Simone Weil, the modern saint of alienation, remains a mystery to many. The lack of a single summarizing work left Weil’s writings existing only in scattered aphorisms.  Her insights appeared more as bursts of inspiration, like the divine visions so common in Christian mysticism, rather than a systematic collection of ideas.  Her spiritual writings are rife with paradox, blending Catholicism; Cathar influenced dualism, Eastern belief structure, and socialism. The confusing and sporadic nature of Weil’s writings has left Weil’s work open for much debate.  While not operating in a traditional Catholic foundation Simone Weil’s mystical experience is a valid one.  Comparing Weil’s mystical experiences to those of other well know mystics, is nearly impossible and unfair.  Weil’s 20th century life and rejection of the Catholic Church would seem to place Weil outside the realm of mystical experiences.  Like everything in Weil’s life this is a paradox which must be puzzled out through use of logic and faith.  Despite Weil’s paradoxical nature as a mystic her interest in seclusion, virginity, eating, poverty, and de-creation are similar to those practiced in the macrocosm of Christian mysticism.

When placed into context with medieval female Catholic mystics Weil shares many similarities with her forbears.   Weil’s relationship with food,  isolation, chronic illness, visions, criticism of the Church, and the role of a confessor in the distribution of her work places Weil in the company of Hildegard von Bingen,  Catherine of Sienna, Elisabeth of Schonou, and Margaret Porete.  Weil’s status as a mystic is difficult to ascertain.  What separates Weil from the above women is the freedom of her 20th century existence, lay status, and her lack of visions.  Weil’s three “Inner experiences” were never fully described in words.[1]  Unlike the visions of Hildegard or Elizabeth, Weil’s experiences were devoid of color, plot, or action. [2] According to Weil her experiences were powerful bursts of contact with a god-figure which left her devoid of words.

Simone Weil, being a 20th century woman, seems far removed from the mystical experiences of Hildegard von Bingen and Elisabeth of Schonau.  Weil’s existence as a modern thinker makes her much more approachable than those of medieval women.  Weil lived in an era not far removed from our own there should be a great deal of Weil’s life that is recognizable to readers. Yet, how many modern readers can relate to Simone Weil?  Her alienation, extremism, asceticism, and brilliance are beyond the comfort zone of many.   Weil’s life was one of alienation and paradox.  Her drive to understand the unfathomable, live her beliefs regardless of the personal costs are goals which separate her from the mundane and link her with the mystical.

Any exploration of Simone Weil necessitates a review of her brief life. An agnostic French Jew whose interests in Socialism and Catholic mysticism generated a unique philosophy, Weil’s life is known to very few.  She was born in Paris to non-practicing Jewish parents who had fled the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine.  Weil’s childhood contained many bourgeois comforts, which Weil resented.   Her Father, a doctor, provided well for Weil and her brother Andre.   Despite her comfortable childhood Weil’s health was fragile.  She suffered throughout her life from sinusitis, crippling head pain, and socially crippling clumsiness.  During infancy Weil refused to be feed with utensils, only accepting a bottle.  A special feeding tube was utilized to administer solid food, a practice which continued until early childhood.[3]  Her physical limitations, brilliance, severe introversion, eccentricity, and ascetic lifestyle, limited Weil’s ability to develop interpersonal relationships.   Most of her social contacts were through teaching and political actions.    [4]

Weil’s writings, both political and mystical, reflected her lifestyle.  Weil lived what she wrote, suffering poverty, isolation, violence, and malnutrition in order to live her beliefs.  Weil often took actions out of sympathy with the working class. Her earliest political action was in 1915, when a six year old Weil refused to consume any sugar in solidarity with troops fighting in the trenches on the Western Front.  Four years later Weil proclaimed herself a Bolshevik, much to the shock and bemusement of her parents.[5] Weil’s youthful acts of rebellion eventually lead to involvement with political marches, demonstrations, and a staunch support of worker’s rights.[6]  While teaching in Le Puy, Weil wrote Oppression and Liberty and numerous short articles for trade union journals. Oppression and Liberty criticized popular Marxist thought, and gave a pessimistic account of the limits of both capitalism and socialism.[7]

