Tag Archives: attention

Solving Problems Elijah’s Way

Elijah and leaseI took my puppy, Elijah, for a walk to chew over something I had read by Nicolas Berdyaev. “There is something morally repulsive about modern activistic theories which deny contemplation and recognize nothing but struggle. For them, not a single moment has value in itself, but is only a means for what follows.”

Berdyaev was a Russian Christian philosopher who spent a lot of time in exile, first for criticizing the institutional church (Russian Orthodox), and then for not accepting the  Bolshevik government.

Contemplation as a “legitimate,” widely recognized means for understanding and finding resolution for the issues we face is largely denied or relegated to something one might do for a few minutes in the shower, or before drifting off to sleep. The prevailing images for our corporate approach to problems include struggle, battle, war, and exertion of power, control, or persuasion. Such approaches assume winners and losers, victories, and defeat. The struggle approach both creates and thrives on resistance.

Elijah, I am discovering, is a dog with a contemplative bent. He stops still in the middle of the quiet street, sits down, and looks at the house on our right. He looks at the roof, the yellow flag waving in the breeze, the rows of orange, magenta, white, and yellow mums. He looks at the front door with the flowered wreath. He watches a flock of starlings rise out of the oak tree and scatter across the blue sky.

I tug on the leash. “Elijah, come. Let’s go.” He, intent on his reflection, will not budge. He gazes at the windows. He tiElijah contemplatinglts his head and looks at the shrubs. He sniffs the air. “Elijah, come!” I have to write a blog, do bookkeeping, and clean off my desk. I want to cross off “take dog for walk” on my list and get on with things. He looks at me calmly, sighs, rises, and trots along.

Contemplation begins and ends with surrender, with saying I do not know the answer and with recognizing the truth that we all see truth from different perspectives – “through a glass darkly.”  It is sitting down in the middle of things and looking long and hard and sniffing the air. It is refusing to be dragged along by someone else’s agenda. Contemplation is the willingness to walk around an issue, nose, nudge it, and tilt one’s head in order to view reality deeply and truly.

Contemplation requires one to divest oneself from a particular outcome, to detach, let go and trust the Spirit working in the spaces we create by our self-emptying. Contemplation is not about being efficient and productive, nor does it promise quick resolution. Contemplation cannot be made to be a means to anybody’s end. Instead contemplation asks us to see ourselves and whatever dilemmas we face as subjects of the ends and purposes of One who is greater than we.

Pink zinniaBerdyaev makes another point about the denial of contemplation: “Not a single moment has value in itself, but only as a means for what follows.” When we seek to respond to the difficulties and problems we face from a contemplative stance we have a different perspective on time. A moment is not just the means to some greater end. A moment and all it contains has value in itself, for itself: A dog sitting in the street watching the man mow his lawn.  The gray cat sunning herself on the flowered bedspread. The hot pink zinnia licking up the light.  Such are some of the moments in this day free for the seeing and appreciating, each whole and holy in itself. Time is not given so we may accomplish our agendas, so that we can plow through the moments of our day gouging out what we figure we will need for the next moment. We are not given time in order to be ruthless strip miners of the ground of our being, carting off what we can sell or store up in barns or banks.

Elijah stops again. He gazes at the swings in the park, the slide and merry go round. He looks up at the tall pine trees with their thick drooping branches. I follow his gaze and see the branches riddled with slender yellow pods of young pine cones.

A shift occurs in us as we begin to comprehend and appreciate the infinite worth and endless wonder inherent in each moment of our existence. The pragmatic, narcissistic, restlessness which ruthlessly turns everything and everyone into a cog in its agenda of efficiency and accomplishment sits down on its haunches in the middle of everything and looks at what is so. At last it is quieted and stilled by the fullness of a larger Reality than itself.seal sunning

What riches we miss, when our heads are full of our own answers and solutions. What truth remains hidden in those unseen, unsavored moments, when the dog pauses, when the cat yawns, and when the yearning of your heart stops you in your tracks to feast on the beauty of your own precious life.

Elijah sends his love and is available for walks at the drop of a hat.

Elijah lease 2

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Gone Fishing

gcarpI couldn’t take my eyes off them. Thirteen years before I watched the eight grass carp slip out from the plastic bags from the fish farm and slide into the lake. Since than I had not seen them. I had heard their splashes growing louder over the years, and glimpsed an occasional fin. Some visitors spoke of the Lake Holy Ground Monster. A few saw one feeding close to shore.

 Now I stood on the shore enthralled. With no rain for weeks the lake was as clear as glass. From the shore west of the hermitage I could see through greenish yellow water to the bottom. An old lawn chair sat half submerged in the shallows. A few mossy sticks lay in the soft mud.

Then a movement caught my eye, something slowly waving. First one, then another and another – six huge grass carp swam lazily into my view. Some were over four feet in length. Moving slowly in a wide circle, their bodies shimmered with iridescent diamond scales, silver dappled in the sun.

Lifting the curve of their open pink mouths like soup ladles, they gulped the willow seeds and cottonwood fluff floatingcottonwood fluff 2 on the surface. Skimming off the white fuzz, the giants wove in and out in a dance of mesmerizing beauty. A large open mouth would break the surface and scoop the fluff. Then the mouth, water running from its corners like an overflowing pitcher, would close and sink into the lake. The fish scooped and sank, swimming silently, smooth and easy like the hawks riding the wind currents above us.

Later when I got home I cherished the memory of those fish swimming so self contained, whole in themselves, flowing through the water like cream in coffee before it is stirred. For days after I would close my eyes and see them swimming, a secret vision of grace. Here was beauty free for the seeing. And somehow the best gift was their creatureliness – that they knew nothing of me, or a world beyond the lake, that what I did or did not do mattered not to them.

I practiced floating that summer. I learned how my breath increases my buoyancy in the water and to relax the muscles in my neck and shoulders. I learned that water will hold my weight when I resist the least.

grass carpMarshall McLuhan said, “We do not know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” Could we overcome our ignorance of the very substance in which we live and move and find our being? Could we float in grace and swim in love, dipping our jaws and opening our throats to taste salvation?  I hope so.

A priest observed a peasant man coming daily to the church where he knelt and remained in prayer for some time. One day the priest approached the man and asked, “What do you say to our Lord on your daily visits?”

 “Oh, I don’t say anything,” the man replied. “I look at him and he looks at me.”

Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
when I get home.   ~St. Francis

A lot about the spiritual life has to do with where you look, what it is you pay attention to and see. The prayer of the peasant man is sometimes called the prayer of the simple gaze or simple regard. In our time of incessant naming, describing, evaluating, where a daily deluge of words pours over us from radio, television, internet, mail and highway billboards, a prayer without words can be sweet refreshment to a word numbed soul. The wordless communion of the gaze is a potent and underrated form of prayer.

Go find something that fills you with wonder and look upon it with love for a while. Go swimming in beauty. It is your natural home, you know. Then wring out the light and pour it over the world.


Poem by St. Francis from Love Poems from God by Daniel Ladinsky

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Paying Attention and Taking Your Time

leaves in sunA 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, Forest floor Montana
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
The leaves,
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.

Forest floor MontanaSimone 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