Affliction, the sacred, humiliation, truth: Excerpts from Simone Weil for Good Friday
These are excerpts from Weil’s essay, “La Personne et le sacré,” translated by Richard Rees into English as “Human Personality.”
At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.
The good is the only source of the sacred. There is nothing sacred except the good and what pertains to it.
Every time that there arises from the depths of a human heart the childish cry which Christ himself could not restrain, “Why am I being hurt?”, then there is certainly injustice. For if, as often happens, it is only the result of a misunderstanding, then the injustice consists in the inadequacy of the explanation.
Those people who inflict the blows which provoke this cry are prompted by different motives according to temperament or occasion. There are some people who get a positive pleasure from the cry; and many others simply do not hear it. For it is a silent cry, which sounds only in the secret heart.
Theses two states of mind are closer than they appear to be. The second is a weaker mode of the first. Its deafness is complacently cultivated because it is agreeable and it offers a positive satisfaction of its own. […]
When the infliction of evil provokes a cry of sorrowful surprise from the depth of the soul, it is not a personal thing. Injury to the personality and its desires is not sufficient to evoke it, but only and always the sense of contact with injustice through pain. It is always, in the last of men as in Christ himself, an impersonal protest.
There are also many cries of personal protest, but they are unimportant; you may provoke as many of them as you wish without violating anything sacred.
So far from being his person, what is sacred in a human being is the impersonal in him.
Everything which is impersonal in man is sacred, and nothing else.
Truth and beauty dwell on this level of the impersonal and the anonymous. This is the realm of the sacred; on the other level nothing is sacred except in the sense that we might say this of a touch of colour in a picture if it represented the Eucharist.
What is sacred in science is truth; what is sacred in art is beauty. Truth and beauty are impersonal. All this is too obvious.
If a child is doing a sum and does it wrong, the mistake bears the stamp of his personality. If he does the sum exactly right, his personality does not enter into it at all.
Perfection is impersonal. Our personality is the part of us which belongs to error and sin. The whole effort of the mystic has always been to become such that there is no part left in his soul to say “I”.
But the part of the soul which says “We” is infinitely more dangerous still.
Impersonality is only reached by the practice of a form of attention which is rare in itself and impossible except in solitude; and not only physical but mental solitude. This is never achieved by a man who thinks of himself as a member of a collectivity, as part of something which says “We.”
Men as parts of a collectivity are debarred from even the lower forms of the impersonal. A group of human beings cannot even add two and two. Working out a sum takes place in a mind temporarily oblivious of the existence of any other minds.
Although the personal and the impersonal are opposed, there is a way from the one to the other. But there is no way from the collective to the impersonal. A collectivity must dissolve into separate persons before the impersonal can be reached.
Supernatural good is not a supplement to natural good, as we are told, with support from Aristotle, for our greater comfort. It wold be nice if this were true, but it is not. In all the crucial problems of human existence, the only choice is between supernatural good on the one hand and evil on the other.
There is a natural alliance between truth and affliction, because both of them appear as mute suppliants, condemned to stand speechless in our presence.
Human thought is unable to acknowledge the reality of affliction. To acknowledge the reality of affliction means saying to oneself: “I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever that I possess, including those things which are so intimately mine that I consider them as being myself….”
To be aware of this in the depth of one’s soul is to experience non-being. It is the state of extreme and total humiliation which is also the condition for passing over into truth. It is a death of the soul. This is why the naked spectacle of affliction makes the soul shudder as the flesh shudders at the proximity of death.
Only by the supernatural working of grace can a soul pass through its own annihilation to the place where alone it can get the sort of attention which can attend to truth and to affliction. It is the same attention which listens to both of them. The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention is love.