A thousand shades of green hold me enthralled. The south wind teases up the glossy leaves, revealing their pale undersides. I find enough of God in a maple leaf to keep me occupied with wonder for a couple of centuries.
Today the praying life consists of a continuous loving look at the universe. Prayer is a long wonder-filled gaze upon things as they unfold. The praying life is a front row ticket to the greatest show on earth. Okay. Sometimes I nap, complain, go out for popcorn, or dally in the restroom combing my hair. Sometimes I get self absorbed and miss whole acts, and then have to nudge my neighbor and whisper, “What did he say? When did she die? I didn’t know there was a war!”
In its simplest sense prayer is as an act of paying attention. The word the writers of the Greek scriptures used for prayer is proseuche, which means to turn toward God with a request. In order to get my need met, I shift my attention to God. Our word attention comes from the Latin ad tenderer (from which we also get tendon and tension) which adds the notion of stretching toward something beyond us.
Simone Weil wrote that prayer “is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.” In prayer I bestow upon God the gift of my eyes, my mind, my awareness, my being at this moment. So Holiness gets our attention by creating in us desire and need? Interesting, huh?
To understand prayer as looking at or paying attention to God, means one must deal with the fact that we are all blind as bats and struggle to see what is really going on. We have cataracts, myopia, far sightedness. We squint through the dim filters of our prejudices, opinions, fears, and fantasies.
Jesus seemed to recognize this and a good deal of his message was about opening the eyes of the blind and teaching his followers to see with the eyes of faith. Such prayerful seeing is not easy. The poet John Moffit offers some instructions:
To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long:
To look at this green and say,
“I have seen spring in these Woods,”
will not do – you must
Be the thing you see:
You must be the dark snakes of
Stems and ferny plumes of leaves,
You must enter in
To the small silences between
You must take your time
And touch the very peace
They issue from.
Must I become what I want to know, or see, or heal, or change? We protest. Oh please, no. That is too hard. I have my needs, you know. I have my point of view. I have these closely held beliefs. Let’s make an argument for why this situation or person needs to change. Can’t we use persuasion, branding, marketing, scientific research, polls, and the press of public opinion? Can’t we ask God to just fix these things, these people? Now!
Nope. The poet says you must take your time. You must look at the poor long, the imprisoned long, our enemies long, our failures long. We must be the thing we see, enter into the dark realities of life in a refugee camp, and the chaotic tension and anxiety of our nation. We must be willing to love and to become the thing we long to liberate –
as God was willing to do for us.
In my experience it takes strength and faith to enter into another’s reality and not be overcome by it, or to lose myself in it. We may become bitter, cynical, even abused by such experiences. We may become infected with the disease we are trying to relieve. We end up offering the other only a mirror version of his or her own dilemma. We become part of the problem we are trying to soothe.
Simone Weil continues, “Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. . . . The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. Only he who is capable of attention can do this.”
When our attentiveness invites us “to enter into the small silences” and to “take our time and touch the Peace” from which all life issues, we find ourselves in union with that Peace. Our sacrificial gift of attention to another awakens the life of God in the other. That life may be dormant, deeply hidden, frightened, or wounded. Our prayerful attention extends a hand and bids the slumbering Peace in the other to rise up and walk.
God is paying attention to us in Jesus Christ. How could Jesus enter so deeply into our reality and suffering without being overcome by it? As I watch Jesus move through the Gospels it seems to me that he never loses his attentiveness to the Peace from which he issues, his Father in Heaven, and his identity as the beloved child. Perhaps for us to be agents of transformation in our prayer and relationships, we must possess a deep attentiveness to where we come from, and a sense of ourselves as deeply loved by God. This ongoing communion with our Source -our Father, our Mother in Heaven- gives us the freedom, the strength, and the safety to be channels of divine love and healing without harming ourselves or others. For to me little is more fierce or tender than the unfolding of the ferny plume of a mortal soul.
So I pray as I watch the maple leaves dance in the wind.
I take my time.
I aim for the Peace we issue from.
I meet you there.
Simone Weil, Waiting for God, Harper Colophon, 1951,p 105, 114-115
John Moffitt, Teaching With Fire, edited by S. M. Intrator and M. Scribner