Religious Freedom Day was established on January 16th by the U.S. Congress in 1992. It celebrates the enactment in 1786 of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, who asked that his tombstone recognize that he was the author of the bill, along with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia, as one of the three things for which he wished to be remembered. He drafted the bill in 1777, but it took a decade to be finally pushed through by James Madison, who was at that time a member of the House of Delegates. The bill disestablished the Anglican Church as the official state church, and is regarded as the root of how the framers of the U.S. Constitution approached matters of religion and government.
I had never heard of Simone Weil until I read Ed Hirsch’s poem:
Simone Weil: The Year of Factory Work
by Edward Hirsch
A glass of red wine trembles on the table,
Untouched, and lamplight falls across her shoulders.
She looks down at the cabbage on her plate,
She stares at the broken bread. Proposition:
The irreducible slavery of workers. “To work
In order to eat, to eat in order to work.”
She thinks of the punchclock in her chest,
Of night deepening in the bindweed and crabgrass,
In the vapors and atoms, in the factory
Where a steel vise presses against her temples
Ten hours per day. She doesn’t eat.
She doesn’t sleep. She almost doesn’t think
Now that she has brushed against the bruised
Arm of oblivion and tasted the blood, now
That the furnace has labeled her skin
And branded her forehead like a Roman slave’s.
Surely God comes to the clumsy and inefficient,
To welders in dark spectacles, and unskilled
Workers who spend their allotment of days
Pulling red-hot metal bobbins from the flames.
Surely God appears to the shattered and anonymous,
To the humiliated and afflicted
Whose legs are married to perpetual motion
And whose hands are too small for their bodies.
Proposition: “Through work man turns himself
Into matter, as Christ does through the Eucharist.
Work is like a death. We have to pass
Through death. We have to be killed.”
We have to wake in order to work, to labor
And count, to fail repeatedly, to submit
To the furious rhythm of machines, to suffer
The pandemonium and inhabit the repetitions,
To become the sacrificial beast: time entering
Into the body, the body entering into time.
She presses her forehead against the table:
To work in order to eat, to eat . . .
Outside, the moths are flaring into stars
And stars are strung like beads across the heavens.
Inside, a glass of red wine trembles
Next to the cold cabbage and broken bread.
Exhausted night, she is the brimming liquid
And untouched food. Come down to her.
“Simone Weil: The Year of Factory Work (1934-1935)” from For the Sleepwalkers, © 1981 by Edward Hirsch – Alfred A. Knopf
Simone Weil philosophized on thresholds and across borders. Her persistent desire for truth and justice led her to both elite academies and factory floors, political praxis and spiritual solitude. At different times she was an activist, a pacifist, a militant, a mystic, and an exile; but throughout, in her inquiry into reality and orientation to the good, she remained a philosopher. – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Simone Weil (1909-1943), was a French philosopher, trade unionist, political activist, and Christian mystic. Albert Camus called her “the only great spirit of our times.”
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. – Simone Weil
She was born in Paris to agnostic Alsatian Jewish parents who fled the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871. Her only sibling was the mathematician André Weil, who was three years older. She was a healthy baby until she suffered a severe attack of appendicitis when she was just six months old. From then on, she struggled with poor health. Her childhood home imbued her with an obsession with cleanliness, so she avoided physical contact with other people, although she was verbally warmly affectionate, kind, and thoughtful.
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
– Simone Weil
Weil was distressed by her father’s having to leave home for several years after being drafted to serve in the WWI. In 1915, when she was only six years old, she refused sugar in solidarity with the troops entrenched along the Western Front. In 1919, at 10 years of age, she declared herself a Bolshevik. In her late teens, she became involved in the workers’ movement. She wrote political tracts, marched in demonstrations, and advocated workers’ rights. At this time, she was a Marxist, pacifist, and trade unionist.
Weil and her brother were both precocious students. She had a gift for languages, and was proficient in Ancient Greek by age 12, and learned Sanskrit as part of her interest in many religions, which she explored extensively.
The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as
breathing is to running. – Simone Weil
She entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1928. She was called the “Red Virgin” and “The Martian” for her radical ideas. She finished first in the exam for the certificate of “General Philosophy and Logic” – Simone de Beauvoir finished second.
The most important part of teaching is to teach what it is
to know. – Simone Weil
Weil became a teacher in the 1930s, but took several breaks to recover her health. She also became part of the trade union movement, and was involved in liberal causes. Disregarding her frail health, Weil worked for a year in factories to better understand the working people she was trying to help as a trade unionist.
Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness.
– Simone Weil
According to her friend and biographer, Simone Pétrement, Weil decided early in life that she would need to adopt masculine qualities and sacrifice opportunities for love affairs in order to fully pursue her vocation to improve social conditions for the disadvantaged. From her late teenage years, Weil would generally disguise her “fragile beauty” by adopting a masculine appearance, hardly ever using makeup and often wearing men’s clothes.
Whether the mask is labeled fascism, democracy, or dictatorship of the proletariat, our great adversary remains the apparatus—the bureaucracy, the police, the military. Not the one facing us across the frontier of the battle lines, which is not so much our enemy as our brothers’ enemy, but the one that calls itself our protector and makes us its slaves. No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this apparatus and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others. – Simone Weil
In 1932, Weil visited Germany to help Marxist activists who were at the time considered to be the strongest and best organised communists in Western Europe, but Weil considered them no match for the then up-and-coming fascists. When she returned to France, her political friends in France dismissed her fears, thinking Germany would continue to be controlled by the centrists or those to the left. After Hitler rose to power in 1933, Weil spent much of her time trying to help German communists fleeing his regime.
Whenever one tries to suppress doubt, there is tyranny.
