Giving Attention

Noise and multitasking seem to be two pervading features of modern life. Wherever I go there is music and I become so accustomed to it that I switch the radio on when I drive, when I cook and even when I walk I can be accompanied by the handy ipod.

It is not as though music were supreme: I have music on while I read a book – rather than listening to the music, it’s just there in the background as audible wallpaper.

And  whether we leave gender stereotypes aside or not, multitasking seems to be an honourable and much-praised quality in our culture. To be able to do two or three things at once is an enviable gift – especially if you are a man.

But lately, I’ve been thinking of paying attention. Now I know that true devotees of multitasking will declare that you can pay attention while doing more than one thing (and I’m married to an awesome example of such a claim) but I’ve been thinking about really giving attention to someone or something and I’ve come to see such a level of giving attention as truly desirable.

A book as helped me in these reflections: Thomas Merton: Master of Attention by Robert Waldron (Paulist Press, 2008) in which the author explores the approaches to prayer of Thomas Merton and Simone Weil.

When I read that Simone Weil claimed that, ‘prayer consists of attention’ it provoked me to reflect how often when I attempt to engage in contemplative prayer my mind suddenly takes on the feel of a tree full of monkeys. Unwanted thoughts jump and wriggle and leap all over the place.

And I was challenged by Weil when she continued to argue that prayer ‘is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of prayer, warmth of heart cannot make up for it.’

The promise of the book, according to the author, is ‘to encourage people not to give up on prayer: deep prayer is not an esoteric activity meant only for mystics and proficients: it is available to all of us, if we would only pay attention.’

Whether the book lives up to that promise I will leave readers to decide. However, it’s study of Merton through the lens of this theme of attention is illuminating and exciting.

This led me back to reading Merton with fresh eyes. His photography, with its attention given to the natural world and the patterns of light and form; his reflections on the longing for God and the offering of that longing as a giving of attention; his journaling, with its rigorous self examinatuion and its persistent search to find traces of the divine presence in the midst of everyday things: each of these can be seen as examples of prayer as attention, to a point where really seeing things and really giving attention to others and to God leads to a continuing sense of prayerfulness in the presence of God.

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