simone weil – necessity and obedience

simone weil gravity and graceThe sun shines on the just and on the unjust… God  makes himself necessity. There are two aspects of necessity: it is exercised, it is endured: the sun and the cross.

We have to consent to be subject to necessity and to act only by handling it.

Subordination: economy of energy. Thanks to this, an act of heroism can be performed without there being any need for the person who commands or the one who obeys to be a hero.

We have to attain to receiving orders from God.

In which cases does the struggle against temptation exhaust the energy attached to goodness and in which cases does it make it rise higher in the scale of qualities of energy?

This must depend on the respective importance of the parts played by the will and the attention.

We have to deserve, by the strength of our love, to suffer constraint.

Obedience is the supreme virtue. We have to love necessity. Necessity is what is lowest in relation to the individual (constraint, force, a ‘hard fate’); universal necessity brings deliverance from this.

There are cases where a thing is necessary from the mere fact that it is possible. Thus to eat when we are hungry, to give a wounded man, dying of thirst, something to drink when there is water quite near. Neither a ruffian nor a saint would refrain from doing so.

By analogy, we have to discern the cases in which, although it does not appear so clearly at first sight, the possibility implies a necessity, we must act in these cases and not in the others.

The pomegranate seed. We do not pledge ourselves to love God, we give our consent to the engagement which has been formed within us in spite of ourselves.

We should do only those righteous actions which we cannot stop ourselves from doing, which we are unable not to do, but, through well directed attention, we should always keep on increasing the number of those which we are unable not to do.

We  should  not  take  one  step, even in the direction of what is good, beyond  that  to  which  we are  irresistibly  impelled  by  God, and this applies to action, word and thought. But we should be willing  to  go  anywhere  under  his  impulsion,  even  to  the  farthest limit (the cross)… To be willing to go as far as possible is to pray to be impelled, but without knowing whither.

If my eternal salvation were on this table in the form of an object and if I only had to stretch out my hand to grasp it, I would not stretch out my hand without having received orders to do so.

Detachment from the fruits of action. To escape from inevitability of this kind. How? To act not for an object but from necessity. I cannot do otherwise. It is not an action but a sort of passivity. Inactive  action.

The slave is in a sense a model (the lowest… the highest… always this same law). So also is matter.

To transfer the source of our actions outside ourselves. To be impelled. The purest of motives (or the basest: the law is always the same) appear as something exterior.

Every act should be considered from the point of view not of its object but of its impulsion. The question is not ‘What is the aim?’ It is ‘What is the origin?’

‘I was naked, and ye clothed me.’ This gift is simply an indication of the state of those who acted in this way. They were in a state which made it impossible for them not to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked; they did not in any way do it for Christ, they could not help doing it because the compassion of Christ was in them. It was the same with Saint Nicholas who, when going across the Russian Steppes with Saint Cassian to meet God, could not help being late for the appointed time of meeting because he had to help a poor peasant to move his cart which had stuck in the mud. Good which is done in this way, almost in spite of ourselves, almost shamefacedly and apologetically, is pure. All absolutely pure goodness completely eludes the will. Goodness is transcendent. God is Goodness.

‘I was hungered, and ye gave me meat.’ When was that, Lord? They did not know. We must not know when we do such acts.

We must not help our neighbour for Christ but in Christ. May the self disappear in such a way that Christ can help our neighbour through the medium of our soul and body. May we be the slave whom his master sends to bear help to someone in misfortune. The help comes from the master, but it is intended for the sufferer. Christ did not suffer for his Father. He suffered for men by the Father’s will.

We cannot say of the slave who goes off bearing help that he is doing it for his master. He is doing nothing. Even though in order to reach the sufferer he had to walk barefoot over nails, he would suffer but he would not be doing anything. For he is a slave.

‘We are unprofitable servants’: that means we have done nothing.

In general the expression ‘for God’ is a bad one. God ought not to be put in the dative.

We should not go to our neighbour for the sake of God, but we should be impelled towards our neighbour by God, as the arrow is driven towards its target by the archer.

To be only an intermediary between the uncultivated ground and the ploughed field, between the data of a problem and the solution, between the blank page and the poem, between the starving beggar and the beggar who has been fed.

