SILENT ATTENTION

Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque

Kent Mayfield

April 15, 2015

 

Reading I

 

John O’Donohue: “The Inner History of a Day”

 

No one knew the name of this day,

Born quietly from deepest night,

It hid its face in light,

Demanded nothing for itself,

Opened out to offer each of us

A field of brightness that traveled ahead,

Providing in time, grounded to hold our footsteps

And the light of thought to show the way.

 

The mind of the day draws not attention;

It dwells within the silence with elegance

To create a space for all our words,

Drawing us to listen inward and outward.

 

We seldom notice how each day is a holy place

Where the eucharist of the ordinary happens,

Transforming our broken fragments

Into an eternal continuity that keeps us.

 

Somewhere in us a dignity presides

That is more gracious than the smallness

That fuels us with fear and force,

A dignity that trusts the form a day takes.

 

So at the end of this day, we give thanks

For being betrothed to the unknown

And for the secret work

Through which the mind of the day

And wisdom of the soul become one.

 

Reading II

 

  • Howard Thurman: “The Need for Periodic Rest,” The Inward Journey

 

There is no clear distinction between mind and spirit; but there is a quality of mind that is more than thought and the process of thought: this quality involves feelings and the wholeness in which the life of man has its  being. . . . What is being considered is what a man means totally when he says, “I am.” This “self” shares profoundly in the rhythm that holds and releases but never lets go. There is the rest of detachment and withdrawal when the spirit moves into the depths of the region of the Great Silence, where world weariness is washed away and blurred vision is once again prepared for the focus of the long view where seeking and finding are so united that failure and frustration, real though they are, are no longer felt to be ultimately real. Here the Presence of God is sensed as an all-pervasive aliveness which materializes into concreteness of communion: the reality of prayer. Here God speaks without words and the self listens without ears. Here at last, glimpses of the meaning of all things and the meaning of one’s own life are seen with all their strivings. To accept this is one meaning of the good line, “Rest in the Lord — O, rest in the Lord.”

 

Reading III

 

–Mary Oliver:  From “The summer day” New and Selected Poems 1992

 

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

 

Many of my friends have told me that one of their earliest childhood memories was “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”  Head on pillow, tiny palms pressed together, parent sitting close at hand, sleepily mumbling the words, “If I should die before I wake…”etc. etc.  For them, the prayer was a pattern of sound. It might as well have been a nursery rhyme or a string of made-up sounds like abracadabra.  It was, in fact, an incantation, a magical plea to the powers of the universe to guide Hank or Sally through the little sleep of night into the light of another day.

 

I don’t recall saying this good-night prayer, but I was raised in a culture of prayer, inculcated early on with a repertoire of prayers addressed to God, all assuming a response:  Here I am Lord, deserving your attention, favor, healing, forgiveness. Never did it pass my mind that my prayers were not heard. My life was hemmed about with a huge body of stories affirming God’s intervention in human affairs. Had not all the faithful experienced first-hand the power of prayer—a return to health, a family difficulty resolved, something lost found.  ‘Twas so for me, and many of you, from another hallowed, antique tradition probably saw shrines of abandoned crutches, chapels gleaming with votive candles lit in thanks to the Virgin or a host of saints. Overwhelming evidence of the efficacy of prayer.

 

Or, rather, overwhelming evidence for a mind predisposed to belief.  In the light of my maturing skepticism, the evidence for the success of petitionary prayer became a thing of smoke and mirrors, a compilation of anecdotes.  Still, according to available evidence, the overwhelming majority of people on the planet still believe that by some appropriate mix of petition, rite or sacrifice, the gods or God can be cajoled to redirect the normal flow of events in their favor.  Never mind that after millennia of prayer not a shred of conventional double-blind, statistical, analytical, seismographic, controlled non-anecdotal evidence exists to affirm divine intervention, millions are unpersuaded and, many such as we, skeptical of miracles and enthralled by the new myth of immutable Science, are left with a story of creation that does not require a god who intervenes in day-to-day affairs, a story that reaches inward to embrace the ceaseless dance of DNA and outward to the “highest circle of spiraling galaxies,” as Nikos Kazantzakis said, a story that places human life and consciousness squarely in a cosmic flow of complexifying energy.

