At the height of the Second World War, French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943) urged the Allies to provide planes so that squads of white-clad nurses could parachute onto the battlefield. The nurses would give medical aid and emotional comfort to the wounded and the dying. They would be completely unarmed.
General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, reportedly said, “She’s crazy!” You might be thinking the same thing. But you would be missing her point. Her very Jesus-y point.
From a military perspective, de Gaulle was right. Unarmed nurses do not destroy enemy tanks and kill enemy infantry. The Allied aim was to crush the Nazi war machine. Weil’s plan would have resulted in the almost certain death of many of those nurses and would produce no strategic result.
I suspect that Weil thoroughly understood that her plan offered no tactical advantages to the Allied Forces. Don’t get me wrong, she passionately supported the military defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich. In fact, she had been involved in the French Resistance before escaping to Britain, and she continued to support its work from across the English Channel.
Weil saw that the Allied war effort was required to defeat the evil of Nazism. But she also realized that something more would be needed to heal the physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation of war. In fact, she perceived in war’s devastation an element that pervades the human condition. She called it “affliction.”
Our affliction did not begin with World War II. It has always marred human existence. Affliction is more than temporary, merely physical suffering. Affliction is the kind of suffering that diminishes and distorts human life and robs it of its dignity. It debases us both physically and spiritually. Poverty, chronic disease, mental illness, hunger, violence, homelessness, oppression, and racism crush body and soul.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus looked out at the crowds following him, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless.” (Matthew 9:36a) Jesus saw their affliction. He gave his life to heal their bodies and to liberate their souls.
And he sends his disciples into the world—he sends you and me—to follow his example. He tells us, “Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (Matthew 10:7-8) It seems to me that Weil had somehow heard that message and received that call.
Weil had grown up in a secular Jewish home. While in school, she began having a series of mystical experiences. These epiphanies had a profound effect on her philosophical studies. Moved by her compassion for the suffering of the poor, Weil committed herself wholeheartedly to justice and the common good. She resigned her teaching post and took a factory job in order to live and work among the poor. During the Spanish Civil War, she joined the forces fighting to liberate themselves from Franco’s oppressive Fascist regime.
She once wrote, “Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.” (Simone Weil, Lectures on Philosophy) Her white-nurse plan was an expression of her solidarity with, her compassion for, the suffering of others.
Weil was not a Christian. In the last years of her short life, she seems to have been moving toward Catholicism. Nevertheless, her life embodied the pattern Jesus set for his disciples. She walked the way of compassion.
Jesus asks more of us than sympathy. Sympathy keeps us at a distance. We see that another person has fallen into the pit, and we sincerely hope that they will find a way back out. We may even throw a rope down for them, or at least a flashlight and a bag lunch.
Compassion is something more. We admit that we’ve been at the bottom of a pit ourselves. And only by virtue of someone else’s compassion did we ever find our way out. So we climb down, put our arm around the person in the pit, and assure them that we won’t leave them until we both feel the sun on our face and the wind in our hair.
Well, strictly speaking, we’re not the ones who will get anybody else out of the pit. Jesus does that. In fact, Jesus keeps doing it for us. But he wants us to show up on his behalf.
Simone Weil was 34 when she died. Her health had been frail for most of her life, she kept a very demanding schedule of helping others, and she practiced an ascetic lifestyle. Toward the end, she insisted on eating only the number of calories that were available to her French compatriots in Nazi-occupied territory.
Few of us are called to lives of heroic self-sacrifice like Simone Weil was. Jesus urges most us to take one small compassionate step at a time. Steps like kindness, humility, and patience. Courage, mercy, and generosity.
Those small steps might seem insignificant to you. But they’re not. Jesus is working through each of them. It’s how he mends the world.
We’re looking ahead a week to Proper 6A and focusing on Matthew 9:35-10:8. If you would like to ponder the lessons for this coming Sunday (Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26) check out last week’s post “Looking for Mercy”