My name is David, and really I am paying attention to you. well, probably not. I am probably multitasking, which seems to be a prized ability these days. I am fighting with/wondering about how our desire to get so many things done affects our ability to be present to different situations, different tasks, different people, or God.

I pray. but often I am not present. I know I have written about this before, but I have some new language which gives a new nuance, so bear with me. I become present to situations easily when they are emotionally intense, like pascha, or weddings sometimes, or when it is physically intense, like treeplanting, or when I played rugby in high school, or when I am fishing and there is a lot on the line. situations that so easily draw out the most attention or attentiveness from me.

When I was in high school, I was in choir. It was more difficult than playing rugby, rugby is more physically demanding, but my choir teacher demanded more attention and presence than anyone had or has since. We were focused so intensely so much of the time, I learned how to focus, how to pay attention, but perhaps I learned to do it only when it is asked of me. I see orthodoxy as beautiful because it has the potential to draw that kind of present-ness out of me, but it doesn't always. I think it has to do with who we are surrounded by, who is there to draw it out of us, and I wonder if we become content and complacent and stop challenging each other to be awake and aware of God and ourselves because its so hard to notice.

I know that my struggle with being present to God while singing in the choir at church is slightly unfair and anomolous because most people in church don't have the luxury of paying attention to the prayers, or they have been there long enough that they can do the work part and the prayer part at the same time. It makes me sad to feel like I haven't been to church in a long time because I am always in choir, but apparently that is part of it too. priests never get to sit back and just pray, parents? sheeesh. they are always chasing their kids around, shushing them. maybe ten years from now they will hear the prayers or the homily.

but I still think that we are not as present as we could be to so many things. we find ourselves not listening when a friend is talking, thinking about food or what we are going to do after they stop talking.

I love the line in fight club, where 'Jack' and Marla are talking about the support groups for people who are dying one says to the other "when people think you are dying, they really listen to you instead of just waiting for their turn to talk"

I don't imagine this is an easy thing.


elizabeth said...

good thoughts. and a good challenge. thanks.

Magdalen said...

It was, I believe, Fr Schmeman who had that now-famous encounter in the alter with his alter-server. The young man was praying, eyes-closed, with passion and presence, when Father asked him "What are you doing?"
"I'm praying," he replied, and Father snapped back: "Don't do that in here!" Sometimes the best prayer is to simply fulfill the task set for us, whether it be serving or singing or caring for our children.
One must be careful not to confuse being "present" in our prayers with manufacturing an emotional high. The "presence" and emotion that we experience on Pascha or during weddings is not the same as the focus we strive toward in our private rule of prayer.

Stacy said...

"One must be careful"


cathedral dweller said...

St. John of Kronstadt advises people to "rouse" themselves during prayer. This is not necessarily an emotional thing but it is certainly a struggle to do exactly what you're getting at, Dave. it's so difficult to continually live in presentness. it is a practise, an ascesis.

i remember reading something about prayer written by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, he said that the ultimate prayer is the prayer without words, the prayer of silence. at the same time i was also reading michael polanyi, a physician turn philosopher who had some pretty profound things to say about a lot of things. anyhow, polanyi's fundamental understanding of man's being in the world and his interaction with it is based around a "from-to" relatedness. almost any time something is learned, it must be struggled with, repeated, rehearsed, thematized and attended to as a particular subject. it is only after much time that one can learn to do the task, perform the act, sing the song, cross one's self and attend to more than that one thematized subject, task, etc.

but slowly, the subject of one's attention becomes a grounding, it becomes a part of you and you can act "from" it rather than "to" it. it is at that point that it no longer requires you're full attention.

anyway, the kind of prayer Met. Anthony was talking about - i think - can only be done after one has begun the work of learning to pray and after a lot of really hard, sometimes tedious work, one can become more and more a living prayer. after doing the motions, taking what is other into one's self, searching after God and i guess most importantly, emptying one's self, one need cease to merely act "from" these things but to them, through them toward Jesus Christ himself.

it also reminds me of Fr. Roman Braga's comments of practising the Jesus prayer. he recommends that people simply pray it in a mechanical way to begin with - just do it. little by little it gets into you, it becomes a part of you and you can then listen.

and of course, God hears us all the while and, lucky for me, he is always merciful.


myn said...

i have the same "problem" dave...being present while praying. i often find myself in bed half asleep before i remember that i haven't prayed. so i start to pray while my mind is half asleep and i end up starting a prayer and somehow end up in teh creed. but i do find myself silently praying during the day. very informal thoughts and prayers. i like to think that i am not only focused on God while praying, but all the time during the day. i know i need more discipline when it comes to praying but i feel better knowing that i am not ignoring God or living without even thinking prayerfully. this make sense at all?

