Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God"

I pass along to you this wonderful essay by the great Christian teacher, Simone Weil. If you are unfamiliar with her as a person, see the Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simone_Weil.

Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God
by Simone Weil

* From Waiting for God, trans. by Emma Craufurd New York: Harper and Row, 1951

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 toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it

The highest part of the attention only makes contact with God, when prayer is intense and pure enough for such a contact to be established; but the whole attention is turned toward God.

Of course school exercises only develop a lower kind of attention. Nevertheless, they are extremely effective in increasing the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer, on condition that they are carried out with a view to this purpose and this purpose alone.

Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interest is secondary. All tasks that really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree.

School children and students who love God should never say: "For my part I like mathematics"; "I like French"; "I like Greek." They should learn to like all these subjects, because all of them develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.

If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry, this does not mean that our faculty for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the contrary, it is almost an advantage.

It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so. Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted. It always has its effect on the spiritual plane and in consequence on the lower one of the intelligence, for all spiritual light lightens the mind.

If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer. Moreover, it may very likely be felt in some department of the intelligence in no way connected with mathematics. Perhaps he who made the unsuccessful

effort will one day be able to grasp the beauty of a line of Racine more vividly on account of it. But it is certain that this effort will bear its fruit in prayer. There is no doubt whatever about that.

Certainties of this kind are experimental. But if we do not believe in them before experiencing them, if at least we do not behave as though we believed in them, we shall never have the experience that leads to such certainties. There is a kind of contradiction here. Above a given level this is the case with all useful knowledge concerning spiritual progress. If we do not regulate our conduct by it before having proved it, if we do not hold on to it for a long time by faith alone, a faith at first stormy and without light, we shall never transform it into certainty. Faith is the indispensable condition.

The best support for faith is the guarantee that if we ask our Father for bread, he does not give us a stone. 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 produces no visible fruit. An Eskimo story explains the origin of light as follows: “In the eternal darkness, the crow, unable to find any food, longed for light, and the earth was illumined.” If there is a real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention. It is really light that is desired if all other incentives are absent. Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul. Every effort adds a little gold to a treasure no power on earth can take away. The useless efforts made by the CurĂ© d'Ars, for long and painful years, in his attempt to learn Latin bore fruit in the marvelous discernment that enabled him to see the very soul of his penitents behind their words and even their silences.

Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer; as, when we write, we draw the shape of the letter on paper, not with a view to the shape, but with a view to the idea we want to express. To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use.

The second condition is to take great pains to examine squarely and to contemplate attentively and slowly each school task in which we have failed, seeing how unpleasing and second rate it is, without seeking any excuse or overlooking any mistake or any of our tutor's corrections, trying to get down to the origin of each fault. There is a great temptation to do the opposite, to give a sideways glance at the corrected exercise If it is bad and to hide it forthwith. Most of us do this nearly always. We have to withstand this temptation. Incidentally, moreover, nothing is more necessary for academic success, because, despite all our efforts, we work without making much progress when we refuse to give our attention to the faults we have made and our tutor's corrections.

Above all it is thus that we can acquire the virtue of humility, and that is a far more precious treasure than all academic progress. From this point of view it is perhaps even more useful to contemplate our stupidity than our sin. Consciousness of sin gives us the feeling that we are evil, and a kind of pride sometimes finds a place in it. When we force ourselves to fix the gaze, not only of our eyes but of our souls, upon a school exercise in which we have failed through sheer stupidity, a sense of our mediocrity is borne in upon us with irresistible evidence. No knowledge is more to be desired. If we can arrive at knowing this truth with all our souls, we shall be well established on the right foundation.

If these two conditions are perfectly carried out, there is no doubt that school studies are quite as good a road to sanctity as any other.

To carry out the second, it is enough to wish to do so. This is not the case with the first. In order really to pay attention, it is necessary to know how to set about it.

Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to one's pupils: "Now you must pay attention," one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply. They have been concentrating on nothing. They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles.

We often expend this kind of muscular effort on our studies. As it ends by making us tired, we have the impression that we have been working. That is an illusion. Tiredness has nothing to do with work. Work itself is the useful effort, whether it is tiring or not. This kind of muscular effort in work is entirely barren, even if it is made with the best of intentions. Good intentions in such cases are among those that pave the way to hell. Studies conducted in such a way can sometimes succeed academically from the point of view of gaining marks and passing examinations, but that is in spite of the effort and thanks to natural gifts; moreover, such studies are never of any use.

Will power, the kind that, if need be makes us set our teeth and endure suffering, is the principal weapon of the apprentice engaged in manual work. But, contrary to the usual belief, it has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

It is the part played by joy in our studies that makes of them a preparation for spiritual life, for desire directed toward God is the only power capable of raising the soul. Or rather, it is God alone who comes down and possesses the soul, but desire alone draws God down. He only comes to those who ask him to come; and he cannot refuse to come to those who implore him long, often, and ardently.

