Study, Pray, Love: Simone Weil on Attention

Study, Pray, Love: Simone Weil on Attention September 24, 2014

Academic work, for the modern imagination, is often dominated by the idea that school is but a stepping stone to the next best thing. This is the rat race: One goes to the best pre-K in order to get into the best kindergarten. One goes to the best elementary school to get into the best middle school. One goes to the best middle school to get to the best high school. One goes to the best high school to get into the best college. One goes to the best college in order to be successful. This may look like getting into the best graduate program, getting the best job, or making the most amount of money. Wealthy, anxious parents in NYC actually pay nearly $45k per year to enroll their children in pre-K programs that are more competitive than Harvard, with the expectation that this will set them up nicely to get into the Ivy League. [1] Surely academic work is a stepping stone. It is a means to an end, namely success, but success conceived in a certain way.

There have been a flurry of articles and essays on the purpose of academic work (college, in particular) and it’s worth asking the question “What is academic work for?”

THE PEARL OF GREAT PRICE

weil_waiting for GodSimone Weil, the 20th century French philosopher, political activist, and Christian mystic (albeit a strange one… but aren’t they all?), has an interesting answer to that question. Read how Weil (pronounced “vay” as in “inveigh” without the “in”) concludes her essay on the purpose of academic work in Waiting for God: “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.” [1]

Weil is clearly alluding to Jesus’ parables in the Gospel of Matthew: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it (Mt. 13:44-46). Weil concludes, arguing that there is a treasure to be found in academic work on the level of the kingdom of heaven. This pearl is of supreme value – it is worthwhile to sell all we own to acquire it.

According for Weil, in other words, studiousness is next to godliness.

ACADEMIC WORK AND ATTENTION

For Weil academic work is also a stepping stone, but a step to an end entirely different from that our culture commonly looks to. That end is the development of the faculty of attention because attention is the substance of prayer. The central thrust of her essay is that the primary purpose of academic work is not the next program you get into, the position you’re hired for, or the amount you get paid. Though I would soften her hyperbolic assertions, her point is worth hearing all the same: one of the primary purposes of academic work is the development of the faculty of attention because attention is the substance of prayer, the love of God, and the love of neighbor.

Here’s the provocative idea in her own words:

Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies…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 to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. 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 with a view of prayer…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. [2]

Though I wouldn’t put it in such stark terms, Weil casts light into an overlooked possibility of academic studies. School is more than just a thing to position you well for more school or a fat wallet. School is more than just a place where one learns how to think critically and ask good questions. School is also the place where one can learn to pray because coursework offers the student the space to develop her faculty of attention.

WHAT ATTENTION IS NOT

Weil clarifies what she means by attention by juxtaposing it with a willed, muscular effort. She writes:

If one says to one’s pupils: ‘Now you must pay attention,’ one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply. They have been concentrating on nothing. They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles. We often expend this kind of muscular effort on our studies. As it ends by making us tired, we have the impression that we have been working…This kind of muscular effort in work is entirely barren, even if it is made with the best of intentions…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 thanks to natural gifts; moreover such studies are never of any use. [3]

Such studies are certainly of use for their shallower purpose, namely gaining marks and passing examinations. This is success, to be sure, but in a shallow sense compared to the riches of developing the faculty of attention.

ATTENTION: STUDY, PRAY, LOVE

Weil argues that attention is the pearl of great price to be found in the various fields of study because attention is the very substance of prayer and of love for both God and neighbor. This, of course, begs the question: how in the world can this be the case?

Attention is necessary for prayer because prayer is an active receptivity (not to be confused with passivity) towards and for God. The ability to attend to a problem set, or textbook, or term paper with the utmost focus strengthens our ability to pray. This idea is clearly understood once one considers one of the major obstacles to the quality and quantity of our prayer: distraction (most often caused by social media and/or YouTube videos of kittens.  Mea Culpa. The quality of one’s prayer life generally has a strong correlation with one’s attention span.

In addition to fostering prayer, the faculty of attention also facilitates the love of God. This is because attention prepares and opens the soul to the presence of God. For this reason, it is the responsibility of teachers and spiritual guides to “bring out in a brilliantly clear light the correspondence between the attitude of the intelligence in each one of [the academic] exercises and the position of the soul, which, with its lamp well filled with oil, awaits the Bridegroom’s coming with confidence and desire.” [4]

Attention is the substance of the love of God. It is that which enables us to love the Lord with our all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. Again, a robust faculty of attention is able to fend off other suitor’s of the soul. When our attention falters, oftentimes so does our love.

Lastly, what I find most compelling in Weil’s essay is how attention cultivates the love of neighbor. She writes:

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. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough…The love of neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’” [5]

The faculty of attention is that which enables us to be selfless; to empty ourselves and give of ourselves wholly to another. Attention enables the threefold movement of the love of neighbor. It enables us to see, to ask, and to listen. Attention enables me to look beyond myself that I might notice and see the other, my neighbor. Attention enables me to genuinely ask the most simple, profound question: “What are you going through?” Finally, attention enables me to really listen to her response. Elsewhere, Weil writes that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” because it is both the turning directly towards and the giving totally of our selves to the other.

Without attention, it is impossible to do these things.

It is often noted that the previous level of schooling was important not so much for the content of the coursework (though this is clearly important) but for the way the classes teach one how to think. Rarely, if ever, have I heard anyone think of their coursework as the classroom for learning how to pray.

Therefore, this is the challenge Weil levels for Christians: “School children and students who love God should never say: ‘For my part I like mathematics’; ‘I like French’; ‘I like Greek.’ They should learn to like all these subjects, because all of them develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.” [6]

Despite the intrinsic value of academic work, perhaps the deepest purpose of academic work is not knowledge, good grades, entrance into a better school, or a good job. In other words, school is not primarily for the next program, the good position, the fat paycheck; it is for prayer. The supreme value of academic work is the opportunity it provides to develop the faculty of attention. And, attention is, so to speak, the gatekeeper of prayer, the love of God, and the love of neighbor because it opens us up to their very possibilities.

Therefore, “happy then are those who pass their adolescence and youth in developing this power of attention…whoever goes through years of study without developing this attention within himself has lost a great treasure.” [7]

 

[1] Anna Bahr, “When the College Admissions Battle Starts at 3,” New York Times, July 29, 2014. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/upshot/when-the-college-admissions-battle-starts-at-age-3.html?_r=0
[2] Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God

(HarperCollins, 2009), 57, 59.
[3] ibid., 60-61.
[4] ibid., 63.
[5] ibid., 64.
[6] ibid., 57-58.
[7] ibid., 64.


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