Paying Attention

Attention is the rarest and purist form of generosity. Simone Weil

Jesus said to Martha, “Marta, Martha, you are anxious about many things. Only one thing is necessary.” Martha, the sister of Mary, had been banging about noisily and huffily, and eventually complained to Jesus that her sister was not helping her. Instead of taking Martha’s side Jesus condoned Mary’s behaviour, saying she had “chosen the better part.” She was attending to one thing and one thing only, Jesus himself.

Many people feel secretly pretty sympathetic to Martha, who was, no doubt, trying to get a meal ready for Jesus and to be a good hostess. But Mary was practicing another kind of hospitality: that of paying their guest full attention. We might secretly think she was still doing the easy thing. Which one of us would not want to sit down and give Jesus our full attention! But that is to assume that Jesus was doing the pastoring. As a dear friend of Jesus, Mary could have been the one looking after him: gently listening to him, his needs; caring for him in his tiredness.

We use the term “paying attention” and rightly, because it costs us something to give attention, whether it is to the person in conversation with us, the road we are walking down, the people sitting alongside us on a train, the News, or our times of prayer. Real attention demands first that we try to wake up to the present moment and secondly that we keep watch over our ego’s desire to jump in, to take over; to make everything about me. Real attention is about creating a sense of space and spaciousness, a hospitable place, in which any transaction between myself and the other can take place – has, if you like, room to breathe.

This is never more so than when we are practicing attentiveness (mindfulness / contemplation etc) in prayer. At times, everything in us is fidgety and impatient. We long to get up and go off and do something “meaningful.” What is the point of sitting here and waiting on God? It seems such a waste of time. But it is at this point of resistance that, if we stick with it, we begin to comprehend Simone Weil statement above. We are doing our best to attend to God without most of the time feeling any response from him. In R S Thomas’ words, we are more likely most of the time, to experience God as a “great absence.” It takes generosity on our side to go on practicing attention when there seem to be no visible results. We think we attend for God’s sake. It is only when we continue in the practice that we realise that there are results and that actually we are receiving much more than we are giving.

Giving attention is pure because it is single minded, rather than pure in a cleanliness way of meaning. It is rare because it demands such an effort and we live in a world that constantly distracts us and pulls us into the “many things.” It is generous because it is about giving all of ourselves to the other without necessarily any reward, “save that of knowing that we do your will.” But as in everything our generous God gives us, whether we are attending to people, a tree in blossom or God himself, in the giving of attention we always receive far more back.