From The Attentive Life
Expectant waiting is the foundation of the spiritual life. (Simone Weil)
I owe a debt to Simone Weil. The first time I heard of this remarkable French woman, some years ago, I read that she had defined prayer as attention. Her understanding of attentiveness was fresh and intriguing to me.
Weil died in England in 1943 at the age of thirty-three, yet left an ongoing influence in France and beyond as an apostle of the spiritual life. Many French people, including the existentialist writer Albert Camus, were deeply moved by her life and writings.
Simone Weil became a believer in Christ after a profound experience that gave birth to her understanding of attentiveness. A young Englishman had introduced her to a poem by the English metaphysical poet George Herbert, while another friend had taught her the Lord’s Prayer in Greek. She learned both by heart. She was repeating to herself Herbert’s poem, “Love Bade Me Welcome,” as she later recounted, “when the presence came.” So it was out of her own life experience that she understood prayer as a special kind of attention.
Weil never became a baptized Christian; she believed that she could witness to her faith best as a kind of frontier follower of Christ, a bridge between the official church and the seeking person who was not enamored with formal religion.
It was her deep conviction that if we were once able to pray the Lord’s Prayer with complete attention, we would be transformed people. She herself had the practice of saying it through once each morning “with absolute attention. If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention. The effect of this practice,” she testified, “is extraordinary and surprises me every time.”
In her understanding, “the Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer not already contained in it. It is to prayer what Christ is to humanity. It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change, infinitesimal but real, taking place in the soul.”
So pervasive was Weil’s influence in post-World War II France that the French government issued a postage stamp posthumously in her honor, bearing her face and inscribed with the words, “Attention is the only faculty of the soul which gives us access to God.”
In case our own efforts to be attentive seem to constantly fall short, Weil has a word of strong encouragement for us: “Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.” And knowing how difficult it is, she says, “Nothing among human things has such power to keep our gaze fixed ever more intensely upon God than friendship for the friends of God.”