"Like Merton, Weil had taught language (as well as history). It was in the classroom that her theory of attention first surfaced. She writes:

" 'The authentic and pure values — truth, beauty and goodness — in the activity of a human being are the results of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object. Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act.'

"When he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton was already capable of acute attention: the son of an accomplished painter, he possessed a connoisseur's eye for beauty; he also wrote poetry and novels, read voraciously and had taught English at Columbia and St Bonaventure College. Such activities demand acute powers of attention. And they held him in good stead when he became a monk, shifting his attention from literature and art to lectio divina. His acutely appreciative eye for artistic beauty lay quiescent now that he no longer had access to museums and art galleries, as well as his artistic friends. It was not a period of total loss, however, for Merton's abbey was located in a particularly beautiful part of Kentucky, and he daily feasted his eye on nature's beauty.

"As a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton would have ample opportunity to sharpen his reading skills, for the kind of formal prayer required of him in his formation was meditation, based upon the reading and pondering of lectio divina: holy reading.

"What is lectio divina? It is primarily the reading of the Scriptures. Trappist monks chant the complete psalter every two weeks. There are also Bible readings, both private and public. For private reading there are various methods. Merton practiced them all. And we shall see how they honed his powers of attention, allowing him to progress in prayer, although he would be the last one to actually use the word progress. He writes: 'how to make progress' is a good way to make people too aware of themselves.

"During the first fifteen years of Merton's life as a monk, there was little opportunity to offer his attention to the visual arts. He surely appreciated the beauty of nature, and his journals are fraught with lyrical descriptions of the rural environs of Gethsemani. When he became a hermit in the mid-1960s, his interest in art again blossomed as he began to take up brush and ink to practice calligraphy. He became quite an accomplished calligrapher, calligraphy another way of prayer for Merton, teaching him to lose himself, to see again, and to create art both astonishingly fresh and modern, art he humbly described as graffiti, but it was much more than that; his calligraphies were signs of 'obscure reconciliations and agreements.' Such art was only possible to Merton the hermit, who had learned from Zen that the artist has to become empty and disappear. And as Weil repeatedly says in her writing, the way to become empty is to become attentive.

"As Merton matured as a monk, he struggled with his life's dominant question, 'What is contemplation?' He had written several books grappling with this question. But truly to understand what he meant by contemplation, it is best to look at his life, especially his life as a hermit, for the answer to his question is found in how he lived. And we shall look closely at his hermitage years, for it is during this time that Merton embodied contemplation, living at an exquisite pitch of attention.”