Attention

Some things I’ve been noticing of late within both myself and the Christian community have gotten me thinking about the idea of molding ourselves to the Church, vs. the our church molding itself to us, and how that relates to Christian disciplines.

I’m not a very disciplined person – actually, I’m exceedingly sloppy most of the time in both thought and action. My church, on the other hand offers more opportunities to practice discipline and obedience than perhaps any other Christian community in existence. We fast from animal products, wine, oil, and other things as suggested like music and other entertainments twice a week, and for the 40 days of Great Lent as well as the 40 days proceeding Christmas, and at various and sundry other times; there are prayer rules of services, and public services three times a week, and every day for Holy Week, and are surrounded by internal and eternal rules and convictions on every side. The more I learn, the more difficult things seem to get. Services, and most of them are held standing, with no unnecessary movement and as much attention as we can manage. We are supposed not only to say particular prayers hundreds of times a day, but do so with compunction, with the “mind in the heart.” In a very real sense, however, all this is actually less difficult than the freedom of protestantism; how that is, it is the purpose of this essay to explain.

My protestant friends must have much more advanced powers of concentration than I do. In high school, while they were having moving experiences, apparently of the power of God, I was having an internal monologue that went something like this: From the highest of highest of heights to the depths of the sea, Creation’s revealing Your majesty; from the colors of fall to the fragrance of Spring, every creature unique in the song that it sings, all exclaiming: indescribable, un-containable You placed the stars in the sky, and you know them by name, You are amazing God… why on earth is there a laser light show going on? And isn’t this all just a bit too much, really? Perhaps if I raise my hands like everyone else it’ll be easier to mean this stuff; I feel like kneeling; I wonder if I’m allowed to kneel… *picture comes into mind of a heart painted over, written and re-written like ancient cave paintings* wow – I wonder if I could make a sculpture of that… *new song starts* Concentrate! Holy is the Lord, God Almighty, the Earth is full of His glory… *picture of the vision of Isiah* very beautiful; I miss that one time when the power went out… that praise was grammatically incorrect… Concentrate! This is hopeless… Lord have mercy!

And continues in like manner for the duration of the “worship time.” Aside from frequent admonishments not to care what the person net to me thought of my singing, however, I never heard anyone else express like sentiments during my seven or so years as an Evangelical. I can’t say if that’s mostly because most people have a vastly easier time focusing on things, or that they’re directing a different kind of attention toward the songs, or the inability to rouse sufficient attention is simply considered too personal or insignificant for discussion, but there it was. I have since learned that the majority of humans have a tendency toward this running commentary of the mind, but many just learn to deal with it better than I do. Mine is both unruly and persistent, but likewise makes no allowances for boredom. There is no show impressive enough that I do not have to tug my consciousness back from the rabbit trails it so loves to wander, and there is no reading dry enough to disrupt that same chasing and tugging. The only real difference is that if the speaker is entertaining enough I have to pull my mind back from musing on the cleverness thereof, and if it’s dry, the mind has to be chased down in the land of make-believe or pre-occupations with friends, guys, re-hashings of conversations, and suchlike. But the same energy is needed in both cases, so I could hardly see how it was people complained about boringness, or praised entertainment; both are only opportunities for the imperfection already present in my worship to show.

To amplify this problem, services, especially youth services, are frequently arranged as emotional progressions, with the music as the key to changes in emotional tone. So, in the course of a single service not only the content changes from praise to repentance, but so does the entire tone; the content of the soul of one attending to these songs. We’d have a happy, bouncy “welcome back” song, followed by some quieted devotional songs, and then a few words about repentance, and an emotionally-charged action accompanied by a song about the wretchedness from which we are being rescued; tears are shed, sins physically nailed to a cross, and then three songs of thanks and the volume and tempo rise until we’re hopping and dancing in the isles. Perhaps with perfect attention I could tune my soul to resonate with such a progression, but otherwise it’s hopelessly off-balance; I’m serious when I should be happy, cold when repentance is due, and quietly sad when rejoicing is in order; by the time it’s all over I’m just miffed that I can’t go off in silence and think about my sins for an hour or so. We’re a very quick people here in America, it seems.

