These days, it seems that time is a precious commodity in short supply. Coupled with increased and varied demands and responsibilities that have been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, the fruit of this has been skyrocketing rates of burnout.
At the same time, political divisiveness and sectarianism appear to be on the rise, particularly in the US but increasingly around the globe as well. The initial outlook appears grim: we are tired and we are tired of one another.
Amid all this, perhaps what we need is a retrieval of the spiritual practice of attention.
Today, attention is often connected to a kind of productive focus – sought out by marketers, honed by calendars, and eroded by smartphone notifications.
Yet, attention can simply be regarded as a deep sense of undivided presence, recognition, and appreciation that is directed outwards to God and to others.
Attention is less like gritting our teeth and making a list of ‘to-dos’ that fixate on reality as it should be, and more about seeing and appreciating reality as it is. Attention is about embracing a kind of patient openness in which we ‘look again’ to discern afresh God’s presence and work in our lives and world.
This can begin simply by taking a walk and paying attention to the moment: leaves rustling, the sun’s warmth, the first budding signs of spring. When we pay attention, we learn to see differently and even what feels like bitterness, disgust, and exhaustion can be transformed and turned towards love.
To go further still, attention is an orientation and even alignment towards something or someone other than oneself – which makes it sound a lot like prayer. As the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil writes, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.”
Like prayer, attention involves waiting on and being surprised by the ‘otherness’ of God and of the world around us – which refuses to be boxed in by our own scripts or fantasies– in order to see the world truthfully and live accordingly.
Like the Psalmist in Psalm 73, we can be overwhelmed by grievances, slights, and laments, and then suddenly be overcome by the presence of God — “the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).
Then, by seeing ourselves and our world rightly in view of God, our grievances are transformed and we learn to respond in love. No wonder the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch considered attention the “characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent.”
This brings us back to the connection between attention and the problems of divisiveness, exhaustion, and conflict in our world today. Consider what Simone Weil writes: “The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do – that is enough, the rest follows of itself.”
As we look out today, we see grave suffering: war in Ukraine, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, racism and discrimination–and the list goes on. Confronted and exhausted by all these desperate cries, we can be tempted to despair that there is nothing to be done and tempted to do nothing.
But, the practice of attention calls us to resist this temptation and to look again at the world as redeemed by Christ’s cross and resurrection. We are called to look lovingly and attentively and to not dismiss, rationalize, or minimize the reality of another’s existence and suffering, which is how we are moved to love.
If we keep looking, truthfully and lovingly, we can also learn to live justly. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “justice is a way of seeing” that does not turn away from suffering and “requires learning how to be with” those who suffer.
For Christians, this kind of attention is deeply tied to our attention to God, whose presence and glory fill the whole world (cf. Num. 14:21) and who is at the centre of our reality. And, in paying attention, we can also be moved towards a renewed, truthful, and loving vision of others–even those whom we find difficult to understand.
This is a difficult task since, as Iris Murdoch suggested, paying attention brings us to “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real”. As Henri Nouwen confessed, “it can be easier to control people than to love people.”
Often, our love goes astray when it seeks to dominate, manipulate, or demean. But when we learn to pay attention, the larger, richer, and truer picture of reality starts coming into focus.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Though we are creatures of change and chance, Lewis reminded us of our common destiny as “immortals” with the potential to share in the eternal glory of Christ.
Perhaps if we see one another truly, lovingly, and rightly – beyond caricatures and fantasies – we will uncover a refreshment and joy that comes from attending to one another and discovering the work and presence of the changeless God therein.
Abraham Wu is a pastor in Vancouver, Canada, with an MDiv from Regent College.