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The fascinating and dramatic story of Simone Weil
On January 27, United Nations Holocaust Day was marked in Hong Kong and all around the world.
The remembrance also embraces Simone Weil, who although she was not killed in a lager, chose to share the destiny of those under Nazi oppression, offering her life as a private holocaust.
Weil was one of the most remarkable women of the 20th, or indeed of any other century. She was almost the perfectly typical, passionate, revolutionary, intellectual woman… she made her own revolution out of her own vital energy of life. She could introject all the ill of the world into her own heart.
When in April 2016 I made a personal much-anticipated pilgrimage to her tomb in Ashford, Kent county in England, I asked my friends to read a short poem written by Weil a few months’ before her death.
It is her emotional testament to the fundamental issue of her life, her dramatic and unconventional relationship with Jesus and the Church.
I know well that he does not love me. How could he love me? And yet deep down within me something, a particle of myself, cannot help thinking, with fear and trembling, that perhaps, in spite of it all, he loves me.
I invite readers to peruse the whole poem and my interpretation in the essay published on the website of Sunday Examiner.
The fascinating story of her life still attracts the attention of people all over the world. She speaks especially to those who struggle with affliction, faith and remaining in the institutional Church.
Her struggles and failures, and even her death, touch the hearts of many contemporaries, as she discovered Christianity after passing through syndicalism, anarchism, Communism and an in-depth study of oriental religions.
Literature Nobel Prize laureate, Albert Camus, describes her as the “only great spirit of our times.” Poet, Thomas Stearns Eliot, writes that she was “a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.”
Her influence reaches beyond European borders. The Chinese Culture Christians, a group of scholars who promote Christianity in China, refer to her as their prototype and inspirational figure.
They especially value the anti-establishment, irregular and anti-institutional elements of Simone Weil’s Christian faith, and her existence as a Christian without baptism.
Although a believer in Jesus, she refused to enter the Catholic Church, objecting to its dogmatic pronouncements and condemnations. However, just before her death, she asked for baptism, as we will see below.
Simone Weil, French social activist, spiritual writer, philosopher and mystic of Jewish origin was born in Paris in 1909. She sympathised with the ideal of Communism.
She hosted fugitive Soviet leader, Leon Trotsky. She worked in a factory to share the plight of the workers and volunteered for service in the Spanish Civil War.
One night, in a little Portuguese village, she saw women that were “like me, very wretched. The wives of the fishermen were, in procession, singing ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness. I have never heard anything so poignant. Then I realised that Christianity is the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.”
Later that year, while in Assisi at the Porziuncola chapel, she fell to her knees in prayer. She was not a Christian, yet the following year she spent Holy Week at the Benedictine monastery in Solesmes, France.
There, Simone experienced something that “marked her forever.” While emotionally wretched and afflicted with a painful bout of headaches, a condition that devastated her all her life, in the darkness of the chapel she identified the pain she was suffering with the passion of Christ.
“Christ himself came down and took possession of me… I felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.”
Simone had an intense correspondence with people deeply afflicted by suffering. In 1941, in Marseilles, Simone met Joseph Marie Perrin, a Dominican friar, afflicted by nearly complete blindness. They discussed the possibility of Simone receiving baptism.
But Simone remained determined to stay outside the Church, with those excluded by ecclesiastical condemnations. If the Church excludes someone, she wanted to follow them even to hell.
The “saint of the excluded” (André Gide) empathised with the outcast. After her arrest in Marseille in 1942, for activity against the pro-Nazi government, the judge threatened to throw her in jail with the prostitutes.
Far from feeling humiliated, she disconcerted the judge by declaring that she would be honoured to be associated with them.
She even considered herself as rejected by God. “If one could imagine any possibility of error in God, I should think that it had all happened to me by mistake. But perhaps God likes to use castaway objects, waste, rejects.”
Simone Weil died on 24 August 1943 at the age of 34, in dramatic coherence with her ideals, refusing to receive medical treatment and sufficient food to be in solidarity with the French people who were suffering under Nazi occupation. A self-sacrifice defined as a private holocaust.
There is a debate over whether she was baptised before her death. On 15 April 1943, while in London to support the French forces in exile along with Charles De Gaulle and Maurice Schumann, Simone Weil was admitted to the Middlesex hospital, suffering from tuberculosis.
Weil was accompanied by Simone Deitz, her closest friend in the last year of her life in both New York and London. Weil asked to see the French military chaplain of the Free French Forces, Abbé Réne de Naurois.
They discussed baptism during three difficult talks. According to Deitz, De Naurois refused to baptise Weil, as she rejected the notion that unbaptised children are excluded from heaven.
Such strictness on the part of De Naurois was unnecessary, as the Church now excludes such a belief.
After the talks with De Naurois, Weil told Deitz, herself a Catholic convert of Jewish descent, that she was ready to receive baptism.
Simone Deitz baptised Simone Weil in May 1943, pronouncing the exact canonical formula: “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
In the United States of America, where the same Simone Deitz and surviving members of Weil’s family have been living for many decades, Deitz’ story got an attentive hearing from Presbyterian scholar, Eric O. Springsted, the founder and director for 33 years of the American Weil Society.
With his numerous volumes on Simone Weil, Springsted is one of the leading world experts on her. Springsted publicly related the story of Weil’s baptism in 1984 at Notre Dame University. The same Deitz did so at Harvard University in 1988, where her presentation was videotaped.
However, elsewhere, the story of Weil’s baptism was dismissed as out of character and Deitz was snubbed for altering an established image of Weil.
However, Weil’s refusal of baptism was not absolute. In 1941 she wrote, “God does not want me to be baptised, or at least for now. I should say that it is his will that I should stay outside for the future too, except perhaps at the moment of death.”
The following year Simone reiterated that she would remain without baptism for life. “Except perhaps—only perhaps—if circumstances make intellectual work definitely and totally impossible for me.”
Weil’s writings contain other indications that she considered the possibility of baptism all the time, and its option was always taken into account. When in New York, not too long before her death, Weil insisted, at the end successfully, to have her newborn niece, Sylvie Weil, baptised.
Yet, André, Simone’s only brother and his wife, Sylvie’s parents, were not religious. Sylvie has recently written an important book about her famous auntie Simone and her father André, one of the most important contemporary mathematicians.
The assessment on whether or not Simone was baptised rests entirely on the credibility of Simone Deitz, the only eyewitness.
Quirino De Ascaniis wrote, on a different, sensitive historical matter: “who should we believe, if not the eyewitnesses?”
Springsted: “Deitz has been consistent in the telling of the story over the years. She has no reason to lie, nor can I tell that she has ever shown herself to be given untruths. She herself has made no attempt to gain from the story—on the contrary—she has constantly avoided attempts to get her to come more public about it. Finally, she has not been at all interested in contributing to a hagiography. There is no reason to think Deitz would lie.”
• Gianni Criveller
Full text on the Sunday Examiner website