Waiting for God
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Waiting for God

Simone Weil

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eBook - ePub

Waiting for God

Simone Weil

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'You cannot get far in these essays without sensing yourself in the presence of a writer of immense intellectual power and fierce independence of mind.' - Janet Soskice, from the Introduction to the Routledge Classics edition

Simone Weil (1909–1943) is one of the most brilliant and unorthodox religious and philosophical thinkers of the twentieth century. She was also a political activist who worked in the Renault car factory in France in the 1930s and fought briefly as an anarchist in the Spanish Civil War. Hailed by Albert Camus as 'the only great spirit of our times, ' her work spans an astonishing variety of subjects, from ancient Greek philosophy and Christianity to oppression, political freedom and French national identity.

Waiting for God is one of her most remarkable books, full of piercing spiritual and moral insight. The first part comprises letters she wrote in 1942 to Jean-Marie Perrin, a Dominican priest, and demonstrate the intense inner conflict Weil experienced as she wrestled with the demands of Christian belief and commitment. She then explores the 'just balance' of the world, arguing that we should regard God as providing two forms of guidance: our ability as human beings to think for ourselves; and our need for both physical and emotional 'matter.' She also argues for the concept of a 'sacred longing'; that humanity's search for beauty, both in the world and within each other, is driven by our underlying desire for a tangible god.

Eloquent and inspiring, Waiting for God asks profound questions about the nature of faith, doubt and morality that continue to resonate today.

This Routledge Classics edition includes a new Introduction by Janet Soskice and retains the Foreword to the 1979 edition by Malcolm Muggeridge.

