Simone Weil was one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth, or indeed of any other century… She was almost the perfectly typical passionate, revolutionary, intellectual woman… she made up her own revolution out of her vitals… she could introject all the ill of the world into her own heart
An essay by Gianni Criveller
In 2016, I made a much anticipated and deeply personal pilgrimage to a cemetery in Ashford, Kent in England. My good friends, Gina and Luigi, from the lovely town of Royal Tunbridge Wells, accompanied me on this simple and highly emotional visit.
After walking along Simone Weil Avenue, we arrived at the cemetery and looked for Simon Weil’s tomb. I knew it was located in the section reserved for Catholics and, therefore, I asked some bystanders to tell us where it was. However, they did not know about Simone Weil or her tomb. After a few minutes, we located the simple plaques that mark the very place where on 30 August 1943 she was buried.
Eight or nine people were in attendance at the interment, including Maurice Schumann and Simone Deitz. The former, a friend and collaborator of Weil, was the famous voice of Free France in London and was to become one the most prominent leaders of post-war France and Europe.
As the priest who was supposed to preside at the funeral missed the train, Schumann took the task of saying a prayer and a few words on himself. Simone Deitz was also close to Weil in the last year of her life, first in New York and then in London, where both women were part of the Free French resistance.
We will talk more about Deitz’ association with Weil later in this narration, as she is the person who baptised Simone Weil before her death. I address this later in the essay.
But let us go back to our visit to Weil’s tomb. I asked Gina to read a short poem written by Weil a few months’ before her death.
Most of the present article is about this poem, which is Simone’s emotional testament to the fundamental issue of her life, her relationship with Jesus and the Church. It was a precious and moving moment that we took away with us and will cherish for a long time.
Simone Weil, French social activist, spiritual writer, philosopher and mystic of Jewish origin was born in Paris on 9 February 1909.
Simone Weil was one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth, or indeed of any other century… She was almost the perfectly typical passionate, revolutionary, intellectual woman… she made up her own revolution out of her vitals… she could introject all the ill of the world into her own heart.1
Literature Nobel Prize laureate, Albert Camus, a friend of the family, was deeply influenced by her thought. In 1951, he wrote to Simone’s mother saying:
Simone Weil, I maintain this now, is the only great spirit of our times and I hope that those who realise this have enough modesty to not try to appropriate her overwhelming witnessing. For my part, I would be satisfied if one could say that in my place, with the humble means at my disposal, I served to make known and disseminate her work whose full impact we have yet to measure.2
Poet, Thomas Stearns Eliot, in the preface to her writing, The Need for Roots, wrote:
We must simply expose ourselves to the personality of a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints. Perhaps 'genius' is not the right word… Agreement and rejection are secondary: what matters is to make contact with a great soul. Simone Weil was one who might have become a saint. Like some who have achieved this state, she had greater obstacles to overcome, as well as greater strength for overcoming them, than the rest of us.3
Her influence reached out beyond European borders. The Chinese Culture Christians, a group of scholars who sparked the hope of a new cultural season for Christianity in China in the 1990s, 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 and outside the Church. As we will see, although a believer in Jesus, she refused until nearly the end of her life, to enter the Catholic Church, objecting to its dogmatic pronouncements and condemnations.
However, the notion that she died without baptism prevailed for few decades after her death and still persists in some quarters, in spite of strong evidence of the contrary. We will return to this point.
Her fascinating story has attracted the attention and the admiration of people all over the world. She speaks especially to those who struggle with faith, the reality of suffering and being part of the institutional Church.
Her struggles and failures, and even her death, touch and speak to the heart of many contemporaries, as she discovered Christianity after passing through syndicalism, anarchism, communism and an in-depth study of oriental religions.