08/21/2013 03:38 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Simone Weil's Selfless Devotion

My own sense of religious devotion revolves around what may strike a hard-line member of the God Squad as pretty bland. Do good. Make good choices. Be kind and humble and generous and make peace. I focus on making unselfish choices as often as possible and leave the rest of the issues to the theologians and clerics. It's pretty simple, but it isn't easy. Try it sometime.

So, when I open up Gravity and Grace, a collection of aphorisms by Simone Weil, I'm confronted with a woman Albert Camus called "the only great spirit of our times." The New York Times referred to her as "one of the most brilliant and original minds of 20th century France." Her devotion was extreme and austere, and completely unlike my own. It's unsettling and humbling to see how completely she gave herself up to her faith in France during the 1940s. If she had taken a couple more steps and become, in her own milieu, an exclusively social activist like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. -- and she easily could have, given her embrace of the underclass -- I'd probably be tweeting quotes from her every few days.

It's nearly impossible to categorize her. She was a Jewish woman surprised and consumed by Christian faith who could quote the Upanishads to baffled peasants, and did. She admired the principles of many other philosophies as well, such as Buddhism and Taoism, and especially the works of Plato (like Iris Murdoch, for whom the Good was essentially God). In other words, she was no ideologue. Weil advocated a completely negative path, filled with the sort of renunciation one hears about normally in the writings of mystics. Her goal was to efface herself so completely that God could act through her as a selfless agent of compassion. She prized affliction and loss as the preparatory ground of spiritual renewal and true faith. She was a social misfit, a figure like Van Gogh, who always said exactly what she thought, and her scathing, involuntary honesty alienated people and often isolated her. She could have said, along with Oscar in Oscar and Lucinda, "I don't fit." Though she was a teacher, her spirit of solidarity with society's poor and overlooked drove her to take on labor that helped to speed her death from illness: a factory job with Renault, farm labor, anything that required taxing physical exertion. As her editor says in the introduction to Gravity and Grace: "She felt at ease only on the lowest rung of the social ladder, lost among the masses of poor folk and outcasts of this world." (At the age of six, she refused to eat sugar because soldiers on the front lines had to go without it.) She often suffered from debilitating headaches and her precarious health and poor diet sustained her only into her thirties. She died at the age of 34.

In her spare time, basically, she collected her thoughts in writing. They are bracing and often difficult:

• We are drawn toward a thing because we believe it is good. We end by being chained to it because it has become necessary.

• The most commonplace truth when it floods the whole soul is like a revelation.

• Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

And those are some of her easier aphorisms.

Here's the thing. I simply disagree with much of what she says. I don't presume to say she's wrong. It's just that I follow a different path. For her, human beings must surrender completely to God and let God act through them, which isn't a new message by any means and can be found in most religious traditions. Passive, passionate attention is, for her, the crux of a spiritual life and the origin of goodness: the good happens on its own when you empty yourself of selfish pursuits. This is an Eastern notion, and it echoes many strains in Hinduism, Buddhism and the lectures of Krishnamurti. For her, a willful, individual struggle for good and against evil is fruitless -- one must let God do the choosing. Let go and let God: Twelve-Steppers would applaud, right? Personally, I hesitate to accept this. I believe each individual has to undertake the struggle of making good choices every day and this conscious struggle is all that can change the world.

Yet, Weil speaks with the authority of someone describing with scrupulous honesty her own arduous spiritual journey toward a kind of self-effacement unknown in American public life now. I'm in awe of her surrender to that path. When I read about her eagerness to work on a farm alongside the illiterate and poor, for example, I'm inspired and, again, humbled. Like Jesus, she accepted the hardest life has to offer as an affirmation of God and, because of her fragile health, she died young (and, as it happens, internationally celebrated) because she stayed true to her unusual, unique journey toward God.

I share Weil's story as a way of respecting paths different from my own. Our quests to achieve our own ultimate potential chart many different routes through the world, and Weil's self-sacrifice was one of the most difficult and inspiring. Is there a way of learning from her example while continuing with the lives we're living now? I'm fascinated by that possibility. What do you think?