Toward a Weilian Philosophy of Vocation

John Marson Dunaway
Weil News

A Paper for the Annual Colloquy of the American Weil Society, San Diego, CA, April 30, 2005

Working as I have for the past nearly four years in Mercer’s Center for Faith, Learning and Vocation, much of my research has been redirected toward the notion of calling as a basis for higher education.

Many of the seven dozen or so schools engaged in the Lilly Foundation’s Project for the Theological Exploration of Vocation have adopted Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” For the French, traditionally since Pascal and right on up through Proust, Sartre, and Camus, the writer’s craft has often been considered a vocation, a role in which one carries the responsibility for being a kind of conscience of a nation. Simone Weil fits admirably well into that traditional mold, and her deep gladness most certainly lay in meeting the world’s deep need. Hence the central importance in her work of rootedness as a way of meeting our obligation to provide the needs of the human soul.

It is perhaps a fair assumption that most readers approach Simone Weil through the doorway of the posthumous collection of her letters and essays published by Father Jean-Marie Perrin, the book now known as Waiting for God. The very first letter in the book contains in the space of about six pages no less than four specific mentions of the word “vocation.” And there is, of course, Letter #5, which explicitly addresses the question of her intellectual vocation. So it’s rather obvious to her readers at the very outset that Simone Weil was a person who was profoundly aware of a singular call on her life. The easy temptation would be to fall exclusively into hagiography, focusing too narrowly on how unreservedly she gave herself to answering that call in her life commitments, as legitimate a facet of Weil studies as that is. But she herself must have anticipated such a temptation when she expressed the fervent hope that people would not pay so much attention to her life as to the “deposit of pure gold” with which her intellect had been entrusted.

From all accounts, Weil was not an easy person to live with. And she is a decidedly difficult writer, in that she demands so much of her readers. One of the principle reasons for this rigid, inflexible, demanding character in both her writings and her interpersonal relationships is that she was so intolerant–toward herself as well as others–of any discrepancy between one’s beliefs and one’s way of life. Above all else she hated compromise, and her devotion to truth and obedience were significant contributing elements of her philosophy of vocation.

From Casablanca in 1942 she wrote to Father Jean-Marie Perrin: “My vocation imposes upon me the necessity of remaining outside the Church, without so much as engaging myself in any way, even implicitly, to her or to the dogmas of Christianity, in any case for as long as I am not quite incapable of intellectual work. And that is in order that I may serve God and the Christian faith in the realm of the intelligence.” (WG 40) There is an unusual clarity of vision that shines through these letters. This, of course, was well after the watershed moment when “Christ himself came down and took her” in the autumn of 1938 while she was reciting George Herbert’s poem “Love.” But I think we may trace an unusual clarity of calling growing in Simone Weil, even from quite early in her youth.

The immediately following passage from the letter to Father Perrin would apply almost equally well to the sense of calling evident even in her Marxist student days: “The degree of intellectual honesty that is obligatory for me, by reason of my particular vocation, demands that my thought should be indifferent to all ideas without exception, including for instance materialism and atheism; it must be equally welcoming and equally reserved with regard to every one of them.” (WG 40) Now one could easily question how well Weil lived out that intellectual honesty in regard to her own Jewish heritage or the legitimate contributions of the Roman Empire to world civilization. There she was certainly guilty of a certain prejudice or closed-mindedness. Yet even as she studied with Alain, she was already dedicated to achieving the kind of intellectual honesty that would be required for becoming the exemplary witness to the truth that she remains for us today. Alain’s Cartesian skepticism as a fundamental method of philosophical inquiry provided a check on Weil’s youthful impulsiveness and led her to discipline her thinking with much the same kind of rigid stoicism that characterized her physical regimen. Hence her strong emphasis on the purifying effect of atheism on the soul of the searcher for truth.

Here, as in all areas of life, Simone Weil adhered to obedience as the supreme virtue. “The carrying out of a vocation,” she writes to Father Perrin, “differed from the actions dictated by reason or inclination. … The most beautiful life possible has always seemed to me to be one where everything is determined, either by the pressure of circumstances or by impulses such as I have just mentioned, and where there is never any room for choice.” (WG 23) No room for choice, actions being pre-determined. One gets here the impression of the beauty of the inevitability of suffering that shines through Greek tragedy, the heroic serenity of martyrdom. No wonder she envied the cross of Christ.

