From The Attentive Life
There are people whose attentions we resent because they are very annoying. And it may be that sometimes we resent God’s attentions not so much out of a reasoned denial of his existence as from a deep instinctive refusal to conform to what we perceive as some kind of celestial busybody who tries to run everyone else’s affairs.
Simon Tugwell is a British scholar who has a deep understanding of how our imaginative “cramps” – our pictures of God – affect our belief, or lack of it. He remembers from his childhood an old Book of Common Prayer with a picture of Guy Fawkes trying to sneak a bomb into the Houses of Parliament. At the top of the picture was an enormous eye watching him. Here was an image of God as the “all-seeing eye, the ever-present policeman, constantly prying into our misdeeds.”
The amazing thing is that the God who shows himself in Jesus does not force his attentions upon us. He knocks and waits. Jesus was described as the one who does not “wrangle or cry aloud,” (Matthew 12:19), and the great picture in the book of Revelation shows him knocking at the door of our heart, not battering the door down, (Revelation 3:21). No wonder Julian of Norwich used to call him “my courteous Lord.”
Pity that we are tone-deaf to his voice and his knock. Perhaps inattentiveness is our greatest sin – not only against him but against ourselves.
We “use selective inattention and forgetting to get through life,” writes Marshall Jenkins; we assume “it is the crazy pace of our lives that is killing us when really it’s our inattention to our deepest desire, the desire for God.”
Our inattentive selves are like the people Jesus told about who were invited to a wedding feast but were so wrapped up in their everyday concerns that they made every excuse in the world to stay away from what could have been the greatest night of their lives.
For admiring the painting
and not knowing the artist
wanted to meet you.
For pulsing with joy
and never realizing
there was a source.
For tasting the sweetness and the savor
and not thinking to ask
who made it so good.
For longing for love
and not dreaming
that love was longing for you.
For remembering that an invitation came
and not being able to recall
what exactly you did with it.
For walking by an open door
and never wondering when
would be closing time.
Near Hartwell House,
September 30, 2003
When Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome his profound theological treatise on the human condition, he began with a powerful overture in which he says that inattentive human beings are “without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking,” (Romans 1:20-21). So spiritual inattentiveness leads to a kind of spiritual amnesia.
One night a large audience waited in a concert hall in Cleveland, Ohio, for a symphony performance to begin. Suddenly all were startled as a man stepped out from the wings onto the stage, shielded his eyes against the footlights, and called out, “Is there anybody here who can tell me who I am?”
In a very real sense we humans are spiritual amnesiacs, trying to remember who we are, where we came from, and where we must go to come home to our hearts.
And the God who calls us to attention is really calling us to the discovery of who we are: human beings made to pay attention – not to be “lost in the cosmos” (the title of a Walker Percy novel about human longing) but rather, as Esther de Waal has written, “to be ‘lost in wonder.’”
One late afternoon I walked down a country lane in England, not far from Oxford, to the edge of a plowed field. There, watching the sun slanting and bathing the landscape in a glowing beauty, I was reminded that C. S. Lewis, the famous Oxford professor, spoke of how as a young atheist he had been “surprised by joy” – aware again and again of stabs of joy that pierced him as he read poetry and pondered beauty, joy, from some unknown source, animating a longing deep within, intimating the God who was seeking him.
That evening I also remembered, with deep poignancy, Jesus’s story of the invitation to the wedding feast and the guests who disregarded it, sending regrets only.