#1: Simone Weil: Attention and Prayer

I'm starting this tinyletter 10 months late and with a questionably-Catholic non-saint. I won’t really make any apologies for that, because I don’t think that I could have written anything coherent before today, or started out with anyone else. So here, in late December, you have my first tinyletter, and my first coherent thoughts on lady mystics in general, and Simone Weil in particular.

I started divinity school three months ago, and spent a lot of those three months falling in love with Simone Weil. Part of the reason I wanted to go to divinity school in the first place was to reconcile with all my complicated feelings about growing up evangelical, to make peace with God. For the last few years, I’ve felt myself standing on the edge of belief, wanting very badly to walk through the door, but not really knowing how to do this. I described this to a friend as not knowing who the version of me that believes in God is.

I read Weil's Waiting for God for a class on contemplative prayer. It is cobbled together from piecemeal notes and essays Weil wrote throughout her life. It includes a few letters that outline Weil’s spiritual autobiography, and a three essays: one on school studies, one on suffering, and one on the Lord’s prayer. It’s a tiny, forceful little book, and thanks to Anne Carson I was predisposed to fall in love already. A quick warning for the following paragraph: there's some mention of food restriction and possibly disordered eating, so you may want to skip it.

Simone, for those of you who aren’t familiar with her autobiography, is a complicated person to fall in love with. Born in Paris near the turn of the century to wealthy Jewish parents, she was fiercely brilliant and intensely dedicated to her causes, which generally aligned with Marxism and workers' movements. This led her to work in factories and attempt to fight in the Spanish Civil War, although her physical clumsiness often led to injuries. Her longest-standing occupation was as a teacher, usually in rural districts in France, where she combined it with agriculture in the off-seasons. A long-standing interest in religion began to transform into a deeper, more Catholic mysticism. She began to recite the Lord's Prayer in Greek while working the fields, began writing about God. When World War II broke out, her family evacuated her to the U.S., although she quickly returned to the UK in order to join the French Resistance. While in the UK, she contracted tuberculosis, and was instructed to maintain a hearty diet. Instead, she continued a pattern she had kept throughout her life of politically-motivated restricted eating, and ate only what she believed residents of German-occupied Paris could eat. She died at 34, from complications of this. If you want more on her life, I still haven’t read a biography I actually like: I found Francine du Plessix Gray’s kind of mean, and the Robert Coles one is just full of scenes of him having tea with Anna Freud, so, uh, maybe read the Wikipedia? I know that's unsatisfactory, so if you have recommendations, send them to me, and I’ll send them out in the next letter.

So, now, in a very Simone Weil move, let us turn our attention to “Reflections on The Right Use of School Studies With a View to the Love of God.” First of all, you should read it. Despite that title, the essay itself is not terribly long, about five pages. However, you can condense a good deal of the argument as follows: the same kind of attention that you use to solve a geometry problem or do a tricky Latin translation is the same attention you use to talk to god. She talks about “experimental certainties,” things that take you believing in them to come true, and as soon as you do, they are. The fruits of study and the fruits of prayer are both experimental certainties. The main thing is just a patient, steady-handed attention to the process. “Every school exercise, thought of in this way,” she says, “is like a sacrament.”

My professor, as we were reading this in class, told us a story about her first encounter with the essay. In grad school, she had fallen in love with a text in Latin, and so was painstakingly teaching herself Latin through translating it. The woman in the carrel next to her was involved in a similar process with a Sanskrit text. Day after day, they each showed up to the library, cracked open their dusty books, and labored on these texts that had, as she said, “captured their hearts.” One day, my professor shows up to the library, and her carrell-neighbor is gone. On top of my professor’s tome, she had left a paperclipped copy of this essay, with a note to the effect that the struggle in itself was holy.

Trying to pray has so far felt like translating Latin. The edges of the knowledge are there, but they slip out of my reach. It’s frustrating, it makes me meditate on my own mediocrity, on the things I’m just too lazy to get right, on my own clumsy fumbling. Annie Dillard compared looking for God at church services to early failed British expeditions to the North Pole for a reason. What Simone Weil assures me of, though, is that unlike with expeditions to the North Pole, the desire counts, it can be enough to get me there. Where "there" was for Simone is up for debate--in Gravity and Grace, her most mystical work, she fully articulates what is only hinted at in Waiting for God: that God can only create where God isn't, and so to love God, to love the world, is to love an absence.

“Attention to School Studies” goes on to explain that this “creative attention,” when applied to people, is as close an approximation as we can get to divine love as faulty humans. I think where this gets us in the end, is that in the absence of God, our best bet is each other. Pay attention.