By Dean John R. Rosenberg
Augustine famously recalled how the exiting Hebrews spoiled the Egyptians of their gold and silver, while leaving behind the “idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided.” He argued by analogy that from the “simulated and superstitious imaginings” of the heathen (Greeks and Romans), the Christian scholar might distill “liberal disciplines . . . suited to the uses of truth.”1 Packing wisely is good, and not only for those wishing to avoid extra fees at the airport: it is a mark of an educated mind. To discern what (ideas) to carry on and what to leave behind is to turn information to wisdom.
Simone Weil was complicated. Raised an agnostic in a secular Jewish family, she was sympathetic to Catholicism. She was fully open to many religious traditions, but some critics found anti-Semitic strains in her writing about her native Judaism. A left-leaning intellectual who recklessly threw herself into the Spanish Civil War on the side of the doomed Republic, she was also a mystic. She was a theorist who dirtied her hands with practiced charity. Albert Camus thought her great; others did not. She died at 34 of tuberculosis—the very year streptomycin was isolated as its cure. Thanks to Bruce Jorgensen of the English Department, I learned of Weil this year. I don’t know what to make of her.
However, I found gold and silver to carry away from the inconclusiveness of her life in a remarkable essay she wrote the year before she died (1942), “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”2 On the last lap of the essay she drops this line: “Every school exercise . . . is like a sacrament.” That is a stretching simile and a warming sentiment, but what does she mean? Only this: “The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention.” And, school studies “are extremely effective in increasing the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer.” And then this: “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.” Mathematics and French and Greek are instrumental, but not in the ways we are accustomed to think about them on graduation day. They may get us a job, but their true purpose is to get us to God.
A couple of decades ago I was among a handful of faculty who visited with Elder Henry B. Eyring in the BYU president’s office about the Spirit and the Y. He told us, as best I can recollect, that his father wanted him to study calculus, not primarily for the inherent value of the mathematics, but because the attentive discipline of learning it would prepare him to receive revelation. I wonder if the elder Eyring had read Weil: “Never . . . 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.”
In today’s environment of “enter to learn; go forth to labor,” the idea that the marketability of a degree might be a secondary concern would strike some as scandalous—a very bad investment. But then, as we exit the Egypt of the university maybe we stumble across the mission statement that somehow we missed as freshmen. The statement, approved by the board of trustees in 1981, tells us that BYU exists “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.” We do many things at BYU—including things that are done elsewhere, like preparing for a vocation. But BYU exists because before vocation there is invocation, and the “right use of school studies” respects the proper order.
Weil also reminds us that one does not approach God alone, but in the company of a neighbor, one whom we have come to understand through empathy.
In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail . . . 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 empathy Weil describes can be developed in many ways, among them the attentive study of literature where right reading may lead to many questions, but none more important than asking the characters, “What are you going through?”
School studies get us a job, sometimes even if we haven’t been especially attentive. Attentive studies, however, do that, but they also help us distill the gold and silver from out of the flesh pots of Egypt, and they bring us closer to God and to our neighbor. And that is what makes them sacramental.
1. On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson Jr. (Indianapolis: Liberal Arts, 1958), p. 75.
2. In Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Putnam, 1951), pp. 105–116.