 

The Roman Catholic priest and cultural historian Thomas Berry urges to assimilate this new perspective god into our religious and prayerful lives, where “all things emerge into being…an essence beyond logic.”  Yeah, but…This story doesn’t take note of my childish cry for attention.  We are swept along on the grand wings of an abiding plan and process and presence, but…..we are seldom comforted, seldom quite satisfied, seldom other than alone.

 

Is there any sense in which a rational, scientifically responsible, and reasonably well-informed but agnostic gent or lady with a respectable if not academically elevated CV might pray?

 

In this journal, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge jotted down what he took to be five stages of prayer:

 

First stage—the pressure of immediate calamities without earthly aid(ance) make us cry out to the Invisible.

 

            Second stage—the dreariness of visible things to a mind beginning to be    contemplative—.

 

            Third stage—Repentance and Regret—and Self-inquietude.

 

            Fourth stage—Celestial delectation (delight in the presence of the divine)

 

            Fifth stage—Self-annihilation—the Soul enters the Holy of Holies

 

Now, I can’t say that I understand what Coleridge meant by all of this – his journal entry stands without Cliff-notes—but it sounds vaguely as if prayer as I understand it is what a jazz musician might call a “contra-fact” on his description of prayer – a new melody overlaid on a familiar harmonic structure – in this case a new way of defining an existing, familiar term.  I’m playing a riff on the Coleridge prayer theme that goes something like this:

 

First stage—Help!

 

            Second stage—Here I am—all alone

 

            Third stage—OMG I am so sorry for having offended whatever powers that I don’t believe in that there may be!

 

            Fourth stage—Gee Whiz!!followed by Wow!!

 

Fifth stage—Silent Attention

 

Perhaps the stages correspond with the developmental sequence of childhood, adolescence, later almost-adulthood, then maturity and what shall we call it? The reflective years? During which we UU’s glide toward a presumed oblivion that is the fate of the agnostic when the gees and wows may give way to silent attention.

 

There is, of course,  an ancient tradition of Christian prayer that is open to mystery yet attuned to God’s immanence.  It asks no interventions of a transcendent deity, no response to “help” or “here I am!  It does not beg forgiveness or assume a listening ear.  It begins in the gee and Wow but turns inward on the self…”to listen inward and outward” says O’Donohue.

 

The Trappist contemplative Thomas Merton described it as “no longer being involved in the [analysis] of life, but in the living of it…where life becomes a prayer…the gift of silence…”

 

Yes, but it doesn’t come all that easily…desiring a life where all life is a prayer, the sky a prayer, the birds a prayer, the wind in the trees a prayer, all is all and in all.  Not easy o have no distraction, pure silence, solitude.

 

One afternoon before Easter, my elder daughter forwarded me a Facebook post from a friend of my grand-daughter. The friend is a recently single mother, trying to lead a balanced if hectic basically Christian life. According to my daughter, the friend’s young pastor had encouraged her to find “high-quality quiet time” for herself.  He was well-enough intentioned. His advice was based on the ancient discipline of intentionally making space each day to commune with the divine.

 

( Today “quiet time” is a spiritual practice most often observed, I learned, frin social media – #quiettime pics, usually includes a lit candle next to a cup of coffee with visible steam or a latte with foam art and an open Bible preferably out of focus.  I suppose it is called “quiet time” because “candle and coffee time” sounds stupid and “prayer time” is hopelessly out of step with the millennial jargon.

 

In any case, I read the message.  The young woman began by bringing me and anyone reading on FaceBook into her life with no delay.  “For the record,” she wrote, “I’m not anti-quiet time, but I don’t know if you know this because maybe you never were a mother, but living with small children is like swimming with piranhas—they may not swoop in and kill you outright but the nipping and nibbling are relentless.  You have to read the same book 440 times and kiss boo-boos and settle international disputes over Legos and cut a single grape into 11 pieces and scoop turds out of the bathtub and not kill anybody in the process.  So…” space/space she paused.

 

“When almost everyone in my women’s group agreed that a daily quiet time was an impossible luxury, our pastor said, ‘well, get up earlier. All you have to do is get up and have your quiet time in the dark before anyone else in the entire world is awake because you can sleep when you’re dead.’  He was reading from a spiritual guidebook of some sort.  It said that.  For real.  Like, it actually said, ‘You can sleep when you are dead.’”

