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Attention is Rare, Pure, and Generous

Attention is Rare, Pure, and Generous

The Christian mystic and philosopher Simone Weil said this about attention:

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Right outside my office door is a planter. And in this planter is a wild bush with beautiful greens and purples. I walk by this bush every day when I go to work. Today I noticed dozens of bees swarming around the flowers in the bush.

And for the first time, the purples of the flowers called out for attention. How long have the bees swarmed the wild bush? Has it always been a purple bush? How did I miss it? Not sure.

But what I know is attention is a rare and pure and generous thing. Most of my life is is paying little attention to the beauty all around, and giving too much attention to the stuff that doesn’t bring much in return.

Attention is generous because it asks us to turn from ourselves and focus on the other. It is rare because self, ego, and sin cause us to find it difficult to turn from the Holy Trinity of Me, Myself, and I, and consider the other, the world, God, and anything but ourselves.

Pure because everything good in life hangs on attention. Frederick Buechner said the entire Judeo-Christian tradition hinges on attention. God is constantly reminding his people through the prophets and writers of Scripture: look, listen, remember, and consider…

Jesus summed up the Bible in the Great Commandment saying we’re to love God and neighbor with everything we are. Have you considered that to love God and our neighbor we must see them first? How do I love my neighbor if I never notice them? Love hinges on attention.

Attention is rare, pure, and generous.

How about with art? Frederick Buechner again in his book, “Listening to Your Life,” said:

“Literature, painting, and music—the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly, richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things” (52).

Books and art of various kinds require attention for displaying their powers. You can’t run by a Mona Lisa or skim a novel and expect to be moved by the beauty and mystery and power these pieces exude. Our bodies warn us of fatigue, sickness, and danger.

Attention is rare.

Isn’t it also interesting that Jesus when he talks about worry and anxiety, he uses attention language:

“28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” -Matt 6:28-30

“Consider the lilies…” Jesus is saying, pay attention, look, don’t miss what I’m doing here. You're anxious about a future that doesn’t exist. You're worried about a future you have no control over and hasn’t happened yet.

“Consider” is an attention word. You can’t deal with your anxiety and worry until you pay attention to all the millions of ways God takes care of his world and his children. If he takes care of the lilies, won’t he take care of the humans?

Attention is rare because we all have ADD. Some officially diagnosed and being treated. But most of us in the modern world are addicted to noise and have little capacity to pay attention to anything in God’s world, let alone another human.

Attention is rare and the purest form of generosity in the universe because we give little thought to it. But what do we lose when we stop paying attention to God, one another, and art? I think more than we can imagine.

Sometimes we have to stop and consider the bees swarming outside our windows.