From The Attentive Life
I am sitting on a bench at Lost Lagoon, on the edge of the hundreds and hundreds of acres of trees and trails that make up the vast Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada. Behind me are the tall buildings of the city. Surrounding the park on three sides are the waters of English Bay and Burrard Inlet. In the background, clouds hover over the mountains that slope down to frame Vancouver – my favorite city in the world, at least to visit.
For much of the past decade and a half I have been coming here for a summertime pilgrimage. I call it a pilgrimage not because Vancouver is such a holy place but because I can get away from my usual routines and hopefully resharpen my attentiveness and imagination.
It is a lazy midsummer afternoon, and I am alone on my spectator’s perch except for a few ducks in the grass by the water’s edge and some bicycle riders on the path behind me. Around the lagoon several couples are walking hand-in-hand.
My eye is drawn to the fountain spouting up in the center of the lagoon; from there a flight of birds take off in a perfect V-formation. They disappear, then in a few minutes come circling back, and still in formation splash down, their legs extended like the landing gears of the seaplanes descending at nearby Coal Harbor.
Hmm, I think, short flights and quick returns.
As I watch their landing and muse on its symbolism, a seagull comes and sits just by my foot for a minute or two as if to say: “Pay attention now. This show is for you to notice.” It is a message from the birds.
Watching these birds take off and land takes my thoughts back to when we began a new ministry of spiritual mentoring for young leaders. At our very first board meeting the chairman asked me a penetrating question: “What can you do that is unique?” His second was even more pointed: “Do you think you are doing something significant only when – or mostly when – you are traveling, going someplace?”
His question went straight to my heart. Whether short flights or longer ones, much of my life has been spent in going to more than forty countries in ministry as an evangelist and preacher or on special assignment. Now that is changing. I realize that life for me will mean not always being on the go. There will be – like the flight of birds – more short flights and quick returns.
My work has largely focused on evangelism – “making friends for God,” as I like to put it. But a shift has taken place. Not from evangelism, for I am and always want to be one who shares the good news of Jesus Christ. But now is a time to pay more attention to my own heart, to deepen my own friendship with God and to walk with others who want to do the same.
Vancouver itself has been one of the “busy” places I have flown to across the years, as I have preached here in citywide meetings, led a mission at the university, taught seminars for young leaders. So it is fitting that around the time of my first sabbatical summer here, attentiveness was beginning to matter to me. Here I discovered a new interest in drawing and painting – in learning to pay attention to what is around me.
At the same time I was trying to pay attention in new ways to what is inside me. I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and was struck by the way she stalked the fish in a stream near her house in the Virginia countryside. She described how she learned to watch for fish from an oblique angle, where her shadow would not make them shy away. The phrase “stalking my soul” came to me then and has stuck in my imagination.
“We shall not cease from exploration.” This could be a companion word from T. S. Eliot about such stalking, and those words stay with me, too. It has been fascinating through the years to explore many parts of the world. Now there is still exploration to be done, and one of the reasons I have written this book and want to share it with you is that we should all be explorers, always, in all things.
Longing and Looking
Each of us is part of a Greater Story, and behind our stories is a Storyteller calling us home. The deepest longing I have is to come home to my own heart, so in a sense I am writing this book for myself. But it is not just about me, for I believe all our stories are of longing and of looking.
That has become very clear to me as I reread the notes and journals I have written in recent years. For many years “journey” was a call to go as I traveled the world in ministry. “Home” was an equally powerful inner voice calling me to stay, to be rooted. Now I realize that these were not only two ways I spent my time but also a response to two notes in my own song: the lure of the road and the call to home.
The call was to be “home on the road,” to bring my real self before the real God, to be changed into his true image, to become all that God has made me to be. It was and is a longing to belong, to have a home for God in my heart.
This sense of longing runs like an underground river through the writings of many observers of the human condition, like the novelist Walker Percy. A character in his Love in the Ruins, the lapsed Roman Catholic psychiatrist, Tom More, sits in a sand trap on a golf course and muses, “The sand trap and the clouds put me in mind of being ten years old and in love and full of longing. The first thing a man remembers is longing and the last thing he is conscious of before death is exactly the same longing. I have never seen a man die who did not die in longing.”
Yet why do I so often hide from this longing? Spiritual inattentiveness, I believe, comes in large part from our fear of being known for who we really are. Often we keep our selves busy and distracted because we fear that if we slow down and are still, we may look inside and find nothing there.
If the first part of my own journey involved longing, the second has encompassed mainly looking – coming to terms with important parts of my soul, bringing my real self before the real God, and discovering prayer, as Simone Weil put it, as “absolute attention.”
This book is about attentiveness, not simply as a path to self-fulfillment but as the very essence of our journey to the Center – as the way home to our own heart, the way of making our heart a home for God. So I am writing for myself, to identify waymarks for my own second journey but also for others who are walking the path with Christ, or searching for the path to Christ, so we may walk it together.
I have noticed in my own experience how the vocational journey and the personal journey intertwine. What God is doing in both is similar, very much like the interweaving of the intricate strands in a Celtic cord, a work of art designed to show how God is at work weaving the inner and outer parts of our lives into a unified pattern.
In this “second journey” I have sensed a strong call to be an artist of the soul and a friend on the journey, especially to younger men and women, and others, who seek to be led by Jesus, to lead like him and to lead to him, and who have a hunger to be whole people.
