Pay Attention

October 25, 2016

I have been teaching for a long time, and I confess that while I am always hoping that my words find a home in a student’s heart, I never know. As the rabbi Jesus said at the beginning of his teaching, “If you have ears to hear, then hear.” That is as deep a wisdom as teachers, and their students, get.

Always and everywhere, there is a responsibility for knowledge, a response built into the very act of teaching. The truest truth about learning is that we are able to respond, responsible. So we choose to either take the teaching in, or not. And the response cannot only be for a moment, but for it to have its intended consequence, it has to be worked out over time— the words have to become flesh.

Last Saturday I received a letter in the mail, an honest communication from one person to another! In our emailing world, that is a rare gift, but it was specially so because it was from a former student, remembering something she had learned, and wanting me to know. With a thoughtful and tender note she told about words that she was still pondering, working them through her heart, and on the other side of the card the words, “Pay attention,” were artfully and simply crafted.

I can do no other than give my students what has been given to me. We all stand within traditions, consciously or not, choosing to think and live out of ways that others have before us. To anyone who wants to know, I describe myself as someone who sees and hears the world from the Hebrew and Christian vision of life and the world. That is the ground of my being, the wellspring of my life. Over the centuries there are teachers who have taught me, taking me further up and further into seeing and hearing the world, and I have been their glad student.

For example, years ago I began reading Simone Weil, the French philosopher. Intrigued by her life, instructed by her insight. I have written about her in many times and places. Born Jewish in the early years of the 20th-century in Paris, she took ideas seriously, eventually becoming the top student at the Sorbonne. But disillusioned by the inadequacy of communism to honestly address the depth of her commitments, she spent years looking for something more. And finally, finally, she found the God who has tears.1

Along the way she began to write, and one essay I have drawn on again and again is one written for students who want to take their studies seriously, “On the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” In it she argues that the task of study is to learn to pay attention, to see the way things honestly are in the worlds of history, of literature, of biology, of physics, of economics and politics, and on and on. When we learn to learn like that, Weil says that we learn to learn sacramentally, seeing where heaven and earth touch, where the seen reality of our everyday lives is twined together with the unseen reality of the transcendent universe. She roots this way of learning in the story we call the Good Samaritan, arguing that the expert in the law whose question to Jesus begins the parable, had never learned to pay attention— he had gotten “all A’s but was flunking life” to remember Walker Percy’s warning. The Samaritan surprises us all, showing that he could see a neighbor in need, and respond. Knowing and doing were one… because he had learned to pay attention.

Wherever I go week by week, teaching as I do day by day, my longing is for my students to learn to learn the deepest lessons, the ones that transform and form their hearts. The week the letter came I began teaching in Washington DC on Monday, then went to Dallas, TX where my lecture at SMU was “On Learning to Learn,” and my hope was to finish on Friday on Capitol Hill at the American Studies Program for my once-a-semester lecture, before the snow storm came, but each time with a call to the vocation of study at the very center of teaching, hoping for my hearers to learn to pay attention to the truest truths of the universe.

To pay attention is the heart of all learning, and all life. To see truthfully is to see honestly, and therefore to see ourselves implicated, for love’s sake, in what we know. That is what my student is still working out, still thinking through, as she should, having ears to hear as she does.

About the Author
  • Steven Garber is the principal of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture, which is focused on reframing the way people understand life, especially the meaning of vocation and the common good. A consultant to foundations, corporations and educational institutions, he is a teacher of many people in many places. The author of The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior, and Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, he is also a contributor to the books, Faith Goes to Work: Reflections from the Marketplace, and Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue. He lives with his wife Meg in Virginia.

  1. That pilgrimage is a substantive part of the first pages of the Visions of Vocation

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