Simone Weil on Study & Prayer (more thoughts on theological education and “attention”)

I posted recently on theological education and explored the importance of attending to the thoughts of others. I am continuing that line of thought here, and I want to look at an essay by Simone Weil (“Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” in Waiting for God (pp. 57-66).

Weil suggests that giving our attention to academic studies forms and cultivates our capacities for loving God. Whether it be geometry or Latin, training my attention upon the subject develops my capacity for attending to God in prayer. This makes sense because, for Weil, prayer consists of attention: “the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”

In other words, attention is like a necessary muscle for prayer, and academic  studies train that muscle through requiring me to give my attention to various tasks. So, the value of academic study related to prayer is simply that it cultivates my capacity to give attention to God.

This adds a spiritual dimension to our discussion about the place of careful, patient, and deliberate attention to the thoughts of others in the process of theological education. For Weil, a Christian view of studies will define the  ultimate purpose of study as training in the love of God, and it will therefore understand activities that require attention as opportunities to develop the capacities necessary for that end.

For example, what might working hard on a geometry problem have to do with prayer? Weil explains,

If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry, this does not mean that our faculty for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the contrary, it is almost an advantage.

It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so. Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted. It always has its effect on the spiritual plane and in consequence on the lower one of the intelligence, for all spiritual light lightens the mind.

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. Moreover, it may very likely be felt in some department of the intelligence in no way connected with mathematics. Perhaps he who made the unsuccessful effort will one day be able to grasp the beauty of a line of Racine more vividly on account of it. But it is certain that this effort will bear its fruit in prayer. There is no doubt whatever about that.

This shifts the motivation and intention of studies as well:

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 to prayer; as, when we write, we draw the shape of the letter on paper, not with a view to the shape, but with a view to the idea we want to express. 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.

Weil further suggests that one’s training in attention through school studies not only trains us to pray, but it trains us to love our neighbor. The argument tracks along the same lines as the connection between study and prayer. When I develop my ability to attend to my studies, then I am better able to attend to my neighbor.

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 attention. The capacity to give ones 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 our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a ‘special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.

This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.

Only he who is capable of attention can do this.

So it comes about that paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them. Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need.

Given Weil’s argument, we might say something so bold as this: careful, patient, and deliberate attention to the thoughts of others in theological education serves not only the cultivation of one’s abilities as a theologian, but it cultivates one’s capacity to lovingly attend to God and others.

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2 thoughts on “Simone Weil on Study & Prayer (more thoughts on theological education and “attention”)

  1. For me–though nowhere near the level of intelligence and understanding of yourself–I find this extremely truthful and thought provoking. I find myself now asking, though, if we can somehow take this into a deeper level. Not just at an educational level, but in every aspect of our lives. Maybe I’m missing the point of what you’ve written, or am taking a step beyond it was intended… but what are blogs for, eh?

    We are called to be the Light of the world, to be different, and often times I feel we Christians are not careful, patient, or deliberate in considering the thoughts of others in other aspects of our lives who are not Christian. Generally, we Christians have a reputation for listening to someone’s beliefs then shunning them in near utter disgust. Or, at least that is how they feel they have been treated sometimes.

    I wonder if we would be able to be better attentive to ourselves in how we treat others in all aspects of our lives, not simply just in terms of theological education. Whether we teach, are a student, baseball player, parent, boxer, son, daughter (the list can go on), we should always be careful, patient, and deliberate of other people’s thoughts because of who [we] are, not because of who they are, so that we may better make the light of God more attractive to those living in darkness.

  2. Thanks for this, Kent. I read Weil’s essay a couple of months ago and was impressed/compelled by her vision as you were. It gives some new (for me) and clear language for putting that vision before students.

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