From The Attentive Life
Poets, writers, artists, naturalists all help us to understand what it means to “attend” and teach us that we can think of attentiveness in many ways.
Being fully present in the moment. “Simple attention to the present. In these moments of attention to the present, each moment stands alone and becomes a visitation, a presence in its own right.”
Looking long enough. “If one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like revelation takes place. Something is ‘given,’ and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self.”
Looking freshly at what is familiar. Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz once said that he had spent the summer traveling. Then he added that he only got halfway across his own backyard. Similarly, one summer while recovering from a heart “attack” I did not travel but spent much of my time doing a painting of our own backyard. It has become a reminder to me that I do not need to travel to see what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
Being available. Attentiveness means a willingness to listen for God’s voice – and readiness to obey! Interestingly, as Henri Nouwen points out, our word audio comes from the Latin audire, which has the sense of “to obey” or “to heed.”
Becoming aware. To live with “continuous awareness” (as the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch put it) in each moment is an art that requires practicing. Abraham Heschel reminds us,
The art of awareness of God,
the art of sensing his presence in our daily lives
cannot be learned off-hand.
Waiting with expectancy. Attention is closely related to the French word attendre, which means “to wait.” Recalling that an important aspect of monastic life has been described as “attentive waiting,” the poet/essayist Kathleen Norris comments, “I think it’s also a fair description of the writing process. Once when I was asked, ‘What is the main thing a poet does?’ I was inspired to answer, ‘We wait.’ A spark is struck; an event inscribed with a message – this is important, pay attention – and a poet scatters a few words like seeds in a notebook. Months or even years later, those words bear fruit. The process requires both discipline and commitment, and its gifts come from both preparedness and grace.”
(1 Samuel 3)
And in the dimming dusk
old eyes grown weak
lamp not yet trimmed
a pair of sleepy, boyish ears
and thought three times
a voice they did not know
an older, newer, wiser, deeper,
and finally knew it was
and came to full attention.
would I in my
that Other Voice
Beneath the sounds that daily
clamor my attention
that Voice I know
and listen for again
prompting my older heart
calling my younger soul
Being mindful. There is a lovely story of a monk who was very upset because he had lost his umbrella. When a brother monk asked why he was so bothered, he answered that it showed he had lost his attentiveness!
As one who forgets more often than I like to admit where I parked my car or left my glasses, I need this reminder.
Being wakeful. Jesus, telling his disciples to “watch and pray,” (Mark 14:38), and not be led into temptation, and Paul, admonishing the early believers that “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” (Romans 13:11), emphasized the importance of wakefulness. As a Senegalese proverb puts it: “The opportunity which God sends does not wake up him who is sleeping.”
Writing on prayer, C. S. Lewis recommended wakefulness as the way to penetrate God’s disguises: “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more to remain awake.”