Simone Weil: the Martian

Simone Weil was a 20th century French philosopher and mystic who died at age 34, in 1943, of tuberculosis. Her father was a doctor, her mother an heiress to a business fortune. Both parents overindulged their precocious child. She loved to learn and could speak ancient Greek, delighted in the study of mathematics and physics, memorized long prose passages, and taught herself Sanskrit after reading the Bhagavad Gita. But her parents were somewhat neurotic and passed on to her unhelpful habits and fears regarding health and diet. This upbringing made her transition into adulthood awkward and paved the way for clumsy social interactions. When Simone studied for what would be comparable to a master’s degree in philosophy, one of her classmates, upon getting to know her, called her “the Martian.” She graduated first in her class but was ignored by her peers.

As a young adult, despite her privileged upbringing, she was an advocate for the working class and expounded on syndicalism – the movement for transferring ownership of the factories to the workers. She had the courage of her principles, making the unusual decision to work as a drill press operator, a meat packer, and then as a machinist. That year permanently compromised her health. After her health had improved somewhat, Simone made the bold but imprudent decision to enlist in a radical brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Again her health faltered, and her parents brought her back home to France. It was during this “radical” period of her life that something happened, which she would never have anticipated given her background.

Brought up without any religious instruction, she unpredictably encountered God in three mystical experiences that changed the direction of her life. The three mystical contacts occurred in a Portuguese fishing village, in Assisi, Italy, and in a Benedictine abbey in Solesmes, France. These experiences were a revelation; she had never believed a personal encounter with God was even possible. Through them, she converted to Catholicism. She was never baptized, however. She believed with confidence that her particular vocation from God was to witness to the Church as an outsider – “at the gate,” as it were – for all those, she said, who were estranged or had lost their way.

After her mystical experiences at age 26, she continued to write. One area of focus in her writings was the idea of attentiveness, a receptive waiting. She wrote: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Attention or attentiveness was, Weil believed, the beginning of any thoughtful human engagement or interaction. She thought attentiveness countered the human default setting – selfishness and self-regard. Attentiveness was essential in order to help the suffering “other.”

She would have been dismayed by the current Western fixation on digital technology: iPad, iPhone, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Netflix. Her writings strongly suggest that she would say the heavy use of these technologies ensures that people don’t pay the slightest attention to the other, even to one’s neighbor, but instead looked constantly at glowing screens. People, she would lament, are focused on reading text messages, listening to iTunes, scrolling down their newsfeeds, taking a selfie for Snapchat or streaming a movie. Technology holds people in its sway. It is so much easier to avert one’s gaze than to engage face-to-face.

Simone Weil never meant for her writing to be published. But her few friends, including Gustave Thibon, a Catholic theologian and philosopher, and a Dominican priest and her spiritual director, Father Jean-Marie Perrin, realized the depth, beauty, and perceptivity of her writing – essays, journals, letters. They had some of her papers published posthumously in a book titled Gravity and Grace. Other anthologies followed, including Waiting for God. Her books have been translated into several languages.

Thousands of readers have treasured her incredible spiritual insights. She wrote with clarity and conviction on various topics such as God, man, suffering, sin, the Church, materialism, grace, prayer, her role as an outsider, alienation, love, and attentiveness. Through her writing, she influenced people ranging from agnostics to the devout. Albert Camus, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, and Pope Paul VI – to name but a few – considered her spiritual writings luminous and persuasive.  

Sometimes God calls the outsider, the accidental mystic, the socially awkward, the clown, or the “Martian.” Was Simone Weil a saint? She certainly seemed a blessed fool; she had occasions of profound insight coupled with eccentric and erratic behavior. Maybe that is as God intended. He calls all to him – the lost, the pious, the estranged, the strange, and the broken. Blessed are the exasperating, for they will make God laugh.