Paying Attention: The One Thing Necessary

One thing is needful, necessary. It is a famous closing line to one of the most remarkable chapters in the Gospel according to St. Luke. It belongs to the end of the story of Martha and Mary which bookends the Parable of the Good Samaritan. That parable shows us the radical meaning of the love of God and the love of neighbour. But the one thing necessary has to do with the qualities of attention. Building on our first Chapels, the challenge is about attending to the creation in the very ways in which things are named and numbered, understood as one thing rather than another within an order.

Simone Weil, the remarkable 20th century philosopher and activist, observes that “prayer consists of attention,” and, indeed, attention of the highest order, namely, “the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God”. This complements the observation of the 16th century theologian Richard Hooker that prayer signifies “all the service that ever we do unto God”. For him, as for Simone Weil, the connection between learning and prayer was ever so obvious. They belong to our relation to God’s truth and goodness.

As teaching bringeth us to know that God is our supreme truth; so prayer testifieth that we acknowledge him our sovereign good.

There is no greater contrast than between ‘being distracted’ and ‘being collected, being attentive, as it were. “The faculty of attention, directed toward God,” Simone Weil says, “is the very substance of prayer.” She connects this to studies because seeking to learn means a commitment to ‘truth’ in all of its various forms in accord with our varying capacities and situations. Yet no genuine effort of attention is ever wasted. “It always has its effect on the spiritual plane and in consequence on the lower one of the intelligence, for all spiritual light lightens the mind.” For “there is real desire when there is an effort of attention” even if “our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result.”

But attention is equally important in terms of the love of neighbour. “Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance,” she writes, “the love of neighbour, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance.” As she explains, “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.” She recalls the medieval story of the Grail where the Grail – a reference to Christ’s Passion and Last Supper – belongs to the first comer who asks “what are you going through?” “The love of neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’” As Miranda in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest poignantly says “I have suffered with those that I saw suffer” in reference to the shipwreck that Prospero her father has conjured up.

Her words illuminate the true nature of our care and compassion towards one another. Attention speaks to the ethical, to the obligations that belong to human dignity and freedom. In the Christian understanding, the love of God and love of neighbour meet in Jesus Christ and most importantly at the Cross. It is a strong spiritual reminder of the realities of suffering as opening us out to a greater good. I am often struck by the coincidence of Holy Cross Day on September 14 with the first weeks of School. In the Christian understanding it speaks to the Passion or sufferings of Christ and its meaning for us in our lives. I am writing from a conference of a society of priests dedicated to the Holy Cross being held in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Martha and Mary represent action and contemplation respectively. And while it seems that Mary has chosen the better part or rather the good portion, it is not that Martha, distracted with much serving, has chosen a bad part. It is more about how the busyness of our distracted lives needs to be gathered into the collectedness of Mary, sitting and listening. Both matter in terms of the qualities of attention which belong to the life of students, on the one hand, and all of us in our care and concern for one another, being attentive to what each one is going through, on the other hand. My hope and prayer is that we will find the proper balance between our doing and our thinking and in so doing have a deeper appreciation of the wonder of creation of which we are a part.

(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy

IB Programme
King’s-Edgehill School is located in Mi'kma'ki, the unceded ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq People.