Each of us is called to a life patterned by Christ. A life not shaped by inner compulsions, or captive to outer expectations, but drawn by the inner voice of love. To listen to this voice, we need to pay careful attention to where our inner and outer selves disconnect and where they need to come together in a beautiful pattern that reflect Jesus, whose inner life with his Father and outer life of ministering to others were very much one.
To walk this path home, and to be a companion to others on the journey, I need to learn both to be still and to go (or grow) deeper. T. S. Eliot wrote that “old men ought to be explorers. We must be still and be moving.” I do not feel old yet! But I do realize that this life stage requires not so much doing for God as paying attention to what God is doing.
There are periods in which we are mostly active and outwardly focused. And there are times in which we become more reflective, when we move more from action to being acted upon. The latter time may well come as we get older. But this is not a book about aging; it is about learning how we may become more attuned to the still, small voice of God in all the seasons of our lives.
What Will We Pay Attention To?
In the rest of this book we will explore together various aspects of attentiveness as a special lens through which to look at our lives.
We will look at attentiveness itself: what is it, and why is it important?
We will see God as the Great Attender, the One who pays attention and calls us to attention.
We will look at the hours of our lives, whether the hours of our days (marked by the classical “prayer hours”) or the various seasons of life and our spiritual journey, and the kind of attentiveness that each phase calls for:
- the “morning” journey, when our day starts and where our life begins with all its potential and challenges;
- the “midday” journey, when we are flung headlong into the busyness of life, which lures us onto the open road but may also engender a sense of having lost our way;
- the “afternoon” time, when we set out in earnest on an inner journey because we know we have limited time and are heading for home;
- the “evening” journey, the conscious transition from afternoon to the time when the shadows lengthen and evening falls, the time to find a way to live with a quieted soul;
- the “nighttime” journey, when by God’s grace all will be completed and we see darkness not as the terror of the unknown but as time to return to the great Mystery from which we set out, the final rest of our soul in God.
In each chapter we will consider “one who paid attention,” discovering journeyers from centuries past and our own time who have learned to pay attention and can inspire us by their examples. And in the “Practicing Attentiveness” sections we will note some of the helpful practices that from ancient times and still today have helped pilgrims to pay attention.
For me, discovering these new practices has not meant in the slightest jettisoning either the foundational beliefs or the spiritual disciplines that I have followed since my youth. It has meant exploring other ways: silence, stillness, art and poetry, reading scripture not by going through great chunks but my meditating on small portions, listening carefully to God and my own heart, having a trusted spiritual companion as a friend on the journey.
This book is not meant to be a memoir, but it does come out of my calling to be an artist of the soul and a friend on the journey. As I seek to describe my own journey, I pray that I may be a friend traveling with you on the journey to the Friend.
There is one more thing to say: Paying attention is not a way by which we make something happen but a way to see what is already given to us. I have just reread Annie Dillard’s account to stalking the fish in Virginia. She reflects both on the ancient fish symbol (ichthus) which stands for Christ and the way in which Mediterranean people in his day depended on finding fish in order to live. “To say that holiness is a fish is a statement of the abundance of grace; it is the equivalent of saying in a materialistic culture that money does indeed grow on trees. ‘Not as the world gives do I give to you’; these fish are spirit food. And revelation is a study in stalking.”
I need very much to learn to pay attention. But it is not my perfect attention that brings grace. Grace opens my eyes as I wait so that I may see both Giver and gift, and be grateful.
Often during a recent Lent I prayed a prayer that our pastor suggested: “Lord, show me what I am missing.” Let us start this journey together where we are, with that prayer, and see what he shows us.
ONE WHO PAID ATTENTION
C. S. Lewis Looking Along a Beam
One day C. S. Lewis stood in a dark toolshed where he had gone to look for something. A broad beam of sunlight was slanting in through a crack in the top of the door. As he looked at the beam with the dust motes dancing and floating in it, the shaft of sunlight captured his full attention in the darkness.
Then he moved so that the beam was falling directly on his eye. Instantly the whole scene changed. Looking out through the opening above the door, he could see up through the green leaves moving on the trees to the blue sky beyond and, millions of miles away, the sun.
It came to him then that there are two ways of looking: looking at and looking along. “Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam,” he wrote, “are very different experiences.”
Just so, he realized, there are two ways of looking at life: looking at the dancing and moving events, the happenings and surroundings of each day, and looking “sideways,” so to speak, “along the beam” – to see not only what is happening but why, and what it is that gives meaning to the happenings of our lives.
It seems that God has made us with the capacity to look both “at” and “along” our lives, to see what is in front of us and what is beyond us, and to find that the two are not opposed ways of seeing but belong together. It is the bad fortune of our world to have separated the two, ever since the philosopher René Descartes posed a divide between mind and matter. His dualism has bedeviled us ever since. Many of us now assume that knowledge is either “scientific” and based on facts or “mystical” and based on fancy, and never the twain shall meet.
In contrast, C. S. Lewis says that Christianity is “the most materialistic” of all religions and that God must love material things: after all, he made them! We need again to heed his wisdom. True knowledge is found in the Word who became flesh, as we look both “at” and “along” the beams each and every day.
I hope that this book will help us to pay close attention both to the beams that surround us and to the Source that upholds us, in such a way that time and eternity, this world and the next, are always intersecting.
This knowledge from God and of God, and not just the experiments of the scientist or the intuitions of the mystic, will save us and transform our world.