How and Why We Give and Receive Attention
Speaking about daydreaming as he rides his horse along the countryside, even the distraction of watching lizards catching flies outside his window, St. Augustine writes in his Confessions that,
“My life is full of such weaknesses, and my sole hope is your exceedingly great mercy. When our heart becomes a bin for things like this, stuffed with a load of idle rubbish, our prayers are often interrupted and disturbed by it, and though the pleading of our heart is addressed to your ears, worthless thoughts intrude from who knows where to cut short the great business on which we are engaged in your presence.”
One can only imagine what Augustine might think of the internet and cell phones that captivate our imaginations, the innumerable distractions that lay waste to our attention spans today. What Augustine refers to as “idle rubbish” in the 5th century would today in the 21st appear more like a deepening awareness of God’s handiwork. Augustine admits that he passes from these attention grabbers to giving thanks to God for the goodness of creation, yet he quips that these can be so tantalizing that he often fails to enjoy God who is the source of what has captured his mind.
How we attend to small things, says Augustine, reveals an often hidden inability to maintain our orientation to God amidst the distractions of life, particularly those distractions that turn us in on ourselves. Here Augustine speaks of his own heart’s conversion, being healed by God from many disordered loves. “You began,” Augustine says to God, “by healing me of the itch to justify myself….” This “itch,” says Augustine, keeps us from attending to God and others—keeps us from hearing and seeing others and God, because we are overwhelmingly concerned with how we are perceived or understood. We want “veneration and affection from others,” which keeps us from venerating God and receiving others with true affection. When we are no longer concerned about being respected or understood it is then that we become open to the other and to God with a receptivity that transcends our prejudices, our concerns and our felt need to receive the attention of others. Paradoxically, this makes us more worthy of the affection and attention of others, because it is no longer our motive for listening to or being with others.
What the saints continually call attention to is that we can become so self-conscious that we are unable to be consciously aware of anyone or anything else. We might make a distinction here between being self-aware and self-conscious. To be self-aware is to be mindful of our affect on others, how we contribute to or detract from the well-being of others or their ability to be attentive to God. Self-awareness is other directed; it is a matter of self-denial. It is akin to Paul imploring the Corinthians not to become a stumbling block to others. Our freedom, says Paul, must not get in the way of others and cause them to stumble. We need to be aware of how our actions affect those around us. Self-consciousness, however, is a matter of self-interest. It is being so self-concerned that even what I do for others I do so because of how it makes me feel. I am concerned about how the other person feels about me when I do something for them. This is different than being concerned about how my actions affect others. When I am concerned about what others think about me, how another perceives me becomes the determining factor, even the motivation for my generosity toward others. I give not in thanksgiving; I give not because the other is in need; I give because I desire the affection and attention of those who need what I have to give, or those who see me being generous.
All of this is bound up together with what Jesus says about praying to be noticed by others. Is the good that we do for the sake of and to the glory of God who alone is the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:7), or is my love and concern for others a matter of my own need to feel justified, loved or appreciated?
We serve the God who loves us without ulterior motive. We are likewise to love one another not for what we have to gain but, rather, so that the other might newly experience the love of God in Christ. This is what sets the church apart from the rest of human society. We give not because of what we might receive in return, whether it’s the affection of others or because it makes us feel good; we give because we know that everything we have and are is given to us by the God who in Christ loves us with an everlasting love.
Over and over again, Augustine prays to God saying, “Give what you command and then command whatever you will.” Whatever God asks of us is what God has already given us to give or given us the power to do. The gift of love, mercy and forgiveness in Christ is the invitation, the command, to love, to show mercy, to forgive.