Learning to Pay Attention
by Matt Gunter
Are you paying attention?
What are you paying attention to?
A monk needed to go for a day-trip to a big city, accompanied by an acquaintance. In the midst of urban’ uproar the monk claimed to have heard a cricket, though his companion did not believe him. Crossing the road and looking carefully under a tree the monk found the cricket, to the astonishment of his companion.
- You must have a superhuman hearing!
- No. My ears aren’t different from yours, said the monk. But everything depends on what you’re used to listening for.
- No! I would not be able to hear a cricket in this noise!
- It all depends on what is important to you, reiterated the monk. Let’s make a demonstration. So the monk took out few coins from his packet and dropped them on the pavement. And despite of the loud noise of the city, all the people around them turned their heads thinking that the scattered coins could have fallen from their pockets.
- Do you understand now? It all depends on what is important to people … If we watch or listen to the contentions daily news on television, our ears become accustomed only to what is ugly and evil. We become fearful and helpless! Then we’ll say: “Life is hard, people are evil, we live in an insecure and ugly world, you cannot trust anyone or anything …”
And meanwhile the crickets sing, the leaves rustle, the waters flow, and we do not hear them.
Are you paying attention? What are you paying attention to? What are you listening for? What are you looking for?
The life of the spirit is about learning to pay attention to the right things. But, this turns out to be more difficult. There are distractions and spiritual static within us and in the world around us.
Each of us carry within us some confusing combination of pride and insecurity, hope and fear which make it difficult to have accurate understandings of ourselves, to engage others with understanding and charity, and to receive from God the tough, but transforming love extended in Jesus Christ.
We live in a world that has lost its way. People are distracted and anxious. We have forgotten or ignore that there is more going on than what is in front of our noses.
People “self-medicate” by shopping for more stuff or distracting themselves with technology and entertainment or general busyness. Thus they avoid dealing with the deep and disturbing questions about the meaning of life and death.
We have been trained – catechized – to understand ourselves as no more than individual bundles of appetites to be satisfied by any means at any cost.
We allow our hopes and fears, appetites and anxieties, to be manipulated by economic and political powers.
With all that, it is hard to hear the still small voice of God declaring his delight in us as beings of immeasurable value created in his image and his mercy poured out with understanding on our brokenness and sinfulness. It requires discipline.
Although Christians are expected to engage in spiritual disciplines all the time that enable us to receive and live God’s mercy and delight, Lent is the season when we take on particular disciplines to reduce distractions and reorient our attention. Last fall I called the Diocese of Fond du Lac to adopt a “rule of life” based on basic classic spiritual disciplines as an aid to learning to pay attention to what is worthy of our attention. My hope is that we practice it throughout the year. But, I offer it here as a potential guide to Lenten discipline .
FOND DU LAC RULE OF LIFE
Grateful for God’s mercy and delight that I have experienced through Jesus Christ, I desire to become more open to that mercy and delight, more open to seeing it in creation and in other people. I desire to become more of a channel of God’s mercy and delight in the world. I recognize this calls for training in attentiveness and self-control. To this end I commit to the following Rule of Life:
Worship in Community
Worship is attending to what is worth attending to what – Who – is worthy of attention, i.e., worthship. It is orienting our attention toward God. It is delighting in God who is delightful. It is giving thanks for the gifts that God has given us. It is giving thanks for the grace and mercy God has lavished on us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
To enter more fully into God’s mercy and delight, I commit to embracing Sunday as a “holy day of expectation” and to join my congregation (or another) at least weekly for worship and Holy Eucharist when it is available. If I am unable to worship with a congregation on Sunday (or Saturday evening), I will pray Morning or Evening Prayer instead.
Prayer is paying attention to God, conversing with God, sharing what is on my heart, and attending to God’s presence in my heart and life. It is resting in God’s mercy and delight.
I commit to setting aside time (ideally at least 20 minutes) each day for intentional prayer in order to “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10). This might be praying one of the Daily Offices from the Book of Common Prayer, Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, Centering Prayer, etc. A portion of that time will be offered in silent attentiveness to God.
Fasting is about learning to pay attention and exercising self-control over one of our most basic appetites so we can also learn self-control over more deadly appetites, e.g., Self-absorption, Vanity, Malice, Envy, Sloth, Greed, etc.
I commit to observing every Wednesday as a fast day. This might range from abstaining from all food for the day, to abstaining from one or more meals, to abstaining from one or another sort of food or drink. It will entail some kind of sacrifice to remind me that I do not live “by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8:3/Luke 4:4). By doing so, I hope to turn my attention to God throughout the day.
Sabbath is a kind of fasting in time, i.e., fasting from busy-ness. It is a commitment to attend to God and to relationships with others. Observing Sabbath reminds me that God is God and I am not.
I commit to refraining from participating in work (as far as possible) or commerce on Sunday. I will refrain from other distractions that keep me from attending to God’s mercy and delight in my life. I will engage in activities that reflect and cultivate my delight in relationships with family and friends and with the world.
Where have I seen or experienced God’s mercy and delight today? Where might I have missed them? Did I delight in the people with whom I was engaged today? Those I thought about? Did I channel God’s mercy to others today?
I commit to daily examination: giving thanks for the mercy and delight I received and shared during the past day; and confessing whatever failures to see, receive, or extend
God’s mercy and delight.
I adopt this Rule not to prove my worthiness to God or anyone else. I adopt this Rule as an aid to growing into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13) and becoming more transparent to his mercy and delight. And I do so knowing that if/when I fail to keep it, in God’s grace I can begin again and again.