Last night I gave a presentation on Simone Weil, as part of a teaching series on mystics offered by the Episcopal House of Prayer.
During her lifetime, Weil was known to relatively narrow circles. It was in the first decade after her death that she rapidly became famous, attracting attention throughout the West. Yet, Pope Paul VI regarded her as one of the greatest influences on his intellectual development. Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”, and he meditated in her Paris room before leaving for Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize. And Andre Gide called her “the most spiritual writer of this century.”
For a long time, Weil viewed herself as an agnostic, having concluded that nothing could be known about the existence of God. In the letter that is called her Spiritual Autobiography, she wrote
I must say that never at any moment in my life have I “sought for God.” For this reason, which is probably too subjective, I do not like this expression and it strikes me as false. As soon as I reached adolescence I saw the problem of God as a problem the data of which could not be obtained here below, and I decided that the only way of being sure not to reach a wrong solution, which seemed to me the greatest possible evil, was to leave it alone.
Hence her agnosticism. Nonetheless, Weil records in her Spiritual Autobiography that she always had a Christian outlook, taking to heart from her earliest childhood the idea of loving one’s neighbor. Indeed, she saw no other outlook as possible.
Weil became an agnostic because she could not intellectually address the idea of God. What changed her from her agnosticism was her encounter with God. She wrote, “In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God. I had vaguely heard tell of things of this kind, but I had never really believed in them.”
The experience changed everything. I have often expresses the conviction that conversion is an experience of the heart not the head, by which I mean to convey precisely this: what transforms us is not intellectual knowledge but heart-felt experience of God. And Weil is a wonderful example of that.
Weil, by the way, had a very simple understanding of prayer. “Prayer,” she wrote in one essay, “is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.” And “attention”, she wrote, “consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object.”
She wrote in Waiting for God
Prayer consists of attention…Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer.
Given Weil’s definition of prayer as attentiveness to God, turning toward God, I like the way she talks about sin. She wrote that, “Sin is not a distance, it is a turning of our gaze in the wrong direction.”
Makes it all pretty simple: Gaze in the right direction.