Owen's Mama said...

I found that my favorite church times were when I was in the choir. I had to be focused so I wouldn't miss a cue, or forget the words. It's funny how the grass is always greener elsewhere. Before I was in the choir, I really wanted to be in the choir. Once I was, it seemed more a chore than I thought it would be, and I wished for a Sunday or two to not be in the choir so I could just enjoy church. And now I wish I was back there again so I could achieve that presentness.

Oh well, one day I guess.

Magdalen said...

Yes, Stacy? Do you have a question?

Matthew Francis said...

I'm not sure if this was Stacy's question, but here's a question of mine own... how does being "careful" (which I'll classify as being pretty much attentive and "awake") relate to "laying aside all earthly cares"? What is THAT phrase attempting to foster? Perhaps we are supposed to be somehow "careful" and "careless" at the same time?

kimberley said...

hmmm...interesting question, Matthew.

I like what Fr. Lawrence said one time about a priest's job being: to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

It reminds me that alot of times I need to pull up my socks, but beyond a wholesome discipline, to take it easy on myself... and always, those around me.

As you know well, I'm still learning that last bit, especially. ;)

MatDonna said...

what cathedral-matthew said about having to "rouse" ourselves to prayer, and what Amy said about choir being a chore-- Prayer is work.

Whatever form it takes, which may be that of singing the liturgy with focus (it is the choir's service not just to God, but to the whole congregation-- if the choir blows it because they aren't paying attention, they will mislead everyone); or interceding for people throughout the day as we come in contact with them; or standing quietly in our icon corner, or whatever other ways we pray, all of these are work and need effort. And that's why it's hard sometimes! ;-)

re: careful vs. careless

maybe these aren't the best terms to use for this.

Perhaps we could say we need to be mindful, and yet care-free. Our mind should be focused on the task we are presently engaged in, setting aside our worries about other things.

In laying aside earthly cares, we become *self*-forgetful; but in the process, we must still remain mindful so as not to be forgetful of *others* who share our space. There is little virtue in tearing our mind away from worry about work or exams if we so detach ourselves from our surroundings that we can step on our neighbour's foot without noticing it. We lay aside earthly cares, what we shall eat and drink and wear (being carefree), but never lay aside the heavenly concern that is love of our neighbour (being mindful).

Both mindfulness and carefreeness are facets of humility, which is essential to prayer.

Simply Victoria said...

Fr. John had some excellent things to say during the last day of our Liturgical Music workshop. He came in to give a talk for the Hope Bay people, and we had the privelege of listening in. So many things we forget.

Anyway, I won't recount the whole of his talk, but something that struck me, especially pertaining to this subject, about stillness, and being present. He told us that he was on a campaign to encourage all his parishioners, and any other orthodox who would, to practice a certain posture during church, and that is with hands lifted. I've seen Mira doing this, and always wondered why. No longer. It made sense when he explained his motivation.
Not only as orthodox do we stand attentive at prayer, but also lifting our hearts in our hands, feet rooted and still. He recounted a time when he was in Greece, and attended a service at a women's monestery. He walked in, and wondered what the covered statues were for. These were the nuns, and they stood absolutely stock still for the 3 hour prayer service!! This was a discipline given to them by their Abbess, because, as she later told Fr. John, the mind attunes itself to the body, and vice versa (I'm not doing proper justice to his words, but this is the gist that I remember), and that to stand in absolute stillness forces the buzzing mind to eventually comply to the body's posture, and submit itself to stillness.

pasivirta said...

Prayer is work, definetely, and that is why I ask myself these questions. I stand there and feel like I am not working, and of course I know not to trust my feelings too far, and not to ignore them too much...

and I like stillness. I know that is surprising perhaps, but I see it as rare and valuable, and I even am still, generally when there are candles lit.

you folks really know how to write a good book. one day perhaps all of this will be gleaned into one.

RW said...

We have always tried to instill an antifigiting mentality at during liturgy... It is work too, but I believe that if you physically learn to be still, then so too will your heart.

Magdalen said...

I think CS Lewis, in Screwtape, said that it can sometimes be the practice of the enemy to instill in us the idea that if we are not completely focused in our prayers, then our prayers are ineffectual or invalid. And that he will then attempt to get us to focus on how we're not focusing.
Don't mistake me, I'm not making the point that we should stop trying to focus on our prayers. But I do believe that to pray out of sheer obedience, even, and perhaps especially, when there is no particular desire to, can be more important. Sometimes the mere action is enough.