Prayer is Paying Attention
Breath prayer, lectio divina, fasting, meditating on scripture, fixed-hour prayer-- these are some of the spiritual practices that have anchored Christian history, practices that are tried and true, centuries old. I think of a well-worn pathway through a dense forest, cleared for us by the footsteps of brothers and sisters who have journeyed ahead of us. The weeds are ever encroaching to obscure the trail, but many walkers have trodden clear the pathway of connection to the Holy One, one imperfect step at a time.
A common thread to these practices--
We struggle. We suffer. It is the humble equalizing factor of humanity. Nobody can escape it. So the question becomes...what do we do with it? This is ultimately one of the central questions in every major faith system across our world. So, no, I won’t be able to answer that one for you here today, but I want to take a stab at a first step. We all desire wisdom, discernment, maturity-- we long to see the hard stuff transformed into something meaningful and beautiful. But all of this is outside of our reach if we don’t first pay attention. It’s a vital posture that creates space for noticing.
Some people call this mindfulness. Some people label it secular. Some people associate it with eastern religions. All I can say is that mindfulness-- paying attention-- is a deeply spiritual practice and a very human need. It is attending to that within me, that within you, that between us, and that in our greater world. Google defines mindfulness as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” If we haven’t attended to something, if we aren’t even fully aware of it, if we haven’t taken note of it and examined it carefully from a few different angles, then how on earth are we supposed to respond to it appropriately?
Are you thinking what I am thinking? Cycling through all of the reactionary responses punctuating our world? Issue polarization, short-sighted environmental choices, knee-jerk politics. Or in myself? Comfort eating, restless body, screentime distractions, cloudy thoughts, irritable words. Why did I just snap at my son? Sometimes I don’t even know what’s bothering me, what’s pressing in on me like a dark cloud...and I’ve already responded...often poorly.
It is so simple. Yet so overlooked. We even convince ourselves we are already paying attention when we really aren’t.
So I just wanted to pay some attention to attending for just a moment. If the spiritual greats over centuries have put their attention here, maybe they have a thing or two to teach us. Here’s what I have learned by observing spiritual mentors in my life and through my own baby steps into spiritual practices.
Attending takes time. Sometimes a pause is enough to get the goods on a situation but more often, we need to come to a full stop. If I want to attend to my friend’s story and actually hear the details, I need to stop and give my full attention. If I want to attend to what is going on inside of me, I need to befriend solitude and silence. Cultivating inner stillness is really hard because the important things that need to be honoured with our attention are often obscured beneath all the noise buzzing at the surface. These important things can be a little shy, often because they are attached to emotions that make us uncomfortable or hidden hurts we would rather avoid.
Attending takes radical compassion. Because attending can bring up vulnerable topics, it requires a safe atmosphere. Often, we are our own worst enemies, offering far more radical acceptance and compassion to others than we do to ourselves. Give yourself permission to be curious, nonjudgmental and compassionate, especially to yourself. Easier said than done. Really truly “getting” the vastness of God’s love for me is one of the hardest theological concepts to wrap my mind around, but it provides an essential safe anchor point for fruitful self-awareness in prayer. Here’s what Les Parrott has to say about Jesus being mindful with compassion.
“Jesus “saw” what others didn’t. In fact, the Gospels mention that Jesus “saw” forty times. And when he “saw,” he was almost always moved with compassion….The life of Jesus is filled with these perceptive incidents. Where others saw a paralyzed man, Jesus saw faith. Where others saw a political traitor, Jesus saw a new disciple. Where others saw crowds of harassing people, Jesus saw people being harassed. Where others saw sinners, Jesus saw people in need of mercy. How did Jesus see what others didn’t? It comes down to being mindful.”
Attending takes practice. The more we sit in an attentive listening posture with ourselves and with others, the more it starts to become natural and habitual. This is an emotional maturity skill and, like any skill, it can be learned and cultivated. Hence the “practice” part of spiritual practices.
Attending is for everyone. The cultivation of prayer practices that promote this listening posture is not just for clergy and not just for adults. The Gospel calls us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). The prayer of examen is a superb place to start. Check out these great examen resources:
Phone app- Reimagining the Examen (Loyola Press)
For adults- Jen Willhoite’s delightful instagram drawings @cobbleworks
For kids- get crafty with your kids using Kutsu Companions’ examen prayer beads
May your journey into prayerful attention be a delight (not another thing to add to your striving “to do” list). Enjoy!