The following passage is from Gustave Thibon’s introduction to Simon Weil’s Gravity & Grace (full PDF here). It beautifully articulates many of my current perspectives and I’m sharing it here in the hope others will find it equally meaningful. Fittingly, it came to me via the purest combination of chance and good will: a donation to the thrift store, among endless donations, brought home to me by my wife. I had not heard of Weil before then. It was truly New2Me.
I have bolded certain passages for emphasis.
The central law of this world, from which God has withdrawn by his very act of creation, is the law of gravity, which is to be found analogously in every stage of existence. Gravity is the force which above all others draws us from God. It impels each creature to seek everything which can preserve or enlarge it and, as Thucydides says, to exercise all the power of which it is capable. Psychologically it is shown by all those motives which are directed towards asserting or reinstating the self, by all those secret subterfuges (lies of the inner life, escape in dreams or false ideals, imaginary encroachments on the past and the future, etc.) which we make use of to bolster up from inside our tottering existence, that is to say, to remain apart from and opposed to God.
Simone Weil presents the problem of evil as follows: ‘How can we escape from that which corresponds to gravity in ourselves?’ By grace alone. In order to come to us God passes through the infinite thickness of time and space; his grace changes nothing in the play of those blind forces of necessity and chance which guide the world; it penetrates into our souls as a drop of water makes its way through geological strata without affecting their structure, and there it waits in silence until we consent to become God again. Whereas gravity is the work of creation, the work of grace consists of ‘decreating’ us.
God consented through love to cease to be everything so that we might be something; we must consent through love to cease to be anything so that God may become everything again. . . .
Simone Weil makes a sharp distinction between this supernatural immolation and all forms of human grandeur and heroism. Here below God is the feeblest and most destitute of beings; his love, unlike that of idols, does not fill the carnal part of the soul; to go to him we have to labour in the void, to refuse every intoxication of passion or pride which veils the horrible mystery of death, and to allow ourselves to be guided only by the ‘still, small voice’ spoken of in the Bible—a voice inaudible to the senses and unnoticed by the self.
‘To say to Christ as Saint Peter did: “I will always be faithful to thee”, is to deny him already, for it is to suppose that the source of fidelity is in ourselves and not in grace. As he was chosen, this denial was made known to all men and to himself. How many others boast in the same way—and never understand.’ It is easy to die for something forceful because participation in force produces an intoxication which stupefies us. But it is supernatural to die for something weak: thousands of men were able to die heroically for Napoleon, whilst Christ in his agony was deserted by his disciples (the sacrifice was easier later on for the martyrs, for they were already upheld by the social force of the Church). ‘Supernatural love has no contact with force, moreover it does not protect the soul against the coldness of force, the coldness of steel. Only an earthly attachment, if it has in it enough energy, can afford protection against the coldness of steel. Armour is made of metal in the same way as the sword. If we want a love which will protect the soul from wounds we must love something other than God.’
The hero wears armour, the saint is naked. Now armour, while keeping off blows, prevents any direct contact with reality and above all makes it impossible to enter the third dimension which is that of supernatural love. If things are really to exist for us they have to penetrate within us. Hence the necessity for being naked: nothing can enter into us while armour protects us both from wounds and from the depths which they open up. All sin is an attack against the third dimension, an attempt to bring back to the plane of unreality and painlessness an emotion which seeks to penetrate to the depths. This law is inexorable: we lessen our own suffering to the extent that we weaken our inner and direct communion with reality.
At the extreme limit of this process life is entirely stretched out on the surface: we suffer no more except in a dream, for existence, reduced to two dimensions, becomes flat like a dream. This holds good for consolations, illusions, boasting and all the compensatory reactions by which we try to fill up the hollows bitten into us by reality. Every empty place or hollow does in fact imply the presence of the third dimension; it is not possible to enter into a surface, and to fill up a hole is equivalent to taking refuge in isolation on the surface. The adage of ancient physics: ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, is strictly true in psychology. But this vacuum is precisely what grace needs in order to come into us.
