Plan C

Simone Weil said it better than I could. It's about attention and how everything that we do--she says, every subject that we study in school--is preparation for prayer. Because study requires us not just to concentrate, but to attend, to care, to be wholly present to the object of our attention.

I see it now. I have been making it too complicated. I kept thinking that prayer was about having a particular kind of experience; a feeling rather than a thought. I expected prayer to be, I don't know, exhilarating, rapturous, absorptive, mystical. Which it can be, but not for the reasons that I had thought. Prayer is being there, absolutely, attending to God. Not expecting anything else, not wanting to be changed or validated or inspired, just paying attention. What could be simpler?

I felt it yesterday, there on the strip. I was so tired from the previous two days' competition, I had no energy left for expectations. All that I could think was, "This bout is the only bout that I will ever have to fence, this touch is the only touch that I will ever have to get. This fencer is the only one that I need to think about, this action is the only one that I need to do. Nothing matters other than learning something from this touch, nothing matters other than keeping my point on target and being willing to move."

And it was exhilarating, rapturous, absorptive, mystical--but not because I was expecting it to be. Do I worry about whether I have won enough bouts to make the cut off to the DEs? Absolutely not. That is another competition altogether, completely separate from the pools. While in pools, the only thing that matters is this bout in the the pools. While in the DEs, the only thing that matters is this bout in the DEs. Every bout, every touch, wholly itself, the score always 0-0, every action the only thing that I need to think about at the moment that I am doing it.

Can I do it again today? Perhaps, but doing it again it not what matters. Paying attention takes energy; that's why you need to train for it. That's what Weil meant when she said that all of our studies in school were preparation for prayer: because it takes practice to be able to pay attention, to sustain it throughout prayer. And so we practice by paying attention to other things, geometry or history, biology or literature or poetry or, yes, fencing, so that when we come to pray, we have the stamina to attend fully to God.

I don't know if I'm there yet, I don't know if I can pay attention to the moment for a whole 'nother afternoon. These past three days have been curiously long; I will find myself thinking about something that happened that morning as if it were days ago, not just earlier the same day. It's absorptive, yes, but exhausting, too. I have not been practicing quite this level of attention in some time, if ever. Which, I now at long last realize, is why fencing is such an excellent preparation for prayer: because it takes absolute, unwavering attention to the moment during which it is impossible to think of anything other than the action at hand.

So why have I found it so hard over the years to learn to fence? Clearly, because I didn't want to surrender my attention fully to the moment. Because I wanted to keep hold of the "me" who thinks thoughts about the future and outcomes and meaning and what others might think. Because I wanted to make a bargain with God without paying the price--ironically, when the price was so clear.

"Pay attention to me." That's what God asks. "Pay attention to me and I will take care of you. Pay attention to me and you will not need to worry about whether you are loved or important or successful. Pay attention to me and I will give you everything that you ask for--but only if you pay attention to me."

I won three out of six pool bouts yesterday and made the cut into the DEs. I won my first DE 15-10 to a girl who seeded below me by some thirty places. And I won my second 15-14 to a girl who seeded above me by the same. Contrary to all expectations (because I didn't have any, thank God), I made the top 32 in Div II Women's Foil. And this was only the first year that I had even qualified for Div II.

So can I do it again today in Div III Women's Foil? That rather depends on what "it" means. Make top 32? Perhaps, but so what? The real challenge has nothing to do with where I place. I'm glad I finally understand that now.

Thank God.


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