Training attention in academic studies as training in prayer

The following are some excerpts from Simone Weil’s “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” that I found particularly interesting.

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 the attention counts for much of the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.

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 interst is secondary. All tasks that really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason to an almost equal degree.

If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of and 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. Moreover, it may very likely be felt in some department of the intelligence in no way connected with mathematics. Perhaps he who made the unsuccessful effort will one day be able to grasp the beauty of a line of Racine more vividly on account of it. But it is certain that this effort will bear its fruit in prayer.

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.

With all the hyper-focus on utility, ROI, and job-skill training that has taken place in in the West in recent decades, this view on the nature and value of academic study sounds very foreign to our ears. And yet, on reflection of my own ~16 years of study in school and more years out of it, I think I agree.

What were the most valuable exercises I ever worked on in school? Keeping my eyes trained on the conductor during a 2.5 hour orchestra rehearsal. Reading every word of an essay out-loud a hundred times so as the tweak the rhetoric and even the sounds of the words until they were as true, convincing, and even beautiful as I could make them (in my limited skill and experience). Reading a really long and dense book slowly and trying to figure out what was being said. In all these cases I failed. My eyes strayed from the conductor. I let some clunky passages in my essay slide. I only understood maybe 15% of the heavy book. And none of these challenging exercises ever directly earned me a dime. I’ve never been a professional musician. I’ve never written a long speech or essay like that for my job. I’ve never learned any computer programming from digesting long books on the subject (sorry Donald Knuth!).

Looking back though, now that I’m nearly 40 years old, these were the very best things I ever did in school. They developed my attention, which has yielded truckloads of fruit. These things also, as Weil suggests, have taught me to pray better. And that’s solid gold.