All of Weil’s short life was dedicated to living her philosophies. Weil was not an armchair activist; she pushed herself to experience the plight of those she supported.  She participated in the French general strike of 1933 protesting with workers for better wages. In an effort to show solidarity for the working class, Weil took a leave of absence from teaching to work as a laborer in 1934.  Lacking training and manual dexterity for bench work, Weil remained on her feet operating a machine press for long shifts.  Due to her frail physical condition, Weil was unable to spend her year in the factories and she returned to her teaching job in 1935

Not all of Weil’s political actions were peaceful.  Despite being a professed pacifist, Weil fought in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Sébastien Faure Century, the French-speaking section of the anarchist militia.[8]  Again Weil exuberance was cancelled out by her ignorance.  Weil lacked ability as a fighter her physical limitations, clumsiness, and compassion often placed her comrades in danger.  It was this clumsiness combined with near-sightedness, which forced Weil to leave Spain after stepping into a pot of boiling fat[9].  It was while recuperating in Assisi where Weil wrote many of her essays and experienced a series of religious ecstasies that drastically affected the last years of her life.[10]

Weil’s last years were spent in motion.  Weil grudgingly fled with her family to the United States to escape the Nazi’s anti-Semitic programs. In her letters she considered the ocean voyage the baptism she had long avoided.   After living in Harlem for a time, Weil eventually left the United States to work with the French Resistance in England.  Again her health faltered under a heavy workload.  She soon took ill with a digestive condition which prevented her normally limited calorie intake. Ill health and her refusal to eat contributed to her death in 1943, when her heart seized. [11]

After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34. The coroner’s report said that “the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.”[12]   While there is some weight to the argument that Weil starved herself as an expression of solidarity towards the victims of the war, another theory is buried in her writing.  Weil exposed a strong sentiment for the practice of “de-creation”.  Weil saw creation as the act of a loving creator, claiming that each moment of existence comes from God and must be returned.  According to Weil, in order for individuals to exist God withdrew from creation. This act of separation created a barrier between the individual and the Divine, it is the duty of all living individuals to piece this barrier and return to God.  Weil referred to this barrier as “deifugal” force.[13]

Piercing this barrier required an individual to negate the self.  Individuals must imitate God’s separation from creation by renouncing “being something”.  Weil detested the adjectives and titles humanity affixed to its self. The “I” was a separation from God. In order to return to God the self must be removed. In Gravity and Grace Weil pleaded with God to become nothing. She begged for “decreation”.  Decreation, the end goal of her mystical practice, was central to Weil’s theology.   The concept of divine love filling a vacuum is central to Weil’s work.

Exploring Simone Weil’s theology is often difficult.  Weil was a notorious recluse abhorred any discussion of herself.  Her mystical writings were victims of her privacy, the majority being publish posthumously.  When published her mystical writings stood in sharp contrast to her earlier political work.   Weil’s work contained few mystical insights.[14] Works such as Gravity and Grace were published posthumously from letters, essays, and unfinished projects.  Due to Weil’s private nature and young death the true nature of Weil’s theology is lost, existing only in scattered aphorisms. While this does make any conclusive ideas about her work impossible, several themes are consistent.

Combining elements of Marxism and Christian mysticism Weil explored the link between charity and equality, as well as the role affliction, justice, and human agency play in humanity’s interaction with God. Weil believed that the arms of the Cross represented the intersection of God and his creation, an image that captures the point at which spiritual and physical combine. [15]In many was Weil’s works are an intersection of her radical politics and Christianity.  Weil was an activist who imitated the oppressed.   Whether living among factory workers in France of the neglected urban poor of Harlem, Weil dwelled with the have-nots.  Weil’s world was one where all man made social institutions existed only to promote inequality. Her distrust of social institutions and a concern of power were common of French thinkers in the 1930’s and 1940’s.[16]  Weil’s distrust of power was rooted in her concept of the sin of self. Those in power would maintain power in order to maintain their self.  Weil’s belief was that the self needed to be destroyed in order to allow for the pure force of God to fill the void.   Killing the self-required an individual to suffer all the ills of the world, and by doing so alleviate the suffering of others.[17]

What worried Weil was that that this destruction of the self would be brought on not by the willingness of an individual to fill a void with love, but by the crushing banality of society.  When those who are oppressed by the state suffer, their suffering is not that of a saint, their suffering is man-made. Man-made suffering contains the distractions of hope and imagination.  Those who seek protection from the suffering of the world inevitably turn towards earthly distractions.  Weil argues that protection must be made of the same material as the weapon that attacks. Earthly armor only protects against earthly swords and separates the wearer from sensation.  Heroes wear armor, keeping their personalities safe from the world behind a cloak of steel.  Saints remain naked, suffering the thorns of the world letting it wear down their personalities and letting God fill the wounds.  If evil is defined as the loss of worldly things, by denying the value of worldly what then does evil take from us? What is the use of justice if worldly things do not matter?  These are questions that dominated Weil’s work.

