I’m taking a wonderful seminar this semester about Women in Christian Leadership and we are to explore someone who has had an impact on our own thinking in and about Christian leadership. I decided it was time I set Sallie McFague, my forever scholastic soul-sister, aside and have a new squeeze for a bit. I thought I might further investigate one of the two women who in the recent year or so have always given me cause to make an exclamation point in the margin wherever they have come up in the theological conversation on the sometimes dense and very often hard to parse theological pages with which I spend my time.
Dorothy Day and Simone Weil have come up again and again in my reading and in my mind, as they were exemplars of social justice and of Servant Leaders as women. I’m leaning more toward Weil simply because there is less information immediately available on her, and because she was more a philosopher than was Day, which to me makes her a bit more intriguing.
She was obstinate as well. She refused many things on the the grounds that not everyone could have them and so she would refuse them as well. When she was for all intents and purposes a Catholic she refused baptism (to me, not a big deal – to a Catholic, a huge deal) because there were those who were unable to receive their sacraments, and she was questioning the authority of them as well as the classicism amongst the “haves” and the “have nots” of the recipients who received such sacraments. I like her gall. The more I read written by and about her, I find I have to close my moth, for it falls agape in nothing short of wonder. Consider, for example, what the writer Gustave Thibon, who took manuscripts of Weil’s following her death and wove them into the masterpiece Gravity and Grace said of her:
She was passionate even about her disdain for passions, she sought for a sign even in her refusal of all signs. This being, who wanted to be flexible to all the movements of divine will, would not allow the course of events or the benevolence of her friends to move by one inch the limits of her self-imposed immolation. Detached to the core from her tastes and needs, she was not detached from her own detachment. And the way she would guard her own emptiness revealed a tremendous self-concern. In the great book of the universe she put before her eyes, her self was a word that she perhaps succeeded in erasing*, but it remained underlined.
Anyone of whom that was said, I think, is someone worth spending a good deal of time with.
I have read that statement no less than twenty times and I am still struck by it to the point that I am almost moved to tears with every reading. Perhaps it’s because I have a soft spot for stubborn women who seem to encapsulate an oxymoron due to their devotion only to the Divine; one could say that the only will I have ever been able to soften my own to is God’s so Weil and I share a great deal in small strokes and in our character traits, autobiographically.
Very often when I look into the lives of someone at depth I become underwhelmed, be they a real, living person, or a theologian, a politician, or an author. That has not been my experience with Weil. She wrestled with her failures and wore them openly and it seems that she had as difficult a time grasping many things about her sitz in lieben and the way they affected her writing as I am having. She was remarkable, and the only question is whether my remarks will do her justice.
*In her solidarity with the poor (Weil left a teaching position in France at one of the Universities, where she had ascertained a post teaching philosophy in order to work in the factories) Weil towards the end of her very brief life began to refuse food, wanting no more than those around her. Knowing this context, this last statement perhaps makes more sense. There is debate on whether Weil committed suicide or died, which to me is odd – I never heard any such debate on the death of Lottie Moon, but she died the same way and for the same reasons. I am uncertain if the reason is that Moon was a protestant and we do not think suicide an unforgivable sin (though certainly we do not encourage it, either) but still, we do not have contemporary martyrs, so I still think the parallel here is so striking that for there to be a “scandal” in one case and not in another is beyond absurd.