“I believe also that it is among our strange privileges as human beings to have an important ability to decide what in our minds we choose to attend to—and therefore what our lives will be.”– Marilynne Robinson
In the film Lady Bird, directed by Gretta Gerwig, the main character gives herself the name Lady Bird after rejecting her given name, Christine. Throughout the movie, she rails against traditional limits and wants to escape the deadbeat town of Sacramento to go to the east coast where good schools are. Towards the end of the gmovie, she’s meeting with a nun over a disciplinary matter at her Catholic high school.
The nun brings up her college essay and remarks, “You clearly love Sacramento.”
Shocked, Lady Bird looks up, “I do?”
The nun continues, “You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.” Lady Bird responds, “I was just describing it.”
“Well, it comes across as love.”
“Sure, I guess I pay attention.”
The nun ends the scene: “Don’t you think maybe they’re the same thing? Love? Attention?”
These could be some of my favorite lines from any movie. Love is attention. Attention is love.
To begin an essay titled, “Reflections on the Right Use of School with a View to the Love of God,” Simone Weil remarked, “The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.” In essence, Weil says that the value of an education is its attentional quality—its training in the ability to focus rightly. Studying basic subjects primes the knower for higher attention and contemplation. She uses the example of geometry: even if someone wrestles for an hour and does not arrive at the correct conclusion, that person is formed in the attention necessary in seeking God.
What is true of education is also true of art. In the same way that getting a math problem right isn’t fundamental to the “right use of School,” so getting the interpretation right isn’t the fundamental purpose to the “right use of Art.” Tough or unenjoyable subjects are valuable in the same way that tough or seemingly unenjoyable works of art are: they both train and form our attentional muscles. They cause us to pause, to see again. This is particularly true of those works of art where we think, “I don’t get it?”
Flannery O’Connor argues along the same lines in Mystery and Manners: “Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you see, anything that makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.” The writer, the student, the teacher, the artist: we should never be ashamed of staring and looking. Love depends on this act of attention.
The world of beauty slows us down to contemplate. It can be natural beauty—the scenes of a sunset, the majestic views of mountains, or the simple pleasures of farmland. We’re all familiar with being stopped by a breathtaking view; we slow down, take a breath, and see. There’s beauty to behold.
Or it can be human-made beauty – say, the poetry of George Herbert. In many ways Herbert isn’t accessible. His poems are hard to “get”; they take time to understand. However, working through a poem can train one’s attention, and attention is needed when one turns to God in prayer. Attention to aesthetic forms requires a steady gaze, silence, slowing, contemplation, staring.
We reside in a fast-paced, distracted, automated, and busy world. If there’s any hope of knowing God, of attending to Him, of staring, we need this practice of slowing and contemplating. Meditative reading is a way, as is pondering art. Such practices prepare us to encounter God. Elijah did not find God in the big movements of earthquake, or fire, or wind. God is found in the “low whisper” (1 Kngs 19.12). The Psalmist commands, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46.10). By attending to slow and silent things, we can train our attention to recognize and see God in the world at large. We can see present in physical things the God who is all and is in all and through all. The arts can function sacramentally. The world is full of delightful gifts to be contemplated—if our hearts have enough room to see.
Roger Scruton picks up this theme and helpfully focuses it. He insists, “The judgement of beauty, it emerges, is not merely a statement of preference. It demands an act of attention. Less important than the final verdict is the attempt to show what is right, fitting, worthwhile, attractive or expressive in the object: in other words, to identify the aspect of the thing that claims our attention.” Beauty can be appreciated not for what it does or the utility it serves but for what it is in itself—the essence it manifests. A piece of visual art or music is to be contemplated more than used. And, according to Scruton, good visual art or music demands attention. In the same way, contemplation of God is paying attention to what demands one’s attention—more than information discovered or expression felt. Contemplating art can be a means, a sort of preparatory practice, of contemplating the Beautiful One from which all beauty is derivative.
The lesser beauties that one contemplates are a shadow of the fullness of beauty found in Christ. Aesthetic attention properly leads the viewer or listener to the ultimate end of beauty: Christ Himself.