Waiting for God

by Simone Weil
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

Waiting for God is a collection of letters and essays by Simone Weil that were compiled after her death in 1943 by Father Perrin (a close friend and mentor) and Gustave Thibon (a theologist). Born in Paris, France in 1909, Weil worked as a teacher, political activist, and philosopher. She was raised in a secular household, but identified as Christian later in life (although many analysts identify her as a universalist). Despite her religious leanings, she had a strong focus on spirituality rather than doctrine, and was critical of the Catholic church's complicated and at times polarizing past. Weil studied other religions as well, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Greek mythology/mysticism. Her religion was considered unorthodox; she was never baptized, and disagreed with religious "patriotism" and materialism. Instead, her work focused on the beauty in religious ceremonies, the love for God, and how religion influences human interactions. Although relatively unknown during her lifetime, Weil has been praised by famous authors and philosophers including T.S. Eliot and Albert Camus for her left-leaning religious theology and philosophy.

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Waiting for God reflects Weil's complicated relationship with religion and explores the themes of spirituality and intellect, love, longing, and God. It was never intended to be published as a complete work, but is now considered to be an excellent compilation of Weil's philosophical ideals. The book begins with a series of letters exploring her distance from and disagreements with orthodox Catholicism, the evolution of her own religious beliefs, and discovering "truth" in society and nature. This section is followed by a series of essays exploring similar subjects; including the Catholic commandment to "love thy neighbor", friendship, and our continuous search for beauty in the world. She explores the "just balance" of our world; arguing that God has distanced himself from commanding humanity, and has instead put two pieces in place to guide us: our ability to think autonomously and our need for both physical and emotional "matter". For Weil, this represents the intersection of free will and the natural balance between God and humanity. She also explores the concept of a "sacred longing"; that humanity's search for beauty (both in the world and within each other) is driven by our underlying desire for a tangible god. Weil is radical, unorthodox, and cognizant of her status as an "outsider" in the Catholic church. Her work raises interestingly complex philosophical and religious questions still analyzed by academics and theologists today.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2999

First published: Attente de Dieu, 1950 (English translation, 1951)

Edition(s) used: Waiting for God, translated by Emma Craufurd with an introduction by Leslie A. Fiedler. New York: Harper & Row, 1973

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Essays; letters

Core issue(s): Agape; Baptism; church; conversion; faith; God; love; mysticism; suffering

Overview

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.” God’s reward comes in the form of a “compulsion,” a “pressure,” to which, she declares, “we have to abandon ourselves . . . to run to the exact spot whither it impels us and not go one step farther, even in the direction of what is good.” The culmination of this process of submitting oneself to the divine pressure is reached when “the pressure has taken possession of the whole soul” and “we have attained the state of perfection.”

Weil makes it clear to Father Perrin that God has not by his will led her to enter the Church. She suggests that she may not be at the level of spirituality that would be adequate for one to be worthy of the Sacraments. However, she declares her readiness to submit to the God on whom she attends: “If it is God’s will that I should enter the Church, he will impose this will upon me at the exact moment when I shall have come to deserve that he should so impose it,” and, again, “But one thing is absolutely certain. It is that if one day it comes about that I love God enough to deserve the grace of baptism, I shall receive this grace on that very day, infallibly, in the form God wills.”

The second letter is also concerned with the problem of her entering the Church. Here she expresses her misgivings concerning the Church as a “social structure.” She confesses that she is very easily influenced, and that the Church, through its power as a community of enthusiastic persons, might very well have the effect on her of winning her allegiance through her emotions rather than by way of her independent will to love God. She declares that the thought that she might come to regret having been baptized with sentiments “other than those that are fitting” fills her with horror. The degree of her submissiveness to the will of God, the strength of her determination to wait for God to move her, is shown by the following declaration near the end of her letter: “If I had my eternal salvation placed in front of me on this table, and if I only had to stretch out my hand to take it, I would not put out my hand so long as I had not received the order to do so.”

Weil’s determination to be moved only by God is also expressed in the third letter of the collection in Waiting for God, a letter written to Father Perrin on April 16, 1942. She tells him that she will be leaving France at the end of the month, and she writes: “It seems to me as though something were telling me to go. As I am perfectly sure that this is not just emotion, I am abandoning myself to it.” Abandonment of this kind (submission to the will of God) will bring her to “the haven,” she writes, and she goes on to tell him that, for her, the haven is the cross. She adds: “If it cannot be given me to deserve one day to share the cross of Christ, at least may I share that of the good thief.” She envies the good thief: “To have been at the side of Christ and in the same state during the crucifixion seems to me a far more enviable privilege than to be at the right hand of glory.” (At the close of her next letter, the “spiritual autobiography,” she repeats the idea: “. . . every time I think of the crucifixion of Christ I commit the sin of envy.”)

In her letter of May 15, 1942, from Marseilles (letter four in the book, entitled “Spiritual Autobiography”), Weil begins her account of what might be called her spiritual pilgrimage by reminding Father Perrin that he neither brought her the Christian inspiration nor brought her to Christ; by the time she met him, “it had been done without the intervention of any human being.” She tells him that she had never sought God; for her the “problem of God” was a problem to be let alone. (She was already, one might presume, “waiting for God”; in any case, the tendency on her part to let problems resolve themselves whenever there was nothing she could do about it was later manifest as the tendency to await God’s “pressure,” to be ready for but not to anticipate his action on her.) Despite her having put the problem of God aside, she adopted (for as far back as she could remember) the “Christian attitude,” and she declares that from childhood “I always had . . . the Christian idea of love for one’s neighbor, to which I gave the name of justice.”

