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.

 Snap  

Snap  

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.’” 

 

Why pray?

Why pray? I consider prayer to be an intentional investment of attention into what matters most. As such it is a practice in which every human person engages sometimes, in some or other way. We attend to what matters most because that is what humans do: to be human is to care, to love, to desire, to commit ourselves, to have a point of view with regard to what matters.

 An improvisation on Psalm 103 by Jim Cotter in his prayer book,  Out of the Silence ... 

An improvisation on Psalm 103 by Jim Cotter in his prayer book, Out of the Silence ... 

In their book on “using the human sciences to solve your toughest business problems,” The Moment of Clarity (Boston, 2014), Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen write, “Humans are human because they have a perspective: they care about things. One might call it our ability to give a damn. And it is this quality that allows us to determine what matters and where we stand. … The ability to have a perspective—to respond to what matters and what is meaningful—is at the heart of humanity.”

The philosopher James K.A. Smith writes in his little book Your Are What You Love (Grand Rapids, 2016) that, “We are what we want. Our wants and longing and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. … You are what you love because you live toward what you want.”

Devoting attention to what matters most takes many different forms. To some extent how we devote attention to what we really care about is shaped by what it is that we really care about. For someone who cares profoundly about the beauty of wild places merely talking or thinking about such places is not an adequate way in which to devote attention to that beauty, but hiking in such places might be. For someone who loves their country deeply a small way of devoting attention to that love may be singing their national anthem while a bigger way may be devoting several years of their life to military service.

Conventionally religious people like me enjoy the benefits of the accumulated devotional wisdom of ancient and living traditions. There is a plethora of ways in which to pay attention to the love of God that most deeply moves me. I believe that I am being drawn into the loving embrace of God, and that the love of God is the primary force shaping the story of my life. But I am not always attentive to this reality. I experience those practices that afford me opportunities for the intentional devotion of my attention to the love of God as gifts—graces—that suffuse an awareness of that love throughout all of my life. For me reading, singing, and saying prayers, in the conventional sense, are among the most significant of such practices.

 

 

Implicated

There is no escaping our implicatedness in the events of our time, the history of the communities in which we belong, the formation and sustenance of the institutions that make possible the lives we lead - for good and for ill. Becoming an Anglican is an acknowledgment of such implicatedness on my part.  

 

 Retired regimental colours, Christ Church, Montreal  

Retired regimental colours, Christ Church, Montreal  

In addition to the steadying rhythms of Anglican liturgy and the sacramental welcome of Anglican worship to people in their genderedness, the third of my three primary reasons for becoming an Anglican has to do with the flawed character of this Christian tradition. Few Christian faith communities are quite as implicated in the politics of their contexts as the Anglican communion. The very emergence of the Anglican communion from Roman Catholicism is in part the result of the dynastic politics of England's then monarch, Henry VIII. The presence of Anglicanism around the globe today is thoroughly interwoven with the history of English imperialism. I wager that there is not a single aspect of Anglicanism that is not, in a thorough-going manner, the result of the historical politicization of ecclesiastical life and theological conflict.

By becoming Anglican I am setting myself up to be reminded, time and again, that no faith community, no religious tradition, can exist without being and becoming implicated in political history. The primitivist fantasy of a pre-Constantinian Christian church free of any political entanglements is not true to how we humans are, always, in the world. As someone who has lived the entirety of my life at the intersection of religion and politics, becoming Anglican is a way of keeping myself intentionally alert to the ever-fraught character of that intersection. And as a Christian who is persuaded that just war teachings offer the most accurate available understanding of the relationships among church, state, war, and peace, participating in Remembrance Sunday choral eucharists at Christ Church, Montreal, in 2015 and 2016 provided an annual opportunity to consider these relationships in the context of this world of sorrow and suffering.

 My great-grandfather, Johannes Mattheus Strauss, circa 1900.  

My great-grandfather, Johannes Mattheus Strauss, circa 1900.  

