The Sacrament of Attention
The Kingdom of God and the Cost of Love
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” —Simone Weil, Letter to Joë Bousquet, 13 April 1942
For good reasons, our language often frames attention as an economic commodity. We pay attention to things we value. If we talk to someone for too long, they might think we are monopolizing their attention. And if someone doesn’t give enough attention to something, or does not have enough attention to give, they might be diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder. We can devote ourselves to entertainment and pleasure while others—usually those who provide the entertainment and pleasure—sell our attention to the highest bidder. Quantities of attention can be divided into clicks, impressions, and page views, and converted directly into cash. In 2021, companies worldwide spent almost 600 billion dollars competing for your attention on the internet.
We often use time as a measure of attention, but there is only a weak correlation between the two things. We can devote enormous amounts of time to projects that receive very little of our attention, and we can devote all of our attention to something for a very brief time. This is also true for people. Being with somebody for an hour is much easier than paying attention to somebody for an hour. The former requires only physical (or virtual) proximity, and we do it every day. The latter happens only rarely. It requires us to donate all our emotional, spiritual, and intellectual energy to being with another person. I can recall only a few occasions in my life when I spent time with somebody and felt that they focused their entire attention on knowing and understanding me. Each time was a gift beyond measure.
How we allocate our attention defines us even more than our purchases do. People have different amounts of money, so the things we buy don’t reflect values in the same way for everyone. The same purchase might represent a tremendous sacrifice for one person and a mere afterthought to another. But we all have the same widow’s mite of attention to distribute among the many things competing for it: family, friends, education, health, careers, church, politics, great books, lousy books, clickbait headlines, and viral posts about ridiculous people doing ridiculous things for no particular reason. Our limited attention budget forces us to make choices, and those choices both reveal our values and create our characters. We can say that we value an almost infinite number of people and things, and we might even believe it. But we can only dedicate our attention to a few of them—and those few things determine who we become.
Like every resource, our attention can be bought, sold, or given away. And it can be consecrated to the Kingdom of God. This is the main point of one of the most challenging and rewarding pieces of writing I have ever read: Simone Weil’s “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” from her collection Waiting for God. Superficially, the essay is about the spiritual importance of secular education. But really, it is about prayer. “Prayer consists of attention,” she tells us in the first sentence. “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.” For Weil, the primary value of any kind of education is that it develops our ability to focus our attention on something for a substantial amount of time. It doesn’t matter what we study, she argues, or even if we end up learning it. Algebra, French, history, music, biology, and economics all require us to develop the capacity to pay sustained attention to a single thing. And we need to develop that capacity as fully as possible to have a meaningful relationship with God.
In making this argument, Weil frames Christian prayer as a kind of Old Testament sacrifice. When people’s wealth took the form of crops and livestock, offering an animal to God required one to part with a significant economic asset. To place a bull or flawless lamb on the altar of God, one had to make a difficult choice about a scarce resource. One had to choose God over something else in a meaningful way. In a culture whose most valuable resource is attention, concentrating wholly on God requires precisely the same kind of sacrifice. Where your attention is, there will your heart be also.
According to Jesus, the first great commandment is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37). This, too, has much to do with attention. Taken together, the heart, soul, and mind—representing the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual components of our consciousness—mean about the same thing that Weil means by attention. When we love God in all these ways, we reciprocate God’s love for us, for God’s attention is infinite and perfect. This is also the way God, through the second great commandment, instructs us to love each other, as Weil explains:
Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. 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. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.
To me, these are the most challenging words in the essay, and possibly the most challenging words in the world. They call us to take service and charity further than even the New Testament does. Weil says that loving other people requires us to give them our full attention. This includes noticing and ministering to physical needs like food and shelter, but that is just a small part. The most basic and universal human needs include the need to be seen and understood, the need to be taken seriously, the need to be appreciated, and the need to be paid attention to. “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say . . . ‘What are you going through?’” Weil suggests at the end of her great essay, “Only [those] capable of attention can do this.”
