While he worked as a lawyer in East Harlem, William Stringfellow understood his work vocationally as a ministry in which his call was to witness to the reality of the resurrection through his advocacy for those who were alienated and voiceless. Harlem placed before him the present condition of things as they really were, where the chief principality and power, Death, reigned as the greatest power apart from God. It was precisely within his work as a lawyer that Stringfellow recognized his call to a life of worship through which, even amidst the pervasiveness of Death, he could expose the “scandalous secret of the Word of God.” Anthony Dancer, in his theological biography of Stringfellow, notes that his life working as a lawyer “was characterized by the acts of listening, compassion, and surrender” [a]. Stringfellow’s ministry began through the act of listening which he describes as,
“a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives himself to another’s word, making himself accessible and vulnerable to that word.” [b]
These words from Stringfellow brought to mind words from Simone Weil, who, in an essay on the importance of attention, says that attention is the substance of both the love of God and the love of our neighbor. At the end of her essay Weil brings up the need of attention for those who are afflicted. I think her way of understanding attention is related to Stringfellow’s understanding of listening as the beginning of his ministry, though Weil’s emphasis here is on looking while Stringfellow’s is on hearing. She says,
“Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they possess this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough…
The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.
This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.” [c]
[a] Anthony Dancer. An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow. Eugene: Cascade (2011), pg. 89.
[b] quoted in Dancer pg. 90.
[c] Simone Weil. Waiting for God. HarperCollins (1951), pg. 64, 65.