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Lecture honors life of spiritual woman

Tess Civantos | Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI, philosopher Albert Camus and poet T.S. Eliot were only three of the countless people who were profoundly influenced by the works of philosopher and activist Simone Weil, Sister Ann Astell said in her lecture Tuesday.

Most of Weil’s writings, Astell said, were published after her premature death at age 34.

Astell’s lecture was the second of four in a series sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Culture. The series, entitled “Close to Catholic: A Celebration of Kindred Spirits,” includes one lecture each about Simone Weil, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The lecture series is part of the Center’s annual Catholic Culture lecture series, held every fall since 2002.

Astell, an associate professor of theology, published an article relating the works of Simone Weil to that of Saint Edith Stein and philosopher René Girard.

“I sat at my desk morning and night for days, reading [Weil’s writings] during spring break of 1993,” Astell said. “She made me think and compelled me to write.”

Astell began her lecture by describing Weil’s brief, eccentric life. Weil feared a futile life without children.

“The fear of being a barren fruit tree tears my heart,” she said.

Weil was also known for her odd clothing, clumsiness, constant illness and “partly acknowledged, partly denied” psychological obsessions, Astell said. Her quirks made it difficult for her to interact with other people.

Despite her dislike of social interaction, Weil cared deeply for social issues. She was very politically active in her youth.

Then, at age 28, Weil had a mystical vision of Christ that changed her life.

Astell distributed to the audience Weil’s written transcription of this experience and asked assistants to read it aloud.

“Weil responds immediately in obedience to this Christian vocation,” Astell said of the vision, “but it doesn’t call for Baptism.”

Weil remained un-baptized throughout her life, however. Her rationale for this included, Astell said, her own imperfection, her dislike of the Church as an institution, her desire to remain united to the mass of unbelievers and her dislike of the Church’s social teachings because of her own distaste for social interaction.

“Weil agonized for years over whether to accept Baptism,” Astell said. “She asked, ‘What is the Church to say about a case like mine, that falls outside the bounds of a Church that claims to be catholic, to be open to all Christian vocations?'”

Weil suggested that the Church had read itself “too narrowly, too humanly” and that her experience called it to a truer universality.

Although Weil never formally joined the Church, she deeply influenced the Second Vatican Council, Astell said. The document “Lumen Gentium,” which emerged directly from the Council, answered her call for a truly Catholic church.

Pope Benedict XVI, who attended the Council in his youth, is known to quote Weil’s writings.

Astell suggested that Weil is perhaps a non-Catholic saint. She waited for many years “at the threshold of the Church,” Astell said, and perhaps at the end of her life, Christ carried her across it.

“Weil thought she wasn’t loving enough to be baptized,” Astell said. “Only a saint would think that.”

Astell noted in closing that instead of being “close to Catholic,” Weil may in fact have been truly Catholic.

Meanwhile, Astell’s interest in Weil is only beginning.

“I’ve had this interest in her,” Astell said, “and I certainly hope to continue my research on Weil.”