Waiting for God
By Simone Weil, translated by Emma Craufurd
Publisher: New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1973.
Simone Weil was born in Paris and died in Ashford, England in 1943, at the age of 34. She was raised in a secular and agnostic Jewish family, and became a philosopher, teacher, essayist, poet and dramatist, as well as a social activist. Because she experienced inner visions of Christ, she chose to study with a Catholic priest, Father Perrin. Weil’s visions, along with her philosophically trained mind, led her to both appreciate and critique organized religion. As she died so young, her first works were published posthumously in 1947.
Weil’s Waiting for God became one of the most influential and treasured books in twentieth-century Western spirituality. Few mystics in the modern era have had so wide and appreciative an audience. Her powerful writings have been read and valued by intellectuals and theologians, atheists and Catholic priests, revolutionaries and monastics. The French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus said that Simone Weil was “the only great soul of our time.” What makes her writings stand out is that she expresses her spirituality in a way that modern readers can understand and sympathize with. She is not locked into any organized religion, and welcomes the insights of science and the arts. Her God is universal and available to all.
Waiting for God is not a single work, but a collection of diverse letters and essays selected by an anonymous editor, with an introduction by Leslie Fiedler summarizing Weil’s life and work. The first section of the book is a collection of Weil’s personal letters to her spiritual director, Father Perrin. These letters eloquently display Weil’s humility and sincerity, and include Weil’s own telling of her spiritual biography. Throughout the letters are sprinkled with her startling insights. “Why should I have any anxiety?” she writes. “It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me.” Her desire, in all her writings, is to stay true towhat she believes is God’s will for her. Despite Father Perrin’s strong belief that she should be baptized into the Catholic faith, she insists that her salvation is possible outside the closed system of Christianity.
Next come her essays: dense, complex, uneven, and yet often stunning in their brilliance. Using her training as a philosopher, she first inquires, often in academic detail, into the myriad ways that human beings get lost in the world. Then, using logic, clear thinking and astonishing insight, she argues that God uses our confusion, pain and imperfections to set us right. Prayer, for Weil, is the path back to God, and she defines prayer as “the orientation of all of our attention of which we are capable towards God.” In various essays, she tackles the subject of extreme suffering, claiming that even this is a precious gift from God. By shattering our ego, pride and sense that we are at the centre of the universe, suffering allows us the possibility to understand, in our flesh and in our minds, that we are nothing, and that God is at the centre and is everything. In her essay on ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, she captures the deep mystical meanings behind every phrase. In her longest essay, “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” she describes how we can experience God’s love through the love of neighbour, art and beauty, and religious ceremony. But she offers an unusual definition of religious ceremony: “The recitation of the name of the Lord really has the power to transform the soul. Religion is nothing else but this promise of God. Every religious practice, every rite, all liturgy is a form of this recitation of the name of the Lord.”
As the title of the book Waiting for God implies, some of the most exquisite and intense passages in the letters and essays describe the experience of waiting for spiritual experience. This may seem ironic in her case since her direct, personal and mystical encounter with God came early and often throughout her brief life. She writes of longing for God as a deep hunger in the soul:
In the period of preparation the soul loves in emptiness. It does not know whether anything real answers its love. It may believe that it knows, but to believe is not to know. Such a belief does not help. The soul knows for certain only that it is hungry. The important thing is that it announces its hunger by crying. A child does not stop crying if we suggest to it that perhaps there is no bread. It goes on crying just the same. The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry. It can only persuade itself of this by lying, for the reality of its hunger is not a belief, it is a certainty.
She speaks of a patient waiting in meditation, a “letting-go” that is more strenuous and difficult than any muscular effort. She tells how hard it is to wait, immobilized in the darkness for long years.
It is the waiting or attentive and faithful immobility that lasts indefinitely and cannot be shaken. The slave, who waits near the door so as to open it immediately the master knocks, is the best image of it. He must be ready to die of hunger and exhaustion rather than change his attitude. It must be possible for his companions to call him, talk to him, hit him, without even turning his head. Even if he is told that his master is dead, and even if he believes it, he will not move. If he is told that his master is angry with him and will beat him when he returns, and if he believes it, he will not move.
In some of the essays, her writing is so intellectual, rarified and obscure that a reader might feel unable to comprehend it. But then in the middle of that complexity comes a passage that speaks clearly to any spiritual seeker:
We do not turn toward God. How could we do so when we are in total darkness? God himself sets our faces in the right direction. He does not, however show himself for a very long time. It is for us to remain motionless…without averting our eyes, listening relentlessly and waiting, we know not for what; deaf to entreaties and threats, unmoved by every shock, unshaken in the midst of every upheaval. If after a long period God allows us to have an indistinct intuition of his light or even reveals himself in person, it is only for an instant.
Readers who appreciate this book will also find deep spiritual wisdom in Weil’s book Gravity and Grace, a collection of excerpts from her personal journals. In these powerful excerpts, Weil does not idealize the life of a seeker, or minimize the cost of discipleship. Instead, she offers a stunningly honest commentary on what she called “gravity,” the pull of the material world and of the ego that holds us back on our spiritual journeys. She believes that what moves us forward is “grace’, God’s pull on the soul.
In the realm of spiritual writing, Simone Weil’s voice is unusual in its brutal honesty about human limitations, her unrelenting dedication to the inner life, and the clarity of her observations about the human struggle to find union with God.
God alone has the power to name himself, His name is unpronounceable for human lips. His name is his word. It is the Word of God. The name of any being is an intermediary between the human spirit and that being; it is the only means by which the human spirit can conceive something about a being that is absent. God is absent. He is in heaven. Man’s only possibility of gaining access to him is through His name. It is the Mediator. Man has access to this name, although it also is transcendent. It shines in the beauty and order of the world and it shines in the interior light of the human soul. This name is holiness itself; there is no holiness outside it…. To ask for that which exists, that which exists really, infallibly, eternally, quite independently of our prayer, that is the perfect petition. We cannot prevent ourselves from desiring; we are made of desire; but the desire that nails us down to what is imaginary, temporal, selfish, can, if we make it pass wholly into this petition, become a lever to tear us from the imaginary into the real and from time into eternity, to lift us right out of the prison of self.
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