'We shall send the Viege rouge as far away as possible so that we shall never hear of her again.' Thus spake a professor at the Sorbonne of a fervent Marxist student whom he regarded as a blot on his intellectual landscape. The student, one Simone Weil, graduated as a respected agrégée de philosophie, but her academic career was an inglorious transition from one provincial lycée to another. However, the Viege rouge has never disappeared. The writings of Simone Weil began to arouse a rare degree of interest in the aftermath of World War II, during which she died aged thirty-four. "Waiting for God" in particular has led to the hallowing of the Viege rouge as Sainte Simone. Indeed, Weil is the first to revere her subsequent image as her pragmatic asceticism is translated into the generic language of spiritual literature. Careful readings of "Waiting for God" permit no such simplistic canonisation. This book is equally the story of an impatient intellect wrestling with God in its demand for the legitimization of spiritual feelings by intellect.
"Waiting for God" is a collection of letters and manuscripts, including several that Weil sent to Fr. J. M. Perrin, the Dominican priest who sought to baptise her into the Catholic Church. Weil's correspondence includes a snap-shot of the author at fourteen, already inclined to migraine headaches and bouts of nausea. The adolescent Simone compared her 'mediocrity' with the 'exceptional gifts' of her older brother. She 'did not mind having no visible successes', but would have 'preferred to die' rather than be excluded from 'that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides'. It is, perhaps, a predicable response from a sensitive adolescent of precocious intelligence, an emotional labyrinth to be transversed en route to college. But for Simone Weil this period marked the beginning of her commitment to the absolute integrity that would attract her to the celibacy of St Paul, the poverty of St Francis of Assisi, and her desire for what she understood as the Christian condition of a 'vagabond and a beggar'.
The verbal images of Weil's life map the route to one of the central concepts of her metaphysical philosophy: affliction. We see Weil at work as a factory hand at the Renault motor plant in Paris, and share in her trade union activism. We listen as she did to 'hymns of a heart-rending sadness in a Portuguese fishing-village and witness the experience of this frail academic woman in the Spanish Civil War. Weil's philosophical knowledge and harsh experience are fused into her understanding of affliction as that compound of 'physical pain, distress of soul and social degradation' experienced by Job, indeed by Jesus Christ.
God, incarnate in Jesus, yearns for companionship as he prepares for his Passion: 'With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you'. 'I thirst,' he cries from the cross. It is this sense of reciprocity between Creator and creature that led to Weil's confession to Fr. Perrin that, 'every time I think of the crucifixion of Christ I commit the sin of envy'. Despite the concordance of this statement with the one-time practice of maceration among cloistered religious, hermits, and anchorites, members of Weil's philosophical circle were appalled.
Weil was to leave France in 1942, travelling to America after being guaranteed service with the French provisional government in England. We catch a brief final glimpse of the pragmatism of the Vierge rouge in her awareness of her probable fate as a Jew in Hitler's Europe. However, Sainte Simone is the dominant voice throughout "Waiting for God". A matter of days before leaving her country, Weil would write to Fr. Perrin that she was going with the sense that her 'every sin . . . must be a mortal sin'. Sin, like suffering, is a preoccupation of the mystic. Indeed, for the soul in love with God, sin is a form of suffering. However, there is an essential distinction between consent to affliction and a self-willed desire to suffer. It is a distinction that persistently eludes Weil despite the force with which she wrestles with God. Her reciprocation of divine love is self-limited by her 'extremely severe standard for intellectual honesty,' from which everyone seems 'to fall short . . . in more than one respect'. The crux of the matter is her failure to recognise the existence of religious truths beyond her own intellectual power, truths beyond what can be explicated in the generic languages of the academic treatise or the self-scrutinizing texts of a religious culture still to realise that it must embrace all manner of outsiders who travel all sorts of journeys.
Weil's journey ended the year after she left France. She was largely responsible for the ruination of her already weakened health, imposing privations on herself so that her lot should be no better than that of her compatriots. In April of 1943, her friend Simone Dietz found her in a state of unconsciousness and arranged for her admittance to the Middlesex Hospital. Advancing tuberculosis coupled with her refusal to eat adequately led to her being transferred to a sanatorium south of London, where she died on 24 August, breathing life into the cult of Sainte Simone.
At the end of "Waiting for God", some readers will feel they have been granted a glimpse into the soul of Sainte Simone. Others will put the book down knowing that Simone Weil's relationship with God remains her soul's secret, hidden from the conscious mind and far removed from the intellectual act of writing even a text as profound as "Waiting for God".