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Attention, a necessary condition

· Spirituality ·

It was 1940. France was partially occupied by the Nazis and the French Jewish intellectual Simone Weil, one of the most original voices of the 20th century, after much hesitation left Paris with her parents. She moved first to Vichy and then to Toulouse and finally, in September, to Marseille where she hoped it would be easier to board a boat in order to reach Free France, the resistance movement organized by Charles de Gaulle from England. Her plan soon proved to be very difficult to carry out and, obliged to stay longer in this Mediterranean city, she established new cultural relations and friendships, she formed new ties with old acquaintances and sought work as a farm labourer. This enforced stay in Marseille prevented her from immediately implementing her political project but was not unfruitful. The young philosopher was to live one of the most spiritually fruitful periods of her life in Marseille between 1940 and 1941.

Simone Weil in an illustration by Paula Cabildo

Indeed it was in this period that, as well as drafting her Cahiers de Marseille [Marseille Notebooks] and her writings on the Greek tradition which were to come together in Intuitions pré-chrétiennes [Pre-Christian Intuitions], she wrote several essays on the love of God which are true jewels of Christian meditation. Two of these reflect precisely on the significance of prayer: Á propos du Pater [Concerning the Our Father], and Reflexions sur le bon usage des études scolaires en vue de l’amour de Dieu [Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God].

Before her arrival in Marseille Simone Weil had never prayed. Of course in 1937 she had already had her Assisi experience in which for the first time in her life something stronger than herself had forced her to kneel while she was in Santa Maria degli Angeli in the Chapel of the Porziuncola, and later, during Easter 1938, she had had in Solesmes the unexpected encounter with Christ, person to person, while she was reciting George Herbert’s poem, Love. However, never before – as she confided to Joseph-Marie Perrin, the young Dominican father she had met in Marseille with whom in this period she kept up a copious correspondence – had it happened that she had prayed, in the literal sense of the word. She had never addressed words to God, she had never recited a liturgical prayer. So what had occurred? What had urged her to pray?

While she was working on the farm of Gustave Thibon, the peasant-philosopher who, at Perrin’s suggestion, she had asked to teach her a little Greek, Simone thought of using the text of the Our Father. And it was then that the infinite sweetness of that Greek text won her heart, to the point that for several days she could not do without reciting it to herself continuously and, when later she began to harvest the grapes, every day before starting work she would recite the Our Father in Greek and repeated it frequently in the vineyard. From that moment she resolved to recite it every morning with absolute attention. “If while I say it”, she confided to the Dominican father who had become a friend, “my attention strays or is blunted, even only in an infinitesimal way, I begin again from the beginning until I have for once achieved absolutely pure attention”.

The chapel of Saint-Sulpice among the vineyards of Saint-Marcel-d’Ardèche

It is easy to see from this quotation how important the concept of “attention” is in order to grasp Weil’s conception of prayer. Indeed, for the French Jewish woman praying meant nothing other than orienting to God all the attention of which the soul is capable, as we read in the lovely essay she wrote for the Catholic students of Montpellier, Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God. In this sense, attention applied to school texts is a preparation and an education for that more elevated and intense attention required by prayer.

But for Weil if prayer consisted of attention, if this was its substance, then praying mechanically without paying attention to the words pronounced mentally or aloud means not praying, or at least not really praying. What, therefore, is attention and how is it developed? How do we become attentive? How do we teach ourselves attention and concentration?

Attention, for Simone Weil, was neither an act of will nor a muscular effort. In her experience as a teacher she had realized that when she asked her students to pay attention she saw them wrinkle their brows, hold their breath and contract their muscles, but if a few minutes later she asked them what they had paid attention to they were unable to reply. In fact, they had not paid attention, they had simply contracted their muscles.

