Cultivating Attention

May 9, 2018


When I arrived at CHC one of the first things I did was to start a faculty reading group. We meet early in the morning before work on Wednesdays. We drink coffee together and discuss great books. Currently we are reading Simone Weil’s Waiting for God, one of the spiritual classics of the 20th century. Simone Weil was a brilliant French philosopher who, almost against her will, became convinced of the reality of God. She had memorised George Herbert’s poem “Love III”, and one day while reciting the poem, as she later reported, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.” Although she never became a Christian in any conventional sense, Simone Weil spent the rest of her short life trying to figure out how to respond to Christ. She was relentless in her pursuit of a Christlike way of life. She believed that, above all, Christ calls us to live attentively.
How do we train ourselves in the art of attention? One of the best ways, according to Weil, is through study. Whenever we come across a difficult passage in a book that we are reading, we are immediately faced with two possibilities. We can skim over the difficulty and look for something easy and familiar to latch on to. Or we can linger over the difficulty. We can pause to ask ourselves: why is this passage difficult? What is blocking my understanding? What does this difficulty reveal about me?
When we pay attention to difficulties, we begin to learn. We learn about ourselves. We become aware of our blind-spots, our mental habits, our assumptions and limitations.
This is true of the Bible as well. It is possible to read the Bible regularly without ever really being challenged by its difficult claims and demands. It is possible to read the Bible in a way that only reinforces our prior prejudices and assumptions. We often come away from the Bible feeling encouraged and consoled. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, we need to read the Bible “against ourselves”, not just “for ourselves”. We should be searching for the mind of Christ, not just for a reflection of our own thoughts and desires.
That is the advantage of reading books in company with other people. When I read by myself I can easily hurry past the difficulties. But when I read and discuss a book with others, I quickly find that my own assumptions are called into question. The book begins to open itself to me in a new way. It challenges me. It does not want me to remain as I am.
This is why reading groups are so good for the soul. And it is why our classes at the Millis Institute are all based on the habits of close reading, patient listening, and rigorous truth-telling. We pay attention to the books we are reading. We pay attention to one another. We pay attention to ourselves. We listen well in order to speak well. We read carefully in order to become rigorous truth-tellers – even if at times that will mean telling the truth “against ourselves”.

And as Simone Weil said, when we cultivate the art of attention we are also learning how to pray, since prayer consists in paying attention to God – not just acknowledging God, but becoming fully aware of God and fully aware of God’s presence in our lives. By practising attention in the classroom, we also learn how to practise the presence of God.


Upcoming Events


Coming up next week at the Millis Institute is our first Café Conversation of the year. On Thursday night we will be hosting a public discussion of the question: Can the moral life survive in an age of social media? I will be joined by the ABC’s Scott Stephens (host of The Minefield on Radio National, and of the ABC’s Religion & Ethics website). It will be an evening of stimulating conversation about one of the great moral issues of our time. Come along and join in the discussion! Click here to register.
Next month we will also be hosting our 2018 Future Leaders Fellowship (formerly the Witherspoon Fellowship), an annual two-day liberal arts immersion for high school students in Years 10-12. This year’s theme will be Speeches That Made History. We’ll be exploring a selection of powerful speeches from some of history’s most courageous moral leaders. Participants will engage in Socratic discussion groups, public speaking, a debating competition, and more. Click here for more information, or to register.
Perhaps you’re interested in starting up a local reading group, or in coming along to a Millis Institute class to see what it’s like. Don’t be shy, get in touch any time! And we hope to see you next week at our Café Conversation.

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