So wrote Simone Weil on the last night of her life. Today I took up her vision of learning with a group of students, the Capitol Fellows who are here in Washington for a year of post-graduate study focused on the meaning of vocation. We will spend the next four months together, reading and writing, hearing and responding, in many different ways learning what it means to know.
I asked them to read her essay, “On the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, “ a bit awkwardly titled, but brilliant and important. The French philosopher argued that the primary point of learning is to learn to pay attention, to say it very simply.
To pay attention. She goes on to argue that if we begin to learn to learn like that, then learning can become sacramental, a window into the ways that heaven meets earth within the questions that create the disciplines of literature, history, economics, psychology, engineering, politics, philosophy, biology and chemistry. And on and on.
I wanted the Fellows to think about this semester that way, seeing the possibility of sacramental study growing out of their disciplined, persistent, thoughtful engagement with the course. They are with me on Monday mornings for three hours, and then go off into the city for the week, interning across the spectrum of vocations and occupations that they are beginning to see as their own. It is a healthy way to learn, stretching oneself taut between the classroom and the world, having to “read” them both at the same time.
In fact I am sure that it is only as step into life, “indwelling” our visions and commitments as Michael Polanyi argued, that we honestly know. We cannot know, standing outside. Words have to become flesh. Ideas have to have legs. Beliefs have to become behavior.
At least if we are going to know in the way that Weil understood as the heart of true learning.