“… to be touched by Simone Weil is not to be won over by this or that specific idea so much as to be scorched by something like love.”
— A.N. Wilson, Biographer
“We must not wish for the disappearance of our troubles but for the grace to transform them.”
— Simone Weil
Without a doubt, Simone Weil ranks as the most intriguing author I’ve ever read. And that’s saying something. I’ve read countless books in working at four institutions of higher education, including 30 years at Auburn University.
Never have I encountered a person like Simone Weil who combined a world-class intellect with a compassion for humanity, the energy of a power plant, and an exceedingly strong sense of social justice.
Simone grew up in a Jewish family in Paris that assimilated itself completely into French society. Her Dad, Bernard, a medical doctor, gave his family a comfortable living and her Mom threw herself into taking care of Simone and her brother, André.
Unfortunately, her Mom never showed her how to use makeup or how to dress. Hence, she wore clothes that had a distinctive masculine touch. As a youngster, Weil showed no interest in her appearance at all. Simone tended to be her own distinctive person.
Her brother, André, taught himself Sanskrit and knew Greek and Latin literature. He counts as one of the most influential mathematicians in the 20th century and an expert on algebraic geometry and number theory. André taught Simone how to read and she always considered her brother to be smarter than she was but, as it turned out, both were brilliant.
At age 10, Simone called herself a Bolshevik and at age 12 she mastered ancient Greek. Simone also knew Sanskrit, German, French, Latin and could also read Russian literature.
Weil received the doctorate in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris with highest honors. She then worked in France at a lycée, the equivalent of a junior college in the U.S.
She did this for several years before taking a position as a factory worker for which she was totally unsuited. She undertook this task in order to understand first-hand the situation of workers. Weil, a compassionate person, gave money to the workers’ movement, though her pay was frugal indeed.
Simone wrote over a dozen books, all published posthumously. She had a strong influence on Albert Camus, Pope Paul VI, T.S. Eliot, poet and playwriter, the film director Jean-Luc Goddard, and the novelists Flannery O’Connor and Iris Murdoch.
In her early years, Weil questioned whether God existed. Weil had, however, three life-changing experiences that completely changed her life. The first one occurred in 1935, when she visited Portugal. She happened upon a procession of women singing hymns and carrying lighted candles.
She thought of these women as slaves who could not help belonging to the Catholic Church. Why so? Perhaps Weil saw these women as slaves to “necessity,” i.e., God’s plan for the functioning of the world. It dawned on Simone that God was begging her to live in accordance with the divine will.
The second experience happened in 1937 when visiting the Church of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi. She felt impelled by a higher power to “get down on her knees.”
In 1938, her third mystical experience took place in the Benedictine monastery of Solesmes in Sarthe, France.
This visit to Solesmes convinced Weil that God loved her despite the “affliction” (in French, Malheur) she had at the time. Weil suffered severe migraine headaches and while reciting the poem, “Love,” by George Herbert, she stated in her book, "Waiting for God." that “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
In later life, Weil prayed the “Our Father” in Greek daily before work and wrote that sometimes during the recitation of this prayer “my thoughts were torn from my body” and transported “to a place beyond space.”
Weil went to the U.S. in 1942 and, after that, to England to flee the Nazi occupation of France. She died on August 24, 1943 of tuberculosis and refused food and health care because of her compassion for the dire situation of the people of Occupied France.
In a future article, I intend to write more about Simone Weil since I feel that she was indeed a holy person, in fact, a saint. I recommend to readers that they check out the book by Eric O. Springsted' "Simone Weil," published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y. 2009), part of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus- Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.