“Let us attend!”
This imperative in the Divine Liturgy caught my attention recently when I had occasion to worship with our Orthodox brethren. And it’s got me thinking about what it means “to pay attention.” At several points in the liturgy, the command, voiced by a deacon, is striking. Before the Epistle and the Gospel lessons, he says, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” (Greek: Sophia! Proschōmen!) And at the beginning of the anaphora (i.e., the Eucharistic prayer), he says:
Let us stand well. Let us stand in awe. Let us be attentive, that we may present the holy offering in peace.
Like a military officer, the deacon calls the people to attention. He calls us to attend, to hold ourselves towards, to stretch our minds towards the Wisdom in our midst. He calls us to bring ourselves near, to take notice of, to have regard for the Thrice Holy One. It’s a call to tend to ourselves, to beware. It’s a call to take heed, to harken to the Word of the Lord. The proschōmen is a call to attach ourselves, to cleave and hold to — and to be held fast by — the Holy Trinity.
It’s also a recognition that we need to be told to attend, an acknowledgement that, even in the midst of the liturgy, we need continually to be recalled to what we are about. An admission that we forget our God, that we do not notice our Creator, that we remain distracted. That, like Augustine, we must confess, “You were with me, but I was not with you” (Confessions 10.27.38).
We might say that this call to attention is a call to prayer. “Prayer consists of attention,” says Simone Weil. “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God.”
These lines come from the essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” (collected in Waiting for God), in which Weil argues that academic study is valuable insofar as it serves to develop a student’s capacity for attention. Struggling with a geometry proof or wrestling with Latin declensions — especially for someone who lacks natural aptitude or attraction for the subject matter — demands attention. She says that attention exercised in the search for truth (even the “little fragment of particular truth” that a geometry proof is) will cultivate the faculty of attention:
Quite apart from explicit religious belief, every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort possesses no visible fruit.
The more I can sustain attention, the more fit I will be for prayer — and vice versa. (Which is why it matters to the Church that some studies suggest, here and here, that digital media negatively affects students’ capacity for attention.)
Weil’s reflections help further clarify what it might mean to be told to pay attention in the liturgy. She writes that we shouldn’t confuse attention with willpower or with “a kind of muscular effort” (furrowing the brows, screwing up the eyes). Instead, she says, attention is “a negative effort.” It is characterized more by patient receptivity than by aggressive grasping. It is figured by the beloved waiting for the arrival of her lover (and Weil’s language here is unmistakably erotic). The attentive soul, “with its lamp well filled with oil, awaits the Bridegrooms’s coming with confidence and desire.” Attentiveness is a loving watchfulness, and it is cultivated through encountering difficulty, by coming up against what I cannot control but which elicits my desire.
So heeding the liturgical “Let us attend” cannot simply be a matter of trying really, really hard to pay attention. Nor will a particular experience or feeling, or lack thereof, be a reliable indicator of whether I am paying attention. As Rowan Williams writes in The Edge of Words:
Knowing God … is not to be identified with a state of religious ecstasy; and not knowing God is not to be identified with a feeling of abandonment or spiritual desolation. Ultimately, what matters is neither a positive or a negative affective stance, but a developing understanding of how our thinking and feeling become ‘de-centred’, dispossessed of controllable material.
Paying attention, then, might be more a matter of relinquishing control, a posture of listening and longing, poised to receive the heart’s desire and joy. A whispered, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
The proschōmen calls me not only to attend to God, but also my neighbor. Weil writes further that attention is the substance of both love of God and love of neighbor. Paying attention to my neighbor is the shape of love.
“Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention,” Weil writes. “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.”
Pope Benedict XVI said something much these same when he wrote in Deus caritas est of the gift of “the look of love.” In the end, perhaps that is the best way to describe attention: a look of love.
“Let us attend!”