Having a good Lent might mean just feeling pleased with oneself for not having fallen off the wagon of one’s observances. Jesus sharply warned against this pharisaic error. It might also mean that we feel lighter and more present simply because our attention has been strengthened and purified. As I said yesterday, doing something habitual (like reading texts we know by heart) can easily lead to automatic pilot and inattention. But there is also a joy in having these embedded bridges of familiarity and friendship connecting different levels in our daily existence.
Rosamond Richardson found this when she discovered what became for her an expansion of what she was already very familiar with, the natural world of trees and plants, into the parallel world of birds. They slowed her down and gave her admission to a new way of being attentive and present. In her book she quotes Kierkegaard who speaks of this attention in the present as a discovery of joy. ‘This joy is achieved by being in the moment…Joy is the present tense with the whole emphasis upon the present.’
Rosamond says ‘I soon discovered that the attention required to watch birds was a form of meditation: the stillness and absorption it required took me out of myself.’ When we pay attention we may be stimulated to do so by discovering something new. The modern world however is often deceived by false novelty. New packaging and advertising campaigns drive consumerism. But we learn something as soon as we slow down our consumption. In doing so, we may be reducing economic growth but we are also preparing the way for a more just distribution of resources.
When we become present and attentive we discover that even the most familiar is not really a mechanical repetition. In real life we can’t copy and paste. We can’t duplicate images as we can while editing our photo gallery. A snow-covered landscape or avalanche is composed of a countless number of individual snowflakes. From the time that snow first fell on the earth, no two flakes have been identical. The same is true of people. And birds. And everything.
After she had entered her new bird world, Rosamond describes seeing a flock of yellowhammers emerge from a thicket, rising and falling, ‘gaining ground again and again, dispersing in a burst of gold each time.’ She had not yet learned the name of this bird. A year later she knew what these lovely birds were called and could recognise a yellowhammer’s song. Familiar and fresh simultaneously. Like all birds they are attentive. They don’t bump into each other when they perform these celestial performances. They are individual and one with each other. Those who watch them learn from them, their attentiveness and their adjustment to each other in community.
To meditate develops attentive presence in all things. (If you won’t meditate, try walking or watching birds). It is not only a source of joy but indispensable to our sanity. Earlier thinkers called it Natural Contemplation. Merton thought it was what modern novices lacked when they arrived at the monastery. It is certainly lacking in the latest US Presidential executive orders on the environment.