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Simone Weil and the sacred power of practicing attention

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©Whiteimages/Leemage / AFP

Portrait de Simone Weil (1909-1943) jeune fille ©Whiteimages/Leemage

Daniel Esparza - published on 05/12/24

The French philosopher known for her profound spirituality and commitment to social justice saw attention as nothing less than a gateway to the divine.

Note the linguistic differences in how we express attention: English speakers “pay attention,” as if it were a transaction of sorts; Spanish speakers “lend attention” instead (prestar atención), as if emphasizing its temporary, fleeting nature; German speakers “gift attention” (Aufmerksamkeit schenken), as it implies a kind of donation of one’s own time — and self.

Simone Weil, the French philosopher known for her profound spiritual writings and commitment to social justice, saw attention as a gateway to the divine — and nothing less. In her posthumous collections of reflections, First and Last Notebooks and Gravity and Grace, she famously wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Not a transaction, nor a loan, but a pure gift.

Practicing attention

Weil argued that spiritual transformation cannot be achieved through sheer force of will alone. She writes, “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.” What does it mean to cure one’s faults by attention? In our attempts to become better, forceful willpower often becomes counterproductive. As Catholics, we recognize the dangers of pride and self-righteousness that can accompany strong-willed efforts.

“Pride is a tightening up,” Weil rightly remarks. Our focus misaligns when we become overly preoccupied with changing ourselves. Overexertion of our will can create tension and block the flow of grace. Grace, the essential gift of God’s love, cannot be forced.

Rather than straining our will, Weil tells us to practice attention. True attention is indeed a skill we must consciously cultivate. In a world designed to pull us in a thousand directions, the act of focusing our attention can feel countercultural. Yet, this focused state is a receptive, prayerful one.

As Weil puts it, “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.”

Making space through attention

This act of receptivity is far from being passive. Attention is a demanding discipline, a turning away from self-centeredness, a devoted orientation towards the other — and, ultimately, towards the sacred. Like prayer, true attention requires both humility and steadfast concentration.

Weil’s philosophy invites us to cultivate attention in every moment. In our studies, our work, and our relationships. When we pay attention with our whole being, we make space. Simone Weil’s powerful insights into attention offer Catholics a deeper understanding of prayer and a pathway towards living a more grace-filled life.

Tags:
Christian virtuesPersonal GrowthVirtue
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