The political implicatedness of Anglicanism is not merely of intellectual interest to me. The very first Sunday I worshiped at Christ Church cathedral in Montreal, while drinking coffee in the baptistry after the service, I looked up and noticed the retired regimental colours of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, for whom the cathedral is their regimental church. Embroidered onto these colours are the battle honours of the Guards, and these include "South Africa, 1899-1900," commemorating what I, as an Afrikaner, grew up to know as the Boer War or Second War of Liberation. My great-grandfather, Johannes Mattheus Strauss, fought in that war (digital copies of his diary and war letters are among my more treasured possessions) on the side of the two Boer republics, against the aggression of the British Empire, and as such also against the Canadian Grenadier Guards. Worshiping alongside the Canadian Grenadier Guards is, in a way, loving my enemies.

Sacramental welcome

If my becoming an Anglican were just about the steadying rhythms of the liturgy, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism would have been paths I would have considered. 

 Christ Church, Montreal  

Christ Church, Montreal  

I have been profoundly moved by the Antiochian and Ukrainian Eastern rite worship services I’ve attended. And yet worshiping in Eastern churches feels to me like indulging in the exotic – my inner experience of their worship more like an intrigued tourism, less like an attentive awe. What connects me with worshipers in Eastern churches matters more than what makes me feel like a welcomed stranger – but, a stranger – in their midst. If I had no other options (and some other time I should think out loud about church and choice) I would have accommodated myself to a life of worship in Eastern churches with delight and gratitude.

The public library is perhaps to be blamed for my finding myself more at home in Anglican than Eastern worship. As an Afrikaner I am no more English than I am Arab or Greek or Ukrainian. (I’ll have to say more sometime in the future about the reality that English is the language of the enemy for me, as the great-grandchild of an Orange Free State republican soldier in what my ethnic community continues to remember as the Second War of Liberation – the Second Boer War, in British imperial historiography.) A childhood spent in British novels has, I suppose, given me an English imagination.

Why not Roman Catholic, then? The aesthetics of the Anglican Reformation as it is paradigmatically expressed in the Book of Common Prayer is certainly part of my answer to that question, but here’s the real reason: I want to worship in a church where both men and women may be priests and I want to worship in a church that recognizes the blessedness of both singleness and marriage, the blessedness of both different and same sex marriages. In the Anglican Church in Canada the priestly vocation of women as much as men have been recognized for something like four decades. In the continuation of a legacy inherited from Catholicism, Anglicanism has always recognized and nurtured the blessedness of a celibate singleness, partly so in its continuation of the sodality of religious orders. And in Canadian Anglicanism there is at least the prospect of same sex marriage and, with that prospect in view, no less of a welcome to the sacraments for people in same sex relationships than for anyone else.

Am I right in wanting to worship in such a church? My short answer is: I don’t know. (I am unflinchingly certain of far less now that I have turned fifty than I had been at forty or thirty … and I cannot remember anything with regard to which I was not unflinchingly certain at twenty! I thoroughly trust in the love of God; I gratefully believe that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again; I passionately yearn for God’s renewal of all things in Christ and through the Holy Spirit; I am quite convinced that the Christian Bible is a trustworthy revelation of God to humanity, though lisping in its significance – as John Calvin suggested – and unyielding to efforts seeking to exhaustively master its meaning; I’m quite certain that I’ll be able to confess the Apostle’s Creed without amendment for the remainder of my life. But beyond this handful of durable affirmations, I am quite open to persuasion, however vehemently I may express my many opinions.)

I doubt that what is good, right, and fitting is merely a matter of my own personal preference or opinion. I wager that what is good, right, and fitting can – within limits – be known. And without doubt I am quite frequently wrong about what is good, right, and fitting. It should come as no surprise that one of my very favourite songs is Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” which starts with a confession I hold dear as my own: many’s the time I’ve been mistaken. (Here’s hoping that my Christian friends and I will continue to consider one another to be fellow followers of Jesus even as we disagree – perhaps learning from someone like Alan Jacobs.)

But I don’t believe I am wrong, broadly speaking, in wanting to worship in a church that ordains men and women to the priesthood and that marries couples of different sexes and of the same sex. I am far from ready to make biblical hermeneutical or ethical arguments on either ordination or marriage, even as I believe such arguments are necessary. For now it is enough for me that I see sanctifying lives being lived by my friends in same sex marriages, as much as any other of my fellow believers, and that I am blessed in worship to receive the eucharist, be led in prayer, and hear the good news of Jesus proclaimed by women and men alike. In this setting I feel more truly human, welcome in all of my own frailty, persistently confronted with the holy and loving Jesus.