She explained her painful decision to leave occupied France in these terms. “It seems as though the decision to stay would be an act of personal will on my part. And my greatest desire is to lose not only all will but all personal being. It seems to me as though something were telling me to go. As I am perfectly sure that this is not just emotion, I am abandoning myself to it.” (WG 17) Her radical need to obey makes it easier for us to understand why she began to feel such torment and despair in 1943 when it became increasingly clear that she would never get back to her homeland to take part in the resistance effort. Francine du Plessix Gray writes that Weil “felt misunderstood and totally rejected, and had great doubts as to whether her writings were being heeded by anyone in London.” She wrote to Maurice Schumann that her work for the Free French movement would most certainly be ended soon not only by her physical fatigue, but also by “a moral limit … the ever-increasing sorrow caused by the sense that I’m not in the right place.” (Gray 203) Her writings were not being widely circulated, and now her attempts to obtain a sacrificial mission in the resistance were falling on deaf ears. Her need for heroic action was being utterly frustrated.

Weil’s strong emphasis upon obedience provides a healthy counterweight to the tendency among some contemporary writers on vocation, who might lead us to understand it as an issue only for the privileged elite. After all, most people in the world even today quite clearly do not enjoy the luxury of contemplating which career path might fulfill their deep gladness. Instead, they desperately hope for whatever menial job that might come available as a means to put bread on the table. And later in this paper we shall look at how her unique vision of the mystique of labor seeks to suffuse all levels of work–from manual labor to corporate management–with meaning and fulfillment.

As in all good vocation literature, Weil talks about two different kinds of callings. If her specific purpose in life was to serve God with pure honesty in the intellect, such a goal was seen in the larger context of a general or universal call to perfection. What is unique in her description of this general vocation is that she takes great pains to divorce it from the concept of belonging to the mystical Body of Christ, the importance of which is in her eyes “one of the most serious signs of our degeneration. For our true dignity is not to be parts of a body, even though it be a mystical one, even though it be that of Christ. It consists in this, that in the state of perfection, which is the vocation of each one of us, we no longer live in ourselves, but Christ lives in us; so that through our perfection Christ, in his integrity and in his indivisible unity, becomes in a sense each one of us, as he is completely in each host. The hosts are not a part of his body.” (WG 36)

This state of perfection to which we all are to aspire would result in “une nouvelle sainteté,” a phrase that, while she did not borrow it from Maritain, she acknowledged him as having called for before her. Like the older Thomist philosopher for whom she had little sympathy, Weil saw that the moral complexities of the twentieth century called for a new kind of saintliness. And even though she used the word “exiger” (or “demand”), it was clearly a calling, a vocation. Maritain’s originality had been to show that the call to saintliness was not limited to specially favored heroic exceptionality; it was a universal call, somewhat in the sense of the priesthood of all believers. But for Simone Weil, the new saintliness was not just on a different scale, but also of a different order. It was to involve a miraculous dose of genius
A new type of sanctity is indeed a fresh spring, an invention. … It is almost equivalent to a new revelation of the universe and of human destiny. It is the exposure of a large portion of truth and beauty hitherto concealed under a thick layer of dust. More genius is needed than was needed by Archimedes to invent mechanics and physics. A new saintliness is a still more marvelous invention. … The world needs saints who have genius, just as a plague-stricken town needs doctors. (WG 51)

One is reminded here of Weil’s insistence that all true artistic genius necessarily entails sainthood. Wherever there is celestial beauty she believed it was produced in saintliness. At first blush one might wonder how the necessity of genius for this new saintliness can square with the notion of its universality. Not all of us are called to be geniuses, one might object. However, we must also recall her conviction that genius is a realm where absolutely any one may have access simply by dint of genuine desire. So in that sense, we might say that Weil’s philosophy of vocation is universally applicable.

