Invested attention

Prayer is paradigmatic for practice: how I pray is how I come to live.

Prayer, I believe, is an intentional investment of my attention into what matters most. Simone Weil wrote in her First and Last Notebooks that, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” In the posthumous collection of her notes, Gravity and Grace, she expands: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.”

If prayer is the intentional investment of my attention into what matters most, then prayer takes place at the pioneering edge of my becoming. However I practice the intentional investment of my attention into whatever matters most to me, these profound commitments draw the whole of my self toward themselves in such practices. To a significant extent I come to bear the imprint of what matters most to me, in and through these practices.

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My regular practices, the practices that become habit, shape who I am. Sometimes it is a little thing: I often snap my fingers when I walk. It is a quirk I inherited, unconsciously, from my father. It is not a big deal in terms of who I am perceived to be, except that it signifies a very important connection: a connection to the people who brought me into the world – a small hint of a not-insignificant part of my sense of who I am. Sometimes it is a big thing: For me, the most important reminders of what matters most to me arrive daily, morning and night, in my prayers, and weekly, in the common worship of a Sunday morning’s sung Eucharist or afternoon’s Evensong in the Anglican community where I worship.

Where do I best invest my attention?

An acquaintance recently posted a passage from Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey on Facebook: “Many voices ask for our attention. There is a voice that says, ‘Prove that you are a good person.’ Another voice says, ‘You’d better be ashamed of yourself.’ There also is a voice that says, ‘Nobody really cares about you,’ and one that says, ‘Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful.’ But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.’ That’s the voice we need most of all to hear. To hear that voice, however, requires special effort; it requires solitude, silence, and a strong determination to listen. That’s what prayer is. It is listening to the voice that calls us ‘my Beloved.’”