A New-Old Saintliness

by Mark Chmiel

On Maria Clara Bingemer, Simone Weil: Mystic of Passion and Compassion

French intellectual Simone Weil has had many biographers, interpreters, and critics since she died in 1943.   Brazilian liberation theologian Maria Clara Bingemer’s recent book is a generous retrieval of Weil’s relevance in this decade.  What Latin American liberation theology eventually named  in the late 1960s as “the preferential option for the poor” Weil as an individual  was  practicing, sometimes awkwardly,  but always with fierce intensity, in the 1930s and 40s.  Bingemer sees Weil as an inspiring, even exemplary, figure for those who may be distant from the forms and rituals of  traditional religiosity.

In reading Bingemer, I thought many times of Thich Nhat Hanh and his Order of Interbeing.  Forged in the difficult years of French occupation and war, followed by the U.S. invasion, this Engaged Buddhism sought to unify spiritual practice and political work.  The order’s 4th precept reads in its original form:  “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world.  Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sound. By such means,  awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” Even as a child, Weil identified with those on the edge.  She sought different ways of closing the gap between her privileged, assimilated background and workers, farmers, soldiers, any who suffered affliction.  For example, when living in England at the end of her life, she ate at the level of meager rations the French back home had to  accept.  Even as Bingemer sees Weil as a lay mystic, others can recognize in her something akin to the bodhisattva aspiration to seek the liberation of countless suffering beings.  Bingemer writes that Weil “chose a permanent exodus of herself and lived ‘outside herself’ for the benefit of others.”

Since the 1970s liberation theologians, pastoral agents and activists have written about their own practice of “political holiness.”  This is what Weil called for and lived out decades go:  “Today it is not nearly enough to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent.” In 2017 amid the expansion of  U.S. war-making and consolidation of the neoliberal preferential option for the rich, reading Weil  could bring to mind any number of possibilities for awakening ourselves and  others to the vast suffering we cause and consequent responsibility we carry.