Indiana University Bloomington

Poetics of Labor: Simone Weil, St. Teresa, and Mysticism

Hannah Murray, religious studies and English

Written for REL-A351: Work and Religion

Instructor: Prof. Sonia Velazquez


The modern 20th century French philosopher-laborer, Simone Weil, and the early modern Carmelite nun, St. Teresa of Avila, demonstrate forms of mysticism where work and poetry are the focal points for transformation. A central question that drives my research is how do different forms of Christian mysticism define transformation. Though both Weil and St. Teresa argue that individuals are capable of being freed from the cycle of necessity on earth, their approaches to how this freedom occurs vary. While the content of work is found in the form of poetry for St. Teresa, the content of poetry is found in the form of work for Weil. Ultimately, given these definitions of poetry and work, I will also examine how this comparison impacts the way I’ve etymologically conceptualized the definition of mysticism.

First I’ll establish an etymological history of mysticism as defined by both the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Stanford Encyclopedia. The historical roots of mysticism delve in the idea of secrecy. Mystes derives from the Greek verb myein, which means “to close,” especially the eyes or mouth. Myein tended to indicate someone who “kept a secret” (Encyclopedia Britannica). In Early Christianity, the term usually referred to either hidden allegorical interpretations of Scriptural texts or hidden presences, such as Jesus’s body and blood at the Eucharist (Stanford Encyclopedia). As time went on, theologians discarded notions of secrecy as core to Christian doctrine, which resulted in “a transformation of the meaning of mystes” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Mystes transforms from meaning secrecy to meaning transformation. This new mystical theology included having “direct experience of the divine” (Stanford Encyclopedia). For practitioners of mystical theology, “mystical experience” was seen “as part of a larger undertaking aimed at human transformation and not as the terminus of their efforts” (Stanford Encyclopedia). According to this definition, these practitioners, or mystics, saw mystical experience as a means to the larger ends of transformation. What I will convey with both Simone Weil and St. Teresa is that transformation is simultaneously a means and an end through the transformative constituents of both poetry and work.

Simone Weil’s writing conveys two distinctive kinds of workers: workers of necessity and workers of purpose. The former cannot achieve the possibility of transformation, the latter possessing the ability for transformation. The workers of necessity are ones that remain not only stuck in the motions of a cycle of necessity but are also the ones whose attention is enraptured by the cycle itself. Weil maintains, “The unit of time is a day and [the workers of necessity] oscillate like a ball bouncing off two walls, from work to sleep, working so as to eat, eating so as to continue to work and so on ad nauseam (“Prerequisite” 246). Ultimately the workers of necessity can only see the reason for their work in order to eat, to eat in order to sleep, and to sleep in order to work. None of the workers’ actions are valued in themselves. Yet through only fixating on an act to achieve the subsequent act, these workers cannot see how their actions could extend beyond the immediacy of their effect. An “oscillation” forms where the acts only bounce back upon themselves in a cycle that forms our existence alone—eating, sleeping, working, and so on. Weil concludes, “In this sort of existence everything is intermediary, a means from which all finality is excluded” (“Prerequisite” 246). These actions are an illusion of production for the workers themselves. What they do not realize is that their acts only produce the same acts, which triggers the same oscillation. Instead, “material objects, tools, the worker’s body, and even his soul are a means of manufacturing”  (ibid). The worker’s cycle of necessity is for systemic exploitation and production, not purpose in itself.

The relentless busyness of the worker of necessity inhibits the possibility to consider what ends the actions provide. According to Weil, “the workers’ universe excludes purpose” (“Prerequisite” 247). What is meant by purpose is that the workers of necessity cannot make meaning out of the very actions they enact. Instead, they continuously act without a definite end, motivated by the false pretense that their end is existence alone. Since workers of necessity see each of their acts as endless intermediation, they assume existence is the sole end for all these acts. But the entire existence of the worker is manufactured into a means for the larger system of production. When workers rely solely on necessity they “strive from necessity” rather than be “drawn” toward “some good” (“Mysticism” 180).  Ultimately, “in the workplace, all thought is dragged down to the earth” (“Prerequisite” 249). Workers of necessity cannot help but feel the gravitational pull of work that keeps their sight only on the next task ahead of them. This gravitational pull grounds them both in and of this world, unable to see beyond, which would allow for the transformation of work and self to occur.