Comparison between Weil and St. Augustine is not unheard of. Much like St. Augustine, Weil faced in intellectual battle with conversion.    Both were unwilling participants in their mystical experiences.   Despite her religious experiences she staunchly refused to give up her intellect to blind faith.[18]  Weil’s correspondences with Father Perrin presented Weil as struggling with conversation.  In The Need for Roots Weil expressed a scholarly approach to Christianity, in much the same manner as Augustine. Both struggled to accept the miraculous when faced with the needs ( Weil) or the vices ( Augustine) of the terrestrial world.  Like much of post  World War I France Weil was nervous about accepting authority. The despair of post war France shook the foundations of traditional authorities.  With Weil the Catholic establishment was an authority capable of failure, as it was an institution of man and thus flawed. The structured of the Catholic Church was “…something socially in accordance with the interest of those who exploit the people.”[19]

Another similarity between Augustine and Weil is an examination of the personal relationships around them.  Family was a driving force in Augustine conversion.  His mother, St. Monica¸ a long suffering advocate for conversion as well as his son Adeodatus were central characters in Augustine’s journey towards Christ.   They were a Greek chorus urging and pressuring him towards a goal he would not achieve on his own. [20] Weil lacked this familiar pressure towards maters of religion. Through the lives and actions of these individuals Augustine was pushed towards Christ and the famous “Take it up and read” vision in the garden which affected his final step towards acceptance. [21] Weil had no such support from family.  Her parents were more concerned with the continuation of her academic career, personal life, and health.   Despite Weil’s protests, her parents were devoted, if not over protective.   Weil’s family often saved her when her adventures in proletariat living complicated her health, usually against her will.  These rescue missions often involved her again parents travelling through politically unstable and war ravaged regions. One such mission required her family to brave the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War to ensure her clumsiness induced burn received proper medical treatment.[22]  The Weil’s were ambivalent to Simone’s spiritual writings, but were nervous about her habit of starvation, seclusion, and extreme practices of solidarity.  They did not interfere as long as her behavior did not cause her further harm.    The lone figure in her life which urged her towards Christianity was Father Perrin.

Weil was introduced to   Father Jean-Marie Perrin in 1941.  Perrin, a priest of the Dominican order, developed a friendship which became one of the most significant influences on Weil’s spiritual development.  Their conversations and letters are full of a struggle to understand each other.  Weil’s stubborn refusal to be baptized or convert was taken as a challenge by Perrin. It was at Perrin’s persistence that Weil wrote her ‘spiritual autobiography’, which eventually became Waiting for God.[23] Perrin was also influential on the creation of Gravity and Grace.  Weil wrote to Perrin looking for work as a field hand.  Perrin, set Weil up with a job working on the farm of Gustave Thibon, a farmer and Christian philosopher.  During her year with the Thibon family worked in the fields by day and wrote by night the notebooks which posthumously became Gravity and Grace. [24] Perrin and Thibon met Weil at a time when her creative genius was at the height of its spiritual focus. It was Thibon who collected and arranged Weil’s work after her death.[25]   Thibon’s efforts with Weil’s unpublished essays and notes formed the published version of Gravity and Grace

While Perrin and Weil were close, their relationship was different from that of many female mystics and priests.  Perrin and Weil were colleagues who were intellectually interested in each other.  Much of their conversation revolved around challenging the other’s theology. There’s’ was a friendship built around testing faith.  Perrin never acted as Weil’s confessor, editor, or mouthpiece.  He was not present during her visions or “inner experiences”. [26] Weil’s writings, despite the posthumous publication, were hers to control.  Weil was very vocal about her ideas.  Despite her usual reticence in public matters Weil was known to launch into passionate monologues when so provoked.[27]   She may have thought little of herself as an individual, but Weil was fiercely protective about her beliefs.  Weil’s control and protectiveness of her message mirrors that of Margaret Porette.