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Letter 1

Hesitations Concerning Baptism

19th January 1942
My Dear Father,
I have made up my mind to write to you
to bring our conversations about my case to a conclusion—that is to say pending further developments. I am tired of talking to you about myself, for it is a wretched subject, but I am obliged to do so by the interest you take in me as a result of your charity.
I have been wondering lately about the will of God, what it means and how we can reach the point of conforming ourselves to it completely—I will tell you what I think about this.
We have to distinguish between three domains. First that which is absolutely independent of us; it includes all the accomplished facts in the whole universe at the moment, and everything which is happening or going to happen later beyond our reach. In this domain everything which comes about is in accordance with the will of God, without any exception. Here then we must love absolutely everything, as a whole and in each detail, including evil in all its forms; notably our own past sins, in so far as they are past (for we must hate them in so far as their root is still present), our own sufferings, past, present and to come, and—what is by far the most difïŹcult—the sufferings of other men in so far as we are not called upon to relieve them. In other words, we must feel the reality and presence of God through all external things, without exception, as clearly as our hand feels the substance of paper through the pen-holder and the nib.
The second domain is that which is placed under the rule of the will. It includes the things that are purely natural, close, easily recognised by the intelligence and the imagination, and among which we can make our choice, arranging them from outside so as to provide means to ïŹxed and ïŹnite ends. In this domain we have to carry out, without faltering or delay, everything which appears clearly to be a duty. When any duty does not appear clearly, we have sometimes to observe rules which are more or less arbitrarily established, but ïŹxed; and sometimes to follow our inclination, but in a limited degree; for one of the most dangerous forms of sin, or perhaps the most dangerous, consists of introducing what is unlimited into a domain which is essentially ïŹnite.
The third domain is that of the things, which, without being under the empire of the will, without being related to natural duties, are yet not entirely independent of us. In this domain we experience the compulsion of God’s pressure, on condition that we deserve to experience it and exactly to the extent that we deserve to do so. God rewards the soul which thinks of him with attention and love, and he rewards it by exercising a compulsion upon it which is strictly and mathematically in proportion to this attention and this love. We have to abandon ourselves to the pressure, to run to the exact spot whither it impels us and not go one step further, even in the direction of what is good. At the same time we must go on thinking about God with ever increasing love and attentiveness, in this way gaining the favour of being impelled ever further and becoming the object of a pressure which possesses itself of an ever growing proportion of the whole soul. When the pressure has taken possession of the whole soul, we have attained the state of perfection. But whatever stage we may have reached, we must do nothing more than we are irresistibly impelled to do, not even in the way of goodness.
I have also been thinking about the nature of the sacraments, and I will tell you what I think about this subject as well.
The sacraments have a speciïŹc value which constitutes a mystery, in so far as they involve a certain kind of contact with God, a contact which is mysterious but real. At the same time they have a purely human value, in so far as they are symbols or ceremonies. Under this second aspect they do not differ essentially from the songs, gestures and words of command of certain political parties; at least in themselves they are not essentially different; of course they are inïŹnitely different by the doctrine which underlies them. I think that most believers, including some who are really persuaded of the opposite, approach the sacraments only as symbols and ceremonies. Foolish as the theory of Durkheim may be in confusing what is religious with what is social, it yet contains an element of truth; that is to say that the social feeling is so much like the religious as to be mistaken for it. It is like it just as a false diamond is like a real one, so that those who have no spiritual discernment are effectively taken in. For the matter of that, a social and human participation in the symbols and ceremonies of the sacraments is an excellent and healthy thing, in that it marks a stage of the journey, for those who travel that way. Yet this is not a participation in the sacraments as such. I think that only those who are above a certain level of spirituality can participate in the sacraments as such. For as long as those who are below this level have not reached it, whatever they may do, they cannot be strictly said to belong to the Church. As far as I am concerned, I think I am below this level. That is why I said to you the other day that I consider myself to be unworthy of the sacraments. This idea does not come, as you imagined, from scrupulosity. It is due, on the one hand to a consciousness of very deïŹnite faults in the order of action and human relations, serious and even shameful faults as you would certainly agree, and moreover fairly frequent. On the other hand, and still more strongly, it is founded on a general sense of inadequacy. I am not saying this out of humility, for if I possessed the virtue of humility, the most beautiful of all the virtues perhaps, I should not be in this miserable state of inadequacy.
To ïŹnish with what has to do with me, I say this. The kind of inhibition which keeps me outside the Church is due either to my state of imperfection, or to the fact that my vocation and God’s will are opposed to it. In the ïŹrst case, I cannot get rid of my inhibition by direct means but only indirectly, by becoming less imperfect, if I am helped by grace. To bring this about it is only necessary, on the one hand to avoid faults in the domain of natural things, and on the other to put ever more attention and love into my thought of God. If it is God’s will that I should enter the Church, he will impose this will upon me at the exact moment when I shall have come to deserve that he should so impose it.
In the second case, if it is not his will that I should enter the Church, how could I enter it? I know quite well what you have often repeated to me, that is to say that baptism is the common way of salvation—at least in Christian countries—and that there is absolutely no reason why I should have an exceptional one of my own. That is obvious. And yet supposing that in fact it should not be given me to take that step, what could I do? If it were conceivable that in obeying God one should bring about one’s own damnation whilst in disobeying him one could be saved, I should still choose the way of obedience.
It seems to me that the will of God is that I should not enter the Church at present. The reason for this I have told you already and it is still true. It is because the inhibition which holds me back is no less strongly to be felt in the moments of attention, love and prayer than at other times. And yet I was ïŹlled with a very great joy when you said the thoughts which I conïŹded to you were not incompatible with membership of the Church, and that, in consequence, I was not outside it in spirit.
I cannot help still wondering whether in these days when so large a proportion of humanity is sunk in materialism, God does not want there to be some men and women who have given themselves to him and to Christ and who yet remain outside the Church.
In any case, when I think of the act by which I should enter the Church as something concrete which might happen quite soon, nothing gives me more pain than the idea of separating myself from the immense and unfortunate multitude of un-believers. I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far that is to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. It is because I long to know them, so as to love them just as they are. For if I do not love them as they are, it will not be they whom I love, and my love will be unreal. I do not speak of helping them, because as far as that goes I am unfortunately quite incapable of doing anything as yet. I do not think that in any case I should ever enter a religious order, because that would separate me from ordinary people by a habit. There are some human beings for whom such a separation has no serious disadvantages, because they are already separated from ordinary folk by their natural purity of soul. As for me, on the contrary, as I think I told you, I have the germ of all possible crimes, or nearly all, within me. I became aware of this in the course of a journey, in circumstances which I have described to you. The crimes horriïŹed me, but they did not surprise me; I felt the possibility of them within myself; it was actually because I felt this possibility in myself that they ïŹlled me with such horror. This natural disposition is dangerous and very painful, but, like every variety of natural disposition, it can be put to good purpose if one knows how to make the right use of it with the help of grace. It is the sign of a vocation, the vocation to remain in a sense anonymous, ever ready to be mixed into the paste of common humanity. Now at the present time, the state of men’s minds is such that there is a more clearly marked barrier, a wider gulf between a practising Catholic and an unbeliever than between a religious and a layman.
I know quite well that Christ said ‘Whoever shall deny (i.e., disown) me before men, him will I also deny before my Father who is in Heaven.’1 But disowning Christ does not perhaps mean for everyone and in all cases not belonging to the Church. For some it may only mean not carrying out Christ’s precepts, not shedding abroad his spirit, not honouring his name when occasion arises, not being ready to die out of loyalty to him.
I owe you the truth, at the risk of shocking you, and it gives me the greatest pain to shock you. I love God, Christ and the Catholic faith as much as it is possible for so miserably inadequate a creature to love them. I love the Saints through their writings, and what is told of their lives—apart from some whom it is impossible for me to love fully or to consider as saints. I love the six or seven Catholics of genuine spirituality whom chance has led me to meet in the course of my life. I love the Catholic liturgy, hymns, architecture, rites and ceremonies. But I have not the slightest love for the Church in the strict sense of the word, apart from its relation to all these things that I do love. I am capable of sympathising with those who have this love, but I do not feel it. I am well aware that all the Saints felt it. But then they were nearly all born and brought up in the Church. Anyhow, one cannot make oneself love. All that I can say is that if such a love constitutes a condition of spiritual progress, which I am unaware of, or if it is part of my vocation, I desire that it may one day be granted to me.
It may well be that some of the thoughts I have just conïŹded to you are illusory and defective. In a sense this matters little to me; I do not want to go on examining any more, for at the end of all these reïŹ‚ections I have reached a conclusion which is the pure and simple resolution to stop thinking about the question of my eventual entry into the Church.
It is very possible that after having passed weeks, months or years without thinking about it all, one day I shall suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to ask immediately for baptism and I shall run to ask for it. For the action of grace in our hearts is secret and silent. It may also be that my life will come to an end before I have ever felt this impulse. But one thing is absolutely certain. It is that if one day it comes about that I love God enough to deserve the grace of baptism, I shall receive this grace on that very day, infallibly, in the form which God wills, either by means of baptism in the strict sense of the word or in some other manner. In that case why should I have any anxiety? It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me.
This is a very long letter. Once again I shall have taken up much more of your time than I ought. I beg you to forgive me. My excuse is that by writing this I have reached a conclusion, for the time being at any rate.
Do believe how truly grateful I am.


  1. 1 St. Matt. x, 33. Simone Weil evidently used a Greek edition of the...