 

On she went –  “When he said that, an unexpected volcano of molten outrage burst forward from the depths of my zombie mom soul. I said  ‘I don’t think that’s how it works.  I really don’t.  I think God is with us, alright.   Like, day in and day out, in the chaos and the noise and the silliness of life, he is there.  The god of our precious, untouchable ‘quiet time’ is witness to our non-stop lives , never absent from the clamor of our kids laughter, their squeals, their skinned knees, fussing and whining and raging fits in the Target parking lot.  But, I will not be getting up earlier.  Nope.  I’m going to honor God intentionally in my sleep.  I’ll listen for his voice in the wilderness and at the water park and under the McDonald’s play structure during my LOUD time.  If you want have the bandwidth to get up an hour earlier every day, with your twelve dollar scented candle and your fancy French press, good for you! But I’ll not get up before the ass-crack of dawn to ‘be quiet with him,’ and if that makes me a Bad Christian then that’s how it will have to be.”

 

In my memory, that impromptu speech is as impassioned and articulate today as it was days back, although it’s highly unlikely as much for me as it was for her.  I wasn’t there for the original post, but I’m told that what followed were several long seconds of intensely awkward silence, punctuated by a sniffle from Farmington, New Mexico and  online emoticon equivalents of cleared throats here and there, until someone had the presence of mind to ask Amber (that was my granddaughter’s friends name) if she had gone home for a nap afterwards.

 

Praying, as I’ve come to understand it – that embrace of silence – that gift of unity –the deeply personal integration of self to which Merton points is learning to listen with the mind and heart, making oneself attentive to each exquisite detail of the world, but it is not comfortable. It does not come easily.  As Amber’s vent or whatever reminds me.

 

Early in January, around four o’clock in the afternoon, I arrived at the Divine Mercy Retreat, a Redemptorist monastery near Oconomowoc, between Milwaukee and Madison. It was 12 below zero.  I decided to wlk around Crooked Lake on my way to the Poustina hermitage built by monks more than a century ago.  It seemed further than I remembered it.  Or maybe it was just cold.  Or maybe it was the wind.  I had visited last in July. Then, people were swimming or kayaking.

 

A single trail of footprints lead out to the middle of the lake, where a man kneeled on the ice in the brutal wind.  He was very still.  Waiting.  Ice fishing, I assumed.  Or, maybe praying. Maybe both.  That day they seemed like the same thing.  Any fish that day would surely have been a sign from God.  I saw the auger he’d used to drill a hole and a little rod and a silver can.  No fish.  No shelter from the wind.

 

I reached the hermitage. It was warmer inside – somewhat –maybe 15 degrees. I said something grateful to the empty room and the small wooden pew.  It was then that I noticed the orange and blue rays of sunlight flooding through the simple paned windows.  The warm shafts of unexpected color like answers to a question I didn’t know how to ask.

 

Simone Weil writes “Attentiveness without an aim is the supreme form of prayer.”  But we need time to attend.  Not the frenetic, multi-present “convenience” of digital time. No, the slow time to wait and wonder—like the fisherman out on the ice.  Time to dream of the vast world beneath the frozen surface—to believe in the unseen.  A kind of time that cannot be measured.

 

Warmed a bit, I walked some more. I was there to read and think and write – not stories of arrival but of being lost and found and lost again.  Not only a “journey into space” as Nelle Morton (The Journey is Home) once wrote, “but a journey into presence.”  Not guided tours, but “unmarked detours.” Detours of intention.  Sometimes what we choose.  More often what chooses us.

 

A prayer can be thought of as a detour of intention.  With something like prayer, we don’t know where we are going.  “Prayer is not asking for what you think you want,” writes Kathleen Norris, “but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine.”  So we choose to wait and to listen.  But for how long? Five minutes?  A week?  And to what or to whom?  The “presence of absence?” (Doris Grumbach) Only silence?  A shivering sense of belonging even amid icy rocks and creaking trees.

 

As I headed to the monastery chapel, the kneeling man was still there fish-praying.  Still no fish.  Like me – waiting, kind of fishing – for what Henry David Thoreau once called “the gospel of this moment.”  I thought more about Thoreau, about his essay “Walking” which I often re-read as it reminds me of how to imagine “the holy land” which for Thoreau is wherever you are.  It’s not a place but a kind of presence, a prayerful attention—which I’m not very good at, which I why I keep walking.  And walking, searching for screeching ravens and snowy pine boughs and curling smoke or maybe exhaust fumes and whining sirens.