In many ways, The Need for Roots can be said to represent the most mature thinking of Simone Weil’s short life, having been written, as it was, in the final days in England that led up to her singularly stoic death in Ashford, Kent. It is there, at the conclusion of that book, that she gives her mystique of labor one of its most articulate forms. “Physical labour willingly consented to is, after death willingly consented to, the most perfect form of obedience,” she writes. (NFR 281) She assails the interpretations of Genesis 2 in which labor is seen as a curse, a punishment for Adam’s sin, insisting that the passage implies no disdain for work. Instead, she says “the belief in direct instruction in the various trades by God implies the memory of a time when the exercise of these trades was above all a sacred activity.” (283)

“Labor,” she writes at the conclusion of The Need for Roots, (and she had physical labor particularly in mind) “should be the spiritual core of a well-ordered society.” And in her meditation upon Christianity and agricultural life she elaborated some details of how she envisioned such a society. “Manual labor is either a degrading servitude for the soul or a sacrifice. In the case of working in the fields, the link with the Eucharist, if only it is felt, is sufficient to make of it a sacrifice (PSO 51).” She recalls the innumerable comparisons in Jesus’ teachings between the life of the spirit and the daily life of the planter. The comparisons are extended to all professions and trades in her philosophy, but particularly to manual labor. The manual laborer, whether on a farm or in a factory, burns or consumes his or her flesh and transforms it into energy as a machine burns fuel, thus giving one’s body and blood to be transformed into the fruits of one’s labor (crops, livestock, manufactured goods).

In each trade, Weil identifies the relation to the Gospel in this rich biblical anagoge of work. “What is needed is … to find and define for each aspect of social life its specific link with Christ. … Thus, as religious life is distributed in orders corresponding to vocations, so in like manner would social life appear as an edifice of distinct vocations converging in Christ. … It is a question of transforming, in the largest possible measure, daily life itself into a metaphor with a divine significance, a parable (PSO 23, 34).” Those of us who are teachers should remember that Jesus was the master teacher and read the Gospels from that perspective as a guide. Doctors can model their careers after the Great Physician. Builders can see him as the carpenter’s apprentice. Others can look for the many lessons in the Gospels concerning business, finance, the military, and so on. “Christianity should contain all vocations without exception since it is catholic.” (WG 31)

Simone Weil’s vision of a just society, then, was fundamentally structured upon this mystique of work, of labor, and of vocation. A significant influence in this regard was Alain, who had an unusually strong belief in the spiritual power of labor. Near the end of her life, she was seeking the most effective ways of causing the inner core of the Gospel to suffuse her world. Again in “Christianity and Agricultural Life,” she writes: “In a general manner, Christianity will only impregnate society if each social category has its specific, unique, inimitable link with the Christ.” (PSO 31) Her own unique individual calling, she believed, was to intellectual life, to a perfect, unswerving devotion to truth. Yet her witness entailed brutal manual labor in factories, in the fields, and in non-combatant military service. Given her delicate health and physical weakness, these forays into manual labor could only hasten the coming of her premature demise. “Physical labour is a daily death,” she wrote in The Need for Roots (286), and how prophetic that comment became! And her famous prayer of self- immolation (recorded in La Connaissance surnaturelle, 204-205) was even more excruciatingly and ironically prophetic when it painted the vision of utter decreation which she resembled at the hour of her passing: “that I may be a paralytic, blind, deaf, a senile idiot.” This woman whose ultimate calling was to the intellectual life prayed to be bereft of her intellect. It was the closest she could come to experiencing the cross of Jesus, for which she so often expressed a deep envy.

The deepest significance of Simone Weil’s philosophy of vocation, ultimately, shines forth in the organic unity of her thought and her life. In one who prized obedience above all and for whom there could be no more dreadful failing than not to live according to one’s convictions, this should hardly be a surprising discovery. “The universe, compact mass of obedience with luminous points. Everything is beautiful,” she writes in La Connaissance surnaturelle. (35) From this understanding of the world in terms of amor fati, which characterized her life and thought up to the moment of her encounter with Christ, she moved in her last four years ever more deeply into the way of mediation, of logos, of work as sacrament.

