Thursday, October 19, 2006
Paying Attention in Love
Last fall, a good friend and I were driving across Indiana when she looked out the window and asked, “What are you seeing?” On another, earlier trip she’d asked that question while we were deep in conversation about landscape and light. I’d waxed eloquent about the qualities of light that lit fields filled with corn stubble and soft contours of Midwestern rolling ground. Eloquently enough, at least, that she seemed to enjoy the conversation and my view on things she didn’t seem to see with her hillier, woodier New England eyes.
That day her question stopped me cold. I looked around. I saw a not too unusual cloudy Indiana day in the middle of harvest. Some fields were picked. Some were not. I began to explain how to tell the difference between corn and bean fields, combine corn heads and bean heads, and … I knew I was stalling. I wasn’t seeing anything much different from what she saw.
I wondered why I couldn’t see like she expected me to. Then it hit me. I wasn’t paying attention in love to the landscape. Instead, I was paying attention to my friend and our conversation about books and writers.
Paying attention in love is concept I learned from the writings of Belden Lane, a humanities professor in the theology department at Saint Louis University. That’s when I came across this: “One begins to suspect that the contemplation of any ordinary thing, made extraordinary by attention and love, can become an occasion for glimpsing the profound. …Where can I not encounter the holy, has been the question of spiritual writers in every tradition and every age. “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” asked the psalmist (139:7). Once our attention is brought to focus on the masked extraordinariness of things, we are hard put in to discern the allegedly profane.”
By my friend’s asking her the question, and me thinking about it, I soon began listening to our conversation and looking at the world beyond my friend’s face. The landscape whizzed by, but I saw it slower than the 65 mph we were going. I found myself paying attention at a different level with everything going on around me. The outer and inner lights seemed brighter. All thanks to my friend’s question.