Political Activist, Philosopher, & Christian Mystic
Simone Weil was born in Paris to wealthy agnostic parents of Jewish ancestry. From childhood she suffered from poor health, eventually succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 34, in part because she refused to eat more than the official French war ration when she was ill. But in her brief life she became a bright light for spirituality and social activism.
Weil was a brilliant student, but she was even more impassioned about issues of social injustice. At the age of 6 she refused to eat sugar in solidarity with suffering troops in World War I. Then at 10 she said she was a Bolshevik and as a teenager was active in workers demonstrations for trade unions, earning the nickname
The Red Virgin. After Weil became a teacher, she continued her activism both in writing and in the streets. At one point she took a year off from teaching to work in factories incognito to help understand the experiences of the working class. Her poor health quickly put an end to this experiment.
Though a pacifist and an anarchist in conviction she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She was known for her clumsiness and was seriously burned in a cooking accident. Weil went to Assisi to recover, and there in 1937 she experienced a religious conversion. She prayed for the first time in her life amid an ecstatic experience in the same church where Saint Francis had prayed. She embraced Roman Catholicism, but stopped short of baptism, for she felt the Catholic Church was in too much need of reformation. Finding God’s will for her life became her new passion, not replacing her earlier social passions, but becoming the larger context for them.
Weil received spiritual direction from a Dominican friar and learned much from the Catholic author Gustave Thibon. She was especially rooted in Neoplatonic thinking in her spiritual writings. Yet her spiritual curiosity took her far. She learned Sanskrit to read the Bhagavad Gita. She studied Mahayana Buddhism and the ancient Greek and Egyptian mystery religions. She believed that each religion, when we are within it, is true. But she was opposed to religious syncretism. She saw a blending of religions as diminishing the particularity of each tradition and the truth of that path to God. Though she learned from other faiths, she plunged deeper into her own Catholicism. For Weil truth was deeply personal and could only be approached through deep introspection. She wrote intensely about spirituality, mysticism, beauty and social struggle. Her writings sought to develop the intellectual consequences of the religious experiences she was having.
When the Nazis occupied France, Simone Weil joined the French Resistance working in England. The toll of the work was more than her frail condition could handle, and she contracted tuberculosis that led to her death in a sanatorium.