This process of ‘decreation’, which is the only way of salvation, is the work of grace and not of the will. Man does not pull himself up to heaven by the hair. The will is only useful for servile tasks; it controls the right use of natural virtues, which are pre-requisites of the work of grace, in the same way as the ploughman’s effort must precede the sowing. But the divine seed comes from elsewhere. . . . In this realm Simone Weil, like Plato and Malebranche, considers attention to be of far more importance than will: ‘We must be indifferent to good and evil, really indifferent; that is to say, we must turn the light of attention equally on each of them. Then the good will triumph by an automatic phenomenon.’
It is precisely this superior automatism which has to be created; it is not obtained by tightening up the self and ‘going beyond one’s capacity’ (forçant son talent) for doing good (nothing is more degrading than a noble action performed in an unworthy spirit) but by arriving through self-effacement and love at that state of perfect docility to grace whence goodness spontaneously emanates. ‘Action is the pointer which shows the balance. We must not touch the pointer but the weight.’ Unfortunately it is easier to tamper with the pointer than to alter our own weight in these ‘golden scales of Zeus’.
So, then, religious attention raises us above the ‘aberration of opposites’ and the choice between good and evil—‘Choice, a notion belonging to a low level’. So long as I hesitate between doing or not doing a bad action (for instance, possessing or not such and such a woman who offers herself to me, betraying or not betraying some friend), even if I choose the good I scarcely rise above the evil I reject. In order for my ‘good’ action to be really pure, I must dominate this miserable oscillation so that the righteousness of my outward behaviour is the exact expression of my inward necessity. Holiness is like degradation in this respect ; just as an utterly despicable man does not hesitate to possess himself of a woman if his passion demands it or to betray a friend if it is in his interest to do so, a saint has no choice to make about remaining pure and faithful: he cannot do anything else; he goes towards goodness like the bee towards a flower.
Goodness which we choose by balancing it against evil has scarcely anything but social value; to the eyes of Him ‘who seeth in secret’ it proceeds from the same motives and is marked by the same vulgarity as evil. Hence the kinship often observed between certain forms of ‘virtue’ and the corresponding sin: theft and the bourgeois respect for property, adultery and a ‘respectable woman’, the savings-bank and waste, etc. Real goodness is not opposed to evil (in order to oppose something directly it is necessary to be on the same level); it transcends and effaces it. ‘What evil violates is not goodness, for goodness is inviolate; only a degraded good can be violated.’
The soul engaged in the pursuit of pure goodness comes up against irreducible contradictions. Contradiction is the criterion of reality. ‘Our life is impossibility, absurdity. Everything that we want is in contradiction with the conditions or consequences which are attached to it. It is because we ourselves are a contradiction, being creatures, being God and infinitely other than God.’ Have countless children, for instance, and you are bringing about overpopulation and war (Japan is a typical case of this); improve the material conditions of a nation and you are in danger of impairing its soul; devote yourself entirely to someone and you will cease to exist for him, etc.
Only imaginary good things have no contradiction in them: the girl who wants to have numerous offspring, the social reformer who dreams of the people’s well-being, etc., meet with no obstacles so long as they do not pass on to action; they sail gaily forward in a sea of pure but fictitious goodness; the shock of hitting the rocks is the signal which wakens them. We must accept this contradiction— the sign of our misery and our greatness—in all its bitterness. It is through fully experiencing and suffering from the absurdity as such of this universe where good and evil are mixed that we attain to the pure goodness whose kingdom is not of this world.
‘That action is pure which we can accomplish by keeping our intention totally directed towards pure and impossible goodness, without disguising from ourselves by any lie either the attraction or the impossibility of pure goodness.’
