In a letter to Father Couturier written one year before her death, Simone Weil confessed that “if the Gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s resurrection, faith would be easier for me. The Cross by itself suffices me.” This confession should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Weil’s life or thought. Few things stand out so prominently in Weil’s late writings, after all, as her principled discomfort with the Christian language of resurrection and redemption (as well as her principled fixation on the language of crucifixion and dereliction). This is not to say that Weil rejected “Easter” language altogether; on the contrary, she found numerous uses for it within the parameters of her own rather bleak Christian Platonist framework. What Weil did believe strongly, however, was that virtually all ways of thinking and talking about redemption outside such a framework are not only misguided but spiritually damaging. In the vast majority of cases, Weil worried, Christians invoke Easter for no other reason than to evade the hard truths of Good Friday: to shield themselves from what Good Friday tells them about themselves, about God, and about their responsibilities to others. Unless we are prepared to approach the redemptive language of Easter through the lens of these hard truths we would be better off not thinking or talking about redemption at all.
Weil’s stress on the crucifixion and her general discomfort with redemptive language have led many to associate her depiction of the spiritual life with those of the Christian mystics she engages, most notably Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross. And indeed, there is good reason to associate Weil with such figures, not only because they influenced her directly, but because she invokes them in order to explicate concepts which form the center of her own spiritual vision (e.g., detachment, decreation, affliction). Part of what I would like to suggest is that these associations can easily be stretched too far and made too much of. However much Weil owes to her Christian forebears, the particular brand of spirituality that she puts forward deviates from theirs in a number of theologically decisive respects. And this is perhaps most strikingly true where her understanding of Christ’s redemptive work is concerned. Far from constituting merely an amalgamation of established theological motifs and formulae, Weil’s Christology offers a highly original picture of Christ’s redemptive work that diverges critically from the earlier Christologies. It also poses valuable challenges for their present-day adherents.
In an effort to support and expand on these claims, we will: (1) clarify the role that the redemptive work of Christ plays in Weil’s spirituality; (2) shed light on how Weil’s use of redemptive language both borrows and deviates from earlier figures in the Christian tradition; and (3) gesture toward the contemporary relevance of Weil’s account. In view of these goals, I will read Weil’s Christology in critical dialogue with that of John of the Cross, who influenced Weil directly and who represents the broader spiritual tradition she engages. While Weil follows John in much of the Christological imagery she deploys and in the spiritual significance she accords affliction (Weil’s malheur, John's noche oscura), she diverges from him decisively where the relation between affliction and Christ’s redemptive work is concerned. Attending closely to this point of divergence will allow us to see more clearly how, on Weil’s account, Christ’s work consists primarily in making a unique kind of “redemptive suffering” possible: a way of “accepting” one’s affliction without recourse to sin, compensation, or consolation of any kind. When one undergoes affliction in this way, Weil claims, one enables Christ to de-create one’s “I” and render one’s person an instrument with which he can minister to other afflicted persons.
Simone Weil and John of the Cross on the Experience of Affliction
Before turning directly to an examination of Weil’s Christology, it will be helpful to step back and consider the doctrine of affliction (malheur) that forms its backdrop. The experience of affliction stands at the center of Weil’s spirituality. Like John, Weil characterizes affliction as a “dark night” that involves both spiritual and bodily forms of suffering, that leaves one “without any consolation or relief,” and that centers around the sense that one has been utterly forsaken, cursed, or otherwise rejected by God and others. As such, for Weil as for John, affliction is a fundamentally isolating experience—a state of “mystical dereliction” that finds its paradigm in Christ’s forsakenness on the cross (Mt. 27:46). If Weil is content to describe the lived experience of affliction in terms similar to those of John, however, she differs from him considerably in her account of when and why such affliction occurs. John, for his part, confines affliction to a particular stage of spiritual development: the dark night of affliction takes place, he claims, on the border between spiritual proficiency and perfection. The most severe form of affliction, as he writes, is “the lot of very few, of those who have been tried and are proficient.” However terrible the effects of affliction may be, then, John regards its reach as fairly limited: it takes hold only of those who have first prepared themselves for it through practices of prayer, fasting, and the like.
