsch takes the liberty of folding them in here. Weil had the habit of learning by heart and reciting to herself—always “with perfect attention,” she says—pieces of writing that struck her with supernatural beauty. During one recitation of George Herbert’s poem “Love” in English, at the peak of a violent headache, for the first time in her life “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.” A couple of years later, during her daily recitation of the Our Father in Greek, she would be torn from her body by the prayer’s “infinite sweetness,” and Christ would sometimes be “present with me in person.” Hirsch gives her at Solesmes this experience of being possessed by God because she does say that in the course of her ten days attending the chanted services there, she found “perfect joy” in divine love in the midst of her bodily affliction, and “the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.” So Hirsch can end his poem in full consistency with Weil’s spiritual drama:
God came down and possessed her.
I never experienced during that winter of 1978 a mystical moment in which God came down and possessed me. Nor have I since. But gradually that winter I got the courage to speak to God in prayer, and by March I was referring comfortably and gratefully to “my conversion” as a thing now done.
Not that I was done with my fledgling spiritual development. I continued my daily study of Weil, the Scriptures, and Greek (the Greek so that I could read the Gospels and Paul). In the spring I added C.S. Lewis, beginning with Beyond Personality and Letters to Malcolm; as a literature professor recommitted to Christianity in a secular world, Lewis spoke my language and felt like a good mentor. In the summer I added Augustine’s Confessions, which I identified with for its tormented battle against personal sin. But it was always Simone, as I was calling her now, whom I turned to for spiritual direction in crisis moments. Like the many recent poets who are drawn to her, I thrived on her almost impossibly tough strictures. In her writings and life, I—like these poets—found a wisdom incomparably bracing, uniquely challenging in the standards set for Christian living. I couldn’t hope to meet her standards, to approximate her unflinching integrity. But I sat at her feet for the same reason that Stephanie Strickland, in The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil, has an acquaintance of Weil’s give:
Her words did not so much translate the truth
as pour it into me…
______________so that I virtually fed
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