To my last entry, which was about on being with someone in his or her suffering, a friend replied that listening and prayer are sometimes all we can offer. And I noted that to listen and to pray are actually etymological opposites. This got me thinking about the notion of prayer, which may have transformed over time. To pray is etymologically from “he asks,” that is, an entreaty to some powerful figure, real or imagined.
But I suspect my friend understands prayer in the same way Simone Weil talked about it. Weil wrote, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” This has strayed from the original meaning of the word, and I wonder about that. Has it long been understood this way, or is this a more modern, widened idea of what it is to pray?
The word “listen” is from a history of words meaning to pay attention. Attention, to attend, is etymologically linked to, interestingly, “to stretch.” So to attend to someone is to stretch yourself toward them, perhaps? And Weil might suggest the implication is also a stretching toward God (a word itself that links back to nothing but itself, got, in the Old High German, but wends its way eventually to old roots meaning that which is called or invoked — which should feel rather disturbingly tautological to the believer, I would think…).
To be “present” means to be before someone (pre + to be). And all this sitting with and leaning in is by way of giving comfort, a word from the notion “to strengthen greatly” — which surprised me, as I think of being comforted as feeling assisted, perhaps protected or freed from worry, which seems different from being strengthened. But it does seem true that the ultimate effect of being comforted is to give one strength to move back again into the fray, to move back into the way of suffering, itself a word meaning “to bear.”
So it seems the most basic notion of this thing we can offer to the sufferer is to be with and stretch toward. And some people understand this “God” notion as being not a sky-based dude but something within each other, the best within us perhaps. So to be with a sufferer is to try to offer the best in ourselves to call out to the best in the bearer so they may carry on.
What does this have to do with writing? Well, I think our goal should be to conjure our art out of that same place, that same inner place of the-best-of-ourselves. I’m not saying all art needs to be light-filled and divine — out of the best of ourselves we can also conjure great darkness; nor does it need to have as its goal to comfort. Often necessary art necessarily dis-comforts. But those notions of paying attention and being present and being with and stretching toward are all useful to keep in mind in the creative process. You feel me?