Simone Weil, the Trinity, and Quaker Worship

Recently a Friend spoke in worship about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, marveling at the love of the father who rejoiced in the return of his wayward son and did not hold the son’s wrongdoing against him. Other ministry, including mine, was inspired in part by the Friend’s words. In what follows, I’ll try to reconstruct my message — with some rough edges smoothed and with quotations taken from the source text instead of my memory.

How might we come to live in that spirit which the prodigal son’s father exemplifies? I think that worship is our way, and I want to explore that by way of some words from the French philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil.

This past semester, I attended a course on Trinitarian theology at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute. The course was academically sound and intellectually stimulating, but of the dozen or so exegetes and theologians whom we read, I must say that, to borrow words from George Fox, ‘there was none among them all that could speak to my [spiritual] condition.’ Mostly, they seemed to be speaking to each other, and what they seemed to be saying was, ‘I’m smarter than you are.’ Not long after the course had ended, though, I happened to come across a beautiful theopoetic reflection on the Trinitarian theme while reading the notebooks — unpublished during her lifetime — of Simone Weil.

She wrote, ‘The Father is creation of being, the Son is renunciation of being; this double pulsation is one single act which is Love or Spirit. When humility gives us a part in it, the Trinity is in us.’

For Weil and other mystics, this humility is not another virtue to be added to our list of accomplishments, but a matter of recognizing and accepting our essential nothingness. I almost said ‘simply a matter of …,’ but it may not seem at all simple, because both nature and nurture lead us to repress that realization. Yet it is by that most fundamental honesty and acceptance, Weil tells us, that we are able to share in the inner life of God, the paradoxical double movement of love.

The passage continues, ‘This exchange of love between the Father and the Son passes through the creation. All we are asked to do is consent to its passing through. We are nothing else but this consent.’

Our tradition tells us that the love which we naturally and unconsciously repress will rise and grow of itself if only we stop holding it down or treading on it. In one double movement, we consent to love’s passing through us by acknowledging that what has been repressing it has, in itself, been nothing all along. In that humility, we become subjects in whom the ‘single act which is Love or Spirit’ is being accomplished: ‘the Trinity is in us.’

Earlier, Weil had written that ‘There is no attitude of greater humility than to wait in silence and patience.’ What we do here together in worship, this silent and patient waiting in radical honesty, is consent to the Spirit, the divine life of love, in us.

NOTE: The quotations above are from Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks: Supernatural Knowledge (Wipf and Stock, 2015), pp. 101, 102. Following is a related passage from Weil’s Gravity and Grace: “[Christ] emptied himself of his divinity. We should empty ourselves of the false divinity with which we were born. Once we have understood we are nothing, the object of all our efforts is to become nothing. It is for this that we suffer with resignation, it is for this that we act, it is for this that we pray. May God grant me to become nothing. In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself through me.” (2003 e-edition, p. 33, emphasis original)

13 thoughts on “Simone Weil, the Trinity, and Quaker Worship

  1. Thank you George. When I have an opening, which this is for you perhaps, it seems utterly clear; when I try to express it, it folds into a paradox. This is in itself a paradox. This is how I recognise Weil’s saying: when I realise I am nothing, I have to strive to become nothing.

    • In my case, at least, it seems that a double movement of realization is required: having realized — understood — my essential emptiness, I can then work to realize — make actual — that understanding by allowing myself to come increasingly into harmony with the truth — mostly, it seems to me, a work of recollection (also in a double sense) and awareness.

  2. As I see it, paradox occurs because we try to describe or explain our ‘opening’ from within a more limited paradigm. We first need to be ‘born again’ (as Jesus puts it) into the wider and deeper understanding – using Weil’s words, from within our creaturely-ness or thing-ness and into ‘the Trinity’.
    This for me is expressed by moving from individuality and into relationality – to see everything in terms of the Other and our relationship with the Other. The ‘Trinity is in us’ because all relationships are trinitarian – the ‘I’; the ‘Thou’; and the ‘I-Thou’ of the relational state (to use Buber’s formulation).
    The Quaker philosopher John Macmurray expresses it like this: “the other is the centre of value. [The self] has no value in himself, but only for the Other; consequently he cares for himself only for the sake of the other.”(Persons In Relation, 1961; Faber and Faber 1995, p 158)
    But have we gone far enough into the new life, or are we still clinging to the creature that must be satisfied as an individual? For there is also the problem of thinking that becoming ‘nothing’ is actually self-denial. Or that we have to ‘strive to become nothing’ – in order to strive or deny we have to preserve something of the ‘self-creature’ to do the striving and denying with. To be like Nicodemus and not see past our creaturely-ness: “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? (John 3:4, KJV)
    I feel that talking about ‘becoming nothing’ as Weil is quoted as saying in the footnote, is to to easily fall into the trap of self-denial. A better way to talk about this may be to use the language of the philosopher Immanuel Levinas, as in the title of his second major work ‘Otherwise Than Being, or, Beyond Essence’. We are first and foremost relational beings or social animals, so the best way to express our self-awareness (i.e. the image of god in us) is in terms of the other rather than in terms of the self – but to do that we have to turn away from almost the whole of Western philosophy and also established Christian religion and theology.

