Simone Weil

Gravity and Grace

“We possess nothing in the world- a mere chance can strip us of everything- except the power to say ‘I’.”

It was with this ‘I-ness’, with this self-emphatic beingness, the young, physically fragile but soulfully strong Simone Weil (1909 – 1943) wrote her most personal thoughts in Gravity and Grace.

Thoughts on existence, our empirical selves borrowed from God, the expanse of eternity and suffering as a means to knowledge. Thoughts that after Weil’s death at age 34, were saved from forgotteness by Weil’s close friend French priest Gustave Thibon who published them in 1947.1

From Thibon’s Introduction:

I find it hard to make public the extraordinary work of Simone Weil… At first our relationship was friendly but uncomfortable. On the concrete plane we disagreed on practically everything. She went on arguing ad infinitum in an inexorably monotonous voice and I emerged from these endless discussions literally worn out. … Then, thanks to the privileges of a life which is shared, I gradually discovered that the side of her character which I found so impossible, far from revealing her real deep nature, showed only her exterior and social self; unlike most people she gained immeasurable in an atmosphere of close intimacy.2

Difficult personality notwithstanding, the staggering force of Weil emanated from her insistence to live within the boundaries of her beliefs while simultaneously refining those boundaries. She resembled the ancient philosophers for whom philosophy was a way of life not a dogmatic lecture.3

Like George Orwell, Weil chose to live among the working poor, worked as a farmhand (leaving farm-house accommodations to sleep in the barn) and ultimately died in 1943 due to malnutrition from eating only what French prisoners were allotted by their German captors.

Humility has its object to eliminate that which is imaginary in spiritual progress. There is no harm in thinking ourselves far less advanced than we are: the effect of the light is in no way decreased thereby for its source is not in opinion. There is great harm in thinking ourselves more advanced, because then opinion has an effect.

Weil’s personal forbearance against pain and suffering might have cost her her life but it also underscored the center tenant of her spiritual thinking, that we should never be asleep to suffering.

Human misery would be intolerable if it were not diluted in time. We have to prevent it from being diluted in order that it should be intolerable.

And when they had their fill of tears’ (Iliad). – This is another way of making the worst suffering bearable. We must not weep so that we may not be comforted. All suffering that does not detach us is wasted suffering, nothing is more frightful, a desolate coldness, a warped soul.

Thibon reiterates “This insistence upon inner purity and authenticity made her pitiless for all the authors in whom she thought she could detect the slightest affectation, the slightest hint of insincerity or self-importance… For her the only thing that counted was a style stripped bare of all adornment, the perfect expression of the naked truth of the soul.”4

Sand eroding. Featured in Simone Weil's "Gravity and Grave" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When we are disappointed by a pleasure which we have been expecting and which comes, the disappointment is because we were expecting the future, and as soon as it is there it is present. We want the future to be there without easing to be the future. This is an absurdity of which eternity alone is the cure.

Eternity, for Weil, is what we step into after we have relinquished our empirical existence.5

God gave me being in order that I should give it back to him. It is like one of those traps whereby the characters are tested in fairy stories and tales on initiation. If I accept this gift it is bad and fatal; its virtue becomes apparent through my refusal of it. God allows me to exist outside of himself. It is for me to refuse this authorization. Humility is the refusal to exist outside God. It is the queen of virtues.

If saintness existed for Weil it came from her consistent refusal to exist outside of God’s grace, that is, consequently as a human being. A body who needs food, medicine, even relationships. That void of self, a complete emptiness of need, something the Buddhists seek (but perhaps with less self-annihilation) drives most of Gravity and Grace “the self is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God…” wrote Weil in a note of contempt.

Simone Weil.

How can we escape that which corresponds to gravity in our selves? By grace alone. In order to come to us God passes through the infinite thickness of time and space, his grace changes nothing in the plan of those blind forces of necessity and chance which guide the world; it penetrates into our souls as a drop of water makes its way through geological strata without affecting their structure, and there it waits in silence until we consent to become God again.

[…]

All of the things that I see, hear, breathe, touch, eat; all the beings I meet – I deprive the sum total of all that of contact with God and I deprive God of contact with all that in so far as something in me says ‘I’.

If our ability to say I’ is truly all we possess6 (gravity) then it is that same ability to we must relinquish back to God (grace).

Simone Weil’s life was extremely short and extremely intense. We should be grateful she clasped that ‘I-ness’ long enough to write the words contained in Gravity and Grace.