Attention is an effort, the greatest of all efforts perhaps, but it is a negative effort. Of itself, it does not involve tiredness. When we become tired, attention is scarcely possible any more, unless we have already had a good deal of practice. It is better to stop working altogether, to seek some relaxation, and then a little later to return to the task; we have to press on and loosen up alternately, just as we breathe in and out.

Twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of the kind of frowning application that leads us to say with a sense of duty done: "I have worked well!”

But in spite of appearances, it is also far more difficult. Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves. If we concentrate with this intention, a quarter of an hour of attention is better than a great many good works.

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

All wrong translations, all absurdities in geometry problems, all clumsiness in style, and all faulty connection of ideas in compositions and essays, all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily, and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth. The cause is always that we have wanted to be too active; we have wanted to carry out a search. This can be proved every time, for every fault, if we trace it to its root. There is no better exercise than such a tracing down of our faults, for this truth is one to be believed only when we have experienced it hundreds and thousands of times. This is the way with all essential truths.

We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them. Man cannot discover them by his own powers, and if he sets out to seek for them he will find in their place counterfeits of which he will be unable to discern the falsity.

The solution of a geometry problem does not in itself constitute a precious gift, but the same law applies to it because it is the image of something precious. Being a little fragment of particular truth, it is a pure image of the unique, eternal, and living Truth, the very Truth that once in a human voice declared, "I am the Truth."

Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament.

In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it. There is a way of giving our attention to the data of a problem in geometry without trying to find the solution or to the words of a Latin or Greek text without trying to arrive at the meaning, a way of waiting, when we are writing, for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.

Our first duty toward school children and students is to make known this method to them, not only in a general way but in the particular form that bears on each exercise. It is not only the duty of those who teach them but also of their spiritual guides. Moreover the latter should bring out in a brilliantly clear light the correspondence between the attitude of the intelligence in each one of these exercises and the position of the soul, which, with its lamp well filled with oil, awaits the Bridegroom's coming with confidence and desire. May each loving adolescent, as he works at his Latin prose, hope through this prose to come a little nearer to the instant when he will really be the slave—faithfully waiting while the master is absent, watching and listening—ready to open the door to him as soon as he knocks. The master will then make his slave sit down and himself serve him with meat.

Only this waiting, this attention, can move the master to treat his slave with such amazing tenderness. When the slave has worn himself out in the fields, his master says on his return, "Prepare my meal, and wait upon me." And he considers the servant who only does what he is told to do to be unprofitable. To be sure in the realm of action we have to do all that is demanded of us, no matter what effort, weariness, and suffering it may cost, for he who disobeys does not love; but after that we are only unprofitable servants. Such service is a condition of love, but it is not enough. What forces the master to make himself the slave of his slave, and to love him, has nothing to do with all that. Still less is it the result of a search the servant might have been bold enough to undertake on his own initiative. It is only watching, waiting, attention.

Happy then are those who pass their adolescence and youth in developing this power of attention. No doubt they are no nearer to goodness than their brothers working in fields and factories. They are near in a different way. Peasants and workmen possess a nearness to God of incomparable savor which is found in the depths of poverty, in the absence of social consideration and in the endurance of long drawn-out sufferings. If, however, we consider the occupations in themselves, studies are nearer to God because of the attention which is their soul. Whoever goes through years of study without developing this attention within himself has lost a great treasure.

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 attention. The capacity to give ones 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.

In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail (the miraculous vessel that satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated Host) belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound, "What are you going through?"

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: "What are you going through?" It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled "unfortunate," but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a 'special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.

This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.

Only he who is capable of attention can do this.

So it comes about that paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them. Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need.

For an adolescent, capable of grasping this truth and generous enough to desire this fruit above all others, studies could have their fullest spiritual effect, quite apart from any particular religious belief.

Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worthwhile to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

My Life in Baseball


My earliest memories of baseball haunt the side yard of the "farm" I grew up on in Troy, Michigan. Most of our 12-acre property was a corn field or lay fallow, but about two acres was laid out like the diagram below.

On this field we played softball . . . carefully. Breaking windows in the house in shallow center field could result in the neighborhood season being canceled, at least until the window was fixed and paid for out of our meager allowance. So, we all, including we right-handed hitters, learned to hit to right field (a skill that came in handy later in church league softball!). You could also pull the ball to left field, but not too deep, so you wouldn't get a muck ball from the leaky sewage drain field. (How did we not get hepatitis, dysentery, hoof and mouth disease, or some other noxious crud? But we didn't.) The barn made a decent backstop, though you had to stay out of Mom's rhubarb that grew along the barn near home plate.

