From The Attentive Life
Is attentiveness a gift to use? an art to practice? a work to perform? It seems to include some of all three. But it is certainly a call of God, and it is the call and practice that I myself hope to awaken to, more and more, in the writing of this book.
Agnes Cunningham, a writer and teacher, discovered as a thirteen-year-old in her first year of high school that she had an unusual ability to listen. One of her classmates had given a report about which Agnes was assigned to write an essay. Later her English teacher summoned her to explain how she had been able to give an almost word-for-word version of what her classmate said. Had she copied it from her paper?
“I just listened to what she was saying,” was her only response. That led her to become aware that she did try to listen with focused attention to most of what she heard. Where had this awareness come from? “I do not know where or how I learned that the ability for such listening is a gift to be treasured; to be mined; to be used as the pathway to a deeper, more interior kind of listening. I have learned what is meant when the early fathers of the church talk about the ‘ear of the heart.’”
As Cunningham came to see, attentiveness is both a gift to treasure and a discipline to practice. The attentive eye and ear come from “the attentive heart, a new heart, a simple heart, a pure heart, a heart given by God.”
But the gift must be nurtured through the spiritual discipline of discernment, a continual kind of “eye-washing” in which we welcome the things that bring transparency and avoid those things that dull our vision. “Discernment,” Cunningham writes, “is needed so that the attentive heart can be about its one purpose: to lead the disciple to live so as to begin to know, even now, a foretaste of what the human heart has not yet conceived.”
That leads me to one final definition: love is focused attention. We will explore that more together. But for now let that thought draw us on: that the God who is Love is giving his focused attention to us. And that is why the path of attentiveness is worth pursuing.
The power of attentiveness to connect was illustrated for me at a dinner with friends, one of whom is the director of a large medical center. Michael told of us of a spiritual journey he made to the Middle East with a group of men. One day the leader took them into a remote area and told each of them to walk a certain distance into the desert by themselves and to stay there for some hours.
“The silence and solitude was new for me,” he told us. “At first it was very difficult to stay there. But at last it brought me to an awareness of God’s presence in a wholly new way. I know I will be different. It transformed me.”
I turned to his wife Ann across the table and, half-teasing, asked, “Did it really change him, Ann?”
Dead serious, she answered, “Yes. It did.”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Because he listens to me,” she quietly answered. “I mean he really listens, not to give me a quick answer or advice but to let me know he is paying attention to what I say.”