ATTENTIVENESS: Love As Focused Attention by Leighton Ford

The Attentive Life, Discerning God's Presence in All Things

Love As Focused Attention by Leighton Ford

From The Attentive Life

What difference can Prime make as we begin and go through our days?  When Jesus spoke of abiding, it was all about loving obedience, being loved by him and loving others as he loved us.  We might describe love – whether the love is that of friendship or of lovers or of compassion – as focused attention.

In friendship, out of a potential universe of candidates, we select (or have selected for us, as Augustine said, in a kind of “divine lottery”) certain ones on whom we focus time and attention.  In the practice of attentiveness we are able to see and be blessed by the beauty of the friend.

In married love we pledge to each other that singular attention signified in the Biblical word cleaving – “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh,” (see Genesis 2:24).  Cleave here is used in the old English sense of the word, meaning a bonding together.  It is more than the attention of moonstruck lovers gazing into each other’s eyes.  It is the faithful attention of two lives committed to each other in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, in abundance and in scarcity, in times of light and times of darkness.

It is this undivided attention to each other that sustains and strengthens us in our vocation of love to family and neighbors and friends.

In all these relationships the attention paid is not possessive.  It is an attention that is freeing, not paralyzing.  That is the kind of compassionate love with which Christ companions us as we meet others in need.

Focused love is powerfully portrayed in Ben Long’s fresco The Good Samaritan at First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Some time ago I sat gazing at it with a friend and asked, “Where is the center of the painting?  Is it in the robbers off to one side, dividing their loot?  Or in the distant figures of the priest and Levite, passing by the wounded traveler and walking on engrossed in their own conversation?”  Clearly not.  Our eyes were drawn front and just off center to the face of the ravaged traveler, his eyes looking up toward the kindly face of the Samaritan, who gazes down at him with deep compassion.

The dazed look of the one seems to say, “Who are you?  What are you doing?”

And the caring look of the other seems to respond, “I am here for you.”

That much was clear as we contemplated the fresco.  But my friend was paying even closer attention and after a moment of silence said, “I think the center is in the empty space between the face of the Samaritan and the face of the traveler.”

That was exactly right.  There was a power in the short distance that separated their faces, just at the moment when their eyes were meeting, an invisible force that made me think of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s description of “the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.”

The painting spoke to me about the mutuality and the boundaries of attentive love.

Too close, and our individuation is blurred.

Too distant, and the dynamic tension inherent in love is lost.

But through the mediation (and really the Mediator) of focused love, connection happens.

Prime, then, is a focal point as we begin our work.  We are reminded of the focused and attentive love of God who sent his Son into the world, loving not from a distance but from up close, yet loving us in such a way that our personhood is not obliterated but renewed.  Through the lens of Christ we are able to look into the face of God and to be changed into his image, “from one degree of glory to another,” (2 Corinthians 3:18).  And through that same lens we begin to look into the faces of those we meet, and we see them too as potential carriers of the image and glory of Christ.

Marvin, a lawyer friend in Wichita, Kansas, adopted this practice.  Marvin came to faith when he was well along in his professional life as a litigator.  “I used to look at opposing counsel and their clients as opponents, targets,” he says.  “But after Christ came into my life, the people across the table had faces.”

Marvin had come to know the essence of Prime time.

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