Jan 14, 2013
Very rarely do you meet someone who went to extremes to know God. Simone Weil was such a person. She has been hailed by some as the greatest spiritual writer of the 20th century.
What is most striking to me is her connection with how paying attention is the key to being close to God. She wrote, “The key to Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention.” She goes on, “The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.”
Born a French Jew in Paris in 1909, she was different even as a child, as teachers and parents recognized her incredible intellect. She studied philosophy, became a teacher and a social activist. Along the way, she began to read about the life and teachings of Jesus. She fell in love with Jesus. Yet she never joined a church or formally became a Christian. She didn’t even write a book. Rather, a series of letters and essays were compiled after her death, which led to four books. I am reading, “Waiting For God.”
For the average person who does not understand what it means to fully pay attention, her assertion may seem meaningless and even laughable. But if you remotely understand how challenging it is to put 100% of your attention into something without your mind wandering, you will appreciate the wisdom in Ms. Weil’s statement. She is talking about “being present.”
She connects the dots for us in no uncertain terms in this example. “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 than 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 in the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer.”
When I was 22, I had this very experience. I lived in Quebec for six months and I had to speak French the entire time. Without knowing it, I was forced to pay full attention to every word and syllable that I heard or spoke. In the beginning it was exhausting. By the end, I was quite fluent.
This experience led to a radical change in my own self-perception, my confidence and my success at work. The effect lasted 18 months. When it disappeared, I felt its absence for many years, like a tongue noticing a missing tooth.
Simone left us with some brilliant insights on what full attention means spiritually as a human being:
“Humility is attentive patience.” (…how life-changing this truth has been for me.)
“In struggling against anguish, one never produces serenity; the struggle against anguish only produces more anguish.” (Psychotherapist experts agree. It is called The Paradox of Change)
“The highest ecstasy is attention at its fullest.” (As an example, think of thrill-seekers….)
“Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.” (I believe this is what every soul craves)
“Difficult as it is to really listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for him to know that compassion is listening to him.” (I have witnessed this countless times)
“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions. Reality can be attained only by someone who is detached.” (I call this the ‘Spiritual Law of Serenity’)
“Imagination and fiction make up more than three-quarters of our real life.” (…which is why we don’t pay attention very well)
Simone Weil had an extraordinary capacity to capture her experience in word that the rest of us could understand. Her life was a gift to us. She only lived to be 34 years old, yet she surprisingly avoided the Nazi fate of her Jewish compatriots. She died in England in 1943, almost willing herself to die by refusing the full medical attention she needed. I think I get that.
If you struggle to put your full attention into whatever you are doing, you might find this list helpful: Twenty Ways to Be More Present, from my first book What’s Important Now (© 2002)
If you want to learn more about Simone Weil, look up her books on the web. A movie about her life was also recently produced called An Encounter With Simone Weil. I’m trying to find a way to view it as its distribution is severely limited. Here is the trailer:
I end this blog with a hope and a prayer that your capacity to give your full attention to your moment-to-moment reality, especially when the moment if difficult or nerve-racking, will grow today and every day. Constant inner peace will be your reward.