We’ve all been in the middle of a conversation—telling a story, asking for advice, or sharing how we’re doing—when we notice that the person across from us isn’t paying attention. Maybe they’re eyeing some odd character who just walked through the door behind us, or they’re glancing at their phone in response to a text alert, or they’re simply exhibiting that glazed-over look accompanied with an agreeable, I’m-not-listening-but-am-pretending-to head nod. I’m guilty of this, as I imagine we all are. In many cases, it’s not because we don’t care, are bored, or necessarily have something better to do. Instead, it often has to do with the understandable reality that it’s hard, even at times exceedingly difficult, to give our full attention to something or someone for an extended period of time. And although I think the way we consume information these days—in short, easily-digestible snippets of content at an unending rate—definitely doesn’t make things easier in this department, we can’t blame it only on technology (yes, we’ve all heard a thousand times that the digital age is shortening our attention spans).
The reason it’s hard to pay attention—to give ourselves fully to the moment before us no matter what we’re doing—is because it often requires us to turn away from what we’re naturally conditioned to do. It’s hard to keep our thoughts reigned in; it requires an act of the will and a firm commitment to staying focused. And with a weakened ability to focus—to be fully attentive to what’s in front of us—we hinder our relationships with others, the fruitfulness of our prayer, and even our union with God and the knowledge of his will.
It’s well known that the ability to pay attention—or to live in the moment—can increase happiness. An article from the Harvard Gazette, “Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind,” claims that “people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy.” The article examines the research conducted by Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, which according to them, provides some illuminating insights on the peril of roaming thoughts.
“‘Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,’ Killingsworth says. ‘In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.’”
This has been well documented by other studies as well, which is why fashionable terms and phrases like “living in the moment” and “mindfulness” have come to the cultural fore. Yet, aside from the psychological and emotional benefits of living in the present, of paying attention, what are its consequences for the spiritual life?
Simone Weil, the brilliant French philosopher, wrote an essay with the lengthy title Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God. The essay expounds on the hidden spiritual benefits of focused study in academics. While the essay was specifically intended for students and their commitment to study, the crux of it can be applied to any type of work or activity to which we are called to give our full, undivided attention. In the essay, Weil explains that the attention students give toward unveiling some aspect of academic truth—whether it’s solving a math problem or grasping a theoretical proof—strengthens their ability to commune with God in prayer.
“If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul.”
And so, whether we are solving a math problem, crafting an email to a coworker, listening intently to a friend, or cleaning a bathroom, by giving our full attention to that activity—and therefore living within that moment—we widen our capacity to hear God’s voice in prayer. Weil writes, “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.”
Of course, all is grace, and our prayer is always first a response to God’s grace. God is ultimately the one who allows us to commune with him, for “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). Yet we are still called to respond to his outpouring of grace—to his request to be in relationship with him. And we respond by offering the full use of our natural faculties to God and trusting in him to make up in us what we are lacking. If we don’t give God our full attention in our prayer, or in anything else we do that can be offered up to God, we’re only responding half-heartedly to his grace.
We are still human though, and we’ll get distracted, find ourselves wandering in thought, and forget that we were smack dab in the middle of a Hail Mary. But we try as best as we can. The more we practice focusing our attention on the ordinary tasks that make up our day, the more we’ll be able to keep our attention fixed on the extraordinary task of listening to God in prayer.
“The most potent and acceptable prayer is the prayer that leaves the best effects. I don’t mean it must immediately fill the soul with desire. . . . The best effects [are] those that are followed up by actions—when the soul not only desires the honor of God, but really strives for it.”St. Teresa of Avila
Herein lies the beauty of the Christian life, and the implication of the command to “pray always”—everything we do can be offered up to God. And so the more attention and effort we give to anything we offer up to God, naturally, the more beautiful it is to him. This is why he asks for us to do one thing at a time, to live in the moment that he has gifted us with. “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matt. 6:34). Our imaginations are great gifts, and the ability to re-live the past and fashion the future in our minds can be used to do great things. Yet it can also keep us blind to the presence of God, if we’re not careful. God does not reign in an anxiety-haunted vision of a hypothetical future, nor is he lurking in a past landscape saturated with regret. God is present to us in the present—in this exact instance of our existence.
As with everything in life, we only have to look to the source of all wisdom, truth, and goodness: Jesus. Jesus was present in all that he did. Can you imagine Jesus sitting down with you at a meal and constantly looking out the window or asking you to repeat what you said, distracted and distant, as if wishing he was somewhere else? Or Jesus crafting a shoddy table, being only semi-competent in his woodworking? No. When he bent down to heal someone he looked into their eyes and spoke comfort to their heart. When he went away to be alone with God, he listened fully to his Father’s guiding voice. And on the eve of his Passion, knowing full well that he would be tortured and killed the next day, he remained perfectly present to his disciples, to his friends. He ate with them. He prayed with them. He washed their feet in a spirit of humility and love. Jesus lived presently and gave all of his attention to the work of love before him.
May we commit ourselves to loving God and others with our full attention—trusting that he’ll make up for whatever we’re lacking with his generous grace and love.
This piece was originally published on December 17, 2019 on WordonFire.org.