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The Weight of Water
Simone Weil and the Saintly Path
“Water is indifferent in this way to the objects that fall into it. It does not weigh them. They weigh themselves, after a certain period of oscillation.” — Simone Weil
I find the tactile impression of Weil’s analogy strangely convincing. For a moment, I imagine being the water, capacious and undisturbed by the intrusion of something foreign. I know what she means, as I see how the iron sinks, the wood floats, but not because of a judgment imposed by the water. The iron is carried down by its own weight. The wood contains within itself a kind of buoyancy that lifts it above the current. The universe is like that; we think we are evaluating, assessing the merits of the music we hear, the painting before us, the words and deeds of friends or critics. In a sense, of course, we are called upon to discern and to choose. But in another, perhaps deeper sense, we do not ourselves determine what is good or beautiful, or worthy or wrong. We are always revealing the composition of our own souls in every act of passing judgment.
Simone Weil comes to this topic because she felt the continual need to justify one of her decisions in particular. She discovered the Christian God (among other spiritual encounters she described) in reading a poem by the magnificent George Herbert. I, too, found God—or a deeper impression of the living God—when I read the same poem years ago:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin. But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning If I lack'd anything. "A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here"; Love said, "You shall be he." "I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear, I cannot look on thee." Love took my hand and smiling did reply, "Who made the eyes but I?" "Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame Go where it doth deserve." "And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?" "My dear, then I will serve." "You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat." So I did sit and eat.
Weil seems to have been overcome by this depiction of a love that was not the love of a sovereign or king or master, but the love of infinite tenderness. “Christ took possession of me” is how she described the impact. She became committed to Christ—and yet she resisted all entreaties to be baptized.
Her refusal seemed to betoken a half-commitment, a reservation, a holding back or a fear.
It was hard for observers to find any flattering interpretation of her stubbornness. Only in reading her letters to her spiritual advisor does one discover an explanation that shocks with the goodness of her motivation—however right or wrong we may judge the decision. I find in her words a most apt instance of the moral danger we embark upon whenever we presume to know the motives of another. And of the beauty with which that universe in which we swim will ultimately be the revealer of the truths we can perceive so imperfectly. “The affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul,” she wrote to her friend Father Perrin. And as she contemplated baptism, “nothing gives me more pain than the idea of separating myself from the immense and unfortunate multitude of unbelievers . . . It is the sign of a vocation, the vocation to remain in a sense anonymous.” Baptism, within the web of meanings she imputed to community, meant isolation from those to whom she wanted to minister.
Formally identifying herself as Christian—being baptized as a sign of one’s commitment, wearing a cross or a label— was not the vocation to which she felt called. Her decision was more reflective, perhaps, of her reading of Paul.
“To the weak I became weak, in order to gain the weak: I am become all things to all men, that I may in all these ways heal some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
She lived out those words even before her express commitment to Christianity. In 1934, as a young Jewish intellectual and teacher, she chose to leave her comfortable profession to enter the factory system in France, and to suffer in solidarity with their privations and torments. “Intense and uninterrupted misery” was how she described her months there.1
Almost a decade later in 1943, though living in England, she insisted on sharing the limited diet of her countrymen in occupied France, and thus weakened, died of illness soon thereafter.
Simone Weil was a saint in the sense that we are all saints—trying to find our vocation as we hear it in Christ’s call to us. She heard in that call the urgency of making the pain of others our own, and of finding ways to expand rather than contract our sense of the community that Christ loves and yearns to heal.
Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009).