“That which in man is the very image of God is something that in us is attached to the fact of being a person but is not the person. It is the faculty of renunciation of personhood. It is obedience.” (CS 37) She goes on to explain that in human relationships, the obedience of a slave does not make him resemble his master. Rather, it makes him all the more unlike the one who commands him. Yet in one’s relationship with God, the more perfectly obedient one becomes, the more one resembles the Almighty, like a son resembles a father or an image resembles a model. “This knowledge,” she affirms, “is supernatural (Cette connaissance est surnaturelle).” (CS 37) Weil must have been particularly attached to the great Kenosis passage in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, as well as verses such as Hebrews 5:8, in which Jesus, even though he was the Son of God, is said to have “learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” So for us, to expend our energy in labor with a view toward transforming our efforts into the fruit of the vine and the staff of life, the blood and body of Jesus, is the model of obedience in this sacramental understanding, not just of manual labor in the fields, but of all human work, thanks to the insights of supernatural knowledge. It also subsumes affliction along with work in this all-encompassing theological vision of calling. “Supreme mediation, harmony between the why of Christ (repeated ceaselessly by all souls in affliction) and the silence of the Father. The universe (including us) is the vibration of that harmony.” (CS 36)

In her “Letter to Joë Bousquet,” which was written in May of 1942 in London and was first published in Pensées sans ordre concernant l’amour de Dieu, Simone Weil explores the mystery of affliction in particularly luminous terms. For her, Bousquet was not just an unusually dear friend, he was also an extraordinarily powerful example of living redemptively with affliction. In her letter she writes that because of his paralysis, produced by wounds inflicted in war, he has the privilege of being very close to a breakthrough in supernatural knowledge. This breakthrough she describes in parabolic language with the myth of the chick hatching from inside its egg.

“The egg is the visible world,” she writes. “The chick is Love, the Love which is God Himself and lives deep inside all men, first as invisible germ. When the shell is pierced, when the being is outside, it still has this same world as its object, but it is no longer inside. Space has been torn open. The spirit, leaving the miserable body abandoned in a corner, is transported to a point outside space, which is not a point of view, from which there is no perspective, from which this visible world is seen in its reality, without perspective. Space has become–in relation to what it was in the egg–an infinity to the second or rather third power. The instant is immobile. All of space is filled–even if there are sounds being heard–by a dense silence, which is not an absence of sound, which is a positive object of sensation, more positive than a sound, which is the secret word, the word of Love that since the beginning has held us in his arms.” (Pensées 74-75)

Later in this same letter, Weil notes that it is only through affliction–or sometimes through beauty–that one is enabled to pierce through the egg into this kind of perspectiveless outer space where one sees the visible world in a way somewhat analogous to that in which an astronaut views it from the spacecraft. The suffering of affliction makes one cry out “Why?” just as the Christ did from the cross. Beauty can also elicit a “Why?” … “Why is this beautiful?”

“But rare are those who are capable of pronouncing within themselves this why for several straight hours. The why of affliction lasts for hours, days, years; it only ceases with exhaustion. He who is capable not only of crying out but also of listening hears the response. That response is silence. It is the eternal silence for which Vigny bitterly reproached God. But he did not have the right to say what is the response of the just to that silence, for he was not one of the just. The just love. He who is capable not only of listening but also of loving hears this silence as the word of God.” (Pensées 128-129) The Romantic poet Alfred de Vigny–who fancied himself isolated by tragic exceptionality like Moses on Mount Pisgah and denied entrance into the Land of Promise–was indeed not one of the just. To Vigny, God’s silence was evidence of his absence, an absence which the poet was simply obliged to bear stoically in his own particular incarnation of the Romantic hero. The refrain of Vigny’s poem about Moses’s conversation with God on Mt. Pisgah reads: “Laissez-moi m’endormir du sommeil de la terre (Let me sleep the sleep of the earth).” God’s silence leads for Vigny to death–-and not the death of the Hebrew leader who will rest in the bosom of Abraham, but only the extinction of rotting in the cold, hard earth.

For Simone Weil, the call of God was at least in some measure a silent call. But that silence spoke a rich world of wisdom. Obedience required the patience of living over an extended period of time with the why of affliction, as well as listening to the silence of God’s response. So her philosophy of vocation leads us ultimately to the sound of silence, and that silence requires supernatural knowledge for those who would hear it with understanding. “Necessity here below is the vibration of the silence of God.” (Pensées 129)

John Marson Dunaway is a Professor of French & Interdisciplinary Studies at Mercer University. His latest book is a collection of essays he edited entitled Gladly Learn, Gladly Teach — Living Out One’s Calling in the Twenty-First Century Academy
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