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On Cultivating The Faculty of Attention and the Art of Prayer


The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.

Simone Weil

Four years ago I read Simone Weil’s essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” from her classic Waiting for God.

Then in March I sat in on a Friday discussion at Gutenberg College where a young woman bought up Hayek’s essay “Security and Freedom.” She said she had been thinking about security and freedom in the context of public prayer, so we began to talk about public prayer. What is it? What is prayer?

Someone defined prayer as personal, intimate communication with God. Recalling Simone Weil’s essay, I asked if anyone had considered that the perfection of focused study might be prayer… and how does that work?

The dialogue led us to distinguish between meditation and prayer. Maybe meditation is didactic instruction, either to self or group, and prayer is communication with God.

Then we left it.

A few weeks ago I began reading Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake, and because of it, I have returned to Waiting for God.

In his chapter “The Golden Circle,” Caldecott writes this:

One twentieth-century writer who was adept at translating theology into geometry is Simone Weil, a skilled mathematician (and sister of one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century) as well as a profound religious thinker. Among all those who have studied Pythagorean geometry, she more than any recognized that it is marked deeply by the Trinity, for its central idea is that of mediation (metaxu), which she identifies with the Logos (Son). p. 81

Again, Weil.

So pausing at that point, I turned from my desk to my bookshelf. I needed to return to “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” Pulling Waiting for God from my bookshelf has proven to be pure pleasure.

“Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” is much more than I remembered it to be, and like every excellent essay, every other line begs to be shared. Yet the most important point is this: the substance of prayer is the faculty of attention. The main goal of teachers and spiritual leaders ought to be the cultivation of the faculty of attention.

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.

Weil writes that only the highest part of the attention makes contact with God; yet, at the same time, school exercises only develop a lower kind of attention. How then can school exercises help students make contact with God?

Weil argues that the efforts of genuine attention in school studies, even if they do not immediately bear fruit, will indeed bear eternal fruit. Sometimes the student will not arrive at the “right answer” at the end of his study, but the effort of truth-seeking promises to develop the faculty of attention, and the virtue will be found in prayer.

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. The result will one day be discovered in prayer.

As the student longs to discover the ideas embodied in his studies, so he seeks the eternal truths of God. Every truth-seeking effort cultivates the faculty of attention.

Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted.” Value exists in the wrestling, even without finding the “right answer.” The effort is not waste because its value is its virtue in the spiritual and intellectual realms of the student. The faculty of attention serves not only the intellectual, but also the spiritual; attending attends to both. Attending cultivates the intellectual realm across subjects. Studying geometry will help one see truth in poetry. Attending to astronomy aids one in perceiving all truth, and seeing truth is spiritual. And when the spirit apprehends truth, the spirit rejoices in pure pleasure.

The key, the turning point, is this pleasure that one receives. When we have tasted the joy of contemplation, we desire more. We hunger and thirst for the ideas of God. We long for truth – eternal, essential truth. As David Hicks notes in Norms and Nobility, engaging with ideas is “the natural motivation for scholarship—the excitement of making connections and of seeing the whole emerge from a relation of parts…” Contemplation is a natural reward and it will truly motivate students.

There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention. It is really light that is desired if all other incentives are absent. Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul. Every effort adds a little gold to a treasure no power on earth can take away.

Seek ye first the Logos. All treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden there. Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.

It is in prayer that the student meets an eternal logos and through attending, apprehends it, and through re-presenting it, names it and releases it back to eternity. In this way, cultivating the faculty of attention has more to do with the process than the product; however, developing the faculty of attention is, in the end, always practical.

The useless efforts made by the Cure d’ Ars, for long and painful years, in his attempt to learn Latin bore fruit in the marvelous discernment that enabled him to see the very soul of his penitents behind their words and even their silences.

The benefits of the virtue of attentive perception are both immediate and eternal.

How can teachers cultivate the faculty of attention in a student?