Over the years from 1949 to about 1957 ten to fifteen boys and the occasional girl (there were emergencies) played ball in that side yard on Crooks Road. Eventually we outgrew that "Field of Dreams" and rode our bikes all over Troy for miles to find a bigger venue. My leather fielder's mitt, with "Tommy Johnson" wood burned into the leather wrist strap, swung from the handle bars of my red and cream Schwinn Flyer.

Speaking of the “Field of Dreams,” one summer many years later, when our family was living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the five of us took the long way “home” through Iowa to Clawson, Michigan, where my mother had moved after my Dad died and she'd sold the "farm" in Troy. We took the long way because we (mostly I) wanted to see the movie set of the "Field of Dreams" in Dyersville, Iowa. Dyersville is not on the way to anywhere, but after the movie, to the consternation of most locals, it became a tourist destination for thousands every summer. So, we too became pilgrims, traveling along gravel roads, driving through cornfields, to spend a couple hours at the venue made famous by the Kevin Costner movie. Two different families, with two separate concession stands, owned the property. We walked the bases, played catch, and imagined Shoeless Joe walking out of the corn in left field. We sat in the stands, ate our lunch, and bought a Field of Dreams cap and a small plastic vial of genuine Field of Dreams dirt, which I still have. On the way back to I-80, I crossed that one off the bucket list.

Back in elementary school we had a baseball team, though I don't remember much about it. There's a picture of me somewhere wearing a baseball uniform with a large letter P for Poppleton School sewn on the front. I am holding a bat far too big for me, an old 34-incher that weighed more than I could have handled ten years later in high school. I must have played ball in junior high, though I only remember the field out behind the school. Junior High was a black hole that sucked almost all but my worst memories away. (That's another story for another time.) But I survived to play ball in high school and even earned a varsity letter my 1961 senior year.

My most memorable moment came toward the end of that championship season. Coach McElreath came out to me on the mound - I was a left-handed reliever and whatever else would do the least damage possible, like right field with the center fielder shaded my way. "Just throw the fast ball," he announced loudly. I don't have a fast ball. I have a straight ball and a less straight ball. There are two out in the ninth inning. We have a 3-2 lead, but the enemy from Lake Orion has a runner on first. "Throw the fast ball," he says again. But we both know why I am in there, and it isn't to throw the fast ball.

The enemy wants to get their runner into scoring position on second base, and they have a track athlete on first ready to steal. I know he's going, and he knows I know he's going, and he doesn't care. He knows he can out run my "fast ball" and our catcher's throw and slide in safely. He's confident; he's done it many times this season. What he doesn't know is that every day I practice my pickoff move, throwing to first while looking toward the plate. The key is to step toward first. He watches my eyes, not my feet. As I stretch and come to a set, he takes a big lead. I toss the ball over to first and he gets back easily. He takes another big lead. This time, as I look toward home and make my move, he takes off. I step toward first and fire it to Glowacki. He rifles it to Caza at second, and we have him by ten feet. Game over, we win, and I didn't have to throw a single pitch, and that's a good thing, a very good thing.

Did my Dad ever come to watch me play? He must have, but I don't remember. I have a vague sense that he did and that he was disappointed in my "performance." I could be wrong about that since I have this vague sense that he was disappointed about most everything I did, and I could be applying that memory to his view of my ball playing. I vowed later, if I ever had a son or a daughter, never to be disappointed with their work.

I am short: I was about 5' 7" in high school, and with scoliosis and fifty years of gravity bearing down on me, I am now 5' 5", OK, maybe 5' 5 ½”! I also didn't weigh that much, maybe 125, 130 (150 now), and I was never physically strong. We didn't have a weight room in our small rural high school, and if he had, I probably wouldn't have used it. So, I was built to disappoint. I even disappointed myself, since until I was 12, I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player, like Harvey Kuenn, minus the tobacco wad in his bulging cheek. But by junior high, that cesspool of disappointment, it became clear that I didn't, as they say, have the "gifts." I couldn't run fast, throw hard, or blast doubles and homers. I didn't blast singles either, though, being vertically challenged, I drew a lot of walks. Counting walks, unblasted singles, and fluke doubles (sometimes opposing outfielders fell down), I hit over .300 my senior year in high school, the year my father died. Maybe he was proud in absentia.

How many of our team went on to play college ball, I do not know. Once you graduate from high school and drive out of the parking lot, you lose track of almost every friend you ever had, though you don't believe it's really going to happen. I don't even know who went to college, and it doesn't matter. Some pretty rotten human beings have gone to college, and some profoundly good people never did. What did matter was watching one of our All-County championship team go on to excel in NCAA Division 1 Big Ten baseball, get drafted by the pros, and play eight years in The Show, for the old Washington Senators, who became the Texas Rangers, and then with the St. Louis Cardinals. Through that friend, all of us lived out a boyhood dream that was gone but not forgotten. One day from Arlington, Texas there came in our mail a small box, and in it was a Nolan Ryan autographed baseball. It's on the shelf in my home right next to the one he signed for me in 1969, "Rich Billings."

