David Marno’s Death Be Not Proud is, indeed, a challenge to death, or to be precise, to a long-dead Christian devotional tradition: the tradition of holy attention. Marno resuscitates a long-gone knowledge, the art of prayer as a personal mental meditation rather than a formulaic recitation. Beautifully written and extremely humble in its presentation, Marno’s claims are bold, far-reaching, and relevant to a number of fields, among them religious studies, philosophy, spirituality, and, of course, literature. It is also a short book that covers a lot of ground, as Marno’s discussion contributes not only to the study of John Donne, around whom (or, in fact, about one of his poems) the book gravitates, or early modern devotional literature in general, but also to an on-going re-examination of Christian spirituality in the early church, the Middle Ages, and early modernity, as well as to the anthropology of religion and devotion.
While Marno is a professor of literature, and the book centers, as said, on the devotional poetry of John Donne, I want to address the book’s contribution to the study of early modern spirituality. The art of holy attention was first and foremost an art, “art” in the less common but more traditional sense of a “craft,” something to be acquired by a slow process of training and absorption. And as with all crafts, good craftsmanship is both a telos and a rare gift. Unlike most crafts, the art of holy attention is purely cognitive and affective. It does not demand material tools, not even books. It is learned by acquiring introspective attentiveness to one’s own expectation to encounter the divine. It may sound easy, but as Marno states, even the act of paying attention itself could be a distraction from the kind of attentiveness the practitioner pursues. In this respect, the art of holy attention is a nanotechnology, not a mere technē.
Marno offers a number of variations on this crucial point, each one adding a dimension to the complexity and paradoxes of holy attention. He is also documenting its history from Paul and Augustine to the way the religious discussion of holy attention shaped early modern French philosophy. In treating a major religious disposition as a practice rather than a set of dogmas, he joins a series of scholars who, in the footsteps of French phenomenologists on the one hand, and a retreat within anthropology of religion from Eurocentric assumptions about the normative universality of the Christian mode of devotion on the other, have shifted their attention from the study of religion as a belief system to interest in religion as practice. Obviously, there is a huge difference between the active physical practice of crawling in the mud to approach a shrine and paying attention. And yet, both are regulative practices.
Attention, as Marno writes, “is the cultivation of a passive disposition, a solicitous waiting for a conversation to happen.” As such, the practice of paying holy attention is (like thinking itself) a unique sort of action that refuses to fit into the categories of activity/passivity or cognition/emotion. It is rather an active pursuit of passive attentiveness and a cognitive effort to learn how to feel and to discern feelings. This complexity is an important warning against a one-dimensional configuration of subjecthood. The practitioner who struggles to achieve holy attention is both a modern liberal agent, who is engaged in self-formation by means of conquering and overcoming challenges and fine-tuning the self to introspect itself, but also a subject whose goal is to surrender, to restrict its own agency in order to create space for transcendence.
Importantly, Marno reminds us not to confuse holy attention with religious experience, experience in the sense of suddenly experiencing something (a recognition, a feeling) that arrived unbidden and that proves a doctrinal truth. Rather, it is movement toward experience, a preparatory work to reach a disposition for the experience to happen. It is always a desired goal rather than a fulfilled destination. Holy attention always operates simultaneously as an in-between and as both; between and both effort and experience, between and both activity and passivity, between and both cognitive and emotive modes of apprehension, and also, significantly, between and both Protestantism and Catholicism.
This last point is an additional important contribution of Death Be Not Proud. For too long the study of modern forms of devotion has been shaped by a Protestant self-congratulatory paradigm that has claimed Protestantism as the religion of interiority and Catholicism as the religion of practice and exteriority. As Marno documents, the techniques of acquiring attention had a long history that predated Protestantism. They originated in ascetic communities in the early church and flourished in monastic settings. They then breached monastic walls with the Devotio moderna and similar lay spiritual movements in the later Middle Ages, and finally in the sixteenth century were integrated into the two rival Christian European traditions. Collections of exercises teaching how to acquire attuned-ness and preparedness for an encounter with the divine, commonly known as spiritual exercises, circulated before the Reformation.
The most popular guide, Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises of the 1530-40s, was in fact nothing but a compilation of pre-existing and pre-circulating similar collections. This is not to diminish Loyola’s immense contribution to the culture of holy attention. More than anyone else, he made the technique of acquiring attention a regulative ideal of devotion). And by insisting on the need to be trained by a professional cleric, Loyola managed to save his compilation of mental prayers from the presumed danger of Alumbradismo. In an age of suspicion of all forms of individualized religious experiences and private devotion, and not without his own tribulations with the Inquisition, the Basque Pilgrim promoted a technē whose final goal was an individual encounter with transcendence. But by insisting on the fact that holy attention can be learned solely through the mediation of a spiritual director, Loyola overcame opposition to similar forms of devotion. This was the case, even though the spiritual director is himself mandated to remain detached from the introspective attuned-ness of the practitioner. The latter ought to acquire the ability to gain a degree of undistracted attention and to attend to the divine will that operates within the practitioner’s self and is invisible and inaccessible to the spiritual director.
Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises were plagiarized and bowdlerized by Protestants and English Anglicans. Contemporaries were well aware of the common origins and shared utility of holy attention, of mental prayer, and of practices of introspection. Donne himself, as is well-known, converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism. Practices of attention, the understanding of prayer as an exercise in paying attention, and the recognition that the very acts of wishing and verbalizing are distractions from these goals, were a shared heritage and a shared struggle for early modern devout people. Marno’s book is an important reminder of this shared spirituality.