    • From another perspective, individuality is not opposed to relationality: that would be, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s term, enclosure. Individuality is “always already” grounded in relationality: as you note, we are social animals. The question is whether, or how fully, we can understand and live our individuality in its integral relationality.

      I find myself in agreement with Derrida that there can be no love without some measure of narcissism:

      There is not narcissism and non-narcissism; there are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended. What is called non-narcissism is in general but the economy of a much more welcoming, hospitable narcissism, one that is much more open to the experience of the other as other. I believe that without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutedly destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance. The relation to the other — even if it remains asymmetrical, open, without possible reappropriation — must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of oneself for love to be possible, for example. Love is narcissistic. Beyond that, there are little narcissisms, there are big narcissisms, and there is death in the end, which is the limit. Even in the experience – if there is one – of death, narcissism does not absolutely abdicate its power.

      Thus Jesus, quoting scripture, urges us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” not instead of yourself. The value of the self is assumed in that saying; what is urged is a “generous, open, extended” individuality, one which, I would say, is “comprehensive” in that it does not attempt to enclose itself in a delusion of self-identity. In any case, no one can live solely for the Other: the suffering of the Other is infinite.

      Derrida’s statement is also, I think, compatible with Weil’s conception of the Trinity as something of a divine narcissism. For her, as for the Christian tradition, that of God in us is not “awareness,” as popular spirituality now insists, but the love that has long been theopoetically imaged as Trinity.

      The work that Weil conceives as becoming nothing is a matter of becoming true to what one really is — in response to the call of truth, to the nature of the relationship with God, not for self-improvement. Weil, I think, wanted to become nothing in order to be completely honest, open, and real in her relationship with God. That is, she wanted her consciousness and will to be in accord with the nothingness that, in herself, she really was, in order that God may be “all in all,” that the divine narcissism may operate freely in her: only “in so far as I become nothing, God loves himself through me.” That is a relational response to God, not a project of self-improvement. It is “generous, open, extended” and not self-enclosed.

      Levinas thought and taught, as did Buber, within the Western tradition of Jewish monotheism; they derived their values and insights from it. That is, of course, true of Christianity as well. Rather than tossing out what is arguably the most powerful theopoetic insight into the nature of human being, I think we do well to dive beneath the surface, as such writers have, to the tradition’s depths.

      • I think you are quite correct is saying that “For Weil and other mystics, this humility is not another virtue to be added to our list of accomplishments, but a matter of recognizing and accepting our essential nothingness. Surely the idea and the effort to become nothing, i.e. “the renunciation of being” is possible only because it is our true and natural state. If we were born with an identity, instead of accruing it over time, the effort to give it up would be as futile as attempting to give up a limb by willing it to go away. I think Weil probably understood that the reason we all feel like the “centre of the universe” is because once identity has been deconstructed, that is what we are essentially. The problem comes from confusing that centre with our apparent individual identities. So the motivation for “becoming nothing” is not so much to improve one’s ‘relationship’ to God as it is a recognition of the fact that everything that sets me apart has been constructed. The opposite of love is not hate or some other emotion, but rather selfishness. And selfishness is behaviour that is motivated by and done in support of identity. As your post implies, the nothingness to which Weil aspired is not something to be acquired because it is always already there, but neither can it be reduced to an object of awareness. As Eckhart says, ” As the soul comes to the knowledge that God is unlike every nature, it also comes to a state of amazement and is driven further and comes into a state of silence…What is the last end? It is the hidden darkness of the eternal divinity, and it is unknown, and it was never known, and it will never be known. God remains there within himself, unknown.”

