In a generous and engaging response to my book, Amy Hollywood quotes from the following passage in one of Donne’s sermons:
But when we consider with a religious seriousnesse the manifold weaknesses of the strongest devotions in time of Prayer, it is a sad consideration. I throw myself downe in my Chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels, for the noise of a Flie, for the ratling of a Coach, for the whining of a doore; I talke on, in the same posture of praying; Eyes lifted up; knees bowed downe; as though I prayed to God; and, if God, or his Angels should aske me, when I thought last of God in my prayer, I cannot tell: Sometimes I find that I forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it, I cannot tell. A memory of yesterdays pleasure, a feare of to morrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine eare, a light in mine eye, an any thing, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my braine, troubles me in my prayer. So certainely is there nothing, nothing in spirituall things, perfect in this world.
Hollywood suggests I take “this mordantly funny account of distraction as carrying within it the assumption that the goal of Christian prayer, for Donne, is what Marno calls pure prayer—a prayer without images and without content.” She then expresses the worry “that Marno’s emphasis on what he often calls ‘pure attention’ . . . posits the imagination as itself distracting.” Other readers echo Hollywood’s worry. Constance Furey notes disapprovingly that in my argument “much rides . . . on the cognitive and devotional purity of holy attention,” and Abigail Marcus wishes I placed less emphasis on the purely intellectual achievements of Donne’s poetry and more on the unity of thought and feeling that T. S. Eliot found its signal achievement. These three criticisms do not completely overlap, but they do converge in finding the aspiration for purity in prayer, attending, and thinking a cause for concern—perhaps indicating the old adage about purity having become a dirty word is particularly true in the study of religion.
And yet in my book I do not in fact claim the goal of Christian prayer in general or in Donne is pure prayer or pure attention, and I certainly do not suggest the passage from Donne’s sermon carries within it this goal. It would be hard to do so. Having dismissed wrong (heretical and Catholic) modes of prayer earlier in the sermon, Donne argues in the passage above that even the right (i.e., Protestant) prayer must remain imperfect because we cannot pay sustained, complete attention to it. Donne fully agrees with Augustine on this point: Distraction is inevitable, and the perfect attention necessary for perfect prayer is beyond the capacity of the depraved dwellers of the fallen world.
What I do suggest is Donne’s sermon, like many other discussions of attention and distraction in early modern prayer, assumes that although perfect attentiveness is impossible, if one were able to eliminate all distractions, one would, or at least could, achieve spiritual perfection. That is, one would achieve redemption in this life. This is a very different claim from suggesting, as Hollywood thinks I do, that the goal of Christian prayer is perfect prayer or perfect attention. In order to articulate the difference, let me address the question Hollywood poses at the beginning of her essay: What is holy attention?
First, holy attention means what the reader might guess it means: attention within the context of religion. (In the case of my book, in the context of premodern Western Christianity.) Non-holy attention has been the subject of excellent and thought-provoking scholarship in the past two decades, from Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception to Yves Citton’s Pour une écologie de l’attention. Strangely enough, while studies of attention regularly cite Charles Bonnet’s 1783 comment that “We are missing a Book which would be more useful than any to have come from the human spirit; it would be a history of Attention,” they tend to give short shrift to a major chapter in this history, that of attention in Christianity. This is all the more surprising when one learns this is a rich and complex tradition that often blurs the boundaries between religious practice and theology.
