When a monk asks you a question, it’s generally wise to listen. I learned this lesson on my annual silent retreat at the monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA.
During his sermon on the Feast of Corpus Christi, a brother was describing the various perspectives on the “real presence” of Christ in the eucharist. He reviewed the distinctions between the Lutheran and Zwinglian perspectives. The moment he began to parse the distinction between the substance and accident of the bread and wine, I foresaw the inevitable: my checking out. Just as I prepared to disembark and wander towards the contemplation of the beautiful rose window or the distant lands of my Twitter feed, the monk made a surprising turn. Rather than tease out the fineries of the real presence of Christ in the elements, he suggested that even better than inquiring into the presence of Christ we might ask instead, “am I really present?”
For most, I think the answer to this is question is negative. Our absence exists not only in the sacred inflection points of life like the eucharist but in the more mundane moments of the everyday.
With the rise of the modernist conception of the “individual,” “choice,” and “freedom” came the fall of certain traditional authorities and rituals. Couple this with the proliferation of social media and the commodification of nearly every corner of our environment and we’ve become convinced that virtual reality is even better than the real thing. There is a perpetual fear that you miss too much these days if we just stop and think. We have been launched into a new horizon (or fallen over the cliff) into “life” in an age of distraction.
One of our greatest contemporary problems – or the foundation upon which all other problems are erected – is a lack of attention. Remedying this is our best hope for living the good life: a life characterized by rightly ordered loves. This is what St. Augustine referred to as the ordo amoris: loving everything with that kind and degree of love appropriate to it.
So how are we to understand attention? Attention is the convergence of concentration on a particular point. It consists of being here now, where an individual is attending to a particular thing, at a particular place, and at a particular time. It is a faculty whose power of engagement can be strengthened like a muscle through habitual practice.
Attention is a finite resource. What we pay attention to can either pay great dividends or can bankrupt our souls because what we attend to is an indication of what we believe to be worthy of our attention, that is, what we value. And, what we value is a direct result of what we love.
Our modern distractibility suggests we are either agnostic on or incapable of discerning what we ought to value (or both). As a result, we are often distracted from the Good and therefore cannot orient our lives toward that end.
There is great danger in frittering away our attention. In this age of distraction, our minds are often separated from our bodies. We lack integrity. We are no longer whole, unified selves and experience the world as fragmented. We are present and absent: in two places at once and neither simultaneously. We are cut adrift, but still floating as if somewhere in between and no place in particular. There is serious risk of our becoming hollow: “shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion.”
The success of one’s life depends in large part upon on how well one avoids distraction and develops the faculty of attention to live “on the spot.” The tradition of Christian Spirituality has proven itself effective in developing the impoverished faculty of attention—particularly as it pertains to our spiritual and relational lives.
Paul had a robust theological anthropology which displays an unprecedented awareness of what makes us tick. Pauline exhortation often includes a prohibition followed by a commission: the thief ought to stop stealing and then work so he can provide rather than plunder (Eph 4:28). Human formation is not attained through the creation of a vacuum. Attention, therefore, is developed through the practice of saying “no” and then saying “yes.” One must develop the habit of ignoring the many in order to attend the one.
This movement of saying “no” to say “yes,” of ignoring in order to attend can be developed through the practice of spiritual disciplines like fasting, silence, and the celebration of the Sabbath. We fast from consuming in order to feast upon God and have bread, enabled to feed others. We enter into silence in order to hear from God and have a word, enabled to speak to others. We cease our work in order to rest and be reminded of who we are: humans, not robots, having a “self,” enabled to love others.
Don’t get me wrong, these are difficult disciplines to practice without their consuming all of our attention. If not incorporated into the routine rhythms of life, they will likely be counterproductive. Dallas Willards’ remarks about fasting are true of the other disciplines: one must practice the discipline “well enough and often enough to become experienced in it, because only the person who is well habituated to systematic fasting…” or silence or Sabbath-keeping as a discipline can use it effectively.
I’m not saying anything new. The problem of our cultural moment is commonly commented upon. And yet our being-in-the-world is acrobatic: we talk one way about our cultural attention-deficit disorder and act another, doing nothing about it.
So, this is yet another voice crying out in our wilderness. We need to educate our faculty of attention and this requires a community of disciples that can carry each other along in the process. It also requires knowing the proper objects of attention, good models and loads of hard hands-on, bodily practice. Again, St. Paul provides the way for being made whole:
“Brothers and sisters, to the degree that anything is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, or commendable; if anything is virtuous or is worthy of praise, attend to these things. What you have learned, and received, and heard, and observed in me – practice these things – and the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil 4:8-9, translation mine)
Originally published on 17th July 2015
 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 16. Lewis is here summarizing Augustine.
 A.G. Sertillangers, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998, 138. What he calls “concentration,” I refer to as “attention.”
 Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in Age of Distraction, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015, 5.
 Crawford, 9.
 T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”
 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991, 168.