Essential Disciplines for Our Time 3
December 19, 2008
Reflection … an antidote to hurry
Look at how the lilies grow (Matthew 6:28)
If you’re going to enjoy a painting you’ve got to set aside time. You must not expect that you can take a fleeting glance and reach a conclusion, any more than you can just look at a book’s dust cover …. When I’m filming, in between times when they’re setting up for the next work of art, I’ve got to sit somewhere and often I’ve been I’ve been parked in front of something that I would not have looked at twice. But forced to sit and contemplate it, I begin to warm up to it and it opens up to me …. It might never be something that we would choose as our first love, but it can speak to us. It’s that giving time, looking at art peacefully, that matters. Crowded, noisy museums are not conducive to this kind of looking. I forget who it was who said that the necessity for appreciating art is a chair — which I always have, you see, because I go round in a wheelchair. So I really look. (Sister Wendy Becket, nun and art critic, from an interview in Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion)
Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. (Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now)
Consider the following statements of Jesus taken from Matthew’s narrative of his life:
Look at how the birds don’t plant or harvest… (Matt. 6:26)
Look at how the lilies grow… (6:28)
The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who planted seed… (13:24)
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed (13:31)
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast (13:33)
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that someone discovers hidden in a field… (13:44)
The kingdom of heaven is like a pearl merchant on the lookout for choice pearls… (13:45)
The kingdom of heaven is like a fishing net… (13:47)
The kingdom of heaven is like a person who brings both new and old from the storehouse (13:52)
The kingdom of heaven is like the owner of an estate… (20:1)
This generation is like a group of children playing a game in the public square… (Matt. 11:16)
Jesus, like all those around him, saw birds every day. He saw flowers, watched fishermen haul in nets, heard of people winning the lottery, knew of people who owned lots of property. But he had cultivated the practice of doing something that few people then (as now) almost never make room for: he considered the significance of what he experienced as it related to the work of God. Everybody saw birds and flowers, but Jesus saw how they reflected God’s provision. Every household was familiar with yeast and its qualities, but Jesus saw how it reflected the hidden, subversive and viral nature of God’s kingdom.
He regularly took the “brute facts” of his day and mined them for their divine significance. And in each case he paid attention to one feature of what he saw. We like to believe that we can notice many things at once (and we may even take a certain degree of pride in our ability to multi-task), but it’s a frustrating and inefficient way to go through life:
Despite our subjective feelings to the contrary, actually our brain can work on only one thing at a time. Rather than allowing us to efficiently do two things at the same time, multitasking actually results in inefficient shifts in our attention. In short, the brain is designed to work most efficiently when it works on a single task and for sustained rather than intermittent and alternating periods of time…. But despite neuroscientific evidence to the contrary, we are being made to feel that we must multitask in order to keep our head above the rising flood of daily demands. In essence, the brain has certain limits that we must accept. (Richard Restak, M.D., The New Brain)
Think of time as soil, attention as water, and quiet as sun. Allowing ourselves these three, we’ll naturally grow. Like Jesus (and many others who have lived wisely and courageously), we’ll notice what’s in front of us and be able to relate it to God’s work in this world.
But we’ll only notice if we slow way down and shut way up. Rituals like Sabbath-keeping (or creating mini-sabbaths throughout each day) give us that opportunity. So do reading and lingering over Scripture. We let our imagination “image” the scenes and then think about the significance of those scenes. (My friend Larry Bourgeois refers to this and other “slow-downs” as spiritual loitering.) But even staring at a painting, watching kids play, admiring a tree for several minutes or thinking about the food in front of you are invitations to reflect.