Weil’s moment in the garden came during her recovery from her war wound and another series of chronic headaches.  While Weil had described previous encounters with divinity, it was in Assisi during the spring of 1937, where she experienced a religious ecstasy in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli – the same church in which Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed.  Weil was led to pray for the first time in her life.[28]

                Weil’sfirst prayers were not what one might imagine a Christian prayer would be.  In order to deal with the pain of her headaches Weil began reciting the George Hubert’s poem “Love” , fixing all her attention to this work pouring over the work as Origen pondered the Song  of Songs.  According to Weil she thought she had simply been reciting a poem when in fact she was learning the power of prayer.  Weil recitation of this work took on the feel of a mantra. During such a recitation Weil experienced a feeling she dubbed the “inner experience”, an encounter with a presence so personal she felt it must be contact with Christ.  From 1938 on, Weil focused her work on the mystical and spiritual, while retaining an interest in social and political issues.   She was attracted to Roman Catholicism, but she famously refused baptism, feeling herself equal parts unworthy and disinterested. [29]

Despite her Jewish ancestry Weil was raised in complete agnosticism. [30]  Throughout her life she had contemplated the existence of God and was left with a paradox.   In her Spiritual Autobiography however Weil described herself has having always been a Christian, citing that her compassion for the working class was a Christina practice regardless of her knowledge of Christ. Weil became attracted to the Christian faith from 1935, the first of three pivotal experiences for her being when she was moved by the beauty of villagers singing hymns during an outdoor service which she stumbled across during a holiday to Portugal. [31]

Weil was strongly opposed to religious syncretism, claiming that the practice stripped the individuality from traditions: “Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else…A “synthesis” of religion implies a lower quality of attention”. [32]  Weil did not limit her curiosity to Christianity. She was keenly interested in other religious traditions   the Greek and Egyptian mysteries, Hinduism (especially the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita), and Mahayana Buddhism were of particular interest Despite her focus on Christianity she believed that all traditions contained elements of genuine or Christianesque revelation, writing that:“Greece, Egypt, ancient India, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflection of this beauty in art and science. These things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ’s hands as his captive. I think I might even say more.”[33]

Understanding Weil as a mystic requires an understanding of themes common in Christian mysticism.  While any concrete definition for mysticism is utopian, there are practices which appear repeatedly. Humility, self-denial, self-abuse, hermetical practices, and suffering are common themes in Christina mysticism. Weil’s mystical experiences occurred outside traditional Catholic structure.  Weil was not a nun, and her sex barred her from any form of priesthood.  Weil mimicked several traits common to the Christian mystical experience.  Weil’s focus was on seclusion, virginity, eating, light, slavery, gravity, poverty, and de-creation.

As unique as Weil’s theology is, what is more unique is that is arose when and where is did.  Weil’s France was a nation full of ghosts, and a haunted populace who were terrified to banish them.  Post World War One France was a nation awash in distrust and pessimism.  The decades after the Great War were difficult for France.  The bloodshed of the war lad decimated the male population, forcing a generation to grow up without fathers, brothers, or uncles.  Those men who had survived the war were incomplete, missing limbs, the blind, and madness were a common sight in Paris. Few families were left unaffected.[34]

Traditional centers for authority were crumbling, their foundations eaten away by a torrent of ideological trends.   Distrust with authority was common place, a result of decades of instability brought about by feuding royalists, Bonapartists, and conservatives. [35] Weil’s France also struggled with an influx of rural peasantry who worked in the growing urban industrial centers. These urban centers gave rise to un-landed elite who challenged the authority of the traditional land owning gentry.  The traditional way of French life had eroded, leaving a population searching for a stable for of authority.[36]  Weil’s relationship with the dominant intellectual influences of the 1930s offers a great deal of information about her dauntless, idiosyncratic, awkward spirit.  She was very much a modernist, seeking ways to repair a broken world. She was critical, to the point of damnation, of Marx, yet aspects of Socialism were essential aspects of her theology. Weil’s struggle for political liberation was linked with a spiritual quest to find justice amidst political/economic/religious fads.  Weil rejected popular fads of the era, denouncing them as mental prisons which bound humanity; she wrote scathing critiques of Marxism and denounced Freud’s theories as a celebration of depravity.

