Friday, February 15, 2013

Saint and/or bloody nuisance


Simone Weil is dead of tuberculosis - a disease helped on its way by her refusal to eat properly (as she wanted to keep to the rationed diet that she believed her French compatriots suffered in occupied France).

Her exemplary biographer, David McLellan, eloquently disposes of the charge that this pattern of restricted diet betokened anorexia rather it was a penitential sharing of affliction.

There is something rather beautiful in this austere pattern and something rather perverse (after all the French population, in actual fact, were engaged in a very pragmatic set of strategies to avert living on the official ration)!

This paradox runs throughout her life. She is one of the most compelling writers about the need to 'decreate' the self: to stand empty, selfless so that one might be God's vessel and do God's will. Yet she clung to the belief that it was only her scheme (for front line nurses), for which she was wholly unsuitable, that represented a viable way for her to serve the war effort. A clinging that she kept to, alienating many well-disposed people on the way. She would not allow others, more experienced, to judge how she might best serve.

You might describe this as the egotism of sainthood - that you can only achieve the renunciation of something that you have in spades! She had an utter self confidence in her own sense of being true to herself coupled with a deep need to align that sense with one of being surrendered to God.

I greet this with both wanting to bow in awe and scold her and take her off for a big meal and tell her that, surprisingly, we might find our place by not imagining that it is anything other than quite humble, a bit compromised and messy around the edges!

Yet too what an imaginative thinker, and prescient. Her only full length book, published posthumously, was 'The Need for Roots'. It was offered as a blueprint for the reconstruction of France after the war's end. A blueprint that we can safely say was wholly ignored yet remains utterly worth reading  for its emphasis on the importance of scale and decentralisation, for work that is meaningful as well as remunerated, for the need to balance freedom of expression with truth telling; and, more controversially, a critique of the emphasis on 'rights' over the importance of the obligations we bear towards one another. It is a document that, at once, manages to be conservative and radical - one that I tend to think is the 'right' political space and yet one which is, in practice, inhabited by no one. The 'right' have sold their souls to capitalism or xenophobia or both and the 'left' have no genuine comprehension of community and have sold their souls to capitalism too (either the market, state or hybrid version)!

Meanwhile, there is one phrase of Weil's that always resonates through my mind that 'complete, unmixed attention is prayer' - that whenever you are able to see another without preconception or prejudice, when they simply are, and they enter you, as they are, this is what prayer is - there is the possibility of grace. For her writing on this, and her capacity to practice it, testified to over and again, she is wholly admirable and a gift: a saint.


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