Part II: Simone Weil on School Studies in_Waiting for God_ (The Essays)

In the second half of Simone Weil’s, Waiting for God, there are several extensive essays on the love of God. While the first essay on school studies might seem out of place; it is in keeping with her main focus, but approached from the point of view of our love for God, rather than God’s love for us. “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” is meant to demonstrate how studying — it makes no difference what the subject matter — can never be wasted since it will enhance a person’s ability to pay attention, and, ultimately, to pray and make a connection to God. Her title, as can be expected from Simone Weil’s work, is direct and not meant in anyway to mislead. She has a very specific audience in mind. Her intended interlocutor is the head of a parochial school.

I am aware that there will be many who will scoff at such a title and maybe even think I am a terrible fundamentalist who wants to divert all public school funding to parochial schools where children pray and are God fearing. I am not such a person. Although, I do love God. But, I am not here to evangelize about it.

What I think is truly golden in Simone Weil’s essay is her insight on paying attention. Weil speaks of paying attention as the very essence of prayer and then further in her essay she attaches it to compassion and love for one’s neighbor, which, I believe, is absolutely brilliant and correct. And, while I totally agree with her basic thesis that prayer is paying attention, which is lovely because it is like an algebraic equation that can be read in either direction so that, paying attention is prayer; I worry that our Christian faith traditions have failed to make a strong connection between paying attention and prayer. Furthermore, there does not seem to be a better definition of compassion then paying attention; yet it is unclear that our faith traditions, with the exception of Buddhism, sees paying attention as a the primary road to compassion.

It would be disingenuous and a discredit to Simone Weil to separate paying attention from prayer, even though it is enticing to do so. It would be like taking mindfulness from Buddhism — which we often do and wonder why the result is not the same. It is especially hard to talk about prayer when you are a Catholic, as I am. Most assume there are a set of prayers we live by and what we really mean by paying attention is memorization, recitation, and finally obedience. All of those things have a place in prayer, but they are not quite what make prayer.

Christianity, in fact, believes prayer is paying attention, but they do not recognized it as such. In as much as Christians believe in Christ and Christ was the essence of paying attention and prayer, then they believe wholeheartedly that prayer is paying attention, but I do not think they would give that definition if asked, what is prayer? They might say prayer is petition or talking to God, which in some cases it is, but prayer, real prayer is paying attention. Oddly, it is much easier to think through paying attention from Buddhism. We, for whatever reason, just accept that Buddhism is a practice and that its purpose is to get one to pay attention. Paying attention to everything, every single thing you are doing, saying, wearing, wishing, suggesting, etc… is your prayer.

Today, which I think is unfortunate, we have made paying attention equal to living in the moment. Paying attention to the moment in which you are living is very different from living in the moment, which often means forgetting the past and the future and having fun now because we do not know what will happen in the next moment. Living in the moment has come to mean not worrying about the next moment and living as if the next moment will not arrive. To the contrary, you are always in some way, when you pay attention in the moment, anticipating the next moment, and living to uphold and honor all moments: past, present and future.

Simone Weil charges the school, in particular the relgious school, with preparing students, not for getting good jobs that allow them to consume freely, but for connecting to God, which for Weil means paying attention — something we ought to be doing while Waiting for God. Weil does not make a distinction between the parochial curriculum and the public or private secular curriculum; rather she marks her distinction as one between school exercises which are done for awards and grades and all sorts of cultural upkeep, and what she sees as the ultimate purpose of the exercises, which is to develop your ability to pay attention, so that ultimately you can pray with attention. Moreover, Weil completely levels the playing field when it comes to subject matter:

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. Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interest is secondary. All tasks that really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree.

page 106

Weil presses on and competently deflates the common notion of why students should study:

If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are not 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.

page 106-107

Studying mathematics, even if you cannot solve a mathematics problem with accuracy, will always benefit the one who puts an honest effort into the task since the point is to develop your ability to pay attention. According to Weil, a student who pursues with intention to pay attention cannot fail. Yet, in our public and private/parochial schools there is a sense of failing all the time. We rate schools based on standardized tests and set up vast award programs for students to develop, ultimately, their resumes and not their ability to pay attention. Some students, no doubt, will deepen their ability to pay attention because of the curriculum and extra-activities they take on outside and inside of school. But this is a system that makes paying attention a mere bonus point that really has nothing at all to do with school studies. Simone Weil cuts away our notions of achievement that often limit who can achieve in the first place. It is not about getting the mathematics problem correct (the bonus is if you do), but rather making the effort, the pure effort of giving it your attention.