Take the following example. Medieval and early modern writers of theology, monastic rules, and lay prayer handbooks tend to focus on the question of how those who seek to pray should fight back against distractions. But while they are invested in practical advice, they are also keen to think about the broader significance of distraction in prayer. Protestant authors typically lament the inevitable failures of attention in prayer, and they, like Donne in the above sermon, point at distraction in prayer as another sign of the depravity of human nature and the need for divine grace. Catholic authors writing in the same period share the view that distractions are inevitable, but instead of lamenting they seek to downplay them. For instance, Francisco Suárez distinguishes between “actual” and “virtual” attention. Actual attention is, well, actually paying attention; virtual attention is the impact an original act of actual attention has on the entire action. This distinction allows Suárez to argue that for prayer to have merit, it is enough if it is accompanied by virtual attention. In other words, if we start praying by attending to the words of our prayer and then our mind wanders off, the original act of attention still makes the entire prayer virtuous. (Pope Francis’s recent remark that sometimes he falls asleep while he prays made the headlines because it was thought to be another revelation of the Pope’s liberal views. But the remark only revealed the Pope was a proper Catholic.)
I mention these examples in part to give the reader a sense of the diverse attitudes toward attention in prayer within Christianity, but also to note that behind the diverse attitudes, there is a shared assumption: one is supposed to pay attention in prayer. So widespread is this assumption that we take it for granted and rarely ask where it comes from. So fundamental is it that the image of someone sunk into prayer is the very icon of attentiveness in Western culture (as for instance in the Rembrandt painting on the cover of my book). But we need to ask where does this assumption come from? Why is attention necessary in prayer?
This question leads me to the second sense of holy attention and to a central argument of the book: I suggest that behind the common and comparatively mundane assumption that prayer requires attention there is an association between attention and redemption. This association first emerges in early Christian authors, especially in such advocates of ascetic Christianity as the fourth-century Evagrius of Pontus. Evagrius argued that getting rid of all distractions would make the monk capable of knowing God and even of becoming God-like. In other words, a perfect, pure attention would obtain redemption for those who achieve it.
There is of course a wide gap between Evagrius’s fantastical notion of a perfect attentiveness on the one hand, and the rather more mundane concern of how to battle distractions in everyday devotional acts on the other. The silent attentiveness Evagrius imagines reminds one of John Ashbery’s painter: “just as children imagine a prayer / Is merely silence, he expected his subject / To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush, / Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.” Like the artless painter, the ideal of silent prayer might be accused of a naïve belief in the efficacy of attentiveness in the sense of a passive disposition that will conjure up its subject. Indeed, the Evagrian ideal came under attack soon after its first articulation on the grounds it vested too much confidence in human agency and ignored the need for divine grace. As a result, the ideal was marginalized in post-Augustinian theology. And when later works became associated with it, (for instance, in early modernity, Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and Madame Guyon’s Short and Easy Method of Prayer) they drew the ire of ecclesiastic authorities.
My argument, however, is that even as Christian mainstream theories and prayer practices rejected Evagrius’s ideal of perfect prayer, they absorbed this ideal into their very structure, no longer making holy attention their goal but their regulative ideal. This is where my argument comes closest to what Hollywood perceives in it. But while the difference between her formulation and mine might seem to be a matter of nuance, it is a crucial nuance: Although Hollywood thinks I argue for perfect attention to be the goal of Christian prayer in Donne, what I in fact claim is even when perfect attention is no longer the goal of prayer, traces of this ideal remain in prayer’s DNA and define assumptions about how to pray.
This brings me back to Donne. Why make Donne the central character of a study of prayer and attention? If I wanted to argue perfect attention is the goal of prayer, I could have taken other authors, from Evagrius to Madame Guyon, who do in fact argue for this notion. Donne, in contrast, never thought perfect prayer was possible, and never thought a pure, perfectly undistracted attention could be sustained. What makes Donne an exciting author to study in this context is that although he was an Augustinian skeptic about perfect attention, and although he did not think attention in prayer could grant him redemption, he did time and again imagine experiences of attentiveness would give him a foretaste of redemption. What I try to offer, then, is a reading of Donne’s poems showing how these intricately woven lyric webs of distraction occasionally allow us to catch sight of holy attention—only to make us lose sight of it the next moment. After all, to return to Donne’s sermon, who but an aficionado of attentiveness could write with such zest about the “sad consideration” of its absence?