Simone Weil on Attention and Grace
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
By Maria Popova
“Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful elegy for her soul mate, “is only a report.” To fully feel life course through us, indeed, we ought to befriend our own attention, that “intentional, unapologetic discriminator.”
More than half a century before Oliver, another enchantress of the human spirit — the French philosopher Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943), a mind of unparalleled intellectual elegance and a sort of modern saint whom Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our times” — wrote beautifully of attention as contemplative practice through which we reap the deepest rewards of our humanity.
In First and Last Notebooks (public library) — the out-of-print treasure that gave us Weil on the key to discipline and how to make use of our suffering — she writes:
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
This piercing thought comes fully abloom in Gravity and Grace (public library) — a posthumous 1952 collection of Weil’s enduring ideas, culled from her notebooks by Gustave Thibon, the farmer whom she entrusted with her writings before her untimely death.
Weil considers the superiority of attention over the will as the ultimate tool of self-transformation:
We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.
The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them… Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.
Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.
Weil turns to attention as the counterpoint to this graceless will — where the will contracts the spirit, she argues, attention expands it:
Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.
Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.
If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.
Gravity and Grace is one of the most spiritually nourishing texts ever published. Complement it with Weil on temptation and true genius, then revisit writer Melissa Pritchard on art as a form of active prayer and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on reawakening our capacity for attention.
Published August 19, 2015