The workers of purpose are those who have attained the possibility to achieve this transformation. Though, one should note, the transformation does not occur through entirely escaping the cycle of necessity. Weil writes, “Existence is not an end in itself but merely the framework upon which all good, both real and imagined, may be built” (“Prerequisite” 245). In order to achieve the “good” of transformation, there must be recognition of an end that extends outside the cycle of necessity, but the cycle itself is still necessary as long as we remain existent in this world. Necessity provides intermediaries but, through shifting our focus beyond just necessity, the intermediaries are meant to go toward something else rather than bounce back upon themselves as the oscillating ball that is the worker of necessity. In order to attain this transformation as workers of purpose, workers of necessity must accrue attention since “attention is the only faculty of the soul which gives access to God” (“Prerequisite” 253). Yet the ability to make attention extend beyond the cycle of necessity is difficult since “the only perceptible objects of attention [in the workplace] are the materials, the tools, and the movements of work” (“Prerequisite” 249). However, transformation of the worker must occur through work rather than a transcendence of work completely. Therefore, the objects for the worker must be “transformed into reflection of light” so that the workers’ attention can likewise be “directed toward the source of all light” (“Prerequisite” 249). Weil concludes that, for the worker, “nothing is more urgently needed than such a transformation” (“Prerequisite” 249). Transformation is thus essential for bestowing meaning onto the workers’ life.

The central question becomes how attention can become transformative rather than oscillating. For Weil, the answer is poetry. Weil claims, “Workers need poetry more than bread. They need that their life should be a poem. They need some light from eternity” (“Mysticism” 180). However, Weil is clear to distinguish what kinds of poetry a worker needs. She does not advocate for the “poetry closed inside words” since “this is of no use to them” (“Prerequisite” 248). The tools available to workers are not books of words but actions alone. What these actions provide is “making.” The term “poetry” derives from the Greek poiesis (“the faculty of making”) and, according to the Dictionary of Untranslatables, “it is only in making that there is product to be added, later and outside it…to the implementation, to the activity itself, so that the product is more important than the activities” (822). In order for there to be a product, something must be added to the “activity itself.”

The activity alone will only trap workers in a cycle of necessity, which does not add to but repurposes the same actions again and again. Ultimately “where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of products to be better than the activities” (822). Weil favors the kind of poetry that makes, which reveals something symbolized beyond the representative parts present. Weil defines poetry as the act of making without an end product in existence alone. Poetry reveals the distinction of being in this world (necessity) but not of this world (purpose). When Weil claims that the worker’s life needs to be “like a poem,” she means the reorientation for the worker to recognize a purpose beyond this world that it symbolized through the very acts they do.

Yet where Weil differs in the above definition of poiesis is that the act of making and the product of making are equal in their transformative capacity. Transformative making is both a means and an end. Attention transforms the tools of the worker, which likewise are used as a means to produce man. Through the act of attentive labor, humans are remade by making for God rather than humans making anything of their own (i.e., their existence alone). From existence alone, nothing new can be produced. Through contemplative attention, humans are remade from the previous end they had assumed (i.e., that humans act for their existence alone). The remade humans realize their end or purpose through God, which is an end that extends beyond the work itself. The means of making remade humans is transformative just as the remade humans are transformative in themselves. The means of transformation (poetry) is transformative because the objects of work themselves are transformed. Remade humans are transformative in their capacity to transform their objects of work.

Like Weil, St. Teresa encourages individuals to see a goodness that extends beyond mere existence on earth. She writes, “But if we did what we could by not clinging to anything here, and turned all our thoughts and conversations towards Heaven, I certainly believe this blessing [communion with God] would be very quickly given to us” (Teresa 76). As Weil claims, workers need to be drawn toward goodness rather than driven from necessity. According to St. Teresa, through maintaining an aim that extends beyond a cycle of necessity, individuals can attain God’s blessing of transformation. Here, attentiveness is a “turning away” from world and instead an aim toward Heaven. In order to articulate this way of turning away from the world and becoming devoted to God, St. Teresa utilizes an analogy of drawing water from a well to please God and the level of difficulty and endurance involved, which is contingent on the individual’s level of devotion. Regarding the analogy, St. Teresa claims, “For by this drawing of water, I mean, of course, working with the understanding” (Teresa 79). St. Teresa stresses the importance of the strain/work needed in drawing water from the well while also recognizing the purpose of drawing water from the well, which is ultimately to please God. Here St. Teresa stresses a correlation similar to Weil’s contemplative work, where work cannot be valued so long as we “cling to anything here,” such as existence as an end in itself. Instead, we must “work with understanding” that the purpose of drawing the water exceeds the act alone. Yet the act in conjunction with understanding is equally as important as the product of remaking man. Both the means and the ends of St. Teresa’s devotion are equally transformative.