Weil’s work shares much in common with the modernist writings of the previous decade.   Modernist literature is best viewed as a turn away from Romanticism.  Where Romanticism explored the fantastic modernist literature examined the grim realities of the mundane.  Modernist literature tended focus on themes of individualism, the randomness of life, mistrust of government and religious institutions, and a general lack of faith in the absolute. T. S. Eliot, a quintessential Modernist writer refers to Weil as a saint, praising her as one of the greatest minds he had encountered. [37] Weil’s work is undoubtedly influenced by Modernist literature, as most of her featured a marked pessimism, clear rejection of the optimism, and a questioning spirit that sought to make sense of a broken world.  In The Needs for Roots Weil outline the necessary requirements of an individual to find stable ground in a shattered world.[38]

Weil’s connection to Modernism can be seen in the literary movement’s preoccupation with form and distance between subject and object.   The subject which preoccupies Weil is her concept of God.  Weil’s God is a great distance from humanity.  According to Weil the distance God figure planted a seed of divinity in humanity.  Humanity corrupted this spark by turning their connection to the God figure into a self-imagined personality.  The various aspects and adjectives humans attributed to them were a means to separate themselves from the inherent divinity in all mankind.   Institutions, such as profession, government, and religious organizations, existed to further this separation, and were therefor anti-God.   Humanity must strip away this personality in order to allow the seed of the god figure to grow into a tree. How was an individual to remove the stain of personality?

Considering de-creation, Weil’s letters presented an extreme lack of self-worth.  In a letter to Father Perrin, Weil wrote “I am tired of talking to you about myself, for it is a wretched subject.”[39] Her extreme humility in her writing reflects a trend found in other mystical texts.  A common trope in medieval writing was the extreme humility of the author.   Authors would speak of their ignorance and lack of ability in throughout their works.  Elizabeth of Schonau was described by her brother as a simple, unlearned woman despite her education as a nun, and the mention of several documents written and read by her in the text.[40] While the medieval humility trope was commonly a means for a writer to protect self as well as police truth, Weil’s humility stems from her practice of de-creation.  It is likely that she found her Self intolerable because the Self was a barrier between her soul and God.   Weil’s concept of Self-destruction was not an attempt to literally destroy the physical self, despite pushing herself past her physical limitations no examples of self- injury exist, but was an effort to remove the personality from the soul, in order to let the all-encompassing force in.

The Rule of St. Benedict’s call to “Work and Pray” was present in Weil’s life and a central part of her activism. Minimal eating, spartan accommodations, self- abuse, limited possessions, and punishment were practiced by Weil[41].  Weil frequently slept without heat, only allowing such a luxury when her roommate had guests.   Weil’s effort to live like the oppressed was a form of isolation.  Like the early Christina mystics Weil banished herself into the desert. As deserts were not a common geographical feature in 20th century France, Weil cast herself into the forgotten places of the modern world.  Weil inhabited the farmlands and factories of Europe and the racially charged streets of Harlem in search of isolation and contemplation.  Weil forsook comfort.    Comfort was not universal and according to Weil was corrupting, a balm against Malheur.

Malheur has no translation in English, but is best described as an inevitable suffering.[42] Malheur was Weil’s explanation for worldly suffering. There was no need to harm one-self physically; emotional suffer, like the loss of a loved one was felt as keenly as physical pain.  Weil’s example of a missing loved one is important. Weil is grieving for an absent God, a God whose absence is at the heart of Malhuer Weil’s theory was that those who were struck by affliction were at the foot of the Cross, very far away from God. Affliction was not the result of sin; it was the result of turning ones gaze to earthly matters rather than those of God.[43]  Suffering was not a means to get closer to God, it simply emphasized the separation between humanity and God, what was needed to close this distance was not compassion or charity, but love. [44] Weil references Ephisians 3:17-19: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.”[45]

A major aspect of Weil’s recreation lay in her relationship with food. Weil was repulsed by the very thought of eating.  Eating was a base and disgusting practice in Weil’s mind.  Even discussion of food rankled Weil’s mind. Consumption of matter was abhorrent to her.    While, Weil and Claire Ferchaud were unknown to each other, they reacted to food in a similar fashion.  Both women were engaged on a mission to suffer on the behalf of others.   Weil’s reaction to food and her practice of benevolent suffering were similar to the experiences of Melanie Calvat, Therese Martin, and a host of medieval women.     Weil believed that when one ate, they turned their eyes from God and to earthly matters.  As Eve had eaten the apple and sinned; so do all who eat. [46]   Weil believed that if she gave up eating the food she did not eat would find its way to those who were starving against their will.  Weil may not have been aware of it but this practice was shared by several medieval women.  Mary of Oignies gave up her food to feed the poor and took up begin herself to gather more, also wounded herself upon intake of actual food.   Examples of extreme fasting are found in many female vita[47].  As with Weil’s life, fasting was accompanied by hyperactivity and sleeplessness.

