Simone Weil on Affliction and the Chasm in God

I will never forget the moment I was introduced to the writings of Simone Weil a few years ago. It was as if all of the  questions I had ever asked about the nature of God, suffering, beauty, and good and evil had collided into one stream of thought. Simone Weil was a philosopher, political activist, and mystic from the early part of the twentieth-century, and her insights into the human condition made a significant impact on my view of the world. One of her essays in particular runs over and over in my head: The Love of God and Affliction.

"The grand enigma of human life," she wrote, "is not suffering, but affliction."

It is not astonishing that suffering happens, she reasoned. We know there are criminals who do horrible things. And we know that sickness can cause tremendous suffering for long periods of time, but this is the result of the indifferent mechanisms of the natural order of things. What is astonishing is that God has allowed affliction to have such power over the souls of innocent human beings. "In the best case," she said, "the one marked by affliction only keeps half (her) soul."

Affliction, she explains, is the result of an event that takes complete control, either directly or indirectly, over all parts of one's life. In this way, affliction is physical, psychological, and social. Physical suffering can be extensive, but when it is long and very frequent, it can uproot a life and impair the soul. If physical agony is completely absent, however, there is no damage done to the soul. And it is not truly affliction unless it is accompanied by some form (or fear of) social degradation.

For me, one of Simone Weil's most important insights into affliction was the inability for others to discern it. Affliction, she says,

produces a state [of mind] just as violent as that of a condemned man who is constrained to look for hours at the guillotine that will cut off his head. Human beings can live twenty years or fifty years in this violent state. We pass beside them without noticing them. What person is able to discern them, if Christ himself does not look through our eyes? We only notice that they behave strangely sometimes, and we reprimand the behavior.

So, those who suffer affliction have not only undergone so much suffering that it has done damage to their souls, but the surrounding world ignores their suffering and even rebukes them for it. That is, unless someone has been given the supernatural ability to see the afflicted through the eyes of Christ.

Most all of us have experienced suffering of one form or other; but Weil's insight is that affliction is of a different order than normal suffering. Those who have never had contact with affliction have no idea what it is. Trying to explain affliction to those who have never encountered it is like trying to explain sounds to someone who can neither hear nor speak. And those who have been themselves mutilated by affliction are in no state to try to help others understand it either. Thus, compassion for the afflicted is impossible. Instead of compassion, all of the contempt, repulsion, and hatred that is attached to the crime is also attached to the affliction. Even those experiencing the affliction turn the arrow of contempt, repulsion, and hatred upon themselves. But when compassion for the afflicted truly does happen, it is a miracle of an order even greater than walking on water, healing the sick, or even raising the dead. As Weil explains,

"Except for those in whom Christ occupies their whole soul, the whole world, more or less, despises the afflicted even though almost no one is conscious of it."

Affliction constrains even the most innocent and just human beings to protest in anger against God. Anything less, Weil argues, is stained with falsehood. But crying out in anger against God in the face of affliction is not blasphemy; rather, it was this encounter with affliction that Christ bore witness to on the cross.

This is where Weil makes the most profound articulation of the existence of the Word of God. The Word of God, she argues, is the silence in the separation between God and God--between the love of God out of which creation has come into being, and the affliction of God experienced in the crucifixion. Speaking of Christ, she explains, "Nothing could be further from God than the one who was made a curse." The universe is an infinite vibration, and this silent separation between God and God is what we see in beauty or hear when the melody of a song pierces our souls.

You cannot be further from God and yet closer to the cross than to experience affliction. As she says:

Someone struck by affliction is at the foot of the Cross, near to the greatest distance possible from God. One must not believe that sin is the greater distance. Sin is not a distance. It is the wrong orientation (direction) of one’s gaze.

There is a chasm in God. From this insight about the distance between the love of God and affliction, she goes on to speak about friendship, the unity of the love of God, and the nature of the Trinity. Her argument is that complete love exists not only when two are united, but even as much when they are separated.

Lovers and friends have two desires. One is to love so much that one enters the other to make a single being. The other is to love so much that with half the earthly globe between them, their union would not suffer any diminishment.

An it is here, where Weil makes her boldest and most beautiful assertion. In our misery, she argues, we have been gifted with the "infinitely precious privilege of having a part in this distance place between the Son and the Father." In other words, our misery allows us to participate in the chasm that exists because of the love in the heart of God. Therefore, this distance then, she says, is really only separation for those who love. And for those who love, the separation--though it is painful--is made holy because it is love.

(The art featured in this post: Suffering, by Paula Smith Heffel.)