With all things, it is always what comes to us from outside, freely and by surprise as a gift from heaven, without our having sought it, that brings us pure joy. In the same way real good can only come from outside ourselves, never from our own effort. We cannot under any circumstances manufacture something which is better than ourselves. Thus effort truly stretched towards goodness cannot reach its goal; it is after long, fruitless effort which ends in despair, when we no longer expect anything, that, from outside ourselves, the gift comes as a marvellous surprise. The effort has destroyed a part of the false sense of fullness within us. The divine emptiness, fuller than fullness, has come to inhabit us.

The will of God. How to know it? If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think ‘Thy will be done’, the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.

Convergency as a criterion. An action or attitude for which reason affords several distinct and convergent motives, but which we feel transcends all imaginable motives.

In prayer we must not have in view any particular thing, unless by supernatural inspiration, for God is the universal being. To be sure, he descends into the realm of particular things. He has descended, he descends in the act of creation; as also in the Incarnation, the Eucharist, Inspiration, etc. But the movement comes from above, never from below; it is a movement on God’s part, not on ours. We cannot bring about such intercommunion except when God decrees it. Our role is to be ever turned towards the universal.

There perhaps we have the solution to Berger’s difficulty about the impossibility of a union between the relative and the absolute. It cannot be achieved by a movement rising from below, but it is possible by a descending movement from on high.

We can never know that God commands a certain thing. Intention directed towards obedience to God saves us, whatever we do, if we place God infinitely above us, and damns us, whatever we do, if we call our own heart God. In the first case we never think what we have done, what we are doing or what we are going to do can be good.

The use of temptations. It depends on the relative strength of the soul and of time. To go on for a long time contemplating the possibility of doing evil without doing it effects a kind of transubstantiation. If we resist with merely finite energy, this energy is exhausted after a certain time, and when it is exhausted we give in. If we remain motionless and attentive it is the temptation which is exhausted—and we acquire the energy raised to a higher degree.

If, in the same way—that is to say motionless and attentive— we contemplate the possibility of doing good, a transubstantiation of energy is brought about in this case also, and thanks to it we accomplish the good we have been considering.

The transubstantiation of the energy consists in the fact that, where what is good is concerned, a moment comes when we cannot help doing it.

This, moreover, provides a criterion of good and evil.

Every creature which attains perfect obedience constitutes a special, unique, irreplaceable form of the presence, knowledge and operation of God in the world.

Necessity. We have to see things in their right relationship and ourselves, including the purposes we bear within us, as one of the terms of that relationship. Action follows naturally from this.

Obedience. There are two kinds. We can obey the force of gravity or we can obey the relationship of things. In the first case we do what we are driven to by the imagination which fills up empty spaces. We can affix a variety of labels to it, often with a show of truth, including righteousness and God. If we suspend the filling up activity of the imagination and fix our attention on the relationship of things, a necessity becomes apparent which we cannot help obeying. Until then we have not any notion of necessity and we have no sense of obedience.

After that we cannot be proud of what we do, even though we may accomplish marvels.

The words of the Breton ship’s boy to the journalist who asked him how he had been able to act as he did: ‘There was nothing else for it’—the purest heroism—more frequent among the poor than elsewhere.

Obedience is the only pure motive, the only one which does not in the slightest degree seek a reward for the action, but leaves all care of reward to the Father who is in secret and who sees in secret.

The obedience must, however, be obedience to necessity and not to force (terrible void in the case of slaves).

However much we give of ourselves to others or to a great cause, whatever suffering we endure, if it is out of pure obedience to a clear conception of the relationship of things and to necessity, we make up our minds to it without effort although we accomplish it with effort. We cannot do otherwise, and there is no reversal, no void to be filled, no thought of reward, no spite, no loss of dignity.

Action is the pointer of the balance. We must not touch the pointer but the weight.

Exactly the same rule applies to opinions.

If we fail to observe it there is either confusion or suffering.

The Foolish Virgins—The meaning of this story is that at the moment when we become conscious that we have to make a choice, the choice is already made for good  or  ill.  This  is much truer than the allegory about Hercules between virtue and vice.

When  the  inward  nature  of  man,  cut  off  from  all carnal influences and deprived of all supernatural light, performs actions which are in conformity with those which supernatural light would impose if it were present, there is utter purity. That is the central point of the Passion.

In contemplation, the right relationship with God is love, in action it is slavery. This distinction must be kept. We must act as becomes a slave while contemplating with love…

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Excerpted from Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. First French edition 1947. Translated by Emma Crawford. English language edition 1963. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

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