In this episode I interview Bert Fitzgerald and Emma Coley from the Simone Weil House, a new Catholic Worker in Portland, Oregon. They explain the ministry and vision of their house of hospitality and outline an exciting new pilot project: demonstrating how an existing faith community can become a community of mutuality within a credit union, able to provide interest free loans to one another.
Bert founded Simone Weil House almost three years ago. Prior to moving to Portland, Bert served as a live-in volunteer at the South Bend Catholic Worker and experimented with a number of alternative economic projects. In Portland, he hoped to start a project that would model some of the less emphasized aspects of the movement. As well as hospitality, he hoped to develop an alternative model of Christian economics.
Emma had volunteered for a Catholic Worker house while she was in high school, and when she was in college she got to know a self organized community for the homeless called Second Chance Village. On a visit to Portland she encountered the newly formed Simone Weil House, and eventually came back to join the project a little over a year ago.
The French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil was chosen as the patron of the new Catholic Worker House. Bert described her as the Christian answer to Nietzsche. She wrestled with basic questions with the same exacting honesty, but found truth rather than dissimulation in the mystery of Christ.
Simone Weil’s thought can also help us to overcome the “right/left” dichotomy and the compartmentalization of life in general. I recently wrote an article that draws on Weil’s spirituality of attention.
The project started out in a simple and humble way. Bert stressed that he wanted it to provide an example of “Christ Room Hospitality”, something that any home could participate in. By working with a local provider of services for the homeless, Bert had got to know several individuals who were in need of housing. So with his landlord’s permission he invited them to share his house.
Over time, the number of people being housed increased. Simone Weil house acquired tiny houses and converted storage units to provide more living space. Eventually they were able to clean up and use the “Hell House”, a trashed drug house across the street. After a thorough cleaning and two exorcisms, this became “Dorothy Day House”. On any given day, there are now between 11 and 14 people living in the two houses.
Interest free loans
As well as providing hospitality and other services such as free laundry facilities, the Simone Weil house has started a community of economic mutuality that has partnered with Notre Dame Federal Credit Union to make interest free loans available to its members..
This project is grounded in Christian spirituality. We all tend to treat members of our families in one way, and members of the wider public in a different way. But what if we broadened the circle of people we treated as family? Isn’t that part of a truly Christian outlook on the world? We are all part of God’s family now, and should treat one another accordingly.
This attitude can even be found in the Old Testament. Much of the Old Testament law was concerned with social justice. The people of God were supposed to make sure that individuals or families didn’t fall “through the cracks” due to inter-generational poverty. The Jubilee years were designed to prevent this from happening. Similarly, there was an obligation to redeem the debts of relatives so that they did not fall into debt bondage.
Under the New Covenant, we have an even deeper obligation to redeem debts for one another. Christ died to redeem us from our spiritual bondage. Having received such a great grace, how could we begrudge the effort to redeem others from their earthly debts?
This was actually the origin of Credit Unions. Today they operate in much the same way as other banks, but originally they were founded by religious communities as a way of looking out for one another. The Simone Weil house is trying to recover this tradition.
Simone Weil House has a bank account with the Notre Dame Federal Credit Union called the “redemption fund”. Individuals who who join the mutual community open an account with NDFCU and can choose to have $150 sent to the fund. Simone Weil house identifies local recipients who are in need of loans. They then work to find a “guarantor”, someone who will provide a security for the loan.
In particular, they try to make the whole process serve the building of local community. The guarantor and recipient know one another and build a relationship. In this way, their project is trying to reverse the way that money tends to tear down and atomize community.
An example can help to illustrate how this process works. The following quote comes from a Simone Weil House newsletter reporting on the past year of the project.
The loan recipient, an older man on a fixed income, was in a car accident last year that left him with high medical bills. Unable to access a reputable bank due to his lack of credit, he accepted a high interest credit card offer he received in the mail. He quickly became buried in debt at an incredible 38% interest. He heard about our community while volunteering his time at a local parish food bank, where one of our steering committee members happens to also volunteer. We were able to refinance his debt at 0% interest, and this steering committee member ultimately served as this borrower’s guarantor. Since getting connected with our community through this program, the borrower now comes by our Catholic Worker house multiple times per week with food for our community and to stock our community free fridge.
Different Kinds of Security
The various projects of Simone Weil house highlight something this podcast has discussed before: the different kinds of security. One the one hand, there is the individual attempt at personal security through possessions. This is condemned by the Gospel, but is a defining characteristic of our time. On the other hand, there is the Christian kind of security which is based on mutual self-giving within a loving community. For more on this topic, see our episode on voluntary poverty.
For more information on the many projects of Simone Weil House, visit their website!
In Simone Weil’s beautiful essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, she explains that prayer is simply the turning of one’s attention to God. It isn’t a busy activity, but rather a peaceful practice of being present before God and attentive to him.
Attentiveness can only be gained through practice. According to Weil, the development of this capacity for attention is the real purpose of school work. Each particular subject has a “useful” purpose, but any subject serves to build the capacity for attention, and this deeper purpose is more important. Even if someone has no natural aptitude for their studies, the attempt to concentrate is still beneficial for building attention.
This means that a student should strive to do the work well (otherwise they would not be truly attentive) but without worrying too much about goals or ends. Instead, they should strive to do each thing for itself and as a preparation for prayer.
Weil explains that every time we pay attention, we “destroy the evil in ourselves.” Evil divides and dissipates. This can be seen in the division between God and humanity, in conflicts between individual human beings, and in the internal battles we each fight against our lower tendencies. By concentrating, we “pull ourselves together”, overcoming the evil impulse to dissipation.
What is Attention?
To pay attention well, we need to know what attention is. Weil writes that attention is a negative effort, the act of holding the mind open in the presence of something. “Jumping” on a concept or idea too quickly is not attention, and can close the mind to the truth. At the same time, we can’t “jump” away from the idea or person before us. Weil describes attention while writing as waiting “for the right word to come of itself at the end of the pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.”
This negative effort of attention is hard for us. We’re very busy, and we want to stay that way: it makes us feel important and protects us from ourselves. We don’t like to be “re-collected” with ourselves and passively present before God in prayer, or before another human being or even an idea. Yet this is what Christ asks us to do. In the Gospel, the servants who were found patiently and attentively waiting are called blessed.
This virtue of attention is necessary for community, and also fostered by it. Weil points out this connection:
“Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”
Community is all about giving others our attention, emptying our souls of self so we can take the other in; so we can, as Weil put it, say to the other “What are you going through?” Without this attention, community becomes soulless and sterile. “Companions” are literally those who share bread with one another; in a more extensive sense, they are those who share their lives, share their attention.
In doing so, we’re imitating Christ, who emptied himself for our sake. Not only will we imitate him, but in imitating him through attention we will truly find him. It does not matter what we are doing, whether studying, working, or serving our neighbor: if we are open and attentive to the things around us, we will find him there before us. For “in him we live and move and have our being”. All things are kept in being by the loving attention of God, so that when we look on anything with love and attention, our gaze meets his.
“Prayer is a surge of the heart, it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”—St. Thérèse of Lisieux