Lara Bernstein

Afterthought on “Self-Destruction as Spiritual Practice”

ISSUE 7 | LIES | AUG 2011

This article responds to Michael Kinnucan’s piece, Self-Destruction as Spiritual Practice.

Portrait of Simone Weil, date unknown


In his article “Self-Destruction as Spiritual Practice,” Michael Kinnucan writes: “Our culture has forgotten Christian mysticism, almost entirely and surprisingly quickly. Perhaps we should congratulate ourselves. Our ethical practices, in their teeming variety, aim one and all at happiness in this life, and they mostly seek it through an apotheosis of selfhood; to become what one is in the time that one has is our goal, and even our Christians expect a reward for their efforts.”

As a counter to his assertions concerning Christian mysticism, I offer a brief study of the life and thought of Simone Weil, a mystical figure whose beliefs and practices were in certain ways analogous to St. Teresa’s. Unlike St. Teresa, however, Weil was a modern figure whose mysticism seems impossible to disassociate from the conditions Nietzsche describes as the death of God. Weil’s mysticism took as its premise the notion of divine absence and the forsakenness of the material world—in other words, her mysticism was not an anachronism, but a corollary of modernity.

* * *

Simone Weil was born in Paris in 1909 to a secular family of Jewish ancestry. Her father was a respected physician, and the family lived in comfortable circumstances. Her brother André Weil, who would go on to become a great mathematician, played a significant role in his sister’s spiritual development. In a letter to her friend Father Perrin, Weil wrote:

At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties. The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without truth.

Weil’s longing for truth led her to seek out experiences that would allow her to enter into the “transcendent kingdom” through a different route than her brother’s; to experience the loss of self through factory work. The experience would remain central to her thought even as her concern with industrial rights gave way to her political activism.

Weil devoted herself to the pursuit of truth through the study of all religions. She looked to worldwide religious beliefs for the transcendent wisdom of all humankind, deriving much of her thought not only from Christian doctrine but also from the traditions of the Upanishads, Buddhism, Taoism, and Greek tragedy. As for the religion of her ancestors—Judaism—Weil harbored an intense disdain. The Book of Job, which she calls “a marvel of truth and authenticity,” is perhaps the sole exception to her categorical rejection of Judaism and the Old Testament.

Despite her miserable estimation of her own faculties, Weil graduated with highest honors from the École Normale Superieur with a degree in philosophy. Following her graduation, she took up a teaching post at a lycée in Le Puy. In her spare time, she participated in union-organizing and socialized with the unemployed. She refused to eat more than those who received rations on the relief. Weil spent her year on sabbatical laboring in a Renault automobile factory:

As I worked in the factory, indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul. Nothing separated me from it, for I had really forgotten my past and I looked forward to no future, finding it difficult to imagine the possibility of surviving all the fatigue. What I went through there marked me in so lasting a manner that still today when any human being, whoever he may be and in whatever circumstances, speaks to me without brutality, I cannot help having the impression that there must be a mistake and that unfortunately the mistake will in all probability disappear. There I received forever the mark of a slave, like the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves. Since then I have always regarded myself as a slave.

It was her experience in the factory that taught Weil that human beings possess nothing in the world; that a mere chance can take away everything except the ability to say “I.” The “I” is what we must dedicate to God, and in so doing we destroy the “I.” The state of perfection in a human soul, according to Weil, comes about when affliction can no longer destroy the “I” because the “I” no longer exists—such is the state of the soul which has been completely dedicated to God. On the other hand, the ultimate affliction, and the soul’s state of perfection arise in the feeling of God’s absence (“My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”)

To be stripped of the power to say “I” is to undergo an extreme affliction, of which there are two kinds: the kind inflicted on the individual from without, and the kind inflicted by the individual on himself. An individual who does not affirm his affliction does not perceive that he has lost himself. This sort of affliction by itself destroys the “I” without the individual perceiving this to be the case—indeed, he may retain a “naked, vegetative egoism,” by way of his inner revolt against the external forces that cause him harm. To undergo affliction from within, the person must accept the harm done to him without any inner revolt, accept that he is afflicted, and thus he aids in his own destruction of self. Sufferings must be accepted passively, not experienced as a test of strength or endurance, but as a “testimony, lived and felt, of human misery.”

Weil also learned in the factory the necessity of imparting affliction on one’s self by way of renouncing the illusion of time: “The past and the future hinder the wholesome effect of affliction by providing an unlimited field for imaginary elevation. That is why the renunciation of past and future is the first of all renunciations.” The past and the future are man’s illusory belongings. Weil illustrates idea with the example of a miser who loses his treasure—his loss is a loss of a precious piece of an imaginary frozen past. The future is also an illusion; “a filler of voids,” of which eternity is the only cure: “When pain and weariness reach the point of causing a sense of perpetuity to be born in the soul, through contemplating this perpetuity with acceptance and love, we are snatched away into eternity.”

In 1936, Weil fought alongside the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and joined an anarchist paramilitary group, but her physical clumsiness endangered her fellow militants, and after an accident in which she scalded herself with hot cooking oil, she had to abandon the war effort, and left for Portugal with her parents to recuperate. It was in a small Portuguese town, listening to the fisherman singing hymns “of a heart-rending sadness” at a festival for the town’s patron saint, that Weil became convinced that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and [she herself] among others.”

In 1937 in Assisi, and again in 1938 in Solesmes, Weil underwent mystical encounters, described in her Spiritual Autobiography. In her Spiritual Autobiography she recounts the experience at Solesmes:

In 1938 I spent ten days at Solesmes, from Palm Sunday to Easter Tuesday, following all the liturgical services. I was suffering from splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow; by an extreme effort of concentration I was able to rise above this wretched flesh, to leave it to suffer by itself, heaped in a corner, and to find a pure and perfect joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and the words. This experience enabled me by analogy to get a better understanding of the possibility of loving divine love in the midst of affliction. It goes without saying that in the course of these services the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.

At the beginning of World War II, Weil lived with her parents in Paris, Vichy and Marseilles. In 1942 Weil fled with her parents from Nazi-occupied France to the United States. She wished to return to France and join the Resistance, but unable to do so during the occupation, Weil went instead to England. There she contracted tuberculosis. Refusing to eat more than the rations allotted to her compatriots, Weil compromised her already fragile physical health. She died of self-induced starvation in a sanatorium in Ashford, England in 1943, at the age of 34.

I need God to take me by force, because, if death, doing away with the shield of the flesh, were to put me face to face with him, I should run away.

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