The work of attention: a Lenten discipline

By on April 1, 2022
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“Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbour, 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 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.” — Simone Weil in Waiting for God. 

Lenten disciplines, I suppose, are more honored in the breach than in the observance. That is certainly true for me. This Lent, I thought I’d try something simple; it has proved anything but. My goal: try to do one thing at a time. Concretely, that means no multitasking. When on a Zoom call, do nothing but attend to that call. When writing, write. Don’t hop about from one thing to another. It’s not going well. Still, I am learning just how fractured my capacity for focus is.  

Why take on this discipline? My inspiration is Simone Weil, that most eccentric 20th century Catholic intellectual of secular Jewish heritage. She was never baptized but was, without doubt, one of the greatest disciples of “the way” we’ve had in the last century. For her searching reflections on the topic, she might well be called the patron saint of attention. Her words ring with the bracing clarity of truth. We know she’s right. The one thing the suffering need from us in their affliction is attention — that we empty ourselves of preoccupations, insecurities and egoism so that we can be present to the other without distractions. This is indeed “a miracle.”  

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Weil wrote her words before the arrival of the cellphone and social media. In my Ash Wednesday sermon, I cited the following snippet from Johann Hari’s fine book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again: 

“…a small study investigated how often an average American college student actually pays attention to anything, so the scientists involved put tracking software on their computers and monitored what they did in a typical day. They discovered that, on average, a student would switch tasks once every sixty-five seconds. The median amount of time they focused on any one thing was just nineteen seconds. If you’re an adult and tempted to feel superior, hold off. A different study by Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine — who I interviewed — observed how long on average an adult working in an office stays on one task. It was three minutes.” 

Sobering news for all who aspire to love in Simone’s way. If attention is “the substance” of both the love of God and love of neighbor, then our dwindling capacities for focus should sound spiritual alarm bells. After all, our Lord summed up the whole of the law as nothing but love of God and love of neighbor. 

So, how can we love if we cannot attend?  

I have no simple answer. Surely, the first step is to recognize the problem. Then, we must conduct what Gandhi called “experiments with truth,” or in our case, experiments with attention. This will require that we both pray for and practice attention. We pray that the one whom we call Love will work in us towards healing, a healing that takes the shape of concentration — a coming toward the centre. But then, we must also practice working to grow our capacities for attention, even if only a fraction more today than yesterday. What I do know is that I cannot hope to be a disciple of Jesus without the tender and necessary discipline of paying attention.   

Author

  • John J. Thatamanil is associate professor of theology and world religions at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is also a volunteer curate at St John the Divine, Victoria.