        • Thanks for your comments. I would point out that the claim that we are essentially “the centre of the universe” is also an identity construction. (And it assumes an essentialist metaphysic that I don’t hold.) Perhaps one could say that nothing we know is not constructed, which may strengthen our intuition that the realization of the essential nothingness (or emptiness, as Nagarjuna would have it) of human existence rings of truth. If I agreed that “selfishness is behavior that is motivated by … identity,” I might want to argue that a self-identification as “centre of the universe” could be the height of selfishness (as well as, at the same time, a metaphysical morass). But I think that selfishness, when it is excessive and harmful, is a manifestation of narcissistic enclosure of identity.

          • Yes, ‘claiming’ to be the centre of the universe would be the height of self-centredness; knowing that all beings are the one and the same centre of the universe, obviously is not. I agree that everything we can perceive and conceive is constructed and relative; knowing may be something different. I think the knowledge “I am” is prior to perception and constructed identity. The “I am” knowledge was there before we developed personality and identity and it will be the last to turn out the lights.

            • That seems to me to empty the concept of “center” of meaning, David. I can’t follow your epistemological point, either: even “I am” is already an inference from perception. Perhaps you are ascribing a metaphysical reality to (self-)consciousness; if so, that would be our point of divergence.

              • I agree, George, that if everything is at the centre then nothing is at the centre and that is, in a way, the point. At its very simplest, the sentence ‘I am’ refers to an ever-present subject that can know itself as a sense of presence, but cannot perceive itself as an object of perception. Therefore, the ‘I am’ is the very expression of the “essential nothingness” to which you referred. I think it is also what Zen Buddhists refer to as emptiness. Our alienation from that “essential nothingness” or emptiness arises when the ‘I am’ becomes associated or tangled up with other things. The consent to let things pass referred to in the Weil quote, reminds me of Eckhart’s letting go.

                • “Emptiness,” sunyata, is an ambiguous term in Buddhism, which is why I referred to Nagarjuna. Zen, heavily influenced by the pure idealism of Yogacara philosophy (Bodhidharma was later said to have transmitted the Lankavatara Sutra to his disciple Hiuke), tends to read an absolute “consciousness-only” sense into it. (Zen is also evidently influenced by Nagarjunist Madhyamika, however, which makes for some interesting differences.) I expect that there would be a correspondence between the Yogacara reading and your concept of an ultimate subject that can be described with “I am” — something perhaps close to the Advaita Vedanta-derived idea of “the Supreme Identity,” as Alan Watts and others would say. Again, that’s a metaphysic which I don’t hold.

                  You and I think differently, and that has made for an interesting conversation. Thanks again.

      • I could not agree with you more – a wonderful use of ‘narcissism’. I suggest that the inclination to oppose individuality to relationality is possibly at the heart of the Western problem. We see life as something to possess and individuality as the very centre of being. When this is linked to an ethic of duty and service, which pervades established Christianity, we get a failure to properly understand relationality and perhaps the central paradox of Jesus’ teaching: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 16:25, KJV). For me the key element of the paradox is ‘for my sake’ – i.e. as you have seen in the example of my life. However an ethic of duty and service is actually Stoicism and not ‘for my sake’ at all. Macmurray has this to say about Christianity being perverted by Stoicism:
        “The general influence of Greek philosophy upon Christianity has been profound. Augustine was a Neoplatonist before he became a Christian–though the Neoplatonist influence within the Church had begun earlier. Thomas Aquinas preferred to use the Aristotelian philosophy. Stoicism also affected Christian thought, particularly in the field of morality; so much so indeed that when modern people refer to Christian morality, it is usually Stoic morality which they are talking about without knowing it.” (‘Search For Reality In Religion’, Swarthmore Lecture 1965, Friends Home Service Committee, pp36-7)
        I am inclined to agree with you that Christ “is arguably the most powerful theopoetic insight into the nature of human being” (Macmurray certainly thought so) but I for one would want to enter into dialogue with those of other faiths and traditions and not set this up as some intellectual proposition in the Western manner: we need to ‘feel where the words come from’, which the wonderful word ‘theopoetic’ at least points us towards.

        • I like to play with that verse: the word usually translated as life is psychē, which can be rendered in a variety of ways, including “personhood.” (I go with a simple transliteration in “Delusion, Quaker Worship, & Spiritual Life”.) It occurs to me that “for my sake” could be read, particularly from a Quaker perspective, in a relational sense, as if the Word were making a personal plea within the heart of a “friend.”

          Thanks for the passages from Macmurray. I haven’t yet looked into his work, but I hope to get to it fairly soon.

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