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Simone Weil: May I Introduce You?

Several years ago, I picked up a small biography of a woman named Simone Weil. I had little idea about who she was, or why I had heard her name, but she intrigued me, and I read the story of her life that summer. I found it fascinating, but I had never read any of her writing, and was unfamiliar with much of her context. The weight of her words and life did not fully sink into my heart.

This year, school has provided me with the opportunity to study her life and writing in more depth, and I am profoundly glad. She is, for me, a kindred spirit and great hero. 

So without further ado, I would like to introduce you to Simone Weil (pronounced Vay)

Simone Weil was born in 1909, in France. Her father was a medical doctor, her parents were both agnostic, and they came from a Jewish heritage. She had one older brother, Andre, who would go on to be a significant mathematician in the area of algebra and geometry. 

During WWI, her father served as a military doctor for several years, and was separated from the family.  At the age of 6, Simone discovered that soldiers at the front lines did not have access to sugar, and in solidarity, she refused to eat sugar herself. 

At the age of 10, she declared herself a Bolshevik. She was extremely intelligent, and by the time she was 12, she was proficient in ancient Greek. She had a high level of interest in philosophy and religions as a teenager, but her main preoccupation was with the suffering of the lower classes, the impoverished and the destitute.

She nearly committed suicide when she was 14, as she wrestled with profound feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness - feelings that never fully subsided throughout her life. 

She studied mathematics and philosophy alongside top-tier French thinkers of the time, including Simone de Beauvoir. By the time she was a young adult, she was actively involved in trade labour activism. In 1934, she took a year's leave from teaching to work incognito in a factory. 

However, she had always been a person of poor health, and this work took a toll on her. While recovering in Portugal, she had an epiphany: "the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among them."

After this, she returned to teaching and political activism. In 1936, she joined the Spanish Civil War as part of the "anarchist militia." One day she burned herself on a cooking fire and was sent home, approximately two weeks before her entire troupe was killed. 

Recuperating once again, this time in Assisi, Italy, she visited the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where St. Francis of Assis used to pray. While there, "something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees."

She returned once again to teaching. The following year, while reading George Herbert's poem, "Love," she had a mystical experience, in which "without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer.... Christ himself came down and took possession of me."

In 1941, while working in a vineyard, she memorized the "Our Father" (or Lord's Prayer) in Greek. Overcome by it, she developed a habit of praying it every morning with "absolute attention." Prior to this time, she had "never once prayed in all my life, at least not in the literal sense of the word. I had never said any words to God, either out loud or mentally. I had never pronounced a liturgical prayer."

She began to correspond with Fr. Perrin, a French priest who had become a dear friend, and something like a confessor to her. In the spring of 1942, she reluctantly left France (now occupied by Germany) to go to the US with her parents.

Later that year, she returned to Europe, finding herself in England, working with the French Resistance and desiring to be sent into France. During this time she wrote The Need for Roots. In 1943, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, but refused special treatment out of her beliefs regarding solidarity and materialism. In the same vein, she limited her food intake to what she understood to be the food rations available in occupied France. Eventually, she was sent to a sanatorium to recover. However, she died of cardiac failure in August of 1943, at the age of 34.

(deep breath at the end of all that typing)

Turns out I have a lot to say about Simone, and many thoughts from her I'd like to share, so this is turning itself into a series of posts... I haven't done a series in AGES. How exciting.

I hope you'll come along.


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