Hell of a Book: A Novel

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Prayer Consists of Attention: On Reading as a Spiritual Practice


I first read Simone Weil’s 1950 book Waiting for God six years ago. It was a cloudy Monday in March, and I was sitting on the porch of a 100-year-old Victorian home—former officer’s quarters for a decommissioned military outpost off the coast of Washington state—where I could see the grey water of the Puget Sound and grey sky beyond the shoreline. I’d spent the last several years wondering how I might inhabit my life and my faith in a more contemplative way—and on that day, on that porch, Weil proposed a definition of prayer that resonated with me more than any evangelical prescription.
“Prayer consists of attention,” Weil writes in Waiting for God. “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 prayer.” A prayer, then, could be any moment of mindfulness, reverence, concentration. It could be whatever I wanted it to be.
Most people probably picture the act of prayer as a person talking to God. And because we might often think of prayer as a last resort in the midst of difficult circumstances, we likely hold in our minds the image of a supplicant like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey from A Wonderful Life—alone, desperate, seeking divine intervention. In the film’s climactic prayer scene, Bailey, on the brink of bankruptcy and possible imprisonment, sits in a bar by himself, tears in his eyes. His clasps his hands together to beseech a God he’s not even sure is listening: “Dear Father in heaven,” he says despairingly, “I’m not a praying man but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.”
I’ve uttered hundreds of prayers like George Bailey’s, and I’ve prayed countless times in this most traditional sense, as a “person talking to God.” But I’ve since learned that prayer can take many forms. To describe the multiplicity of my own prayers, I borrow from the language of clouds: my stratus prayers are flat and smooth, originating from the mundane things of life; my cumulus prayers billow with a fullness of faith, or doubt, or a mixture of both; my cirrus clouds are soaring and wispy with room for mystery; my alto prayers are steady and observant; and my nimbus prayers hold my tears, my grief. But the same current of profound attention, as Weil proposes, animates all these prayers—I listen, watch, and wait while paying careful attention to the divine and whatever shape it takes in my life and the world around me.
If prayer is attention, perhaps the inverse is true. Can attention to an everyday activity, like reading or writing, also be prayer? The thought first entered my mind as I read the last chapter of the 2021 novel Hell of a Book, in which Jason Mott writes about anger in a way that reads like a psalm of lament. Reflecting on the pain, loss, and oppression intrinsic to Black life in the United States, the book’s protagonist, a writer who is struggling to tell the story of his life, muses:

You’ll be angry and not know why. And the anger won’t ever go away, not really. It’ll hang in the back of your mind. It’ll hang in the back of your world, haunting you, guiding all of your decisions. And when you get tired of being angry, it still won’t go away. It’ll just change into something even worse. You’ll take that anger and turn it on yourself and it’ll call itself depression. And, just like anger, it’ll take over your life. It’ll live with you every day.

This passage evoked for me the same raw anguish of Psalm 88—“O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” Suddenly I could not see much difference between opening my Bible to pray Psalm 88 and reading Hell of a Book, or any work of literature that, like this novel, honestly approaches the realities of suffering. I realized that all words, even those contained in secular literature, have the potential to become prayers.
There is much disagreement among Christians, and among people of all faith traditions, as to what qualifies as acceptable forms of prayer. Some Christians are uncomfortable with contemplative spiritual practices like mine and argue that proper prayer must adhere to four principles: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Some Buddhists strive for a prayer practice that requires one to achieve sufficient stillness and silence of mind. Some Hindus believe prayer consists of repeating mantras and the names of certain deities. But most people of faith believe and agree that the divine can show up anywhere—during a brief conversation with a neighbor, while folding a load of laundry, alongside a sunrise or sunset. In his 1960 book Encounters with Silence, Jesuit priest and theologian Karl Rahner writes of God’s omnipresence: “If You have given me no single place to which I can flee and be sure of finding You, if anything I do can mean the loss of You, then I must be able to find You in every place, in each and every thing I do…. Thus, I must seek You in all things.” I, too, need to believe it’s possible to find God in every place, in each and every thing I do, and reading is one way I can detect and connect with the divine.
Over the past few years, practicing spiritual direction with writers has given me many opportunities to think about how writing can also be prayer. During a spiritual direction session, my clients and I set apart one hour to be curious about the divine. When I listen to my clients tell me about their writing lives and creative processes, I often hear them talk about how they notice God, how they give their attention to God, and how God feels present or absent in their work. One client tells me how a word or phrase will come to her mind from outside herself, a gift from God, while she’s writing an essay. Another shares how his writing practice flourished after he left his fundamentalist church, a decision that liberated his creative sensibilities as well as his mind and spirit.

I recently read Lydia Davis’s Essays Two: On Proust, Translation, Foreign Languages, and the City of Arles, in which she describes her early-morning routine of reading and writing—a routine that neatly parallels my own predawn ritual of contemplative prayer. She describes her practice one morning, as she translates short stories by A. L. Snijders: “I may attempt a translation of it even before getting my first cup of coffee. This is partly a result of inertia: I am still tired or half asleep, and I don’t want to move from my chair. If I do have my cup of coffee by me, I’m likely to sit even longer.”
Her description of her process of literary translation struck me as very similar to lectio divina, a form of contemplative prayer that involves slowly reading a passage of scripture several times:

I begin by trying to read the story. I read the first line. More than once, it has contained the word bosrand, “edge of the woods”—something Snijders sees from his kitchen window and a place I like to be, or imagine. Or it has contained something about the author’s problematic chickens, or his dogs. One begins with a woman (vrouw) in the distance (distance is verte, which, confusing me for a moment, is identical to the French for green, but whose root is ver, sharing a past with the English far). Still half dreaming, I am transported to the Dutch countryside, among the chickens and buzzards, foxes, shepherds, swans, and the occasional cyclist or hiker coming along the pad (cognate of path) in front of the author’s house…

What Davis describes isn’t much different from what I tell my spiritual direction clients who want to know more about how to practice lectio divina. I mention the mindfulness required while listening to the scripture multiple times, the role of the imagination, how certain words will demand one’s attention, and the sense of being transported to the place where the scripture’s events initially unfolded. I imagine Davis inhabiting a posture similar as she translates. Davis, my clients, and I all come to the text hoping for a meaningful encounter, then we let the spirit, the magic, the mystery do its work.
While recently reading Victoria Chang’s 2021 epistolary prose book Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, I found myself assuming the same prayerful posture of listening and watching as I do when I’m with my clients. I’m not praying for Chang, but I am giving her what Weil would call my “unmixed attention.” In a chapter addressed to one of her writing teachers, Chang reinforces the connections I feel between reading, writing, God, and prayer. “I now think words are light,” she writes. “How they illuminate the small beak of a lark isn’t up to the writer. It’s up to the lark and the light. A writer is just a guest, the birder.”
Reading these words, I consider how language and literature have illuminated my life, both supplementing and complementing my spiritual practice. And how the lark and the light could represent divine mystery, and how my bearing witness to the sliver of humanity lit up by literature helps me understand that mystery a little bit more. How, like a birder, the writer, or the reader, can seek out answers, but also must be patient in waiting for what they seek.
Later in Waiting for God, Weil explores how the act of waiting intersects with the act of prayer. “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,” she writes. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.” Now, when I read or write, I feel as though I too am waiting for God, for a flash of insight, or for that wholeness of soul that makes me feel more connected to myself, others, the divine, and the world. I’m no longer surprised when I look up from my book or my computer and see that I’m surrounded by a swirl of clouds.

Surprise Me!