For Weil, by contrast, affliction is a possibility built into the very structure of creaturely selfhood, and so a possibility to which all persons are susceptible. To be a self, on Weil’s view, is to be a point from which God has freely withdrawn Godself: a space God has deserted so that “I” might come to be. What this implies—and what Weil proceeds to claim—is that selfhood is constitutively premised upon the lack or absence of God. Indeed, to be a self, in Weil’s sense, just is to be a site of divine absence, “a shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God.” And it is with this conception of selfhood in mind that Weil formulates her doctrine of affliction. The experience of affliction is emphatically not, for Weil, a trial or purgation through which certain kinds of people pass at particular stages of spiritual development. Rather, it is a violent revelation that occurs whenever some person or set of circumstances violently exposes what “I” fundamentally am: namely, a site of God’s absence that has failed to recognize itself as such. Construed in these terms, it is clear why affliction is an experience to which all persons are vulnerable: a created self can no more escape the possibility of affliction than she can escape her own selfhood, on Weil’s account, for the simple reason that the former is a possibility contained within the latter.
This brings us to a second point at which Weil diverges from John. We have seen already that John weds affliction to a certain stage of spiritual development, and that this leads him to restrict affliction to the spiritually proficient. There is an additional sense, however, in which John’s portrayal of the spiritual life leads him to limit affliction’s reach. Because John locates the experience of affliction on the border between proficiency and perfection, this experience plays an essentially purgative and therefore penultimate role in his thought: one passes through the dark night, according to John, but does not remain permanently within it. On the contrary, one passes through this night precisely so that one can move finally beyond it (albeit in a detached state) into the “bright morning” of nuptial union with Christ—the morning described so vividly in John’s Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame of Love. Hence John’s conception of the spiritual life is ultimately, to quote Rowan Williams, “a movement towards fulfilment, not emptiness, towards beauty and life, not annihilation. The night—to use his favorite image—grows darker before it can grow lighter.”
Not so for Weil. Since she regards affliction as something intrinsically linked to created selfhood, she firmly rejects the notion that an individual could ever finally pass “through” or “beyond” it. While she certainly allows that there exist different ways of approaching or coming to terms with the night of affliction, Weil makes no allowance for the bright Easter morning John describes. It would be natural enough to assume, in light of this claim, that Weil’s vision of the spiritual life precludes or leaves no meaningful room for redemption. Such an assumption would be mistaken, however—or so Weil insists. But what sort of “redemption” is really possible for the creatures Weil describes: creatures constituted by God’s absence and perpetually vulnerable to severe spiritual and bodily affliction? The shape of Weil’s Christology is determined by her answer to this question.
The Work of Christ and the Possibility of Redemption
There are, according to Weil, two ways of approaching one’s creaturely status and thus of preparing oneself for the affliction which threatens to expose it. The first way, which Weil calls the “natural” one, is simply to deny or rebel against one’s own constitution. Rather than face up to “void” of divine absence that one finds within oneself, the natural individual will conceal this void by striving to “fill” it with either sin or the imagination—perhaps by “living in the past” to avoid the hard realities of the present, perhaps by deriving “consolation” from imaginary religious beliefs, perhaps by inflicting harm upon others in an effort to “compensate” for one’s own suffering, etc. There are two problems with this natural or imaginary approach. The first is that it is simply delusional: the natural individual is not, after all, the self-sufficient “I” she imagines herself to be. The second and more serious problem follows from the first: because this approach is inherently delusional, it leaves those who adopt it fundamentally unprepared to deal with the hard reality of affliction. When affliction intrudes violently upon persons in this condition, it does profound, often irreparable damage: it “uproots” them, “depersonalizes” them, and casts them into what Weil calls a “quasi-damned” state. Weil describes this phenomenon as follows:
Quasi-hell on earth: complete uprooting in affliction. Human injustice generally produces not martyrs but quasi-damned souls. Beings who have fallen into this quasi-hell are like the man stripped and wounded by thieves. They have lost the clothing of character. When we do a service to beings uprooted in this way and we receive in exchange discourtesy, ingratitude, betrayal, we are merely enduring a small share of their affliction.
The man who is not rooted in God through supernatural love is entirely at the mercy of chance. But every human being, however lowly his origin, has, at a certain period of his life, the opportunity of rooting himself in God. If he does not take advantage of it, and if later on he is delivered over to affliction to the extent of no longer having this opportunity, such a phenomenon is no different from that whereby human beings die prematurely.
