On Paying Attention

There’s a common truth in the worlds of spirituality and psychology that we can’t go move on in life until we’ve truly learned what our present circumstances have to teach us. This was powerfully shown in Ben Okri’s delightful modern myth Astonishing the Gods, where the hero walks through a city wondering at its many great plazas and archways, only to realize that he’s been walking through the same plaza over and over again. The young man’s guide then tells him: “The law is simple. Every experience is repeated or suffered till you experience it properly and fully the first time.” Ouch. It hurts to read it, because it’s true. There’s a wonderful moment towards the end of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, where she experiences this truth in a dramatic, albeit gentler and more loving, way. She describes it like this:

When he revealed to me that I should sin, what for the joy that I had in contemplating him, I did not attend promptly to that revelation, and so our courteous Lord paused there, and did not wish to teach me any more until he had given me the grace and will to attend. And by this I was taught that though we may be lifted up high into contemplation by the special gift of our Lord, still, together with this, we must necessarily have knowledge and sight of our sin and of our feebleness; for without this knowledge we may not have true meekness, and without this we cannot be safe. (Ch 78)

It’s easy to miss what’s happening here. God had revealed to Julian that she would continue to sin (the text reads ‘should sin’, but in older English, ‘should’ generally carries a meaning like how we use ‘would’) and she misses it completely. So overjoyed and overwhelmed was she in her vision of God that she missed the point of what God was wanting to tell her. And so, God paused until she attended fully to what she was being told.

There is a lot of wisdom in all this in how we relate to our lives. We are constantly bombarded with information — we possibly receive more information in a day than our ancestors would in a month. We have to take special care to make the time to process it all. In a low stakes way, I am guilty of this in my reading life. I’m a big reader and devour books. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but it means that if I’m not careful, I can completely miss what a book is saying. I can finish a book on Monday and forget that I’ve read it by Friday. And so I’ve developed a practice of sitting with books for just a few minutes after finishing them, not just to record them in a book journal, but to reflect on what, if anything, they taught me. Life works in a similar way. As that great American amateur philosopher Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” But when it comes to our hearts and minds and how we function in the world, it’s not just a matter of missing life, but not realizing we’re stuck in the same old patterns repeating themselves over and over again. It’s helpful — I’d say necessary — to stop and reflect on what our circumstances are telling us. Not just “What is this teaching me?” but, because even this question can become rote and obvious, but also “What else is this teaching me?” While I don’t think life is just a long series of lessons, I do think life offers us lessons every day if we’re willing to learn from them. And if we don’t learn them, it’s unlikely God will lead us on to the next step.

I’m often reminded of the old injunction from railroad crossings to “Stop, Look, and Listen.” Life is like that. It’s important to stop some times and make sure we’re really perceiving what we need to learn from what’s happening.

Stop. Look. Listen.

What is this teaching me?

What else is this teaching me?

These are the questions for today.


* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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