Enchanted by Absence

A sociologist arrived in Belfast to run a survey on the religious and political beliefs of residents in an area of historic conflict. She was confronted by a man who turned the questioning back on her, wanting to know if she was a Protestant or a Catholic. “I’m an atheist,” replied the sociologist, to which her subject responded, “Sure you’re an atheist, but is it the Protestant or the Catholic God in which you don’t believe?”

This is one of those jokes that makes you laugh and then you realise: it’s not a joke at all! This subject-turned-philosopher of the survey was making an important point. Atheism is not at all straightforward and is every bit as complex as theism – the belief in a God.

But more complex still is the ability to hold in tension the two realities. As Simone Weil playfully put it, in one of her notes, “God exists, God does not exists, where is the problem?”

If it is possible to say that the Self is both real and not real then it is also true of God. God is both real and not real. Or rather, God is and God is not.

One of our most heroic companions on this journey into God-less devotion to God is the early twentieth century mystic Simone Weil.

Simone weil was a French Jew who studied the ancient Greek philosophers and Indian scriptures and wrestled with the religious and philosophical ideas of her own era too.

But she was not only an academic, Simone Weil was also an activist. Weil could almost be said to have been born an activist, agitating both herself and others for the sake of the world as it should be.

At just six years old Weil refused to eat sugar in solidarity with soldiers on the Western front who could not get any. When she embarked on her career as a philosophy teacher during the early 1930s she refused to heat her room and lived off the equivalent in poverty in order to be in solidarity with those without work and to give her wages to the strike funds for workers struggling for their rights.

She spent a year in abysmal factory conditions in order to enter into the suffering on those labourers and even joined the Spanish anarchists in their civil war against the fascists. This latter experiment in solidarity turned out to be a complete disaster.

Simone Weil was a rubbish soldier and was eventually discharged with an injury when she accidentally walked straight into a pot of boiling water in a fire pit. This was all the excuse her comrades needed to send her packing!

But Weil was perfectly at home with her imperfections and incompleteness – even if those things frustrated her plans – because for her only God was the perfect fullness of all things.

For Weil, God is so overwhelming that God’s overt presence is destructive and God’s act of withdrawing is the primordial creative act. “God could only create by hiding himself. Otherwise there would be nothing but himself,”[1] she writes, much like the withdrawing of the tide is an act which creates the shore.

In fact Weil goes as far as to say that, “of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other.”[2] God is only known in God’s absence. The act of loving is not a self-aware act. Giving full attention to the act of love renders it invisible to the actor.[3]

When my youngest daughter was a baby she would toy with her mum’s ear while she was being fed. The habit stayed with her for years afterwards and to some extent is still there. She quickly extended the practice to me. I would watch her eyes while she took hold of my ear and explored it with her tiny fingers.

She was utterly attending to the task. It seemed obvious to the watcher that – in that moment – there was no toddler, no fingers, and no ear. She didn’t think, “This is a nice ear” or “I’m enjoying this ear”! Those superficial separations had collapsed into the moment. And it left me like a deer in headlights too: I was hooked! It brings a new definition to the saying, “I am all ears”, I think.

In that moment I and the whole universe were “all ears”! For Simone Weil we can only exist in God’s absence but we can only true know God and be known by God in our own absence: when we are obliterated by God’s presence.

This is dramatic language but can sit well with the notion that the Self is socially constructed anyway and we are at our happiest when we “lose ourselves” in the object of our affections or energies.

But more than that it asserts that any concept we have of God is a false one accept for the one that we are incapable of analysing because the moment that we do so we lose it.

Like a tightrope walker we cannot both trust the rope and look at the rope to see it is there: the moment we do we plummet! This observation is not just vital for the religiously minded, although it has particular implications for those of us who are. We can all form idolatrous attachments that we adore, in some sense. 


[1] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, 33.

[2] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, 103.

[3] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, 47.

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