This last paragraph already intimates that there is an alternative to the “natural” approach described above: a way of “rooting oneself in God” that enables one to undergo affliction in a non-destructive fashion. Weil identifies this approach as the “supernatural” one modeled and made possible by Christ. What makes Christ’s life and (especially) his death on the cross so significant is not only that he willingly assumes the full force of human affliction, but that he remains rooted in God in and through such affliction. In doing so, he teaches us two things. First, he teaches us to view God’s absence not as disregard but as self-renouncing love. God keeps distance from us not to abuse us, but as Christ’s example shows us, to protect our integrity as creatures distinct from Godself—creatures capable of freely returning ourselves to the God who created us. Second, Christ teaches us how to go about returning ourselves to God. Just as God renounces “being everything” in the creation the world, so does Christ renounce being anything in his death on the cross. Refusing to take recourse in either sin or imagination, Christ imitates God’s self-renouncing act of creation and regards his own “I” as nothing. In doing so, he offers himself and his cross up as instruments for God’s redemptive purposes.
In an important sense, thinks Weil, this is also what Christ enables each of us to do. If an individual comes, like Christ, to regard the void within herself as an expression of God’s creative love; and if she chooses, like Christ, to reciprocate this love by returning her “I” to its Creator; then she will be enabled, like Christ, to undergo affliction without recourse to sin, imagination, or compensation of any kind. Should she do so, claims Weil, her suffering will become “redemptive” like Christ’s:
Redemptive suffering. If a human being who is in a state of perfection and has through grace completely destroyed the “I” in himself, falls into that degree of affliction which corresponds for him to the destruction of the “I” from the outside—we have there the cross in its fullness. Affliction can no longer destroy the “I” in him for the “I” in him no longer exists, having completely disappeared and left the place to God.
In what sense, though, is this way of undergoing affliction really “redemptive”? Weil provides two answers to this question. It is redemptive, first, in the sense that it joins the sufferer perfectly to Christ, in whose “distress” she now shares and “between whose arms” she now suffers. And there is, in this joining, an ineffable but powerful experience of “joy” to be had: a special form of felicity that lies altogether “beyond the realm of consolation and pain” and that consists principally in the awareness of being bound irrevocably to Christ. Although this form of felicity offers no spiritual or emotional consolation for the affliction one suffers—given that consolation, on Weil’s view, is essentially a way of lifting oneself imaginatively out of one’s affliction—it does provide one with a way of experiencing God’s love in and as one’s affliction. And there is something redemptive already in that.
There is a second and deeper sense, however, in which Weil considers cruciform or “supernatural” suffering redemptive. This sense has to do not with how Christ redeems affliction for those who undergo it properly, but with how he ministers to those who do not. We already saw what happens when affliction is inflicted upon individuals of this sort: they are “uprooted” and dehumanized in potentially irreparable ways. Indeed, so great is the damage done these individuals that neither the depth of their suffering nor the reality of their humanity is visible to others. This is why it is possible for them to go on suffering for “twenty or fifty years” without our pitying or even noticing them: “We only notice that they have rather a strange way of behaving and we censure this behavior.”
Yet, Weil is not prepared to concede that there is no hope at all for these individuals (at least in all cases). There is one possibility, and only one possibility, that they have left to hope for—and this is to be given the loving “attention” of another person:
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough . . . The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way . . . Only he who is capable of attention can do this.
But how, if attention is genuinely a miracle, can one render oneself “capable” of it? In a sense, one cannot. So long as one lives naturally, after all, one cannot so much as perceive the affliction of others, much less lovingly attend to those who suffer it. But attention does become possible, Weil argues, when one lives and bears affliction in the supernatural manner described above. For when one gives one’s “I” over to God in the midst of affliction, one not only joins oneself irrevocably to Christ, but offers one’s person up as a passive instrument for his redemptive purposes. And as soon as this occurs, Christ comes to live vicariously on one’s behalf. What is impossible for “me” then becomes possible for God: namely, to recognize and attend to those affliction has uprooted. For who, Weil asks, “is capable of discerning such souls unless Christ himself looks through his eyes?” Her answer, of course, is that no one is. Only Christ, using us as instruments, can attend to such souls; and only if he does so can they be redeemed from the quasi-hell into which they have been cast:
Only God, present in us, can really think the human quality into victims of affliction, can really look at them with a look differing from that we give to things, can listen to their voice as we listen to spoken words. Then they become aware that they have a voice, otherwise they would not have occasion to notice it.
