Nailed to the Center of the Universe

despair_3Affliction, says Jewish-Christian mystic, Simone Weil, is like a nail being driven into a piece of wood: it brings the one whose orientation is to love, into the very presence of God.

Extreme affliction, which means physical pain, distress of soul, and social degradation, all at the same time, is a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul, whose head is all necessity spreading throughout space and time.[1]

Weil makes a categorical distinction between suffering and malheur, which can be translated “misfortune,” “tragedy” or, as most of Weil’s translators render it, “affliction.” In English, affliction carries the meaning of persistent distress or pain, such as disease. Weil infuses this word with a sense of inevitability and dread; a kind of ‘dark night of the soul’ which goes beyond, but includes, physical and emotional suffering.

What is remarkable about Weil, and others like her, is her ability to understand suffering without the imposed moralism that typically goes with it. She saw affliction as both a function of necessity and chance. Necessity, in the sense that affliction is part of the normal order of things and thus inescapable, let alone surprising. Chance, in that affliction does not have a moral valence. It is random and not necessarily related to the sin of the one being afflicted.

Speaking about suffering is a challenging thing. The minute you attempt to explain it you risk glorifying or justifying it in some way; minimizing the horror. I respond negatively to any notion of determinism, and Weil’s philosophy of affliction comes close to this, as she describes nature and matter simply being obedient to God. She writes:

All the horrors produced in this world are like the folds imposed upon the waves by gravity. That is why they contain an element of beauty.

I rebel: suffering is not beautiful! And yet the experience of two World Wars must certainly have inoculated Weil against glib expressions of suffering’s beauty. So I begin to examine my own biases and realize once again that I am accustomed to the world bending to my will. I am, after all, a white American male. Determinism or fate has no part in my philosophical framework. The world is malleable. It is what I make it, or so I’ve been taught.

In addition I must grapple with her other statements about affliction, like this one:

Affliction renders God absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than the light in a completely dark cell. A sort of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence there is nothing to love. What is terrible is that in this darkness where there is nothing to love, if the soul ceases to love, the absence of God becomes final. The soul has to go on loving in the emptiness, or at least to go on wanting to love, though it may only be with an infinitesimal part of itself. Then, one day, God will come to show himself to this soul and to reveal the beauty of the world to it, as in the case of Job. But if the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell.

Suffering is certainly not romantic or beautiful in the shallow sense but there is, potentially, something at work that keeps it from being absolutely meaningless, as it so often appears in my own experience. I understand all too well the darkness of God’s devastating absence in which “there is nothing to love.” Here Weil even admits that loving is not necessary. Perhaps even “wanting to love…with an infinitesimal part of itself” is enough. This reminds me of the cry of the father of a tormented son, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Loving in the emptiness. It is a challenge but it is not impossible. It is not like believing in the emptiness, or hoping against hope. We can chose to love. To act from love. And when we do, something remarkable is made possible. Her essay ends with these remarkable words.

Affliction is a marvel of divine technique. It is a simple and ingenious device which introduces into the soul of a finite creature the immensity of force, blind, brutal, and cold. The infinite distance separating God from the creature is entirely concentrated into one point to pierce the soul in its center.

The man to whom such a thing happens has no part in the operation. He struggles like a butterfly pinned alive into an album. But through all the horror he can continue to want to love. There is nothing impossible in that, no obstacle, one might almost say no difficulty. For the greatest suffering, so long as it does not cause the soul to faint, does not touch the acquiescent part of the soul, consenting to a right direction.

It is only necessary to know that love is a direction and not a state of the soul. If one is unaware of this, one falls into despair at the first onslaught of affliction.

He whose soul remains ever turned toward God, though the nail pierces, he finds himself nailed to the very center of the universe. It is the true center; it is not in the middle; it is beyond space and time; it is God. In a dimension that does not belong to space, that is not time, that is indeed quite a different dimension, this nail has pierced cleanly through all creation, through the thickness of the screen separating the soul from God.

In this marvelous dimension, the soul, without leaving the place and the instant where the body to which it is united is situated, can cross the totality of space and time and come into the very presence of God.

It is at the intersection of creation and its Creator. This point of intersection is the point of intersection of the arms of the Cross.

Weil’s words are terrifyingly vivid and resonate: “like a butterfly pinned alive into an album.” And, in a sort of dénouement to her argument, she speaks of being “nailed to the center of the universe.” Never before has anyone made being nailed to anything sound appealing. Until now.

For the soul that remains oriented toward God—that is, oriented toward love, which throughout her essay is the very definition of God—there remains the possibility of entering the very presence of God. Affliction is the way. Actually, love is the way. Affliction is simply the (un)usual occasion for the sort of love that pierces the veil separating us from God.

Those who are in the thick of affliction, who feel that a nail has pierced not only their body but also their soul are more likely to think of it as meaningless, but even the famous existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, wrote,

“What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.”

As I attempt to sort through the seeming meaninglessness and confusion of my own life experience I am encouraged to press deeper into the despair that threatens, at times, to swallow me alive. I am challenged by Simone Weil, Søren Kierkegaard, and others, to stare into the abyss until my eyes begin to adjust, until the darkness becomes a new kind of light.

I am reminded once again that suffering—or affliction—is not the thing, but love. When all else seems impossible, and there is nothing to love in the face of God’s absence, “soul has to go on loving in the emptiness, or at least to go on wanting to love” or risk falling “into something almost equivalent to hell.”

—Ryan Bell


[1] All quotes from Simone Weil are from her essay, “The Love of God and Affliction” in Simone Weil, Awaiting God (Abbotsford, BC: Fresh Wind Press, 2012).

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