For St. Teresa, the purpose of drawing water from the well or remaining devoted to God is a purpose that extends beyond self-need. If individuals are to aim towards God, they must recognize the latter aim of existence as an end that cannot coincide with the former. St. Teresa writes, “We make no attempt to carry our desires into effect, and fail to raise them above the earth, and yet we want great spiritual comforts. This is not good, for the two aims are, as I see it, irreconcilable” (Teresa 77). “Our desires” keep us grounded on earth so long as we fail to see the product that is “raised above” earth, just as Weil’s idea of acts only being endlessly intermediary. What provides individuals with the ability to “carry [their] desires into effect” is recognizing the true purpose of God that extends beyond the false purpose of existence alone, or self-satisfaction alone. Even when the well is dry, individuals must continue to draw in order to please God. St. Teresa writes, “But what shall a man do here who finds that for many days on end he feels nothing but dryness, dislike, distaste and so little desire to go and draw water that he would give it up altogether if he did not remember that he is pleasing and serving the Lord of the garden” (Teresa 79). Contemplation keeps those working, and through forgetting whom the drawing of the water is meant to please, individuals may easily stop drawing the water if it comes up dry. An individual whose sole end is existence and who has forgotten to pay attention to a purpose beyond self-need would find such a task to be useless. St. Teresa continues, “He knows that he is pleasing his Master in [bringing up the water from the well], and his purpose must be to please Him and not himself” (Teresa 79). A shift in aim allows for the recognition of being in a cycle of necessity while on earth but not of a cycle of necessity that only recognizes the desires that keep individuals “clinging” to the earth.

Though both St. Teresa and Weil stress the significance of an aim that extends beyond the cycle of necessity on earth, the manifestation of how to achieve that aim varies. Like Weil, St. Teresa utilizes poetry, yet St. Teresa’s poetry is the form that allows for the content of work to be revealed. When trying to articulate God’s message, St. Teresa writes, “Here I shall have to make use of a comparison though…I should like to avoid it” (Teresa 78). The comparison refers to the well analogy, a vital poetic vehicle to demonstrate the work within the crafting of words. She continues, “But this spiritual language is so difficult to use for those like myself who have no learning, that I must find some other means of expression…But for the present [the comparison] will serve my purpose” (Teresa 78). Work is both depicted in St. Teresa’s symbol of the well and required by St. Teresa to achieve the expression of the symbolic in order to be of use for those who read it. Her poetry is the transformative means that individuals must work for in order to realize a purpose that extends beyond just drawing water from a well. St. Teresa provides a redemption of the poetic word which Weil otherwise discards for workers. What St. Teresa provides is a reimagining of a worker as one who transforms the word into the Word of God through the making of poetry. Without the well analogy, we lose meaning in what we do. Through her poetry, St. Teresa allows for the readers to experience the work by contemplative means. Her poetry spurs the work of interpretation, the attempt at understanding what is beyond the letters on the page. The work of symbolizing for the author and the work of interpreting for the reader allows for the simultaneous transformation of the Word into an aim that is beyond form alone. What I mean by “Word” is the embodied Holy Spirit, which is “the entry into the flow of divine desire” (Coakley 24). The Word is what stimulates the desire for God. The Word critically requires the form, or means, in order to provide the work. Words give rise to the greatest form of attention—symbolic attention—that unveils what is beyond merely letters.

For Weil, work can be transformed into the Word through poetry. Weil makes a clear distinction between the intellectual and the worker while St. Teresa reveals the way an intellectual can also function as a worker. On the intellectual’s attempt at understanding the worker, Weil states, “Inside a room, if one wishes to think about spiritual death being a prerequisite of true rebirth, one needs words about the seed fertilized by death alone” (“Prerequisite” 250). According to Weil, those who remain seated and separate from the physicality of work rely solely on words. Words actually inhibit the experience of actually sowing the seeds and the ability to find the true kind of attention that will allow for the accessibility to God. On the other hand, a sower in the act of sowing “may, if he wishes, through his own movements and the site of the seed entering the earth, direct his attention toward the truth without the help of a single word.” Poetry is not found through words but through actions. The reason is not because Weil prefers action alone but that action is the form required to provide the content of attention, which creates poetry. She continues, “If he does not reason around it but simply looks, the undiminished attention he pays to the accomplishment of his task reaches the very highest degree of intensity” (“Prerequisite” 250). According to Weil, reasoning with words can only circle around the truth. Through work, individuals can pay attention, and thus be transformed through this poetic blend.