So then, to review: While Weil follows John closely both in her descriptions of affliction and in her association of such affliction with Christ’s dereliction on the cross, she diverges sharply from John on two key points. Whereas John regards affliction as a particular stage in spiritual development that (1) besets only those who have first prepared themselves for it and (2) leads ultimately beyond itself to the bliss of nuptial union of Christ, Weil insists that affliction is an experience to which all persons are vulnerable and from which it is impossible permanently to be delivered. These points of divergence lead Weil to paint a highly original picture of Christ’s redemptive work. The redemption wrought by Christ consists principally, for Weil, neither in the forgiveness of sins nor in the overcoming of estrangement between humankind and God. Rather, it consists in making a uniquely redemptive approach to affliction possible: an approach that (1) joins the afflicted person irrevocably to Christ and thereby (2) enables Christ to live on one’s behalf and minister redemptively other afflicted persons. And this, thinks Weil, is the only form of redemption we can hope for in this life. All other pictures of “redemption” are really, on Weil’s account, just imaginary constructions of the “I”: ways of evading or rejecting the hard reality of affliction, of refusing to come to terms either with one’s own creaturehood or with the suffering undergone by others. They are ultimately, in other words, not pictures of redemption at all, but instances of the very egotism from which Christ came to redeem us.
I hope to have indicated clearly enough, in the foregoing, how Weil’s Christology works and at what points it is original. What I would like to do, in closing, is gesture toward one way in which it poses a valuable challenge for theologians. If Weil’s account is correct—in whole or in part—then there are deep problems with any portrayal of the Christian life which speaks of a stage of spiritual development that lies in any sense “beyond” or “after” the cross. Not only does such language encourage believers to conceive of spiritual development in false, imaginary, and egotistical terms; far more damagingly, it blinds them—insofar as they indulge it—to the very real suffering of others around them. Weil’s worry, that is to say, is not simply that “compensatory theologies” paint false or misleading pictures of the Christian life (though they certainly do that). It is rather that those who buy into these pictures will then buy into the egotism these pictures make subtle allowance for. Such individuals will set their sights so far “beyond” the cross, thinks Weil, that they will be fundamentally unequipped to deal with affliction—whether their own or, worse, that of others.
One need not accept Weil’s theology wholesale to take seriously the worries that motivate it, or to appreciate the rigor with which Weil strains to uphold the Christian language of redemption while rejecting the “compensatory” or otherwise egotistical terms in which this language is so often couched. Whether Weil finally succeeds in accomplishing this goal is a question I have not attempted to address here. What I do hope to have established, however, is that Weil’s Christology deserves the sustained attention and consideration of theologians in the present—not just because it offers an original account of Christ’s work in the spiritual life, but also, and more importantly, because it provides a valuable corrective to certain tendencies running through the Christian tradition that are indeed both pervasive and frequently problematic.
 Simone Weil, Letter to a Priest, trans. Arthur Wills (London: Routledge, 2002), 55.
 Simone Weil, The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans. Arthur Wills (London: Routledge, 2004), 216.
 John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel 2.7.11.
 The term is Bernard McGinn’s.
 See John, Ascent 2.7.8-11 and Weil, Notebooks, 25.
 John of the Cross, The Dark Night 1.8.1.
 Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. E. Crawford and M. von der Ruhr (London: Routledge, 2002), 40.
 See David Bentley Hart, “The Bright Morning of the Soul: John of the Cross on Theosis,” Pro Ecclesia 12.3 (2003) for an excellent elucidation of this point.
 For a helpful overview of John’s account of mystical union as it is depicted in these works, see McGinn, Mysticism in the Golden Age of Spain, 287-313.
 Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1979), 167-8.
 See Weil, Gravity and Grace, 5-9.
 See ibid., 16-18.
 See Weil, Notebooks, 157.
 “We should set aside the beliefs which fill up voids, soften bitternesses. The belief in immortality. The belief in the usefulness of sins: ‘etiam peccata.’ … The belief in the providential ordering of events. (In short, the ‘consolations’ which are often sought in religion.)” (ibid., 149).
 See ibid., 181.
 Weil, Notebooks, 252.
 Ibid., 252-3.
 Ibid., 266.
 Weil, Gravity and Grace, 11.
 Weil, Gravity and Grace, 27.
 “Even the distress of the abandoned Christ is a good. There cannot be a greater good for us on earth than to share in it” (“The Love of God and Affliction,” in Waiting for God, 75).
 Ibid., 81.
 Weil struggles to put the experience of this awareness into words: “For felicity is beyond the realm of consolation and pain, outside it. We apprehend it through a sense of another kind, just as the perception of objects at the end of a stick or an instrument is of another kind to that of touch in the strict sense of the word” (Notebooks, 237).
 See ibid., 227; 217–8.
 Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” 68.
 Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God, 64-5; emphasis added.
 Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” 68.
 Weil, “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” 93.
 A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Lucian Stone, Simone Weil and Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 40.