Yet in Weil’s opinion attention was neither an innate quality nor something that happens without our consent: it presupposes a task, it entails an effort, perhaps greater than any other, but this is a negative effort. In order to look at a beautiful painting or to listen to a passage of music and especially to pray to God with attention it is necessary to free one’s mind from personal preoccupations, thoughts and desires and to create an emptiness within oneself. Attention is expectation and like expectation it presupposes that every other occupation and purpose has been set aside and that we are entirely focused on what is happening. Paying attention thus requires the hard work and effort involved in effacing the will and the ego in order to make them open to accepting and letting themselves be filled by something else.

Like expectation, attention is thus a non-active action, a passive activity. It is the act by which the ego detaches itself from itself and returns to itself: “Attention”, we read in the essay just cited, “is detaching oneself from oneself and returning to oneself, just as one breathes in and breathes out”.

However if in order to know the truth it is necessary to pay attention, to be attentive it is necessary to desire the truth. Only a correctly orientated desire makes us capable of attention in studies, only an authentic love for truth and for God renders us capable of accepting them in reflection and in prayer. Simone Weil, a pupil of the Kantian philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier (known as Alain), was convinced that a well-oriented desire was one that desires truth only for truth’s sake and good only for goodness’ sake. Any other motivation that intervenes in the attention with which we make ourselves available to truth and to God degrades, contaminates and undermines it.

A student who applies him- or herself to studying with commitment in order to obtain good marks in examinations may even succeed in obtaining them but will never know the pure truth. His or her desire is not sufficiently whole because it is not guided by disinterested thought or by that “intellectual probity” which alone, in purifying him or her, would have led the student to the truth. In the same way, we must not pray to God, our Father who is in heaven, in order to ask him for something, however noble and lofty it may be, whose purpose is that of our own will. As the prayer which Jesus taught us says, commented upon line by line by the philosopher in Concerning the Our Father, it is necessary to pray to God so that his will may be done, whatever it may be.

Thus for Simone Weil prayer involved a preventive inner disposition, a preparation for contact with God. The disinterested approach, which Simone Weil preferred to describe as “impersonal”, is what disposes us to attention and opens our consciousness to truth. Better put, it is what prepares us to receive it.

There is in Weil always a deeply-rooted reservation about the ego and all that concerns the personal sphere, which she maintains is always invalidated by self-centredness. Praying, in short, thus means for her tearing our own desire and thought from the cage of the ego to orientate it to God. And the outcome of prayer conceived in this way is to assimilate ourselves to God, to make ourselves perfect as is our Father who is in heaven and to love the world as he loves it, impartially. The Gospel verse which Weil repeatedly comments on in her work and seems always to have in mind in her religious reflection is that which says: “Be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45).

However, if in prayer we become his children, similar to him in love, in the imitation of the indiscriminate distribution of rain and sunlight, this filiation and assimilation are nevertheless not a human achievement. For Simone Weil it is God who raises us and makes us his children. If, therefore, desire orientated to God is the only force capable of uplifting the soul, the action of God who comes to hold on to the soul and to raise it is a response to this desire. “He comes”, the writer notes, “only to those who invite him to come; to those who ask him often, for a long time and ardently”. And she insists: “God cannot exempt himself from coming down to them”.

Thus for Simone Weil God is not only the impersonal fate of the stoics, he is not necessity, even though this is one of his aspects, but is a God who loves, who listens to the sincere prayers of human beings, who waits at the door of their souls, ready to enter as soon as they invite him to.

He is the God love of the Gospel, of the mystics, who makes himself present to those who love him and invoke him in prayer, pure and disinterested, as happened to Simone during her recitation of the Our Father. “Sometimes”, she told Perrin, “already the first words tear my thoughts from my body to carry them to a place outside space, where there is neither perspective nor point of view. The space opens up. The infinity of the ordinary space of perception is replaced by an infinity to the second or sometimes the third power. At the same time this infinity is entirely filled with silence, which is not the absence of sound but rather the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of a sound. Noises, if there are any, reach me only after passing through this silence. And at times, during these recitations or at other moments, Christ is present in person, but with a presence infinitely more real, more touching, clearer and fuller of love than when he took hold of me for the first time”.

Isabella Adinolfi




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 22, 2020