Simone Weil writes, ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer’
Imagine a protest in which activists chant, “What do we want? Free publicity! When do we want it? Now!” Easy enough, right? Isn’t it already the subtext of many demonstrations? Or imagine a political campaign soliciting money chiefly in order to solicit more money. Again, easy enough. Isn’t it the standard operating procedure?
Doubtless AI, even while we sleep, is dutifully cranking out more “click bait” with a view to generating more “buzz,” especially about AI.
Forget, gentle reader, the simpler days of “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” Now it’s attention we want, the more the better. Hey, world, please, oh please, look at me!
But getting attention requires that someone pay attention. And if we are to pay any attention worth having, we need to have an attention span that allows us to attend closely to the people in our lives and, more broadly, to that which is.
The French thinker Simone Weil (1909-1943) was both an activist and a mystic. As an activist she crossed swords with Leon Trotsky. As a mystic, she won praise from T.S. Elliot. Weil wrote perceptively and enigmatically about attention. What she says well deserves, yes, our attention.
In her Gravity and Grace (1952), she urges us not to confuse paying attention with “stiffening our muscles” or “clenching our jaws.” We are to think, instead, of an “inner supplication.” She writes that “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” Prayer, in her view, opens our minds and hearts. “The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love.” A love that attends leads to respect. So it is that “To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do — that is enough, the rest follows of itself.” Such respect, in turn, leads not to ungrounded activism but rather to authentic action.
There is, nonetheless, a disconcerting drift in Weil’s account of attention. She remarks that in attention “all that I call ‘I’ has to be passive.” And why so? Because, she continues, “attention alone — that attention which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears — is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it on to that which cannot be conceived.”
But this deconstruction of the self is a wrong turn. We are not Buddhists. As Christians, we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But absent one’s very self, it is impossible for us to love. Yet we are created to love. Indeed, we are to love God even more than we love ourselves. Absent one’s very self, that love is impossible.
We are made in God’s image and likeness. God is the fullness of being, Ipsum esse subsistens in the language of St. Thomas Aquinas. We are to realize and fulfill, not deconstruct and eliminate, the unique selfhood that God has given each of us. In the economy of grace, in doing so we come to share in God’s own life.
With this tremendous love, we can build a beloved community strong enough, enduring enough, to stand fast against, and even heal, this tortured world. We can turn away from both the exaltation of ego and the pomp of political posturing. We can work, in solidarity, for a common good that extends to even the least among us. Doing so most certainly calls for the prayer of attention.
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