Seventy years ago today, Simone Weil died of tuberculosis.
Born Jewish, she studied philosophy, taught school, worked in a factory, volunteered in the Spanish Civil War, fled to the US during the Nazi occupation of France, tried to return to France but was stuck in England, where she sought to help the French resistance.
She was only thirty-four when she died. But her death was jus another example of a life lived at the threshold. She probably could have recuperated but she refused to eat more than the rations available to those who lived in occupied France.
As a young teacher she got herself in trouble for taking part in union organizing. Then she took time off to spend a year in a factory, trying to understand the oppression of workers. Later, she joined the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War, serving for a while with an anarchist brigade.
Recently an op-ed on her in The New York Times was entitled “Recalling the Apostle of Nonpartisanship.”
But her actions were based on her conviction that
Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.
This was also her stance toward Catholicism.
Simone Weil could be described as a mystic. She writes about falling to her knees, for the first time, in the Porziuncula, the little church of Our Lady of the Angels in Assisi. In 1938, a year later, suffering from severe headaches, she experienced the presence of God at the Abbey of Solesmes. Praying George Herbert’s poem “Love,” she had a strong sensation that “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
But she remained at the threshold of the Catholic Church. Partly this may have had its roots in her almost Gnostic conception of Christianity. But more than anything else is was due to her desire not to exclude non-believers.
I cannot help wondering whether in these days when so large a proportion of humanity is submerged in materialism, God does not want there to be some men and women who have given themselves to him and to Christ and who yet remain outside the church.
Simone Weil, at the threshold of faith, identified with those at the outside, at the margins – not only of faith but of social and political life.
Might she not be an example for us who believe, who are part of the Church, of the necessity to go out to the margins of society, to identify with them, to accompany them in their struggles, evangelizing – being good news to the poor – by our solidarity.
Robert Ellsberg has a short biography of her in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time. Orbis Books has included a volume on Simone Weil in its Modern Spiritual Masters Series. My introduction to her came reading her plan for post-war France, The Need for Roots. Many of her essays, including “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” and “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” are more accessible.