Prayer, Attention, and Will
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
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.