Monday, June 27, 2011

Paying Attention

Right now, I am paying attention to the rain bucketing down outside my window. Actually, I could not be really paying good attention to it if I were also thinking of composing this reflection. But for the past half-hour, I have been mindful of the wonderful rain, enjoying its ability to seal me off in the present. I welcome any such experience as highly spiritual, akin to prayer.

And I have tried not to attend to the minor headache that's now receding. It might be the result of reading once again the difficult prose of Simone Weil, that most remarkable of 20th century thinkers whose remarks on attention, on silence, on affliction and other topics leap off the page with startling originality.

I have just read, "every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves. [She apparently means the selfishness.] If we concentrate with this intention, a quarter of an hour of attention is better than a great many good works." [arguable at best, it makes more sense in the context of her work and of the essay on studies that I quote]

Earlier, she has asserted, with all the confidence of the brilliant French intellectual that she was, that attention directed toward God is the very essence of prayer. This is not a new idea, but her focus on the quality of attention in relation to self-annihilation is arresting, to say the least. Weil died in 1943 of self-imposed starvation in solidarity with those who were suffering during the war.

Although she chose not to be baptized, seeing her vocation as one who attentively waits on the threshold, she was more devout as a "Catholic" outside the church than many baptized Catholics. Like Dorothy Day, she was unswervingly devoted to those who suffer: "The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing..." This sentence sums up her commitment to love Christ in and through all people.

There is no one quite like Simone Weil as a thinker, activist, and writer. Born into a secularized Jewish family in Paris, she developed a unique combination of Greek philosophy, Catholic spirituality, and social justice. She identified with the workers and, despite her physical weakness, insisted on laboring in factories in the 1930s. She believed that work is the most perfect form of obedience. This meant an interruption of the brilliant academic career for which she seemed destined.

In 1938, she spent ten days in a French monastery where she coped with intense headaches by concentrating through prayer in such a way that she transcended the pain. During that stay, she was so profoundly moved by meditating on the suffering of Christ that she felt Christ taking possession of her.

T. S. Eliot was one of many notable writers who were impressed by her mysticism, calling Weil a genius, "of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints."

Anyone interested in learning more about Simone Weil can find abundant sources on the internet, including

I have always found her essays, published after her death, rich with insights (along with some contradictions) and important for anyone interested in prayer, spirituality, and the inner life.

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