Another of Simone Weil’s incisive thoughts is her notion of attention. She uses mathematics as an example of how we can train ourselves in spiritual discipline. Math requires a solution that is objective. I have to focus on solving a problem that sits outside of my feelings and perceptions. It’s more of a discipline to work out a solution for a particularly difficult problem. In short I have to train myself to give total focus to something that is not myself. It can be frustrating and make me feel stupid, but if I am going to solve for X I need to persevere and not get frustrated by my self-centered need to be done.
Attention is a word that also means God is in our midst. Attention is a discipline of utter importance to cultivating a spiritual life – even an inner spiritual life and awareness. We can train ourselves through the sort of attention we may experience in prayer, but for Weil we don’t need to wait for some kind of spiritual context to train. We just need the behavior. We can practice the disciplines needed to cultivate a prayer life doing other activities.
Saturday morning I wondered what kinds of exciting activities that I could do with my kids. I looked at all the local calendars and attractions. It was a hot morning and early afternoon so I figured we could go to a pool and pay the cover change for the day or hit a local cavern which would run us about $50. I was looking for cost-efficient activities. Then I turned to ask my boys what they wanted to do. All they wanted was to go to a park and play. That was it.
What kids need from their parents is attention. All of the other activities we can add to that may sweeten the pot a little, but what matters to them is that I am focused on them. “Daddy watch me” is usually a clue that they know I am not paying attention enough and I need to focus on them and interact more proactively.
Today I took my seven-year-old to see The Avengers. I had seen it before and knew he could handle it. He loves the Avengers cartoons. The outing cost almost $30 for the tickets and popcorn. Going to a movie with just my oldest is a rare thing. As we sat down and the previews began (too many) he looked up and said, “We don’t get to do stuff just you and me that much.” Then it occurred to me. What he wants more than the movie, the popcorn, the Slushee, or any of the other fixins is me.
Kids are a spiritual discipline. We may not see it or feel it, but when we engage our kids with absolute focus we are training our ability to be attentive. Spending time with our children is a spiritual discipline that gives us the mental “muscle memory” to be attentive on God. Raising children requires all the same attributes as prayer: patience, charity, temperance, discipline, etc. Maybe with our children we can see God in our midst if we focus completely on them.
Thinking about child-rearing as a spiritual act raises the bar on how spiritually fit we are. The more I am attentive and not self-seeking with them, the more attentive and helpful I can be with others. Maybe at those junctures I will be more ready and willing to be with God.