Here is proof that poetry can take us where flat statements cannot. This selection is twinned with the previous one, George Herbert’s poem. You will see why.
The French philosopher Simone Weil was born in 1909 and lived only until 1942. Gifted with sharp intelligence and curiosity, she obtained an advanced degree in Philosophy from the Ecole Normale Superiuere and taught at a girls’ school. Her short life was marked by a restless search for truth and fighting for justice for the working class. Several times she rejected the academic life to work the soil with her bare hands. Some thought of her as “an unorthodox Marxist moving toward anarchism.” She helped the anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War and took part in the French resistance when the Germans invaded France. Yet she wrestled with belief in God and pursued truth passionately, allowing no ideologies or alliances to block her.
When the Nazis occupied France Weil eventually left for the United States. The French provisional government asked for her assistance and she moved to London. There she wanted to share in the sufferings of those in the occupied zone, but this self-imposed lack of nutrition along with her working to the point of exhaustion led to her death.
She published no books in her lifetime and few essays on religion. The record of her spiritual hunger and mystical experiences only came to light when her letters were published posthumously. She may be the most “heady” of 20th century thinkers to have a mystical experience.
From Waiting for God by Simone Weil
There was a young English Catholic there [at Solesmes Abbey] from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance—for I always prefer saying chance rather than Providence—made of him a messenger to me. For he told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are named “metaphysical.” In reading them later on, I discovered the poem…called “Love.”* I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines.I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.
In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God. I had vaguely heard tell of things of this kind, but I had never believed in them. In the Firetti the accounts of apparitions rather put me off if anything, like the miracles in the Gospel. Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only 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.
*Titled “Love III” in most editions of Herbert’s works.
From Waiting for God by Simone Weil, transl. by Emma Craufield, © 1951 by G. P. Putnam, pp. 68-69. Big thanks to poet-scholar Anna Vogt for first telling me about Weil so, so long ago.