Pay Attention

“God does not reserve such a lofty vocation to certain souls only; on the contrary, He is willing that all should embrace it. But He finds few who permit Him to work such sublime things for them.” – St. John of the Cross

Contemplation is a whole lot simpler than most people think it is.

Contemplation is a whole lot harder than most people think it is.

People are incredulous, suspicious even, if you tell them that the deepest form of prayer requires no words or actions. No kneeling, no rosaries, no recitations.

Contemplation is about presence. Being totally present in the here and now. Presence is the foundation of every spiritual practice. If you say a rosary or attend mass or receive eucharist, it does no good if you have your mind off elsewhere, compiling your to-do list or replaying old conversations. You have to show up in mind, heart, and body and be present.

That’s what contemplative prayer is. It’s very simple to do:

Offer your presence to Christ
Sit, not thinking about anything in particular.
When you realize you’ve become distracted, gently come back to being present.*
Repeat until the time is up.

That’s it. That’s all you do. Which is to say that you don’t do anything at all. You just sit there. All transformation comes from Christ.

Contemplation has somehow gotten tainted with New Age-y metaphors and language. Contemplation is not New Age. Contemplation is hard core old-school back-to-basics prayer.
Contemplation is not a relaxation technique. Contemplation will not raise you to a higher plane of spiritual awareness. It will not connect you with all beings. It will not help you transcend anything. And it will not, surprisingly, get you any closer to God. He’s as close to you as He can be already. Contemplation will help you learn to get out of your own way and pay attention.

Advertisers, publicists, and image consultants spend billions every year developing clever ways to get our attention. They do this because they understand that our attention is a precious commodity that only we can give. And they hope that if they can get our attention, they can transform the way we think and behave. And extensive studies show that they are justified in spending those billions. Our attention is a commodity worth a lot of money to the secular world.

So why not offer some of the same to God? It is the only thing we can really give Her that She wants. We pay out our attention to hundreds of profane things every day. Why not spend twenty minutes paying attention to the divine?

*A number of different techniques have been developed for doing this. All of them very simple.

I didn’t really write this for you, my blog readers. Especially not for you, my buddhist friends to whom this is a Catholic flavor of old hat. This is really getting my thoughts down, my elevator speech so to speak, for a contemplative practice group I want to organize in my parish. Hey, that’s why I call this Overflow. But any comments or corrections or coaching would be welcome.

Punctuation Nits

I am very easy going, amenable guy. Far be it from me to niggle about grammatical stuff. I’m happy that people still write at all anymore. But that said, these are two punctuation peeves that eat away at the fabric of my psyche:

Using quotation marks for emphasis. Use quotation marks for, well, quotes. If you want to emphasize something, use italics or bold case. Quotation marks do not make the text you are reading seem “more important.”

Using an apostrophe before a plural ’s’. Apostrophe’s are for possessives, not plurals.

Of course, confusion over when to use ‘which’ and ‘that’ is totally understandable.

itsy bitsy spider

The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout
Down came the rain and washed the spider out
Out came the sun and dried up all the rain
And the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again

A comment by Siona on one of my previous posts clued me into the spiritual significance of this song I sing over. And over. And over with my kids.

This little song can be either depressing or encouraging, depending on my mindset. If I, being an itsy bitsy spider in my own right, am trying to actually get somewhere, do something specific, achieve a goal, then the repetition is frustrating. Just leave me alone and let me get up that water spout, dammit! I’d curse the rain and the sun both. And sue the makers of the water spout for not providing handrails or footholds or some such silliness.

But with the right spirit, if just being an itsy bitsy spider is enough in itself, I can enjoy the sun and the rain and the climb and the occasional hair-raising rush down the water spout. The repetition becomes a litany of lived moments, each one a sacred offering, a celebration.

Being that itsy bitsy spider is not such a bad thing. Depends on where my ego is, I guess.

I know, I know. You do actually have to get somewhere and accomplish some goals in life. I do have to earn a living. But so many of my moments are a natural part of the litany – repetitive, goal-less. And if you are always trying to get somewhere or accomplish something, the moments of daily repetition are an imposition, an inconvenience, instead of a litany of sacred moments

Brushing teeth.
Making the bed.
Driving to work.
Picking up toys.
Paying bills.
Making the bottles.
Bathing the kids.
Changing Diapers.
Putting the kids to bed.

Then watch a little TV, go to sleep, (itself a repetition) and wake up and do it all again with a few variations.

So each day at some point I stand in my living room looking at the toys strewn everywhere, sippy cups perched perilously on furniture, folded clean laundry waiting to be put away, restless children growing surly with cabin fever and TV hangover, dog bowls empty. I feel the pull to action…

So, what will it be today Cody? A sacred litany, or a resentful hurried rushing to the next thing?

“…and the itsy bitsy spider climbs up the spout again.”

Mary. Martha.

“As Jesus and His disciples were on their way, He came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to Him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” The Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 NIV)

This was yesterday’s gospel reading. Usually this precedes a homily where we are admonished to spend more time sitting at the feet of Jesus and less time being busy and worried with preparations and stuff.

But we’re always too hard on Martha, I think. Somebody has to prepare the food and provide the hospitality. Not everyone can just sit still. It is just as holy to give one’s self in service as it is to sit in the presence of God. I think Marthas’ problems started when she started getting resentful and feeling sorry for herself. Instead of service, her labors became an obligation she resented. When the ego steps in and takes charge, things go down hill fast.

It was the growing resentment, I think, that Jesus was talking about. She had lost the “one thing” that was needed. I can identify with Martha. I can understand feeling like I’m cooped up in the kitchen while others get to sit at the feet of Jesus. The difference between Martha and Mary was a state of heart.

So during the homily yesterday, whilst I was being admonished to spend more time being like Mary and less like Martha, I was composing a list of ways to sit like Mary and work like Martha at the same time. To rest without sitting. Pray without kneeling.

Wash the sippy cups.
Read “green eggs and ham” aloud for the fifteen thousandth time.
Shadow box with your four year old son.
Feed mashed carrots and sweet peas to the baby.
Hold somebody.
Take your two year old to the potty.
Change a diaper.
Sing “itsy bitsy spider.”
Talk your child through the process of putting on socks. (instead of doing it for him)
Pet the dog.
Make formula.
Fold laundry.
Pick up toys.
Mow the lawn.
Take the kids to the pool.

Moments of holiness abound in my mundane life. I just need to wake up and see them as such. Sometimes I do.