When’s the last time you stopped to think about paying attention?
Go ahead, try it right now. If you really wanted to, how long could you hold your focus on one thing – a task, an object, a person – without giving in to the temptation to move on to something else? How long could you keep yourself from checking this email or responding to that text? If you stop to read this paragraph again, slowly and word-for-word, can you resist that pull to jump to the next line?
Attention is a defining aspect of our humanity; it is our capacity to keep the currents of our mind channeled on one object at a time, resisting the urge to grasp at the newest thing which appears in our mental vision. The irrational animal, by nature, cannot pay attention. It simply acts from thoughtless impulse. St. Thomas Aquinas was so captured by this fact that he used it to prove the existence of God: as the Being who directs all attention-less creatures through their instincts toward their ultimate purpose. To lack attention is to lack agency over oneself- it is to lack freedom.
What does this mean for us rational animals? Attention, along with time, are the currencies with which we spend our lives. It is only through attention that the student can develop their mental powers in study; only through attention that the professional can effectively serve their clients in work; only through attention that a husband can love his wife, a mother love her children, and a Christian love their God. Why? To study, to work, or to pray is really to love; therefore, to have loved carelessly – without attention to the needs of the other – is not to have loved at all.
If attention is one of the talents which our Lord gives to all of His servants, how shall we give an account of it at the end of our lives? How do we prevent our most precious treasure from being buried in the ground, or worse, shredded through our phones? The French mystic, Simone Weil, can point us in the right direction. She notes that “the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies… [students] should learn to like all subjects, because they all develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer”.
To see the purpose of study in building one’s attention – not simply in getting a good grade, winning affirmation, or building for a future career – is to be freed from the worldly anxiety that chains so many students today. This isn’t to say that worldly outcomes are unimportant; rather, it’s to say that the real goals of education are, at bottom, spiritual. Too many parents ask themselves which school will get their children into Harvard; too few ask which school will help their children save their souls.
This brings us to brass tacks: what kind of environment is best suitable for developing one’s attention in study? Three principles come to mind – one negative, two positive – that can help us to give our children what they deserve.
First, the development of attention requires an environment free from clutter – the clutter of distraction. Why does St. Benedict Classical Academy have a no-electronics policy? Because the choice to pay attention is much harder when one’s alternative is a beeping toy or a phone. Adults lose this battle every time we check a text or respond to a ping. Why do we think children will do any better?
Second, more than the mere absence of distraction, the attentive classroom requires silence: a state of completely focused attention in flow. How on earth can elementary students find silence? At SBCA, we have a secret trick- it’s called Adoration. When our students are brought before the Blessed Sacrament, Christ draws their attention to Himself; He gathers together the fragments of our focus and lovingly gives them back to us. His merciful gaze calls us, invites us, to begin again. It is from this well of redeemed focus that students will draw upon the will to pay attention in class, to do their work well, to love their friends and their families.
Finally, students need models who will show them what it means to pay attention. When a student gets out of their car in the morning, and knows that their teacher will remember their name, their favorite sport, and the extra work they put in to succeed on last week’s test, they can rest in the knowledge that their teacher has been paying attention. They will know what it means to love, because they will have been loved.
Becoming a model of attention is deeply difficult – how can we give what we do not have? It calls us to reckon with our own failings, the times that we have thrown our own attention away and are left empty-handed before those we love. But if we are willing to take the hand of Christ in humility, He will redeem us. We will, slowly, learn what it means to love. We will learn what it means to pay attention.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind; that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, and pleasing, and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
AUTHOR: John Kish, Floating Teacher