The Aim of (Christian) Education

"The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention.  It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.  The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of prayer.  Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.

"The highest part of the attention only makes contact with God, when prayer is intense and pure enough for such a contact to be established; but the whole attention is turned toward God.

"Of course school exercises only develop a lower kind of attention.  Nevertheless, they are extremely effective in increasing the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer, on condition that they are carried out with a view to this purpose and this purpose alone.

"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....

"If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no 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....

"Certainties of this kind are experimental.  But if we do not believe in them before experiencing them, if at least we do not behave as though we believed in them, we shall never have the experience that leads to such certainties.  There is a kind of contradiction here.  Above a given level this is the case with all useful knowledge concerning spiritual progress.  If we do not regulate our conduct by it before having proved it, if we do not hold on to it for a long time by faith alone, a faith at first stormy and without light, we shall never transform it into certainty.  Faith is the indispensable condition....

"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....

"Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort.  If one says to one's pupils: 'Now you must pay attention,' one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles.  If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply.  They have been concentrating on nothing.  They have not been paying attention.  They have been contracting their muscles....

"Attention is an effort, the greatest of all efforts perhaps, but it is a negative effort.  Of itself, it does not involve tiredness.  When we become tired, attention is scarcely possible any more, unless we have already had a good deal of practice.  It is better to stop working altogether, to seek some relaxation, and then a little later to return to the task; we have to press on and loosen up alternately, just as we breathe in and out.

"Twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of the kind of frowning application that leads us to say with a sense of duty done: 'I have worked well!'....

"But, in spite of all appearances, it is also far more difficult.  Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue.  This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh.  That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.  If we concentrate with this intention, a quarter of an hour of attention is better than a great many good works.

"Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of.  Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts....  Above all our thoughts should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

"All wrong translations, all absurdities in geometry problems, all clumsiness of style, and all faulty connection of ideas in compositions and essays, all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily, and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth.  The cause is always that we have wanted to be too active; we have wanted to carry out a search.  This can be proved every time, for every fault, if we trace it to its root.  There is no better exercise than such a tracing down of our faults, for this truth is one to be believed only when we have experienced it hundreds and thousands of times.  This is the way with all essential truths.

"We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.  Man cannot discover them by his own powers, and if he sets out to seek for them he will find in their place counterfeits of which he will be unable to discern the falsity.

"The solution of a geometry problem does not in itself constitute a precious gift, but the same law applies to it because it is the image of something precious.  Being a little fragment of particular truth, it is a pure image of the unique, eternal, and living Truth, the very Truth that once in a human voice declared: 'I am the Truth.'

"Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament....

"Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, 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 posses it.  Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough....

"The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: 'What are you going through?'  It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled 'unfortunate,' but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.  For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.

"This way of looking is first of all attentive.  The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.

"Only he who is capable of attention can do this.

"So it comes about that, paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them.  Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need....

"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."

--Simone Weil, "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God," in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (1951), pp. 57-65.

Comments

  1. Wow. Thanks. I needed that. And here I thought geometry existed solely to drive honest, sort-of-hardworking-but-mostly-intelligent students insane with the task of proving by logic that a square inside a rectangle is smaller than said rectangle. IT'S INSIDE THE RECTANGLE!!! IT HAS TO BE SMALLER!! It will be hard, but at least now I know how I will use this skill in my everyday life- and not only my practical life, but my much more important spiritual life. I'm thinking... I'm widening my perspective... Buffering... Yeah, I still can't seem to screw up the determination to start my geometry homework. But maybe I'm closer to God?

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  2. Start small: just fifteen minutes of paying attention to the rectangle and square. Prayer, square. There must be a reason that they rhyme! ; )

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