As I was listening to last week’s program, one part that stood out to me was Krista’s question to Stephen Mitchell about the last line in his book, The Enlightened Mind, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” A quote from the French philosopher Simone Weil, Mitchell responded:

Well, that’s a marvelous definition. I love that. I think that could be as close as someone can get to a wonderful definition of prayer. In that sense, prayer has nothing religious about it. A mathematician working at a problem or a little kid trying to pick out scales on the piano is a person at prayer.

Weil has come up before at SOF, as a potential candidate in another run of programs about historical figures (we just finished the first series with our program about Sitting Bull). Intrigued, I did a bit of searching an found the quote in an essay by Weil titled “Attention and Will,” from Gravity and Grace, the first collection of her essays to be published in book form. Here’s the same quote with a bit more context:

We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them. To beg for them is to believe that we have a Father in heaven. Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem.  Attention is something quite different.

Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

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One of my favorite Iris Murdoch quotes is the following, appearing on page 179 of her book "Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals":

"To attend is to care, to learn to desire to learn."

Weil also comes up in her writings. At one time I buried myself in both. I found some very good material online with respect to each that I'd like to share, for anyone interested.

First I found some wonderful material about Weil's notions of education and attention beginning on page 69 of the book "Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education" (Edited by Joy A Palmer). The book and that piece can be found online by doing a google book search.

Secondly the following contains an excellent summary of Murdoch's notions with respect to attention:

If you do choose to read them, be forewarned that the introductions may seem a bit off putting, but once you get past them you'll get the gist of what they had to say I think, without getting lost in things. It's the meat of what they had to say that's significant anyway, not the dirty details.

Thanks Scott! I'll be sure to have a look at some of those resources — I'm currently reading Francine Du Plessix Gray's bio of Weil, which has proved quite fascinating.

I learned to pay attention by keeping a journal. Attention as prayer circles back to the Tao for me. Each morning I look out various windows and study the rabbit tracks in my yard. Their paths intrigue me as they might intrigue anyone who pays attention. Simone Weil wrote "Waiting for God" which I read several years ago. This conversation motivates me to return to Weil's book. A short bio of her I read last night indicated she was a mystic. Is attention as prayer a mystical experience?

Just to whet your appetite, and provide some context for that Murdoch quote, the following Murdoch passage can be found at the end of the aforementioned piece on Weil:

"Learning is moral progress because it is an asceticism, it diminishes our egoism and enlarges our conception of truth, it provides deeper, subtler and wiser visions of the world. What should be taught in schools: to attend and get things right. Creative power requires these abilities. Intellectual and craft studies initiate new qualities of consciousness, minutiae of perception, ability to observe, they alter our desires, our instinctive movements of desire and aversion. To attend is to care, to learn to desire to learn."

absolutely exquisite. thank you.

I work in the world of music, sometimes writing about it (Irish and Scottish mainly), sometimes involved in helping it happen, some times listening to friends play and sing. All those forms of paying attention are prayers, I think, as is the playing of music.

oh please produce a program about simone weil. her writings were the first step and still a touchstone on my personal journey. she continues to draw me away from the pervasive mechanistic world view pressing so hard against my life.