“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." Simone Weil
The writings of Simone Weil were never published in her lifetime. The first collection of writings to ever see publication is called Gravity and Grace. This book, as well as the lived life of Simone Weil, changed lives.
Gravity and Grace was put together by a farmer she stayed with named Gustave Thibon, a French philosopher and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times. Words like “The hero wears armor, the saint is naked” are written with a fierce conviction shared by his guest, Simone Weil.
He witnessed Simone Weil’s devotion firsthand and became one of her most trusted friends.
Contemporary French philosopher, Michel Serres, called Simone Weil “the first philosopher to really speak of violence in all its dimension.” After reading Gravity and Grace in his early 20s, he pursued the humanities instead of mathematics.
Albert Camus described Simone Weil as the only great spirit of our time.
Julia Kristeva told an interviewer that Simone Weil’s populism and wandering were more appealing to her than Simone de Beauvoir’s rational thinking.
Emmanuel Levinas was influenced by her but is more critical in his response to her. He had issues with her understanding of Judaism. His ethics were concerned with seeing God in the face of the other. He saw Weil’s mysticism as a selfish pursuit of individual salvation.
One of the aspects of Simone Weil I appreciate most so far – or perhaps identify with best – is her ability to live in contradiction because she lives by conviction. What I mean by this is that if we are to live authentic lives, we must face the ambiguities of life and all of the seeming contradictions they stir up. To participate in life despite these ambiguities is challenging.
Perhaps these ambiguities result from language, perception, or social constructions. When we participate in life, we inevitably confront ambiguity and contradiction. We often observe people who answer ambiguity with a posture of fear. With admirable execution, Simone Weil lived a life of faith despite these contradictions – constantly analyzing the world around her and the God above her.
Living by conviction was also manifest in her observations of suffering. I find it difficult to write about her conviction level without diminishing it. Because some people slept without a bed, she slept on the floor. Not everyone had food, so she sacrificed eating. Her dedication to the suffering of others was profound. While heroes wore armor, she remained naked.
Because of this, Simone Weil left most of her readers perplexed. She lived by a fierce conviction with a rare dedication to God and others. She had an intellect capable of unraveling the systems of thought that motivate governing principles or organizations. She had an uncanny ability to detect contradiction and the profound power to live within that paradox.
"At this moment I should be more ready to die for the Church, if one day before long it should need anyone to die for it, than I should be to enter it. To die does not commit one to anything, if one to say such a thing; it does not contain anything in the nature of a lie... At present I have the impression that I am lying whatever I do, whether it be by remaining outside the Church or by entering it. The question is to know where there is less of a lie...."
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
This power to live with paradox has everything to do with what she calls the rarest and purest form of generosity: attention. Attention manifests in prayer and a turning toward God, but the material you attend to that makes up the quality of that prayer is anything the light touches.
“If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so thatn at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer.” Simone Weil, Waiting for God
The habit of attention leads to enlivenment – a mutual transformation of the attender and attendee. Attention is the beginning of education. As such, Simone Weil echoes Charlotte Mason when she says training in the habit of attention ought to be our first duty in training school children and students. Every school exercise is like a sacrament that we attend to while maintaining a sense of wonder. As Mary Oliver recognizes, training a child in the habit of attention begins as soon as we step outside:
"Teach the children. We don't matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafrass and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones - inkberry, lamb's quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones - rosemary, oregano. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.
Attention is the beginning of devotion."
Attention creates an altar where the inner and outer worlds converge. So we must be wary when that genuine sense of wonder turns to curiosity. If we look for an end, a solution, or a kind of arrival, we forfeit the tenderness and care that comes from anticipation.
"Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness - an empathy - was necessary if the attention was to matter." Mary Oliver