 

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves,” Pico Iyer says, “and we travel next to find ourselves.” Always looking out at the physical world with the eye and in at the self with the I. This delicate, difficult braid of self and world, of both seeing and seeking is, for me, at the heart of what I once would have called prayer.

 

The hermitage chapel welcomed me to warmth, heavy oak choir stalls, seven prayer  books, an anxious, agitated moment far from the “gospel of this moment” for a non-Catholic who knew neither to pray or cross myself, to chant or bow or take communion or how time could be “ordinary” or anything else. “What Am I Here for,” I wondered.

“We are here,” John Updike’s words came to me, “to give praise.  Or to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention.”

 

At some point, all the horizontal trips in the world do not compensate for the need to go deep, into somewhere challenging and unexpected: movement makes most sense when grounded in silence.  In an age of speed, I realized that nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.  In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention.  In an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

 

During his sadly abbreviated life, (he died in 2017 with a ferociously fast-moving tumor in his brain,) my friend Brian Doyle, who was a poet and essayist and all-round grand guy, often said  [Sometimes] “the things that we remember the best, the things that matter the most to us when we remember them, are the slightest things, by the measurement of the world; but they are not slight at all. They are so huge and crucial and holy that we do not yet have words big enough to fit them.”

 

Life for Brian, a self-described “grizzled student of wonder,” was a delicious, riveting, messy, tragic, hilarious, miraculous collection of moments—ones he couldn’t help but notice and share with others. He often wrote, with signature enthusiasm, about seemingly everyday things, like childhood, family life, sports, nature, and hidden grace. He also wrote powerfully, and humbly, about the deep spiritual thread of his own expansive faith. [His most recent collection of essays, Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, is no different. In it you’ll find reflections on writing, death, the daoine sídhe, conscientious objection, parenthood, and the hidden languages of bird watching and chess, among other small and huge, tiny and vast subjects.]

 

 

A typical Doyle essay begins with a memory or observation of a fleeting moment—a hawk slicing through a flock of waxwings, the smell of a grandmother’s pillow, a pair of children holding hands—before it meanders along in rollicking sentences, eventually sneaking up to drop a bit of wriggling wisdom right in your lap.

 

For Brian, love and humility, reverence and wonder, and the ache of longing to connect were so tangled up together they became all but synonymous. To give something your ferocious, awed attention—and intention—is to honor it. To then pass it along as a small, shimmering gem of a story (as Brian did literally thousands of times), was for him, a form of holy prayer. Of course, he was the first to admit it isn’t always easy to live in and practice that truth every hour of the day, but what a thing to strive for, what a pursuit, to bring “your naked love and defiant courage and salty grace to bear as much as you can, with all the attentiveness and humor you can muster.”

 

Brian made it his purpose to recognize and record these small-not-small winks of beauty and grace. “This is what I know,” he wrote. That the small is huge, that the tiny is vast, that pain is part and parcel of the gift of joy, … and then there is everything else.”

 

When I think of Brian Doyle I often think, too, of William Carlos Williams and his well-known, much-loved poem:

 

so much depends

upon

 

a red wheel

barrow

 

glazed with rain

water

 

beside the white

chickens

 

Endlessly discussed by critics.  Still elusive.  Sixteen words. Nursery words. No capitalization.  No punctuation.  Simple.  Powerful.  Affirming something we all know but cannot put into words.  Something beyond words, beyond philosophy, beyond science.  So much depends. So much depends on something we can intuit—in silent, jubilant beholding – but not express, not as clear-thinkers, not as analysts.  Something hidden deep in the exquisite complexity of what is.

 

Here we do not reason about the literary canon or dogmas or theories or mysteries. We seek, first of all,  the deepest ground…a direct grasp…a personal experience.

 

For this, we need no single word of traditional faith.  A red wheelbarrow glazed with rain is enough if we are aware that so much depends on paying attention.  We are struck, rung like a bell, a shudder down the spine.  Color, shape, texture, matter, animation: red, wheel, glazed, water, chicken.  Not a miraculous cure.  Not a mighty wind that shatters rocks or tumbles the walls of Jericho.  Not Lazarus waking from the dead.

 

Rather, a red barrow glazed with rain.

The prayer of the heart does not holler.

It listens in silence, expectant.

It pays silent attention.