When I read Weil, I am reminded of another concept from a very different field of study that concerns the ways that we demonstrate attention. I refer to the concept of “costly signaling,” which scientists use to explain why organisms sometimes do things that seem directly contrary to their evolutionary interests. Consider the strange stotting behavior of the Thomson’s gazelle. When facing a predator, some gazelles will start stotting, or jumping up and down to call attention to themselves. Interpreted by popular science writer Jared Diamond, the stotting gazelle wants to send a message that goes something like, “I am a superior, fast gazelle! You’ll never succeed in catching me, so don’t waste your time and energy on trying.” However, since any gazelle can claim to be superior and fast, a hungry cheetah will be more inclined to believe this message if it is associated with a cost—in this case, the increased risk of attracting a predator’s attention.
Humans pay attention to the costs of signals too. Think of the last time you received a handwritten thank-you note compared to the last time you got a mass-distributed thank-you email. Even if they contained the exact same words, you likely felt more gratitude from the handwritten note because you knew that it took money to purchase the card and time to write and mail it. Or think of the way that offering “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy has become an ironic cliché—a shorthand way to say “not doing anything at all.” Thoughts and prayers are not bad things to do; they are easy things to say. They promise sustained attention without incurring any costs or requiring any choices. Humans and other organisms have been genetically programmed to be skeptical about such messages. They are just too easy to fake.
The Kingdom of God can only be built on honest, and therefore costly, communication between people who love each other and pay attention to each other’s needs. This sounds easier than it is, though, because we often have a hard time telling the difference between paying attention to other people’s needs and paying attention to ourselves by interacting with other people’s needs. We need to feel wanted, needed, and respected. We want people to see our help as valuable and our efforts as sincere. We want people to be grateful for what we give them. And all too often we just want to eliminate the nagging feelings of guilt and shame that come when we fail to live up to our proclaimed values. Meeting these needs can look a lot like loving our neighbors, but we are not quite building Zion when we turn other people into containers for our own attention to ourselves.
This, I think, is the most important lesson that we learn from the Book of Job. When Job’s comforters sat with him for seven days and seven nights without saying a word, they gave their full attention to their suffering friend. This is a master class in mourning with those who mourn, which has nothing to do with fixing a problem and everything to do with just paying attention to somebody else’s needs. But as soon as they start talking, they ruin everything. They stop mourning with one who mourns and start trying to explain Job’s pain. And it becomes increasingly clear that they are not focusing on Job’s needs at all. They are trying to comfort themselves. By simply existing, Job has upended their understanding of God and morality, which says that God rewards those who do good things and punishes those who do bad things. In their minds, Job ceases to become a friend to be mourned with and becomes instead a theological problem to solve.
Focusing attention on other people to the exclusion of our own needs is decidedly unnatural. It defeats the logic of natural selection, which is driven by organisms pursuing their own interests or the interests of their genes. This is why Jesus must resort so often to paradox when trying to describe the Kingdom of God: “Whoever loses their life shall save it” (Mark 8:35), “If any desire to be first, the same shall be last” (Mark 8:35), and “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). These things don’t make sense in our world. The urgent message of Jesus’s earthly ministry was that the Kingdom of God cannot exist without them.
We err, I think, when we see the great commandments as prescriptive statements, as though loving God and our neighbors were the purchase price of eternal salvation. The great commandments are not injunctions on how to qualify for heaven after we die, but instructions for how to build heaven while we are still on earth. The Kingdom of God is, by definition, a society in which everybody focuses their attention on God and each other—rather than on their own needs and desires. The overwhelming message of the New Testament is that we can have this society anytime we want it, but we cannot have it cheaply, because the only way to create it is to give up everything else. This has everything to do with how we allocate our attention.
Michael Austin is the Academic Vice President and Provost at the University of Evansville. He is the author of eight books, including “Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem” and “Vardis Fisher: A Mormon Novelist.”
Art by James Rees.