Weil’s particular brand of food spirituality was based in her dualistic theology.  Weil’s brand of food imagery was not focuses on healing wound, but on rejection.  Weil utilized the word devouring frequently.  In her mind that which was consumed was destroyed.  Weil refused to transform the Eucharist into Christ’s body.[48] Doing so would trap divinity in matter and consuming that matter would destroy part of the divine, an unacceptable sin in Weil’s eyes.  Weil’s concept of gravity/weight is linked with this idea of consumption of matter. That which was full of earthly matter could not rise and be one with God. Consumption of matter weighed down the soul and turned its eyes towards earthly things.  Where Eve brought sin into the world by eating Weil would cleanse the world of sin but obtaining from food.

The mystical experience is often besieged by the scientific mindset of the modern world.    The mystic lacks a language to communicate the intensely personal experiences to the masses.  Dismissing the personal aspects of the spiritual experience in order to create a scientific answer is common.  Bynum’s Holy Feast, Holy dealt with the argued that those who dismissed the women of her study as mere anorexics, were guilty of forcing modern interpretation on medieval phenomena.[49]    Dismissing Weil as an anorexic is dismissive and over simplistic. Weil’s relationship with food was not linked with a form of vanity. Weil’s relationship with food was a complex dance of abhorrence and neglect.   Much of Weil’s disgust with matter was result of her interest with the Cathars. The Cathars, a Gnostic religion, flourished in Provence during the 11th and 12th centuries.  Weil’s reading of Cathar Gnosticism, solved a paradox which puzzled and terrified her.   Utilizing the Cathar’s extreme dualism Weil separated matter from spirit Due to her education in classical thought, Weil felt the need to rationalize her phobias of matter, and make them part of her spiritual development.  Failure to do so would lead to madness, a fate Weil feared more than anything else.[50]

Weil defies the familiar psychological approximations common to the late 20th century.   Despite her eccentric behavior Weil’s mind was lucid, even into her finals days.    Weil’s gifts as a writer and thinker were never in doubt.  In fact her steel trap mind was functioning until the end of her life, gripping tenaciously unto the reality she so often extoled.  While the world around Weil seemed headed towards destruction, Weil steadily maintained her goal of personal de-creation.  While she was exploring the mythical her rational mind kept her fettered in reality.  Despite the common practice of flitting between.   Despite her practice of self –effacement Weil was not given to purposeless self-destruction.    Weil was not a narcissist, starving herself into fits of anorexic madness. She was as devout as any monk or nun she simply lacked the legitimizing graces of a formal, established practice. [51]  There is no need to attack Weil with psychology.

Weil spoke often at the curse of being born a woman, and went to great lengths to remove herself from her sex. Much of this comes from her mother.  Madam Weil raised Simone as a son, treating her referring to her as a boy and only mentioning the stigma of womanhood in order to tease Simone.  Several of their correspondences are written to “Simon” and feature Weil writing as “your beloved son”. [52] Weil’s hatred of her feminine nature is comparable to that of the use of the female in spiritual discourse.  Medieval Catholics viewed the female as a fleshy counterpoint to the spiritual nature of the male; the female was used as a metaphor for the Church, humanity, and the broken images of Jesus.  Despite the mystical meanings of the female form, there existed a strong bias against the female.  Late medieval women such as, Catherine of Sienna and Mechtild of Magdeburg, regularly  praised masculine concepts as strong, while referring the themselves and females as a whole as beggars, weak, poor maids, little girls, and despised creatures.[53]  Weil’s disgust at her sex appears in her private writings more than her religious/ political works.

