In my early years of teaching, I used to include one of Woody Allen’s insights in the syllabus for every one of my classes: “80% of success is showing up.” Although I’m far less anal about taking attendance than many of my colleagues, from semester to semester I tweak and fine tune my course offerings so that success is impossible without regular, indeed almost perfect, attendance as well as a commitment to daily preparation. Frequent unannounced reading quizzes (that can’t be made up) in my lower division classes make life difficult for students who “do the readings” but skip class, as well as for students who never miss a class but don’t prepare. In my upper division classes and seminars I require students to prepare intellectual notebook reflections on the day’s text and bring them to class; I choose a student randomly to read her or his reflection to begin discussion.
I don’t use Woody’s quote any more, since it doesn’t mention that if 80% of success is showing up, the other 80% is being prepared when you show up. Instead, while discussing the syllabus during the first class meeting I give everyone the secret of surviving and thriving in Morgan’s classes: “Do the readings, and be here. Make sure you do those things, and your grade will take care of itself.” Be prepared and show up. In recent semesters I’ve had almost entirely juniors and seniors in my classes, so “be prepared and show up” might seem rather juvenile and basic for sophisticated and experienced upperclassmen. But a few years ago, a second semester senior came up to me after class several weeks in and said “Dr. Morgan, you know what you said the first day about do the readings and be here? It works!!” Indeed it does—it’s too bad it took you until your eighth semester in college to find out!
I’ve known for a long time that “Be prepared and show up” has been the simple key to classroom success; I’m just beginning to realize that it’s also the key to divine encounters. This was bubbling below the surface for years; I think the beginning of that percolation coincides with my first encounters with Simone Weil. In Gravity and Grace, a sampling of her voluminous notebooks that was one of her first books I read in the middle 1990s, she asks a question: “The will of God. How to know it?” To which my response at the time was “you tell me, Simone. I’ve been wondering my whole life, and I’m tired of asking. I’m tired of throwing prayers out into the void. I’m sick of seeing what I thought was God’s will end up in a pile of shit. I’m tired of taking one step forward, two sideways, and one backwards when trying to find a path to God. You tell me.”
Be prepared. In Psalm 42 the psalmist writes “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?” Preparation is energized by desire, not the mind. I’ve occasionally described myself to my colleagues or students as a “God-obsessed” person. Not long ago I read something by Iranian American scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz that puts the question beautifully: “How is one to nurture this God buried like a ruin in the treasure of one’s being and let it permeate all of life?” Most important, I think, is the word that begins the Rule of St. Benedict: “Listen.” Shut up and be quiet. If preparation were primarily about what you know and what you’ve read, I’d be in decent shape. But only when my sabbatical experiences included a daily commitment to quietness did I begin to realize that, for me at least, preparation for God requires me to stop thinking and start listening. Simone Weil’s answer to her own question about how to know the will of God is slowly becoming mine. “If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think ‘Thy will be done,’ the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.”
Show up. This is more about internal awareness than external place. When I’m too busy, too stressed, or too lazy to see anything other than what’s an inch in front of my nose, I’m failing to show up. When I assume that I know that these texts, those places, these people, and those situations can’t possibly be vehicles for contact with the divine, I’m failing to show up. When I continue to forage through the books and experiences where I’ve bumped into the transcendent in the past, presuming that God will remain there on my terms, I’m becoming an idolater rather than showing up. When I rely heavily on my brain, with which I’m most familiar, rather than my heart, which I’m not as comfortable with, I’m failing to show up.
The many texts that have been meaningful to me over the past fifteen years have a major thread in common—we live in a reality soaked in transcendence, sacramental to its core. Everything is important–nothing is disposable. At a workshop last summer, our leader frequently said that two things are key to the spiritual life–“Be where you are,” and “Do what you’re doing.” Sounds easy, but just try it–it’s a never-ending challenge to be present every moment of the day. But I don’t want to miss anything. Although I’m a very slow study, Annie Dillard’s simple observation is beginning to seep in. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is be there.”