There are two conditions. First, the teacher must coach his student to never let the goal of prayer out of his sight. The teacher teaches the student to hold to the necessity of wishing to complete a work correctly, “because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort,” while keeping his eye on the idea, the logos.

Second, keeping in mind the virtue of humility, the teacher must tutor towards the unforgiving examination of failure. The student must learn to look upon and contemplate his mistakes, “trying to get down to the origin of each fault.”

Above all it is thus that we can acquire the virtue of humility, and that is a far more precious treasure than all academic progress. From this point of view it is perhaps even more useful to contemplate our stupidity than our sin. Consciousness of sin gives us the feeling that we are evil, and a kind of pride sometimes finds a place in it. When we force ourselves to fix the gaze, not only of our eyes but of our souls, upon a school exercise in which we have failed through sheer stupidity, a sense of our mediocrity is borne in upon us with irresistible evidence. No knowledge is more to be desired. If we can arrive at knowing this truth with all our souls we shall be well established on the right foundation.

Weil says that in order to fulfill the second condition, examining his mistakes, one must simply wish to do it, but the first condition, to really pay attention, requires the knowledge of how to set about it.

First, one must not confuse attention with will power. Will power is a muscular effort, an effort that has no place in study. Drudgery creates fatigue, but attention does not cause weariness.

The will is not run by desire, but attention is encouraged by desire.

The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

The experience of joy is essential. Rejoicing in the impressions of God’s eternal idea(s), the student ambles along the sacred path, never rushing, always musing. Imagining, he does smile; he sings the while. Sweet joy befalls him. Real students are like innocent children, waiting in faith for a promised, beautiful blessing in a place where dignity meets delight.

Second, attention is not hasty; she is longsuffering. She waits. Patiently she opens and empties herself, “ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.”

All wrong translations, all absurdities in geometry problems, all clumsiness of style, and all faulty connection of ideas in compositions and essays, all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily, and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth.

Essential truths cannot be mastered; they must be waited upon; they will give of themselves only in their time. Every truth is like the truest of all truths, too refined to be kept in the lower realm. Each truth the student seeks belongs to a higher order, to the heavenly realm. The student must learn to wait for it; honoring one of truth’s essential elements, the faculty of free consent. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.”

Right answers are not the most precious gifts, but they reflect the most precious gift, “the very Truth that once in human voice declare: ‘I am the Truth.’”

Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament. In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon the truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it.

So what is the main duty of teachers?

In order to teach the first condition of “aiming solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer,” the teacher must teach toward ideas. Charlotte Mason writes, “our business is to give children the great ideas of life…” and the teacher must teach his students to wait. Aiming towards perceiving and incarnating ideas and learning to wait are what will bring students near to God, closer to his eternal truths.

To pray to God is to love him, and to love him is to love one’s neighbor.

Prayer, love of God, and love of neighbor have attention as their substance.

Recalling God’s truths is evidence of the love of God. In order to re-present an idea one must first have perceived the idea by allowing the idea to penetrate. The only way to perceive and allow an idea to penetrate is through cultivating the faculty of attention. Devoted to the art of attention, the perception, penetration, and apprehension of ideas, one can now love one’s neighbor. To love one’s neighbor is to see him. One sees his neighbor, waits upon his neighbor, the same way one sees and waits upon God’s eternal truths.

The effort of attending will pay off in the greater aptitude for grasping eternal truths and then expressing them. Attending helps us see and then speak. As Weil proclaims, maybe the kindest words we can speak to our neighbor are, “What are you going through?” It is this question which embodies a true longing to know our neighbor. To be known might be man’s greatest longing and to seek to know might be the greatest act of love.

No saccharine sentimentality exists in this act of love. The act of cultivating the faculty of attention is the act of cultivating the highest affection. To love God is to pray to him, and the substance of prayer is the faculty of attention.

Prayer is both meditation and communication. “Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen.” Prayer is the artifact of watching, waiting attention.


Kim Jahn is a current CiRCE apprentice. She lives with her family in Rogue River, Oregon.

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