Weil’s disgust at her own sex is in part derived from her disgust of matter.  Weil feared that her feminine nature would result in some sort of harm.  She was terrified of rape, considering it the major weakness of the female form.  Weil’s anti- tactile nature most assuredly left her a virgin. Sex, like food, necessitated turning away from spiritual matter toward earthly one.  Sexual intercourse was an exchange of matter, a pleasurable distraction from God.  Weil never spoke of sex as a sin, rather as an act of creation which fed the ego and trapped spirit in matter.  While she was opposed to sexual contact, Weil was a notorious flirt, teasing and eventually disappointing those who pursued her.   She was uncomfortable with being an object of affection or interest, often abandoning an entire social circle when a flirtation too and embarrassing turn.[54]

In fact Weil was disgusted at vanity, taking great pains to destroy any beauty she might have possessed.  Weil frequently dressed in shabby, baggy clothes.  Weil’s manner of dress while disconcerting to all who knew where, would not be considered odd today.  Weil wore her hair in an unkempt bramble, which spilled out from under her beret.   Over large glasses, baggy sweaters, and loose fitting dungarees were effective in obscuring any traces of feminine curves.  Considering the sexual aesthetic at the time required women to wear hats and dresses which accentuated their curves, Weil stood out as a masculine figure, opposed to any form of femininity.[55]    Her revulsion of food was born from her painfully dualistic theology, not from a sense of beauty or poor self-image.

Simone Weil’s status as a mystic is a matter of opinion. However her connection to the practices of other female mystics from the Middle Ages is not.   While separate by centuries, Weil’s experience mimics those of other female mystics.  Despite occurring outside of a Catholic hierarchy Weil’s writings, and practices firmly place her in with other Catholic mystics.  Weil’s short life was marked by a drive to suffer for others, purify herself through labor, and find God.

Understanding Weil’s mystical experiences is best done through her love of myth.  Weil was an avid reader and critic of myth.  Weil studied the mythology of Greece, Rome, and Egypt as a form of exegesis. Weil frequently found connections between these pagan mythologies and her interpretation of Christianity. As Weil used myth as a tool for explaining her theology, an examination    Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth is a useful tool for understanding Weil’s role as a mystic.  Campbell’s theory is that the mythology is a universal trait of human culture. According to Campbell mythology shares a fundamental structure which Campbell terms the monomyth.   Campbell summarizes the monomyth, stating: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”.[56]

This theory is also present in the mystical experience.  The mystic lives in the ordinary world until receiving a call to enter a world of strange powers and occurrences, what Campbell call the “call to adventure”.  If the mystic answers this call there are challenges to be faced, the “road of trials”.  [57]The challenge presented to mystics is internal rather than external. Instead of physical enemy mystics often struggle against their earthly needs, food, shelter, health, and companionship.  In Weil’s case her chronic head pain, struggles with physical limitations, and harsh physical labor, were challenges Weil faced s part of her mystical experiences.  If the mystic survives these challenges, they are rewarded with self-knowledge and a gift.  This “boon” is often used to improve the world.

Weil never returned from that other world. Her heart could not stand the strain, of the challenges she placed before herself.  Her death through starvation was a partial victory over the challenges of her mystical journey.  Weil undoubtedly gained self-knowledge through her suffering, a fact evidenced by her writings.   The boon Weil brought to the world was twofold.  On one hand her writings, scattered and unfinished as they are, detail a theology as beautiful as it is terrifying.  Her work stands as some of the most provocative, thought provoking spiritual works of the 20th century, inspiring the likes of T.S. Eliot.  Weil, ever ashamed of existing, would refuse to accept any adoration of her work.  Weil’s personal boon would be the annihilation she sought for so long.

Christian mysticism would be “that part, or element, or Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of […] a direct and transformative presence of [the Christian] God”. [58] The transformative effect which McGinn claims is at the heart of mystical experiences in present in Weil’s life.  While occurring outside any religious structure Weil’s transformation from lovely young woman into a starved, genderless, hermit does include practices heavily influenced by those in Christina mysticism. Weil’s life was an exploration of alienation and hunger.  In her quest to understand the nature of humanity and God, Weil destroyed herself.  This destruction was not suicide or idle neglect, but the culmination of a mystical practice which considered suffering the highest form of solidarity.  Weil lived a life of suffering for love, and as Weil biographer Richard Rees states: “As for her death, whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.” [59]


[1] Simone Petrement, Simone Weil: A Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), page 340-341..

