Simone Weil on studying as a spiritual practice

Posted on 2 October 1995


Excerpted from Simone Weil, Waiting for God, pp. 105-116:

The development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. . .Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted. It always has its effect on the spiritual plane. . .If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul.


When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention. . .To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use.


Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. . .as it ends by making us tired, we have the impression that we have been working. That is an illusion. . .Studies conducted in such a way can sometimes succeed academically from the point of view of gaining marks and passing examinations, but that is in spite of the effort and thanks to natural gifts; moreover such studies are never of any use.


Will power. . .is the principal weapon of the apprentice engaged in manual work. But, contrary to the usual belief, it has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. . .The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. . .It is the part played by joy in our studies that makes of them a preparation for spiritual life.


Attention is an effort, the greatest effort of all efforts perhaps, but it is a negative effort. . .Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object. . .Above all, our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.


The solution of a geometry problem. . .is the image of something precious. Being a little fragment of particular truth, it is a pure image of the unique, eternal, and living Truth, the very Truth that once in a human voice declared: ” I am the Truth. ” Every school exercise, thought of this way, is a sacrament. . .Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worth while to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it. “

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