 

 

Steadying rhythms

I am becoming an Anglican. Starting this Advent I am joining a small group of fellow proto-Anglicans at Christ Church cathedral in Montreal, meeting for worship and conversation as we prepare to be received into the church during Easter. At this time in my life very few things so encourage me as the prospect of formally settling into the steadying rhythms of Anglican worship. 

 Christ Church Montreal  

Christ Church Montreal  

On the day I write this there arrives in my apartment mailbox the most recent print issue of the Christian Century (November 23, 2016) and in its pages I read this by the theologian (until recently unknown to me) Sarah Coakley: “I strategically dispossess myself to the Spirit’s blowing where it will into all truth; just as, in prayer each day, I try to practice that same dispossession to the Spirit’s calling me more deeply into the life of Christ, bracing myself for the bumps and lurches and surprises I have been led precisely by scripture to expect.” “Bumps and lurches and surprises”: yes. 

The past several years have been a turbulence of catastrophes for me, in nearly every part of my life. Unexpected dizziness and exhaustion resulted in a drawn-out comedy of misdiagnoses of the cause of my anemia (blood samples were sent off to the Centers for Disease Control in fear of Ebola; a false positive test had my hematologist suggest to me that I get my affairs in order, given my chronic myeloid leukemia; neither ebola nor cancers of any kind turned out to be the issue), concluding at long last in a successful surgery. My failure to correctly assess institutional expectations and align my efforts with them (if my current understanding of the events is not again at an oblique with reality) cost me a job that was very dear to me, and plunged me into what has now been more than two years of underemployment and financial misadventure. And worst of all, a lifetime of responding with avoidance and accommodation to what I experience as emotional overwhelmment in my closer relationships reached its nadir in divorce.  

Navigating this nasty turbulence has only been possible for me because of two constants: the kindness of people who care for me, and a daily (or near-daily) cardio-respiratory workout in what Ambrose of Milan called the gymnasium of the Psalms. The poetry of the Psalms sometimes offers me solace, sometimes provides me with a language for my grief, confusion, and disappointment, and sometimes draws my attention away from self-pity towards empathy with others different from me in their fears, hopes, and joys. Almost as important as the substance of this poetry, however, is the very cadence of daily prayer. The mere act of daily prayer established and sustains a slight but significant order in the midst of my disarray. 

My experience of the daily praying of the Psalms as a life-vest is what alerted me to my need for a life-boat, a somewhat more encompassing array of steadying rhythms. I arrived in Montreal intent on becoming an Anglican, and worshipping at Christ Church cathedral since has confirmed that intention. I suppose I am discovering that I can echo Alan Jacobs’s confession: “I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus.”   

The Sunday morning choral Eucharist at the cathedral is practiced in an unhurried manner and, as the preparation and convivial enjoyment of slow food does, it unhurries me, slows me down to a pace at which I can truly invest my attention and digest what I experience. The liturgy savours each of its many parts – songs, readings, a sermon, the eating of bread and drinking of wine. Each part is brought into high relief by being surrounded with bell-rung silences. Time is further slowed down by processions – at the beginning of the service, at the departure of the children, at the reading of the Gospel, at the conclusion of the service – at the pace of a flâneur’s promenade.  

The weekly cadence of my Sunday morning participation in the Eucharist, in combination with the daily cadence of my praying of the Psalms, is bringing an articulation to my days that resonates in my imagination with the poetry at the very beginning of the Christian Scriptures, affording me an experience of my own time as being hosted within the hospitality of God, similarly to how the entire cosmos is portrayed as being hosted within that divine hospitality in Genesis. And then the grand annual rhythm of the Christian year, from the first Sunday of Advent through the Reign of Christ Sunday, further articulates my personal experience of time, not only as an individual, but in community with the cathedral congregation … and with followers of Jesus around the world and throughout history annis Domini.