Instead of filling the space which stretches between necessity and goodness with dreams (faith in God as a temporal father, science, progress . . .) we must receive the two branches of contradiction just as they are and allow ourselves to be torn asunder by their distance. And it is in this tearing, which is as it were a reflection in man of the creative act which rends God, that we rediscover the original identity of necessity and goodness: ‘This world, in so far as it is quite empty of God, is God himself. Necessity, in so far as it is absolutely distinct from goodness, is goodness itself. That is why all consolation in affliction separates us from love and from truth. Therein lies the mystery of mysteries. When we touch it we are secure.’
He, therefore, who refuses to accept confusion is marked for suffering. From Antigone whom the guardian of the temporal city called upon to go and love among the shades, down to Simone Weil herself whom human injustice crucified until she was in her grave, affliction is the lot of all those lovers of the absolute who are astray in this world of relative things: ‘If we want only goodness we are opposed to the law which links good to evil as the illuminated object to the shadow, and, being opposed to the universal law of the world, it is inevitable that we should fall into affliction.’
In so far as the soul is not completely emptied of itself, this thirst for pure goodness leads to the suffering of expiation; in a perfectly innocent soul it produces redemptive suffering: ‘To be innocent is to bear the weight of the whole universe. It is to throw in the counterweight to restore the balance.’ Thus purity does not abolish suffering; on the contrary it deepens it to infinity whilst giving it an eternal meaning: ‘The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use of it.’
This mystery of suffering which ‘decreates’ man and gives him back to God finds its centre in the mystery of the Incarnation. If God had not been incarnate, man who suffers and dies would have become in a sense greater than God. But God made himself man and died on the Cross. ‘God abandoned God. God emptied himself: these words enfold the meaning both of the Creation and of the Incarnation with the Passion. . . . To teach us that we are nothing (non-être) God made himself nothing.’ In other words God became a creature in order to teach us how to undo the creature in ourselves, and the act of love by which he was separated from himself brings us back to him.
Simone Weil sees the essence of the mediatorial function of Jesus Christ in his assumption of the human condition with all that is most miserable and tragic in it: the signs and miracles constitute the human and relatively low part of his mission; the supernatural part consists of the agony, the sweat of blood, the Cross and his vain calls to an unanswering heaven. The words of the Redeemer: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ which sum up all the agony of the creature thrown into the midst of time and evil and to which the Father replies only with silence—these words alone are enough proof for her of the divinity of Christianity.
Man only finds salvation by living in the bare instant, renouncing the past and future. That rules out the modern myth of the indefinite progress of humanity, even when it is presented under the form of a divine education. There are few ideas which are as impious as this one, for it tends to make us seek in the future what eternity alone can give, that is to say, to turn away from God. ‘Nothing can have a destination which is not its origin. The contrary idea, the idea of progress—poison. The plant which bears such fruit should be torn up by the roots.’ This does not mean to say that humanity cannot acquire anything in the course of time, but such progress, in so far as it is temporal, can never be indefinite, for duration always ends by devouring what it has brought to birth. Time, accepted as irremediably different from eternity, is for us the door opening onto the eternal: we must not make of it a substitute for eternity.
From this essential condition of salvation, the necessity of living in the pure instantaneous present and of toiling regardless of results, Simone Weil draws a magnificent spirituality of manual work. Such work puts man into direct contact with the inherent absurdity and contradiction of earthly life and thus, if the worker does not lie, it enables him to touch heaven. ‘Work makes us experience in an exhausting manner the phenomenon of finality rebounding like a ball; to work in order to eat, to eat in order to work. . . . If we regard one of the two as an end, or the one and the other taken separately, we are lost. Only the cycle contains the truth.’ But in order to compass this cycle we must turn from the future and rise up to the eternal. ‘It is not religion but revolution which is the opium of the people.’
Here below, a thousand relative objects bearing the label of absolute come between the soul and God. So long as man does not consent to become nothing in order to be everything he needs idols. ‘Idolatry is a vital necessity in the cave.’ And among these idols the social one of the collective soul is the most powerful and dangerous. Most sins can be traced back to the social element. They spring from a thirst to appear and to dominate.