A couple of years ago, while I was trying to resonate with two completely different emotional themes of happy excitement and quiet devotion, I happened upon an Anthology of Prayer, and had a tiny epiphany. The most often included writer, St. Theophan the Recluse, begins not only by acknowledging the frustration of a constantly straying mind, but aims nearly all his advice at overcoming it to unite mind and heart in prayer. I couldn’t do any of it well – I still can’t – but the revelation that other people recognized this as universal and had ideas on overcoming it was thrilling, because he seemed to be talking about the very quality of attention I had nearly despaired of learning. At the same time he illumined something that is very often misrepresented and looked down upon, sometimes even by those who do it: the rote repetition (or iteration, as my friend would say) of prayers. How can a person be assigned to say 20 Our Father’s without simply blasting through them with their mouth only, while the heard wanders about, gathering wool and following the trail of rabbits? Can any force or persuasion get the nous to stand there before God and mean something a thousand times, every time, with heart and soul and mind?

Orthodox services aren’t the easiest things to follow with compunction. They were composed for a generally illiterate Church hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago in foreign languages and distant lands; their structure is based upon an elaborate structure of repeating variations that change direction without warning, and are read, intoned, or chanted with little audible emotion and no musical accompaniment. Their way of saying that the wandering mind really must come back and attend is by just saying it: “wisdom: let us attend.” Nearly everything is said and done standing, and services often go on for three hours (Matins and Liturgy). My attention span dwindles to that of a Jr. higher with ADD, and I find myself needing to drag it back again with frustrated chastisements every 5 seconds. Thought becomes layered, in part following the service, in part feeling pleased with itself for listening to the service, while another though chews out that second one for feeling pleased with itself and telling it to change it’s ways, yet another commenting on the fact that my feet are tired and I haven’t had breakfast, that pleased part getting puffed up by the fact that it doesn’t mind not having breakfast, and then getting chewed out for being a conceited liar, while whatever consciousness is left comments on the nice incense, the oddity of my neighbor’s bows, how the chanters are butchering a certain melody, and some other bit of mind or soul observes all this bickering and heaves a huge sigh, wondering why all those fractured thoughts can’t just all get along and attend, and ventures a stray Jesus Prayer whenever an opportunity presents itself. All that happening in ten second cycles, like a swarm of gnats. Then the deacon says “Wisdom: let us attend,” and all the thoughts go “huh? oh, that” and continue their debate. Come to think of it, it’s hardly likely most people are quite as bad as that, but it runs along the same general principle for most.

There is something highly worrisome about the trend in modern churches to recommend trying to “shake things up” in our prayer lives as soon as we get into a bit of a rut and find it difficult to focus on our prayers and praises as we did at first. If the result of about 15 years of such distractions is a rock band and laser light show as someone simultaneously paints wine jars for the projector, and people write out their sins, I’d rather not think about what more shaking up will result in. We already have in our worship dancing, mosh pits, tears, laughter, and shouts; can we go on adding forever to avoid the discipline of willing attention? That’s where iteration comes in – to bring our minds and souls back before we keeping going on and on forever, changing whenever a new distraction or fashion presents itself; making a tight loop that comes always back to Christ, the center of our faith.

The Jesus Prayer

Scripture commands us to “pray without ceasing,” to which the believer must often reply “teach me to pray; pray thou thyself in me.” When my mind’s off wandering and arguing with itself, I’m probably not praying. If I am, it’s a shamefully fractured and dissipated prayer, one that can do little but cry “Lord have mercy!” Mercy for my sins, my condition of falleness, the wounds I bear in soul and body, my darkness and lostness, and, even at this very moment, my inability to unite mind, soul, and heart in prayer even now, standing before the God of the universe. Mercy to forgive, to heal, and to unite. Feeling this, and seeing the disgraceful state most of our minds and hearts are in, the desert fathers of the Eastern Church came up with the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” or more simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” and repeated it, calling on God until the prayer ran through their minds and hearts, truly without ceasing; it woke them up in the morning, and was their last thought at night; comprised the rhythm of their breathing, their work, and whispered in the background of the prayers of the Hours. Scripture can also do this; some have succeeded in learning the Psalter and recite it by heart during nightly vigils, but it is much more difficult.

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