An Encounter with Simone Weil, Neighbors and Total Strangers  

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A few months ago, I convinced the wonderful folks at the Madison Central Public Library to order a copy of the documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil and to host a screening of it on the beautiful, spacious third floor. Since then I’ve worried that no one would show up, that arguments would break out, that folks would hate the film and then me by proxy, or that I would somehow forget to show up on the right day. I’m happy to say that we had a great turnout, one person attempted an argument and was elegantly redirected by Elizabeth, and that some folks didn’t like the film but don’t seem to hold it against me personally. But the great thing is that quite a few people found value in the experience and conversations were begun that are still happening.

So the film is about Simone Weil, who was a French philosopher who believed there should be no gap between what we believe and how we live our lives. She was incredibly brilliant and very moral. She also believed that the great value in Christianity is not that it seeks to find an alleviation of suffering but that it seeks to find a supernatural use for it. And part of that use seems to be that it can help us access Christ within us (this part gets complicated, but she really believes that when we instinctively give food to the hungry or alleviate pain in someone else, Christ is acting through us). She rejected the idea of Providence—that God is present and at work in the created world. She believed that in order to create the world, he had to withdraw, which was the initial act of sacrifice. So she believes there is a gap between us and God, and that suffering at the very least makes us aware of the gap and make us aware of what a fiction the “self” is that we take so deadly seriously (she has a very interesting reading of the last words spoken on the Cross). Unfortunately, the film had no interest in her religious views, and misunderstood it enough to say that she must have been seeking solace in religion.

But it included interviews with some great people and historical footage that helped situate her writings and experience in their context (she was born in France in 1909 and died in August of 1943 in England, having contracted TB and refusing to eat more than the rations given to French soldiers). There were some people in the audience who saw her a martyr, which is an unfortunate reading. She believed not in the destruction of self for a cause, but rather in decreation. This is “an undoing of the creature within us,” rather than destruction. It seeks to remove the created aspect in order to close the gap between the creator and the created. It is the answering act of sacrifice to that initial sacrifice made by the creator. It is, in essence, loving the gift but giving it back because you love the source more.

Is this just putting other language on the cold hard fact of martyrdom? I don’t think so, but it is a question that is not easily dismissed.

One woman at the screening declared that she didn’t know Weil but found her to be too self-involved and much preferred Dorothy Day. If you can’t quite remember who Dorothy Day was, she led the Catholic Workers and alleviated a whole lot of suffering. (If you want to know more about her, I highly recommend Paul Elie’s portrait of her in his multi-subject biography, The Life You Save.) Elizabeth made much the same point when I said that my coffee was out of reach and she said, “I see that your coffee is over there. I will put my coffee over there too and share in your suffering.” Not the response I hoped for. But I do think Weil’s teaching that we cannot always avoid suffering, and that we should not, because suffering is one of the things that can bring out our own humanity and bring us closer to God. Indeed, as Adrienne Rich noted in Of Woman Born: “(T)he avoidance of pain—psychic or physical—is a dangerous mechanism, which can cause us to lose touch not just with our painful sensations but with ourselves.” Trying to create a world free of pain has very real dangers.

But Weil said it was not only suffering that brought us out of our selves but also beauty. Artist Angela Richardson pointed out that the film paid scant attention to this idea, and in fact Weil is often criticized for including this merely as an aside. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since, and wonder if it wasn’t Weil’s milieu that made her neglect this aspect. She was living in a bourgeois family in Europe in the 30s; perhaps the people who surrounded her were daily paying attention to beauty and she simply felt that they didn’t to be reminded to do so. This is where her point of view, as hard as she tried to free herself of it, might obstruct rather than reveal. It also made me wonder if there is perhaps less beauty in the world, if, since the Industrial Revolution, it is a dwindling resource.

I was deeply grateful that Reverend Jonathan Melton (he instructs everyone to call him Jonathan) with the Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madison was there to help deepen the conversation and to bring in some of the spiritual meaning that the documentary completely neglected. He talked about his own struggles and attempts to pay attention, to perceive what is rather than projecting his own thoughts; I wished the conversation could be hours long. All of the planning and work to put the film on was worth getting to hear him speak and start a conversation with him.

Elizabeth brought the conversation back around to the personal—that difficult subject of who we are in this world and what we choose to pay attention to and how we do that. How do you choose to spend your attention? Do you treat is the finite and precious resource that it is? How do you balance your experience or awareness of pain with beauty? How would Simone Weil respond to the constant flood of suffering we are exposed to in 2014?

These are the questions that are following me around since Tuesday night. While looking at pictures of the dead in Gaza, while watching my own children play on a beautiful Wisconsin afternoon, while seeing public art come to life right next door, I’m torn. And maybe that’s exactly how it should be—not beauty or suffering, but beauty and suffering, never allowing ourselves to forget either one in the midst of the other. That doesn’t feel like an answer though, but rather a question that can’t be answered with words, but with action.