[2]  Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias (Classics of Western Spirituality) (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1990), page, 87-94.

[3] Petrement, pgs. 7-8.

[4] Gabriella Fiori, “The Lonely Pilgrimage of Simone Weil,” Washington Post, April 8th, 1990.

[5] Richard D. E. Burton, Holy Tears, Holy Blood: Women, Catholicism, and the Culture of Suffering in France, 1840-1970 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004), pg. 136.

[6] Lawrence S. Cunningham, Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004),p.118.

[7] Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty (Routledge Classics), 2 ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), page 38.

[8] David McLellan, Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil, 1St Edition ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), pg.121.

[9]. Burton, pg. 138 .

[10]Cunningham, p.120.

[11] Petrement pgs. 534-539.

[12] Petrement pg. 537.

[13] Simone Weil, Rc Series Bundle: Gravity and Grace (Routledge Classics), New Ed ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 33.

[14] Weil,Oppression andLliberty pg133.

[15] Weil, Oppression and Liberty. pg. 81.

[16] Stanley Hoffmann, Decline or Renewal? France since the 1930’s (New York: Viking Adult, 1974), 133.

[17] Weil, Gravity and Grace, pg. 84.

[18] Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009), pages 8,14, 22-38.

[19] Simone Weil, RC Series Bundle: The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind (Routledge Classics), 2 ed. (New York: Routledge, 2001), page 245.

[20] Saint Augustine – translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, Confessions (London: Penguin, 1986), 111.

[21] Augustine pg. 177.

[22] Petrement pgs. 350-351.

[23] Weil, Waiting for God. Pgs. 21-38.

[24] Joseph-Marie Perrin and Gustave Thibon, Simone Weil As We KnewHher, 2 ed. (London: Routledge, 2003), 101-120.

[25] Petrement, pgs. 340-342.

[26] Ibid, pgs. 340-342.

[27] Burton. Pg 137.

[28] Cunningham, pg 118.

[29] Petrement pg.340.

[30] George A Panichas.  Simone Weil Reader  (London: Moyer Bell and its subsidiaries, 2007), 8.

[31] Sian Miles. Ed. , Simone Weil: An Anthology (London: Penguin Books, 2005), Pgs. 28-29.

[32] The Notebooks of Simone Weil (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 45.

[33] Weil, Waiting on God. Pg. 48.

[34] Martin Kitchen, Europe Between the Wars (2nd Edition), 2 ed. (London: Longman, 2006), 22.

[35] William D. Irvine, French Conservatism in Crisis: The Republican Federation of France in the 1930s (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), 66-97.

[36] Gordon Wright, “Catholics and Peasantry in France,” Political Science Quarterly 62, no. 4 (December 1953): 526-51.

[37]  Simone Weil,  The Need for Roots. Pg. viii.

[38] Ibid. 5-39.

[39] Weil. Waiting on God pg. 3.

[40] Saint Elisabeth of Schonau, Elisabeth of Schonau: The Complete Works (Classics of Western Spirituality) (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), pgs. 39-42.

[41] Burton pg. 137.

[42] Weil Waiting for God, pg. 67.

[43] Weil, Waiting on God  pg. 73.

[44] Ibid pg. 80.

[45].Ibid, pg. 82

[46] Burton, pg. 135

[47] Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 121.


[48] Burton pg. 142.

[49] Bynum. Pgs. 300-901.

[50] . Robert Coles “Weil’s Mind” in Simone Weil, Interpretations of a Life (Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts Pr, 1981), pg 30.

[51] Coles, pgs. 28-34.

[52] Burton, pg 138.

[53] Bynum pg. 264.

[54] Petrement, pg. 192.

[55] Bynum pgs. 138-139.

[56]Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen Series), Third ed. (New York: New World Library, 2008), 23.

[57] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Anchor, 1991), 123-63.

[58] Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (Modern Library Classics) (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 14.

[59] Richard Rees., Simone Weil: A Sketch for a Portrait. (Illinois: Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966 1st prtg., 1966), 191.



2 thoughts on “The Scattered Spirituality of Simone Weil

  1. Pingback: BBC 4- In Our Time, Simone Weil | Cast Wide The Circle

  2. Pingback: The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (Modern Library Classics) | WWW.DBESTREVIEW.COM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s