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Are you paying attention? It’s key to the spiritual life

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"You are too involved in time and space. That is not preparing you for heaven."

For a long time, I had believed and even took pride in the idea that I was a good listener. Recently, however, I learned that I am not as good of a listener as I had thought. I was sharing something personal with a friend, something I wouldn’t normally share with others, and she abruptly interrupted me to talk to another person. I felt shocked and hurt, but just as soon as I felt anger surging within me, I also realized that I had just seen myself in her distracted face. My friend’s inability to focus on what I was saying helped me to realize that my attention on others is often unfocused, too. This incident helped me to see in a very concrete way the connection between my undisciplined attention and my failure to love others and God.

I recently read an essay by French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil in which she writes, “Prayer consists of attention.” After I read that sentence, I felt a shiver of shock run through me. If prayer is truly connected to our ability to pay attention, the implications are startling and immense, especially in today’s multi-tasking, fast moving, digital culture. Without learning how to pay attention, our lives become more and more fractured and distracted. And lack of focus in our everyday lives can translate to less fruitful prayer time, and ultimately prevent us from living a more contemplative life of union with God.

Weil’s insight helped me to realize that absolutely every activity I engage in is a training ground for centering my life on God. If I learn to pay attention—in study, work, cleaning, interacting, using digital technology, etc.—then my ability to pay attention to God can grow.

This summer, as the religious sisters of the Daughters of St. Paul always do, I made my annual eight-day silent retreat. Before I entered the retreat, I had been wrestling with the idea of paying attention and its implications for my prayer life. During my retreat, the theme continued to come up in my prayer.

Focus.

Stay centered on me.

Jesus seemed to repeat these phrases over and over. At one point I wrote down what I felt Jesus had said to me in one prayer period:

You are too involved in time and space. That is not preparing you for heaven. Worrying about your schedule, your plans. It’s all useless. There is no schedule in heaven. Train your mind on me, learn to live in complete focus on me.

Upon hearing these words, I felt a renewed motivation to ask for God’s grace to violently exhume the coffins of inattentiveness and sin in my life, all that keeps me from focusing on Jesus.

I think what I experienced is something that most anyone can relate to, especially in the busyness of today’s culture. Most of us know that we are getting distracted from the things that matter. But, if you are like me, you probably just suppress the knowledge that you are putting superficial things before what is most important. We accept mediocrity, superficiality, and spiritual dead weight in our lives. We make excuses and tell ourselves: “I just don’t have the self-discipline,” “I cannot live without X,” or “I am just trying to relax.” We put off becoming better Christians and closer friends of Jesus for another day. But before we know it another day is here.

In the meantime, Jesus is always waiting for us to turn to him, to turn away from the fleeting glitter of this life and to give him all of our attention. We try to convince ourselves otherwise, but all that we seek outside of Jesus is found in him.

Happiness, joy, peace, it is all found in God.

But we remain unconvinced.

And as long as we are unconvinced we remain unfocused.

Do you have coffins of distraction in your life? What things fill up your every moment of potential silence or free time and keep you from paying attention to your family, your community, or your prayer?

Jesus, help us to set our eyes on you.

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