From Eucharistic Adoration
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
The cry of desolation and abandonment of Jesus from the cross surely is one of the saddest verses in all of scripture. Another, and comparable to it, is a passage from the Book of Genesis, a book that begins with God’s celebration of all his works as “good” and of creation of the first human as “very good.” But later, surveying the extent of human wickedness, God “regretted having made human beings on Earth and was grieved at heart,” (Genesis 6:6). It was then that God decided to “rid the surface of the Earth of human beings whom I have created,” and everything else. (Genesis 6:7).
Simone Weil, the brilliant French philosopher and social activist, shared God’s regret about the evils in the world and felt them profoundly and personally. Thus she could write, with dazzling insight, “God has emptied himself. This means that both the Creation and the Incarnation are included with the Passion.” “Christ,” she continues, “did not know this truth until he was on the cross.”
Weil surveyed the world she knew in the horrible twentieth century, the most murderous in history, and concluded that God had to be absent for such evil to occur. She continues:
God is absent from the world, except in the existence in this world of those in whom his love is alive. Therefore they ought to be present in the world through compassion. Their compassion is the visible presence of God here below. Through compassion we can put the created, temporal part of a creature in communication with God. It is a marvel analogous to the act of creating itself.
Traditional theology holds that God is omnipresent. But Weil dislikes what she calls the “abstractions” of theology and prefers to focus upon Jesus and his experience of God’s absence from his sufferings. Though she consciously repudiated Judaism, she seems to be echoing here the rabbinic tradition found in the Kabbalah that refers to God’s act of creation as zimzum: God’s “withdrawing” into himself to create an empty place for something else to exist besides himself. Creation becomes more a divine absence than presence.
Weil once wrote in a notebook, “A single piece of bread given to a hungry man is enough to save a soul – if it is given in the right way.” In another place she commented, “Time is God’s waiting as a beggar for our love.”
Simone Weil and her older brother, André, were born in Paris where they excelled in top-level schools. André went on to become a distinguished mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. In her years studying at the École Normale in Paris, Simone encountered Marxism and the plight of the working classes. After teaching for a while, she decided to experience firsthand the life of the factory worker and the farm hand. A pacifist, she traveled to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. By the age of twenty-five, she “outgrew” politics and became drawn to religious belief. André once recalled when his sister received Leon Trotsky, the Marxist dissident, as a guest in her parents’ apartment. After days of being challenged by Simone, he said to her, “I see you disagree with me in almost everything. Why do you put me up in your house? Do you belong to the Salvation Army?”
Simone Weil lived in a period of political impasse and economic hardship much like our own today, but of even greater degree. Europe was going through a great depression, a world war was imminent, extremists of the left and right were gathering their forces, and Jews – even secular ones like Simone – were becoming targets. The lust for power ran rampant across the world stage. Government bureaucracy was eroding the rootedness of individuals and families and weakening the bonds of mutual caring. Religion no longer counted but was deemed a private affair, something done for an hour or so on Sundays.
More and more Simone felt drawn to Jesus, “who did not seek power, who surrendered, who prayed for his enemies, endured the aloneness, the scorn of everyone, even the betrayal of a close friend. He was naked to the end.” Simone in her Spiritual Autobiography states, “I never wondered whether Jesus was or was not the incarnation of God, but in fact I was incapable of thinking of him without thinking of him as God.”
In 1938, Simone spent Holy Week and Easter at the Benedictine Abbey of Solemnes. There she encountered another retreatant, a young Englishman, who shared with her a poem by George Herbert titled, “Love.” In her book, Waiting for God, she wrote,
I learned it by heart. Often as the culmination of a violent headache, I made myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it. Without 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.
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here:”
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “Who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
In a meditation Simone wrote titled, “The Father’s Silence,” she pondered the words of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” She postulates a silent compassion passing from the Father to the Son. It is the same compassion, she says, that should prompt us to come to the aid of the destitute whom we encounter.
Before an afflicted man, this soul immediately responds with the true note. “My Father, why have you forsaken him?” And in the center of the soul the Father’s silence replies.
“Why has it been allowed that he should go hungry?” While one’s thought is occupied by this question, one proceeds automatically to find bread for him.
When the act is performed thus, the afflicted man is dispensed from gratitude because it is Christ who thanks.
This, for me, is an example of the “new saintliness,” of what Weil called the “unprecedented saintliness” required in our times: to know the world’s affliction, contemplate its reality, and then try to change it. The capacity to give your attention, she claims, is rare and difficult; in fact, it is a miracle. Weil defines prayer as “absolutely unmixed attention.”
In 1942, Simone and her family fled Europe for the safety of New York City. But Simone’s solidarity with the poor and afflicted would not allow her to remain on the sidelines of this world conflict. She soon left for England to help in the French resistance. As her contribution to the cause of rebuilding France after the war, she wrote there her political masterpiece, The Need for Roots. She reduced her eating to the rations allowed to her countrymen during the occupation. Her health continued to deteriorate. On August 24, 1943, she died of starvation and tuberculosis.
Lover of the crucified and abandoned Christ and of the afflicted of the world, Simone Weil with her critical mind found that she could not receive baptism herself, though she urged others to do so. She remained all her brief life a pilgrim, a pilgrim of the Absolute.
Further on in her reflection, “The Father’s Silence, Simone speaks about,
God dwelling in food. Lamb. In matter worked by human labor, bread, wine. That ought to be the center of peasant life. By his labor, if he so intends it, the peasant gives a little of his flesh so that it may become the flesh of Christ. He should be a consecrated man. Sanctity is a transmutation like the Eucharist.
Simone Weil wished her life to be a sacrificial offering in union with the Eucharist of Christ.
Lord Jesus Christ, present in the Eucharist, for me and for the many, unworthy though I am, help me to accept your invitation to “take this and eat of it,” so that I may share the love I have received with all the afflicted ones I know. Help me to take to heart these words of Saint Teresa of Ávila,
Christ has no body now, but yours, no hands, no feet on Earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with compassion upon the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world. Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you. All things are passing; only God remains. Patience obtains all things. He who possesses God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.