Given the argument I have articulated above, I would like to question the current linear model upheld that from secrecy comes transformation. Instead, through St. Teresa and Weil’s framework, I want to argue for the definition of secrecy as in itself transformative. For both St. Teresa and Weil, myein (“to close” one’s eyes or mouth) is actually a necessary step toward attention. This attention is essential for transformation. St. Teresa stresses the importance of “blinding the eyes of the mind,” the eyes which “ask why He gives devotion to this person after a few days, and none to you after so many years” (Teresa 81). The act of “closing the eyes” in order to truly see allows for individuals to realize the aims that extend beyond why God provides some with more devotion or “water” than others in this world. Instead of allowing sight to be so self-involved in product and profit, St. Teresa instead encourages, “Let us believe that it is all for our greater good” (Teresa 81). She continues, “I clearly see that there is nothing in the world with which we could buy so great a blessing” (Teresa 76). Attention allows for accessibility to God’s blessing.

Similarly, Weil articulates a transcendence of earthly senses when she claims, “[Marx] did not know that in all domains, opposites are unified on a plane transcending both” (“Prerequisite” 254). Weil disputes Marx’s dialecticism, where existence is defined by opposition. Individuals are of this world when they govern their truth by opposition, which therefore create the boundaries from God not unlike the oscillating ball’s walls. For Weil, “The meeting point of intellectual and manual work is contemplation, which is no work at all” (“Prerequisite” 254). Through the capacity to see beyond constructs that govern our existence, such as the theory of dialecticism, Weil proposes the possibility of the seemingly impossible such as contemplation. For workers, “no terrestrial finality separates [them] from God. They alone are so situated” (“Mysticism” 180). Workers of purpose have the capacity to see the union between themselves and God. “All other conditions imply special aims, which form a screen between man and pure good” (“Mysticism” 180). These “special aims” are those that are ultimately for existence alone. Through endless intermediaries for existence alone, workers of necessity stratify their distance from God. “But for [workers of purpose] no such screen exists” (“Mysticism” 180). Closing of the eyes from this world allows for the dissolution of a screen that inhibits seeing beyond.

Both Weil and St. Teresa articulate mysticisms that require work and poetry in order for transformation to occur. In order to see beyond the cycle of necessity and realize a purpose, Weil and St. Teresa stress the importance of attention. Yet they differ in how attention can be achieved. For Weil, the actions of work function as the form that allows for the transformative attention of poetry to occur. On the other hand, St. Teresa utilizes the poetic word as a form that can be filled with work on a symbolic and interpretive level. This blend of poetry and work allows for the words to be transformed into the Word. Through the use of poetry in both Weil and St. Teresa’s mysticisms, the very etymological conceptualization of mysticism is transformed to reveal what it always already has meant. Myein does not merely mean secrecy at one point and transforms into meaningful transformation later on. Instead, through understanding both Weil and St. Teresa, it is possible to see how myein, or closing eyes to this world, in itself means transformation through the ability to see beyond necessity.

Though mysticism’s transformation allows for the ability to see beyond necessity, this transformation still requires being in this world. Transcendence of the world should only be applied to attention. St. Teresa requires that those attempting to gain a closer to relationship to God, “should endeavor to meditate on the life of Christ, and thus the intellect will grow tired” (79). By meditating on “the life of Christ” that is not of this world, individuals’ “intellects” that are of this world will tire in order to access the sight of attention. Yet this advancement of our attention to see beyond this world is ultimately to help us engage in this world. St. Teresa claims, “Up to this point we can advance ourselves, though with God’s help of course, for without it, as everyone knows, we cannot think one good thought” (79). For St. Teresa, it is necessary to be in this world but not of this world in order to gain access to good thoughts. These “good thoughts,” like Weil’s “good” work, transform the thoughts of the intellect into the “good thoughts” of attention toward God. To close one’s eyes to this world is not to transcend it. Otherwise, there would be no need for thought at all. Instead, what St. Teresa as well as Weil demonstrate are ways that individuals can transform work in this world with the help of “goodness” into attention to what lies beyond this world.

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