Attention and the Sacrament of the Present Moment
Of all the faculties of human nature, one of the most powerful is that of attention. What we choose to attend to to a great degree shapes our experience of the world for good or ill.
Our intellectual faculties are limited, and we simply cannot pay attention to all the visual or auditory stimuli we experience every day. And so our minds are constantly filtering out the noise and looking for what we desire to see.
For example, if you are at a store looking for a specific product, in a very real sense you will not see the thousands of other products that are not what you are looking for. Your eyes may register them at some level, but because you are looking for a specific pattern, like a product label, your mind will filter out everything that is not that pattern. You see, and yet you do not see because you are not paying attention.
Likewise, if we choose to attend to what is good and true and beautiful in life, to look for it intentionally, that is what we will see. But if we choose to see and attend to all that is flawed and broken and evil in the world, we will inevitably find it.
You get what you expect; you see what you look for. This is what our Lord meant when he talked about the eye being the lamp of the body: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness.” There is an intentionality to our gaze. Our Lord was telling us that what we choose to attend to will either fill us with light or darkness.
St. Paul likewise acknowledges the power of attention shape us when he admonishes us to attend to what is good: “Brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
Attention and the Present Moment
Despite the power of attention to fill us with light or darkness, we rarely pay attention to what we are paying attention to. Our minds are ceaselessly flitting from one thing to the next, and at times, it can feel like we have little to no control over them. Media, too, captures our attention and inundates us with thousands of impressions, all of which subtly shape us in ways we hardly realize.
While it may at times feel like the problem of fragmented attention is a uniquely modern problem, it is not. Even the Desert Fathers who lived alone in caves complained of their wandering minds.
Caught in this web of distractions that fragments our attention, we feel a longing for peace. At times, we a desire for union with God or prayer may even well up within us, but how can we possibly seek him when we can hardly hold our focus for more than a few seconds?
The saints proscribe many ways to recollect ourselves, but I want to focus today on one of them: The sacrament of the present moment. This practice begins with the realization that God is not “out there” somewhere else. He is not up in heaven, nor is his presence limited to a geographic location. The heaven of heavens cannot contain him. On the contrary, he contains everything within himself, and as St. Paul tells us, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
God is here. Now. In this moment. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Indeed, if he ceased to be present, we would cease to exist. How rarely we feel or experience this truth! Yet, holy men like Jean-Pierre de Caussade or Brother Lawrence, who both wrote wonderful books about finding God in the present moment, tell us with full conviction that we can learn to do so. How? We must train ourselves to see and perceive God’s presence.
Just as we can intentionally set our gaze to look for something specific in a store, we can choose to look for God’s presence. We can awaken to his reality here and now, in this very moment. This takes effort, distracted as we are, but it is an effort that will bear eternal fruit.
So pay attention to what you are paying attention to. If you desire God’s presence, begin to realize that is is already there and begin to attend to this presence. And he will begin to reveal himself to you in ways large and small; you will begin to see him everywhere.
If at times, caught in the morass of distractions that is the modern world, you feel a stirring, a longing for God, realize that you do not have to go far to find him. He is here and now in your midst. We only have to have eyes to see, and if our eye is sound, we will be filled with light.