Attention as Prayer

I have a devotional book called Seven Sacred Pauses based on the Liturgy of the Hours observed by many monastic communities who pause for prayer seven times each day – at midnight, dawn, midmorning, noon, mid-afternoon, evening and night. The book offers reflections, prayers, Psalms, and quotations that speak to the themes of each of those seven holy hours. The author, a Benedictine sister named Macrina Wiedekhehr, invites the reader to move more mindfully through each day by pausing and being prayerfully present to each hour. I have underlined, starred and dog-eared my way through the book in the past six months, turning and returning to it in an attempt to be faithful to that practice. Attempt is of course the operative word here, and in recent times my practice has waned to a brief word of praise or petition, once before running off to work and then later before falling quickly asleep. Aside from the fleeting moment of awe at a perfect silver moon, or the desperate plea for divine intervention when car trouble strikes, there is little in my day that closely resembles prayer between the waking and sleeping hours. But in the past week or two, one of those starred, underlined and dog-eared quotes in my book of hours has taken up new meaning, calling me to return once again to the sacred discipline of presence. The quote comes from John Kirvan and reads, “There comes a moment when attention must be paid… A time to embrace mystery as my native land. And silence as my native tongue” (Seven Sacred Pauses, 176).

Paying attention is something we talk a lot about at the farm. My theological mentor and Shalom’s farm manager, Steve, says it’s the only way to be a good farmer. You can be as calculating and precise and hardworking as you like, but you will never be a good farmer if you don’t pay attention. That’s because there is no definitive formula for success, no foolproof plan or program to be imposed or applied to guarantee a perfect crop. (Really, there is no such thing as “the perfect crop.”) Any good farmer knows there are simply too many variables, too many unknowns – and unknowables – in the complex interrelationships of all the manifold living and inert elements and forces of nature to ever claim complete command (or even understanding) of a farm. There is always more to learn. Nature is the teacher and the judge, with all her baffling intricacies and inscrutable patterns, unfolding not only over seasons and years but centuries and eons. Norman Wirzba, in his book Food and Faith, writes, “The key to successful gardening is that the gardener be available to learn what the garden has to teach” (58). The farmer’s (or gardener’s) is necessarily a posture of deep humility and vigilant attention before what Wendell Berry and many other agrarian mystics call mystery – that fundamentally illusive and incomprehensible character of the natural world. To pay attention is indeed, as Krivan says, “to embrace mystery.” It is to leave behind all certainties, diagnoses, and preconceptions, and offer instead a receptive silence.

Wirzba writes, “When we become more attentive, a most important result becomes possible: we begin to see the world as it more nearly is rather than as we wish it to be” (55). He continues, “The discipline of attention works to remove the destructive ambition and ego so that what lies before us can speak for itself” (55). Here we see that for Wirzba, paying attention is a practice with applications and implications extending far beyond the realm of agriculture. In my work with Shalom off the farm I am realizing more and more the truth in this insight.

One of the most challenging and also worthwhile parts of my internship is working with the kids at the Neighborhood Resource Center. Shalom Farms provides produce each week for these students to sell at their pop-up farm stand. The Farm Stand model is one Shalom is developing in order to address both immediate need and long-term food security in food deserts by making nutritious food available at a reduced cost and providing an educational opportunity for youth. Kids are exposed to fresh local produce as well as the ins and outs of running a small business while the neighborhood benefits from an affordable and convenient outlet for vegetables and fruit. The Neighborhood Resource Center sits on Williamsburg Road in Fulton, a low-income neighborhood on the Southside of Richmond. Most of the kids who participate in after school care and other programming at the NRC suffer some combination of poverty, abuse, neglect, home-life instability, violence, learning disability, emotional disturbance or behavioral problem. And so a few crates of organic vegetables and a fun activity can seem like a pretty meager offering. But Penny, the wise, loving, and truly saintly programming coordinator of the Neighborhood Resource Center assured me, “The most important thing you can give these kids is your attention.”

Beyond the truth of these words in terms of childhood development and encouraging personal self-worth, I think there is rich theological insight to be explored here. Much like paying attention on the farm means forgoing preconceptions, assumptions and prognoses, so too must we meet the mystery of the other with a welcoming space and silence. Truly paying attention to another is perhaps the most deeply life affirming power we have. By it we acknowledge the individuality of the other, their inherent value as subject, neither object nor means of some personal end. But our language about attention – that it is something one pays the other – doesn’t convey what I am discovering to be its fundamentally reciprocal action. When we make ourselves attentive we create room not only for the other to be present as they truly are but also to receive in ourselves the gift of their presence. As I have experienced first hand with the students at the NRC, “paying attention” is actually as much about receiving as giving. Anything I might give to these kids in the form of my attention is returned to me many times over in unabashed affection, laughter, creative energy, hope, and broadened perspective.

To pay attention is to enter a sacred and mutually transformative reciprocity of relating. In being attentive to the other, we turn outward from ourselves to acknowledge the other and invite them in, affirming their otherness while simultaneously welcoming their experience into ours. This deep form of sharing begins to approach perichoresis – a word theologians use to describe the interrelating or communion of the Holy Trinity. Wirzba characterizes perichoresis as ”mutual abiding,” describing it as “the one ‘making room’ in itself or the other” (9, Food and Faith), while Leonardo Boff defines it as “mutual presence” (24, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor). Thus, paying attention becomes an experience of utmost theological significance inasmuch as it draws us toward the very heart of Trinitarian communion. Wirzba writes, “In its deepest and most concentrated forms, attention becomes a form of prayer, a practice in which the truth and integrity of the world and the grace of God can shine” (55).

True attention – to our work, to the natural world, to the people around us, to the mystery that surrounds, penetrates and saturates each of our lives – is true prayer. But how can we achieve such perfection of attention? I can attest (and did, in my first paragraph) to the great challenge of such a discipline. But I think it is helpful to remember that paying attention is a practice, which means it must be practiced. And constantly. It is not just in “sacred pauses” that I am called to be attentive – although this is an undoubtedly valuable discipline. Rather, every moment is an invitation to presence: “A time to embrace mystery as my native land. And silence as my native tongue.” As in so many previous blog posts I find myself rediscovering the truth that the spiritual life draws us not away from the world but more deeply into it.  Attention can indeed be cultivated among the crops and amidst vegetable-vending middle-schooler mayhem, and practiced everywhere in between. In this way our very living can be transformed into prayer,  “in which the truth and integrity of the world and the grace of God can shine” (55).