(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Simone Weil was born in Paris on February 3, 1909, to an agnostic Jewish family. She was graduated in 1931 from the École Normale Supérieure as a teacher of philosophy. In 1934, she took a year’s leave from her teaching to take a job at the Renault Works in order to learn through her own experience the hard conditions of the workers there. After another period of teaching, she spent several weeks on the Catalonian front sharing the sufferings of the Republican army there during the Spanish Civil War. She wrote for various journals of the political left and periodically took on manual labor without asking for or receiving any concessions because of her social status, education, or health, which was often poor.

In June, 1941, Weil met the Reverend J. M. Perrin, O.P., and through him Gustave Thibon, a Catholic writer, both of whom had a profound influence on her. In 1938 she had undergone a mystical experience in which, as she reported it, “Christ came down and took me,” and in letters to Father Perrin she told of this experience and of the anguishing reflections that her persistent spiritual search provoked. In May, 1942, she left France with her family to escape from the Nazi-installed Vichy government’s anti-Semitic policies; she traveled to the United States from Casablanca. She was then asked to work with the French provisional government in London and went there in November, 1942. She became ill in England but refused to take the food she needed to survive so that she would not be in a more favored position than the French suffering under the German occupation. She died on August 29, 1943.

In his introduction to the American edition of Waiting for God (the British edition has the title Waiting on God), Leslie Fiedler describes Simone Weil as “the Outsider as saint in an age of alienation, our kind of saint.” Born into an agnostic Jewish family, she became a political leftist, probably more out of love for the oppressed than from the influence of any political philosophy. She became devoted to God through an entirely unexpected and, were it not for the fact of its happening, incredible mystical experience, one in which, as she described it to Father Perrin, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”

Despite her mystical encounter with Christ, a spiritual marriage that was repeated frequently when she recited the poem “Love” by George Herbert (the recitation of which had first brought Christ to her) or the Lord’s Prayer in Greek, she never was baptized into the Church. She remained outside the Church and insisted (in letters to Father Perrin) that “the will of God is that I should not enter the Church at present.” By remaining outside the Church, she identified herself with those who, through the accidents of personal history, lived their lives in suffering and isolation, in poverty and rejection, also outside the Church. Her death from starvation was a consequence of her refusing to eat more than her compatriots, who were suffering under the Germans during the occupation of France.

Waiting for God consists of letters and essays sent or entrusted to Father Perrin. Weil’s letters are represented by a set of six letters, beginning with one concerned with her hesitations concerning baptism, including her significant “spiritual autobiography,” and concluding with her “last thoughts.” The essays that follow are “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” “The Love of God and Affliction,” “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” and “Concerning the Our Father.” Together these letters and essays, as presented in Waiting for God, enable the reader to come to focus on Weil’s unique faith and brilliant intellect.

In her letter to Father Perrin concerning baptism (dated January 19, 1942), Weil writes that she has been wondering how to reach the point of conforming herself to God’s will. She argues that it is necessary, if one is to clarify the matter, to distinguish three domains: that which is independent of human beings (the past, present, and future beyond the reach of any finite person); that which is under the rule of the will; and that which, although not under the will, is nevertheless in some way and to some degree dependent upon us. As for the first domain—the domain of the facts beyond our power—“everything that comes about is in accordance with the will of God,” she argues, and she contends that accordingly we must “love absolutely everything,” including evil, our past sins, our sufferings, and “what is by far the most difficult,” the sufferings of others.

The second domain is the domain of duty; here the intelligence and the imagination reign. In the third domain, however, “we experience the compulsion of God’s pressure, on condition that we deserve to experience it.” (Here the idea central to her faith and thought is expressed for us: that we are to love God by attending to him, by waiting for him attentively and with love.) “God rewards the soul that thinks of him with attention and love,” she writes; “. . . we must go on thinking about God with ever increasing love and attentiveness.”...

(The entire section is 2134 words.)