By Jim Peterson
“In the gift of this new day
Let us be attentive
Let us be open to what has never been before.”
Excerpt from a prayer of John Phillip Newell
There is the kind of attentiveness we all use unconsciously to engage with the usually familiar tasks of the day and respond to the challenges that may arise. It is the way of habit and allows for a kind of efficiency in life. Yet there is far more to life and a key to this is deep attention – looking for what is deeper, what lies underneath, what is seen with the eyes of the heart – ultimately looking for the mystery we call God. This is the attentiveness that uncovers meaning, cultivates wisdom, and fosters genuine relationships.
This kind of attention requires that we waken from the slumber of our habitual lives, that we become intentional about our attention. How often do we pass by a flower and not really see it? Or take a bite of a meal and not really taste it? Or walk past a disheveled person on the street and not really recognize her as human? How often do we miss the image of the Divine in all these things?
Take a moment now in your familiar place to look around with openness to what you have never seen before: What do you notice? What stirs you? What invitation arises? What wonderment?
We mostly attend to the surface details of our lives, and this is necessary to navigate ordinary activities. The invitation of deep attention, however, is to really see the Real that lies beneath, that permeates everything, that is the ground that forms the basis of our lives, or the ocean in which we swim and that bears us up.
On a retreat I once spent 45 minutes gazing at a large beach rock protruding from the sands. My retreat assignment was just to pay attention without any preconceptions or expectations. First my mind engaged, then my emotions – I got bored with thinking about it! After a time of emptiness my heart expanded, clock time shifted to perceiving eons all at once, and an awareness of significance arose even in the rock before me. In the end, as I left, I discovered that compassion for creation and its creatures had been sparked and I found myself rescuing a salamander that had strayed onto a dry path and was languishing.
What experience can you remember that revealed the “more” to you or touched you deeply because you paid attention?
One way we avoid paying deep attention is by labeling what we notice. Once we do that, we think we have understood what we have seen, and pass on to the next thing that comes into view. But to label – useful as that can be – is also to limit. It keeps us from seeing what is really there. Our curiosity is stunted along with our sense of wonder and exploration.
Deep listening is supported by a trust in what is unseen in the normal sense. When we pay attention deeply, we discover that we are mysteriously addressed in some way, as I was by the beach rock. We get in touch with what matters more or even most. The sources that we draw on for life show themselves. Meaning becomes clearer. And we become more alive.
The risk – and the reward – of paying attention is that you will be touched, changed, opened to something new, and you will be spurred to let go of old ways and habits that served before but no longer do. This can be scary but is also the cost of moving forward on the journey of life.
To what are you called to pay attention to in the gift of this new day?
By Eleanor Mendoza Whitney
Great storms have passed through our local hills, and in their wake they have left mud, fallen branches and general mess. Walking the paths is a bit more challenging, but as the puddles begin to dry, in the dark, damp earth I notice budding wild mushrooms. They are everywhere! They make funny shapes as they squeeze close together under trees and stretch out in large clumps.
Did you know that mushrooms are only the fruit of a great underground network of fungus mycelium (tiny threads)? The real “body” of the fungus stays under the ground, weaving and building, until the circumstances are just right up above the dirt and then – mushrooms!
Lately, I have had the honor to do some teaching in a spiritual direction training program. Seeing eager students ready to try new skills of listening, reflecting and discerning reminded me of my time in seminary. It also reminded me that I didn’t arrive at seminary (or at any given day) without a mycelium-like network of loving people guiding and nourishing me. They encouraged me and showed me the way. They taught me that I could do more than I thought I could do. Like the mushrooms, much of their support was invisible and my life would not be the same without them.
Who has done that for you? Who educated you in a way that gave you direction in your life? Perhaps they taught you a skill or perhaps you simply learned from their way of being. Maybe you didn’t notice it, but at some point, you could see the effect or “fruit” of their presence in your life.
Around my hills, the winter rains will soon give way to summer sun and the mushrooms will disappear. Yet their fungal network will continue operating beneath the surface, waiting for the next opportunity to “mushroom.” In your own life, could there be an invitation for you to reach out to some of those who have taught you and say, “thank you”?
By Melinda Athey
There was a time when I was young that I was very ill. I was confined to my bed unable to do anything for several weeks. Time passed slowly. My nights were feverish and fitful. The days creeped along as I noticed that I could watch the sunlight silently move across my bed. It moved ever so slightly, yet steadily on, in its golden light. I was too ill to do anything but notice this light movement with my gazing eyes.
Have you ever simply gazed, watching for hours as a patch of sunlight slowly shifts and crawls along?
