Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Blessed are the poor in spirit

There was a time as a young man when I -- and many others of my generation of young Catholics – got swept away with enthusiasm for French intellectual Catholicism. Bernanos, Péguy, Bloy, Mauriac, Maritain, Teilhard de Chardin, and all the rest. There was one writer who didn't quite fit in, who was irresistibly attractive but bafflingly mysterious, the lone woman in our pantheon –- Simone Weil. I dabbled, but I can't say that I ever made heads or tails of her writing. She just was out there, a saint, a mystic, somewhere out of reach.

Weil was the daughter of secular, assimilated Jewish parents who fiercely rejected her Jewishness. She was drawn to Catholic Christianity, but resisted baptism until the end, put off by the authoritarian structure of the institutional Church and its claim to be the exclusive path to salvation. Still, we adopted her as a Catholic icon. She died young, during the Second World War, having in effect starved herself to death, ostensibly out of sympathy with those who had less to eat that herself.

Anyway, I quickly left my ascetic bent and Catholic icons behind, having discovered the consolations of empirical knowledge and the crisp beauty of philosophical skepticism. But here I am, a half century later, having just finished a biography of Simone Weil. I must say I read it as much for the author –- Francine du Plessix Gray, a writer I admire –- as for the subject. As for Weil, she is as baffling as ever.

This much is clear: She was brilliant, and she was anorexic. She was a saint, and she was -- uh -- extreme. Which is what makes the biography interesting: Are saints and mystics in touch with a transcendent reality, or are they acting out a script dictated by their own biology and psychology? On the evidence of du Plessix Gray's admiring, yet critical biography, it's easy to assume the latter. A clinical psychologist or expert on eating disorders would have little trouble diagnosing Weil's behaviors.

Does it make a difference? In a sense, no. Her obsessive concern for the poor and oppressed was real, as was her saintly compassion for all in the human family. And in another sense, the difference does matter. Not for her, but for us. It matters because it's important to know what is real and what is not. God, or brain chemistry?