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Simone Weil and the Mission to Modernity

By Leander Harding

I recently had the privilege of speaking to the clergy and lay leaders of the Diocese of Dallas about the mission of the church to modernity. While preparing for the talks I read the eerily prophetic diagnosis of modernity by the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, who in the 1960s predicted the fall of the Soviet empire and the rise of the technocratic society and the culture of eroticism in the West. My recommendation of his writing can be found here.

Through Del Noce I was led to the French writer and philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943). She is a figure who is hard to categorize, a Christian mystic who resisted being baptized, a political philosopher who wrote only one complete book, which bases a theory of political organization on the needs of the human soul.

In the essay, “Simone Weil, Interpreter of Today’s World,” Del Noce says that, “the ideal itinerary of today’s man towards faith is represented by Weil’s experience, by virtue of both her lived knowledge of the modern world and her absolute purity.” Del Noce admires much of what Weil has to say, but thinks her writing reflects her intellect’s lagging behind spiritual experiences for which she lacked an adequate conceptual framework. What makes Weil essential for Del Noce is her spiritual and intellectual journey, which is a journey from a quintessentially modern consciousness to the discovery of faith and the great tradition of Western civilization. She travels not via an anti-modern traditionalism, but by experiencing the limits of modernity via a complete intellectual and spiritual commitment to it.

Simone Weil grew up in a secular Jewish home in Paris. She was educated at the elite high school of the secular Parisian upper class where her famously secular philosopher teacher, Alain, called her “the Martian” in reference to her alien brilliance. Many people know the name of Simone de Beauvoir, the famous feminist and existentialist philosopher. In the entrance exam for the most prestigious philosophy program in Paris, Simone de Beauvoir came in second. The first place went to Simone Weil. Weil graduated with a degree in philosophy and taught briefly in a rural high school. She had become a Marxist and she resigned from her teaching job to work in a Renault factory operating a metal stamping machine. The experience ruined her always fragile mental and physical health, and she had to go back to her parents’ home to recuperate.

When she recovered, she joined the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans. She enlisted with an Anarchist militia. One day the Anarchists captured a sixteen-year-old boy fighting for the Nationalist side. He was given until the morning to decide if he would renounce his cause and become a Marxist and fight against his former comrades. The boy decided that he could not turn against his cause and was executed. Shortly afterward, Weil burned herself badly in a cooking accident and had to go home again. She had gone to Spain knowing that the Fascists were butchers and come home knowing that the Marxists were butchers as well.

Her experience in Spain was the beginning of her conversion. She said that in Spain she discovered the “supernaturale.” An Aristotelean or Thomistic philosopher would say that she had discovered the transcendentals: the true, the good, and the beautiful as an objective reality that stands over against us. Contrary to Marx, Truth is not merely what advances the revolution. Truth judges the revolution. Reflecting on her experience of the undeniability of justice in the human heart, she says, “Where force is absolutely sovereign, justice is absolutely unreal. Yet justice cannot be that. We know it experimentally. It is real enough in the hearts of men. The structure of a human heart is just as much of a reality as any other in this universe, neither more nor less of a reality than the trajectory of a planet. […] If justice is inerasable from the heart of Man, it must have a reality in this world.”  (The Need for Roots, Simone Weil, 1949)

Her health once again broken, she was taken by her parents to recover in Assisi, Italy. There in the Spring of 1937 she went into the Portiuncula, the chapel that St. Francis and his Friars had prayed in, which is preserved inside the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. She went in to see the sight and there was forced to her knees for the “first time in her life.” Still not quite knowing what had happened to her she encountered an English Catholic on his way back from communion with “his face radiant.” She confided in him and he told her to read Love III by George Herbert. She committed the poem to memory. Reciting it helped her chronic migraine headaches. She said that at first, she was reciting a beautiful poem, but the words became a prayer for her. Her faith grew and she became firm in her commitment to Christ as the Truth. “Christ said: ‘I am the truth.’ He also said that He was bread and wine; but He added: ‘I am the true bread, the true wine’, that is to say, the bread which is nothing but truth, the wine which is nothing but truth. They must first of all be desired as truth, only afterwards as food”  (The Need for Roots).

I draw a number of lessons from the conversion of Weil. Here are two. The first is bring back the Greeks. The Greek philosophical tradition asks the big questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there a cosmos that is discoverable by the human mind? What is good? What is the good life? Modernity does not ask these questions. Modernity even forbids these questions. It asks only if something is useful. Weil says that the Marxists and the Christians both think faith is a pill. The difference, she says, is that one thinks it an opiate and the other a stimulant. Across the theological spectrum there are recommendations of the faith for its usefulness. Modernity is in crisis as it stumbles on the rock of its own relativism. Let us ask the question of Truth and recommend the faith because it is true.

The second is save beautiful buildings. For all of my ordained ministry I have been lectured about the “edifice complex” of the faithful people who have labored and given sacrificially to keep the roof on their parish church. Sacred space and especially beautiful sacred space that has been sanctified by prayer has converting power. Modernity looks forward and never up. Having rediscovered the reality of Truth, Weil’s heart was open to the power of the Portiuncula. It could have been the other way around. Buildings that make people look up also bring them to their knees. Holy spaces humble and dignify at the same time. What is true of buildings is also true of the art, music and literature of the Church. A banal and superficial world hungers for that which is profound and of surpassing beauty. You can still fill a hall or a church with a performance of Handel’s Messiah.  It is possible for modern people to be introduced to Christian poems, music, art, and architecture that start out as simply beautiful and become in God’s providence, prayers.

The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding is dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany.


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