Weil is serious here. She does not mean simply trying your best. She also is pointing out, not so much the similarities among subjects, but rather that there is something about the act of studying that is sacred and life giving. It is important to remember, Weil is concerned about a person’s instrinic humanity, which she calls, soul, which is a word we do not like to use nowadays. But, it seems to me, thinking about the soul of a person immediately elevates the person.

As I have indicated in the very beginning, Weil is writing for a religious school setting; nevertheless what she writes merits our full attention.

Have we become slaves to statistics? I have noticed lately, in my school district, that arguments are mounted on top of statistics that are superficial indicators of education. Furthermore, we take statistics as facts that are saying something about truth, but our truth seems to correspond only with our special interest. We, as parents, for example, fought against the Common Core, which promotes a curriculum that is neither common nor has anything to do with anyone’s core. But now that it is here, parents check the scores and talk about them to make their point, if it benefits them to do so. Our statistics are so contradictory and flimsy it does not matter. We still use them. What we claim is that we want to make sure we are not wasting the good tax-payer’s money, and we want to make sure our children are not wasting time in school.

Simone Weil writes about wasted effort:

“Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted.”

page 106

But, how many times do we denigrate our own effort by saying it was wasted effort? It seems to me that Weil is only applying a complex and beautiful law of physics regarding energy invested in a task. It is never a waste! How liberating! How beautiful to see the immensity of the universe and its relatedness in all things! Most people spend years kicking themselves because they wasted time and effort on a liberal arts degree. Sadly, we only have one measurement in our world and that is the measurement of money. This is not to say that people who get liberal arts degrees should not care about making money; rather it is actually a condemnation of an education system that continually privilege business and technology over science, arts and humanities. I categorize science as part of the humanities since they make us more human than technology and business ever could.

What is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to watch is the grasping for any statistic that will show a student is learning or not learning when all of us know that students, human beings, are not motivated to learn solely based on a reward. Yes, it is true children fall for it, and really fall for it after years of training them to fall for cheap prizes. But, most of us know, at least after many years, that we learn best when we have the desire to learn something.

The major problem for schools is that they are disinclined to admit they do not really know what kindles the flames of desire. In addition, desire might not be as controlable as we like so we have replaced the desire to know who we are with the desire to consume and prove we are worthy human beings through that which we consume. For Weil, however, desire has a sacred purity to it.

“If there is real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. 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.”

page 107-108

Following your desire, or as Joseph Campbell was known for saying, your bliss, will ultimately lead to great joy:

“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.”

page 110

There is no room for ideas and thoughts like Simone Weil’s, not because she talked about God or thought about prayer, but because we do not want to put in the time to pay attention. Time, for all that science, philosophy and religion might have to say about it, has been reduced to the narrow bottom line of business and the silly advertisements of marketing firms. Time, as our society now understands it, is money.

Learning can be joyful, beautiful and fulfilling not just because you are going to receive a reward at the end, but because it brings us inward, sits us down and readies us to wait.

“There is a way of giving our attention to the data of a problem in geometry without trying to find the solution or to the words of a Latin or Greek text without trying to arrive at the meaning, a way of writing, when we are writing, for the right word to come itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.”

page 113

But, we live in a world where we no longer wait on anything, much less wait on God. There are many who would argue about the relevance or existence of God. But, can one argue about the relevance and existence of our neighbor? Can we say, even if we do not hold faith that there is a God, can we say without God we need not care for our neighbor? Are we saying we do not need to love one another? Here is where Simone Weil’s brilliance shines; for she sees the very same “substance,” which is our attention,needed to wait for God, as necessary for love of our neighbor.

“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.”

page 144

“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?'”

page 145

It takes courage to ask someone what they are going through. It takes courage to be vulnerable enough to tell another what you are going through. It takes attention not to be distracted from the work of love.

Maybe we should start reading some women philosophers for a change.

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