Through her year’s experience in the factory (she tells Father Perrin) she became intimately aware of the malheur (the French word is translated as “affliction”) of others: “. . . the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul.” She suddenly came to regard herself and the others in affliction as slaves, and “the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.”

In 1937 in Assisi, in the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees,” she writes Father Perrin. In 1938 she found that during the liturgical services at Solesmes she was “able to rise above” her migraine headaches (from which she often suffered) and to find joy in the service. She realized then “the possibility of loving divine love in the midst of affliction,” and she came more and more to understand and to appreciate (and even, in a sense, to share) the passion of Christ.

A reading of George Herbert’s “Love” led to her first encounter with God, and she explains that “in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love.” She is careful to tell the father that “God in his mercy had prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it should be evident to me that I had not invented this absolutely unexpected contact.”

In the close of her autobiographical letter Weil writes to Father Perrin, “Good-by, I wish you all possible good things except the cross; for I do not love my neighbor as myself, you particularly, as you have noticed.” (For herself, of course, she wished the cross; she wished to wait in extreme suffering for God, to share the passion of Christ.)

In letter five to “S” (entitled “Her Intellectual Vocation”), she remarks that her vocation requires her to remain outside the Church “in order that I may serve God and the Christian faith in the realm of the intelligence.”

The idea that “God’s mercy is manifest in affliction as in joy” and that both joy and affliction are signs of the contact with God is developed in her very significant letter of May 26, 1942 (letter six, “Last Thoughts”), again to Father Perrin. After declaring to the father that “in affliction itself . . . the splendor of God’s mercy shines,” she writes: “If still persevering in our love, we fall to the point where the soul cannot keep back the cry ’My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ if we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, not joy, something that is the central essence . . . : the very love of God.”

Christian Themes

The letters of Waiting for God offer the most direct way of comprehending (to some degree only, of course) the iconoclastic faith of Simone Weil, for they are personal and go directly to the heart of her affliction and her faith. (We know her personal anguish when she describes herself in the letters “Last Thoughts” as “a barren fig tree for Christ” and tells Father Perrin that “for other people, in a sense I do not exist. I am the color of dead leaves, like certain unnoticed insects.”)

The essays are valuable, however, as an intellect’s reading of her Christian faith. In “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” Weil develops the central idea that prayer consists of attention and that, accordingly, Christian study is fundamentally a matter of giving full attention and developing the power of attention. “In every school exercise,” she writes, “there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it,” and she underscores the spiritual seriousness of her message by writing: “Only this waiting, this attention, can move the master to treat his slave with such amazing tenderness.” Even the love of neighbor requires attentively looking at the neighbor to know the neighbor as one who suffers. If one goes at Latin or geometry with the right kind of attentiveness, she concludes, one may on that account “be better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required.”

The essay “The Love of God and Affliction” is a careful statement of her view that both joy and affliction are necessary if one is to know God, and she describes affliction as “a marvel of divine technique,” and adds the reassuring comment that although affliction is the most depressing and painful kind of suffering, if one loves—that is, persists in turning toward God—one finds oneself “nailed to the very center of the universe. It is the true center; . . . it is God.” We cannot go to God, she declares, but if we love God whatever our affliction, “Over the infinity of space and time, the infinitely more infinite love of God comes to possess us.”

If one is inclined to suppose that Simone Weil was urging an attitude that calls for isolation and self-absorption in the effort to make contact with God, one has only to read her essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” in which she argues that the love of God includes and requires love of neighbor, love of the world’s order, love of religious practices, and friendship. Although she argues that “contact with God is the true sacrament,” she immediately adds that “We can, however, be almost certain that those whose love of God has caused the disappearance of the pure loves belonging to our life here below are no true friends of God.”

Sources for Further Study

  • Cabaud, Jacques. Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love. New York: Channel Press, 1964. Based on careful research and extensive interviews, this biographical account, with its numerous revealing photographs, provides a vivid picture of the dedicated but tortured life of Weil.
  • Doering, E. Jane, and Eric O. Springsted, eds. The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. A collection of essays on Weil’s Christian Platonism. Bibliography, index.
  • Fiedler, Leslie A. Introduction to Waiting for God, by Simone Weil. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Fiedler, of Montana State University, provides an excellent introduction in an edition that also includes letters, essays, and a biographical note translated from the French edition.
  • Panichas, George A., ed. The Simone Weil Reader. New York: David McKay, 1977. A well-produced, representative selection of Weil’s writings.
  • Perrin, Joseph Marie, and G. Thibon. Simone Weil as We Knew Her. Translated by Emma Craufurd. New York: Routledge, 2003. Includes an introduction by J. P. Little; bibliography.
  • Pétrement, Simone. Simone Weil: A Life. Translated from the French by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. A monumental biography by one of Weil’s closest friends, who as a doctor of philosophy and letters was well equipped to handle the sometimes elusive thought of Simone Weil. A detailed biographical account, with many photographs.
  • Rees, Richard. Simone Weil: A Sketch for a Portrait. Preface by Harry T. Moore. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966. Sir Richard Rees’s account of Weil’s life emphasizes her ideas in an intelligent and sympathetic way.
  • Weil, Simone. The Need for Roots. Translated by Arthur Wills with a preface by T. S. Eliot. New York: Putnam, 1952. Published in French as L’Enracinement (Gallimard, 1949), this is a thoughtful but not always successful attempt to develop a Christian social ethics, particularly aimed at France.
  • Weil, Simone. Notebooks. Translated by Arthur Wills. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956. Reflects the original and inquisitive intellect of Simone Weil.

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