I’ve been intrigued by the French philosopher, anarchist and mystic, Simone Weil (1909-1943), ever since hearing a lecture about her by Rowan Williams (from the same Holy Week series as Dr Williams’ lecture on Etty Hillesum). Earlier this year, I came across a cheap edition of some her essays, and have recently made a start on reading it. A free copy is available here. (I haven’t been able to find an English version, so what you get in this post is my attempt at translation.)
In the title essay, Thoughts without order concerning the love of God, Weil discusses the condition of humanity that she calls “le mal”. This translates as “evil”, but it’s important to note that the English word carries stronger moral overtones than is necessarily the case in French. As we’ll see, Weil sees le mal in wider terms than (moral) evil, though such evil is certainly included within her use of the expression.
Everyone is aware of evil; they fear it and wish to be delivered from it. Evil is neither suffering nor sin: it is one and the other at the same time, something that each has in common. For they are linked: sin leads to suffering, and suffering produces evil, and this indissoluble mixture of suffering and sin is the evil in which we are trapped, to our horror. (p.13)
This description reminds me of Francis Spufford’s redefinition of “sin” as the HPtFtU (“the human propensity to f–k things up”).
Weil goes on to describe how we project this evil onto the things we desire, which leads us to see those things themselves as the source of the evil. We can end up hating our loved ones and the places where we live and work, seeing them as the cause of our woes.
How can we find a remedy for this? Weil continues:
But if, by our attention and our desire, we transfer some of our evil onto something perfectly pure, the pure thing cannot be defiled; it remains pure. It does not return the evil back onto us, and thus we are delivered. (p.13)
What sort of “perfectly pure things” can absorb our sin and suffering, our evil, in this way? Weil gives two examples:
The words of the Our Father are perfectly pure. If we recite the Our Father without any other intention than to give its words as much attention as we are capable, we can be completely certain that we are delivered by it from a part, however small, of the evil that we carry within us. In the same way, if we gaze at the Blessed Sacrament without any thought other than that Christ is there; and so on. (p.14)
This is the part of Weil’s essay that had the biggest impact on me. Why pray the Lord’s Prayer? Following Weil, we can see that one benefit of praying the Lord’s Prayer is that it enables us to give voice to desires – “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, give us today our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses…” – that we can be sure are good and right desires to have. Weil’s “perfectly pure” things – the Lord’s Prayer, the Blessed Sacrament – are thus a foretaste of heaven, where (as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Silver Chair) “you cannot want wrong things any more”.
Thus we have the remedy for our evil. It’s not that we cease to suffer – quite the opposite – but that suffering ceases to be inseparably bound up with sin:
Contact with purity produces a transformation in evil. The indissoluble mixture of suffering and sin is separated by it. Through this contact, little by little suffering ceases to be mixed up with sin; while sin is transformed into mere suffering. This supernatural operation is what we call repentance. The evil that we carry within us is thus illuminated by joy. (p.15)
All this in turn is founded on the work of Christ:
It suffices that a perfectly pure being was found present on earth as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, on whom the greatest possible amount of every type of evil was concentrated in the form of suffering. He has left as a remembrance of him these perfectly pure things, where he is present. If he had not been present, their purity would have been dissipated by their contact with evil. (p.15)