– Simone Weil
She published articles about social and economic issues, including “Oppression and Liberty” and numerous short articles for trade union journals. This work criticised popular Marxist thought and gave a pessimistic account of the limits of both capitalism and socialism. Leon Trotsky responded to several of her articles, attacking both her ideas and Weil personally.
Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand. – Simone Weil
Weil participated in the French general strike of 1933, called to protest against unemployment and wage cuts. The following year, she took a 12-month leave of absence from her teaching position to work incognito as a labourer in two factories, one owned by Renault, believing that this experience would allow her to connect with the working class. In 1935, she resumed teaching and donated most of her income to political causes and charitable endeavours.
The national interest cannot be defined as a common interest of the industrial, commercial, and financial companies of a country, because there is no such common interest; nor can it be defined as the life, liberty, and well-being of the citizens, because they are continually being adjured to sacrifice their well-being, their liberty, and their lives to the national interest. In the end a study of modern history leads to the conclusion that the national interest of every State consists in its capacity to make war.
– Simone Weil
In 1936, despite her pacifist leanings, she joined the anarchist Durruti Column on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Weil even took up a rifle, but she was expelled from the combat line by her comrades, as she was extremely short-sighted, and they feared she would mistakenly shoot one of them. She became part of a unit of the Sébastien Faure Century, which specialised in high-risk “commando”-style engagements, but was forced to stay behind after they found out how poor her eyesight was. She was badly burned by a boiling pot over a cook fire, so her family came and brought her home. During her stay at the Aragon front, she sent some chronicles to the French publication Le Libertaire.
The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’
– Simone Weil
Weil, born into a completely secular household, began to consider the existence of God as a teenager, and decided there was no proof either way, but from her earliest childhood she had taken to heart the idea of loving one’s neighbor. In 1935, she was deeply moved by the beauty of Portuguese villagers singing hymns during an outdoor service, and began to explore Christianity.
Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. – Simone Weil
She was in Assisi in the spring of 1937, and experienced religious ecstasy in the “Little Portion” chapel in which Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed, now enclosed by the massive Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli. It was the first time she had been moved to pray.
He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.
– Simone Weil
In 1938, Weil had another powerful revelation while reciting George Herbert’s poem Love III, after which “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.” Her writings became more mystical and spiritual, but were still focused on social and political issues. She was attracted to Roman Catholicism, but did not convert at that time because of her “love of those things that are outside Christianity.” She believed it was the will of God for her to abstain from baptism so that she could remain in solidarity with the poor, the afflicted, and the lost. Weil also studied the Greek and Egyptian mysteries, Hinduism, and Mahayana Buddhism.
Humility is attentive patience. – Simone Weil
Weil wrote, “Greece, Egypt, ancient India, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflection of this beauty in art and science…these things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ’s hands as his captive. I think I might even say more . . . Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else . . . A “synthesis” of religion implies a lower quality of attention.”
You could not be born at a better period than the present, when we have lost everything. – Simone Weil
In 1942, Weil travelled to the United States with her family. She had been reluctant to leave France, but agreed to do so as she wanted to see her parents to safety and knew they would not leave without her. She was also encouraged by the fact that it would be relatively easy for her to reach Britain from the United States, where she could join the French Resistance. She had hopes of being sent back to France as a covert agent.
We must not wish for the disappearance of our troubles but for the grace to transform them. – Simone Weil
However, because of her health, though she was recruited by the British Special Operations Executive, which sent wireless operators into France to coordinate with the French Resistance, she never went through training, and was limited to desk work in London. This gave her time to write one of her longest books, The Need for Roots.
Her health became even worse, and in 1943, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and told she needed rest and more food. She refused special treatment, and limited her food intake to what she believed French residents were eating during the German occupation. She was probably baptized during this time, and was moved to a sanatorium.
Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can
be obtained only by someone who is detached.
– Simone Weil
Weil died in August 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34. The coroner’s report said that “the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.” But others insist she refused to eat as an expression of solidarity with the victims of the war, and some see a connection between her slow starvation and her study of Arthur Schopenhauer’s chapters on Christain asceticism and salvation. Simone Pétrement believes the coroner was mistaken because of letters written by sanatorium personnel which said she did ask for food, and ate small amounts even shortly before her death. She thinks Weil had by her final days become too ill to eat. Weil’s first English biographer, Richard Rees, cites her deep compassion for the suffering of others, her concern for her people under the Nazis, and her aspiration to follow Christ’s teachings and example as closely as possible, and concludes that ultimately “she died of love.”
Liberty, taking the word in its concrete sense, consists in the ability to choose. – Simone Weil
During her lifetime, Weil was only known to a relative few, and even in France her essays were mostly read only by those interested in radical politics. In the decade after her death, Weil became famous, attracting attention throughout the West. She has come to be widely regarded as one of the most influential writers on new work concerning religious and spiritual matters. Her philosophical, social, and political thought also became popular, although not to the same degree as her religious work. Weil has also become a personal inspiration for many people. Pope Paul VI said she was one of his three greatest influences. After they met as teenagers, Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “I envied her for having a heart that could beat right across the world.” French philosopher and longtime friend Gustave Thibon, said of their last meeting, not many days before her death: “I will only say that I had the impression of being in the presence of an absolutely transparent soul which was ready to be reabsorbed into original light.”
Several of her works have been translated into English, including Awaiting God: A New Translation of Attente de Dieu and Lettre a un Religieux; The Iliad or the Poem of Force; Letter to a Priest; The Need for Roots; Gravity and Grace; The Notebooks of Simone Weil; On Science, Necessity, & the Love of God; Two Moral Essays by Simone Weil—Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations & Human Personality; and On the Abolition of All Political Parties.