Today is the beginning of a new semester, which means I am once again thinking of that brilliant essay by Simone Weil [pictured above], “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” [I know I have blogged about this before, but I can’t resist talking about it again–it never gets old to me.] The gist of the essay is that prayer requires the faculty of attention; and one of the functions of academic study–perhaps the primary function, from a Christian perspective–is the development of exactly this faculty: the capacity of attention. Thus, Weil writes, “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.” Perhaps this is too much to ask; however, one of the advantages of this idea is that it reminds students that even when they are struggling–even when they are failing, progress is being made, simply in the effort itself: “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.”
Most of my students feel called to public ministry, and therefore they sometimes make the mistake of seeing seminary as a means to that end, rather than an end itself. In the extreme, this can lead to a great deal of frustration: the feeling that seminary is just a hoop they have to jump through, an experience they have to endure, before getting to the main event, the purpose, the goal. One of the things that I really appreciate about Weil’s perspective on studies is that it reminds them [and me!] not to disparage the present life looking ahead, impatient for the next thing, as though the future were more real, more valuable than the present. The fact is, while my students are called to public ministry, they also are called, right now, to be students: seminary is where God is working in and through them, forming them, engaging them; it is not simply the place where they are preparing for that work and formation.
I do this, too, of course: I look ahead, focusing on some future goal, often ignoring what is right in front of me in favor of a horizon I can barely see. I put off happiness, attentiveness, engagement now, telling myself that when I am “there”–wherever “there” is [Where is it for you: summer break? the next job? the next relationship? retirement?], then I will really stop, look around, pay attention. But, of course, the fact is, “then” never really comes–there is always a new horizon; and I fear waking up one day realizing that my life is coming to an end, and I never developed the capacity to pay attention to anything at all. Instead, I was always distracted, always focusing on the next thing, always moving.
Weil knew that this a profoundly theological concern: we only develop the capacity for listening to God, waiting for God, paying attention to God, by listening to and paying attention to the work, the people, the beings around us now. The former comes through the latter, not apart from it; and therefore she argues that the attentiveness of academic study connects directly to attentiveness to friends, family, and yes, God. This is how she can say, “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.” A lovely sentiment to begin the semester.