This was the beginning of my journey towards becoming a Spiritual Director. This noticing was my first step on the journey, as I paid attention to something that I had never noticed before. This is my first recollection of an experience of contemplation. I really had nothing I could do as I was too ill to read or do much of anything. I couldn’t concentrate enough to watch a show or listen to anything. But I could notice with my slow gaze this sunlight as it moved ever so slightly across my covers and the wall of my room.
Franciscan friar Richard Rohr says that gazing has nothing to do with “extraordinary moments” dependent on certain external circumstances, but has everything to do with one’s inner posture towards all of life. I had no judgment as I watched the sunlight move. I simply noticed. This experience as a child, these moments of gazing were a gift that enabled me to patiently notice, what was actually happening, what was going on here.
Spiritual direction is a lot like this moment. It’s patiently attuning to what is. It’s noticing simultaneously what is going on with me (I was very ill confined to my bed) and what was going on around me. There was not much happening as I recovered. It was very quiet and I noticed the sunlight creeping across my covers.
As we begin this new year what are you noticing? What catches your attention? Right where you are, as you’re reading this, in this moment, what do you notice? What is going on here?
By Kenton W. Smith
In the dark blue deep of a restless night
nine hundred thousand dead.
COVID misery torments my faith.
Then a serenade of great horned owls.
The soothing sound of beauty
wooes me to sleep.
When it is darkest
Beauty sings a lullaby.
Is this a contradiction
or a holy chorus announcing,
“Peace on earth, do not be afraid.”
Dark blue deep is a reference to the longest night of the year (December 21 in the northern hemisphere). The Season of Advent lights a candle in the presence of the deep dark announcing something longed for is about to be born.
In the Gospel of Luke (2:8-14) a choirof angels sing to shepherds in the middle of the night announcing the birth of the Christ Child. The image of night in scripture often refers to divine help coming to humans in trouble. The trouble in this case is the oppression of the Roman Empire and the collaboration of the Jewish King Herod.
But then is now.
The ritual practice of the longest night during Christmas for those who have lost loved ones or dwell in fear is not a single day for much of the world but every day. The New Year is no exception. Violence, hatred, racism, xenophobia, intolerance, dualisms/divisions (us versus them), homophobia, misogyny, abuse, the weaponization of politics and religion, poverty, deadly viruses and an endless cycle of all the things that are killing us infects our psyches and fevers our sleep. In The Divine Milieu Pierre Teilhard de Chardin describes the cosmos as the location (more poetically: the womb) in which the Mystery we call God is actively present, living, moving, being.
Inexplicably and unbidden into the darkness of my tormented sleep Beauty sings an owl’s lullaby and calms my fear. What is that? What is that soft prompting that taps my imagination and brings my fear to an end without effort? Without effort is important to notice. I wasn’t practicing or praying. The magnitude of real suffering compared to my sleep disturbance was inconsequential. I was wooed by a life not me yet not other than me.
There is nothing to do here, nothing to measure, the Life within all life comes by itself.
*By February 21, 2022 over 900,000 deaths from Covid 19 were recorded by the CDC Data Tracker.
**The poem is from Sitting Still Doing Nothing: Contemplative Poetics in a Cultivated Garden and Wild Landscape by Kenton W. Smith, D.Min., DASD, Entry 12.15.20, p. 100.
By Brooke Maffia Wang
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,
places to play in and pray in,
where nature may heal and
give strength to body and soul.
My shoulders drop, the corners of my mouth rise, and I exhale deeply in an enfolding sense of welcome just as I am. Awe is healing. My body felt a resounding yes when I read this in a research study. And, again, this past week when my now 10 year old daughter and I made a 5.5 mile trek through the damp familiar redwoods.
The redwood forests in Henry Cowell State Park have played a part in raising me. They are as much my home as any house I’ve lived in. Creek walks, bike rides, runs, picnics on the riverbed, ducking and crowding into the Fremont Tree, walking the tracks to the Garden of Eden, gathering in the “family circle," riding the steam engine to Bear Mountain, viewing the stars and the ocean from the observation deck after having gone through three ecosystems to get there, prayer in the Cathedral of Redwoods, the horn of the beach train as it rumbles through the forest. Oh, and the intoxicating smell that is like a hug on a hot summer day. Each time I leave a little more grounded, aware of our interconnectedness, and filled with a lighter and bigger perspective.
Awe is one reason I continue to find my way home to this sacred awe filled forest. How about you?
As we enter this season of holidays that are beautiful and messy, may you find places to play and pray, moments of awe that sink deeply into your bones as they bring healing and strength as they remind you of the unique gift of you to this world.