I did actually pitch once in the Majors. One October afternoon, in the old Metrodome in Minneapolis, I threw out the opening pitch in a Twins game. The college where I worked had won a contest, and the Athletic Director chose me to throw that pitch. Lenny Webster caught and signed it, and they also sent me a Kirby Puckett ball. Another check on the bucket list.

From the first home football game in September of 1960 through four years, six months, and seventeen days to March of 1965, I dated exclusively the same girl, Michele Myers. We were married during a snow storm in a decrepit old Baptist church in Troy that we no longer attended. We are still married 46 years later. Among the many things we had in common way back then was a love of baseball. I learned that before we met she used to make and keep her own scorecards for the Tigers games she listened to on WJR almost every night. Impressive! And she hated the Yankees, a very attractive quality in any person.

Michele could play catch acceptably, but her batting left something to be desired, but then so did mine. Her defense was outstanding, as I rarely got past second base, at least in the early years, and I never scored until our wedding night, a both rare and dubious accomplishment, I am told. As you can see, I was never the Charlie Sheen- "Wild Thing" - of the 60's. We’ve followed the Tigers through all the years that we’ve lived in California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, back to Michigan, on to North Carolina, then to South Dakota (where I got to watch my own son play ball and my daughters play soccer and basketball), Oregon (where we adopted the Seattle Mariners as our second favorite team), and finally (so far) to Washington, where we see 10-12 Mariners games a year. In 2010 we spent a week at the Tiger’s spring training in Lakeland, Florida. Another check on the old bucket list.

I do “manage” three fantasy baseball teams, one in Yahoo, one in CBS Sports, and the crucial one, a league of our own, concocted by a lawyer and a mathematician, that I've "owned" a team in for ten years. Every day from April through September I get the paper and read the box scores to see how my players did the night before. It's an obsession, but an inexpensive one, unlike my baseball card and memorabilia collection, my Internet subscription to every MLB game on radio, our trips to spring training (Arizona next season), the games we attend every year, and my plan to see a game in every major league stadium before I die.

And now you know my life in baseball.

Tom Johnson
Whidbey Island
Coupeville, WA
Summer 2011

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Big Brain in the Main

June 1, 2011

Big Brain in the Main

This week researchers at Duke University (my doctoral alma mater!) discovered that the brains of mainline church members are larger than the brains of born-again-ers, Roman Catholics, and unbelievers. See http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-05-25-brain24_ST_N.htm

This research suits me to a tee. I now know why I left fundamentalism years ago, am moving away from evangelicalism, and can’t quite make the leap either to unbelief or the Catholic Church. I have too much gray matter. My hippocampus is hippo, nay elephantine! I don’t feel smarter or look smarter than other Christians, but apparently, being mainline, I am.

It is a little suspicious that this research was done at Duke, a United Methodist affiliated university, by scientists who may well be mainliners themselves. I wonder if they tested their own brains and correlated that to their theological/denominational location. And another thing: did Stanley Hauerwas have anything to do with this study? It sounds like his kind of  bull****, to quote Stanley.

Apparently being thoroughly mainline does not eliminate intellectual, ethical, theological, or spiritual confusion, since I am often confused in all these ways. It probably promotes it, since we have more capacity for questions and multiple answers. My students hated it when I would say, “Now, there are four ways, or perhaps, five of looking at this issue.” They wanted an answer, but now I realize, alas, they were theologically more conservative than I, and their needing simple answers was a function of their smaller brain size.

The research likely means that we mainliners think too much! I wonder if the left sides of  PresbyMethoLutherpalian brains are larger than the right sides? So, if we felt more, or felt more deeply, could we balance that out? I see many future doctoral theses arising from this heady research.

One more thing I’d like to know: since you could say that mainline Protestant Christianity is in the middle of a spectrum from (on the right) fundamentalism, through evangelicalism, and on toward (the left) Episcopalianism and Catholicism, are the biggest brains right smack in the middle and then their size begins to taper off as they tend in either direction?

And how do unbelievers fit into all this? Are they not smart enough to find their place in the Kingdom of the brainy, or are they, perhaps, Karl Rahner’s crypto-Christians, a category the Blue Devil scientists failed to account for.

Maybe the Templeton Foundation will award the researchers another grant to answer these and other intriguing questions. What is it that you want to know about religion and brain size?

Thomas F. Johnson
Whidbey Island, WA