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Archive for September, 2008

Rocks, Attention, Love

September, 2008

The early morning usually finds me hauling rocks. Whether I am pushing a full wheelbarrow through bracken fern along the lower bench, or creeping down the steep road in the heavy-laden 4 wheel-drive, I am engaged in moving the stuff of this landscape into a new pattern. That is, I am constructing a labyrinth.

I have learned about attention in a new way through these weeks of rock work. I have learned to attend to the size and shape of rocks, their heft, their cenre of gravity, their colour, their width and height. Most of all, I have learned to notice how a given rock wants to stand on the ground, and what kind of ground it seeks to stand on.

This learning from the rock came quickly. I didn’t think too much, when we were clearing the land and laying out the landscape fabric and drawing the 11-circuit, 44-foot wide pattern, about how the rocks were going to be placed. I just assumed that we would put them on the ground and that would be that. But the rocks quickly taught me differently.

Some of them asked to be placed next to each other in order to steady themselves. Some of them realized that while they were too wide for the regular path, they were well suited to the places where paths meet or to the outer edges. Some asked to join the design even though they were too small or misshapen to stand alone, finding their homes in nooks and crannies or on top of others. Some showed me that their points were especially suited to demarking the inner rosette. But most of them asked me only to notice carefully where they belonged: whether the slope of the ground in a particular place—a slope which had been previously imperceptible to me—helped them to stay upright or to list at such an angle that they impeded the path.

Lawrence Freeman, OSB, the Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, writes in a recent newsletter, “Faith is perseverance in a relationship. It expresses and intensifies love because relationship is about attention. So, sustaining attention through good and bad times is the secret of achieving the union that the heart craves.” Freeman is speaking about perseverance in the discipline of meditation; and the loving relationship in question is the relationship with God. But as researchers have noted, changing the way we pay attention to the Divine also changes the way we attend to others. Paying attention changes us, period: as Jesus says in Matthew 6:2, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

My meditation practice is not always, or even usually, some luminous numinous experience. It’s much more often 20 minutes of distraction and constant return to the poverty of a little word. But this practice of attending—attending to that single word, that deep space (and, these days, attending to the rocks)—has taught me that there is a place inside of me that is quiet, or at least quieter than the normal place. And the practice of meditation, day after day and year after year, has sharpened my ability to attend when attention is needed.

A week or two ago, a friend slid into her own private hell. An old and self-destructive behaviour came back, and with it flashbacks to a horrendous childhood. The thing she needed most was presence: someone to hear what was happening, to help her remember what she knew about being whole, to sit with her so she wasn’t alone in her agony.

Of course it wasn’t a convenient time: there was a houseful of people and a deadline to be met. But somehow it all got squeezed in. And when the crisis had passed, she acknowledged just how much she appreciated the support, and how difficult the timing had been for me. My response, which surprised me, was not to deny the strain. Instead, what came out of my mouth was, “I guess that’s how we know we love each other.”

What I meant, I think, is that I knew she must trust and love me to tell me such painful truths about herself. And I also meant that the kind of attention I gave to her was the attention of love. Love for her, expressed through my willingness to listen long and deep, and love of God, to whom I clung during those days because I felt so inadequate.

I learned a number of years ago that when I physically cared for a person or thing I would start to love them. This seems backwards, of course. Like most normal humans, I prefer to love first, assuming that affection makes attention and care easier. Having to trouble myself for someone for whom I have no natural affection can feel like an arduous, even unfair, task. But it is the height of being present to God’s “now” when we attend to what is in front of us. The amazing promise is that no matter who or what it is that we care for, we will get cracked open with love for that one, and for ourselves, too. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The heart follows, rather than precedes. That to which we attend becomes that which we love.

Of course, that promise is also a threat. Sometimes I don’t want to love, and so I instinctually turn away from caring. Loving is hard; it breaks us open, makes us see ourselves and the other more clearly. Real love is not sugary and sweet but complex: joy and suffering, shame and exultation, always together. How then can we be satisfied with false flavour once we’ve savoured the intricate and addictive brew of real love? All else tastes fake, metallic: Tang after a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice.

So bring on the savories, pour me some lip-smacking real love, I say. Show me where I should be caring, I blurt out foolishly; and God immediately responds, sometimes to my consternation. These days, I know that I love rocks; not just the ones that line the paths of the labyrinth but also those that rise unbidden into the garden beds, that slide slyly under my boot on the downhill path, that roll onto the road after rain. I also love the land with joy and grief; I love to pray, though my attempts to open to the Divine often feel pathetic and frustrating; I love all those people whose names are in my intercessory prayer book, though some days I don’t want to think about them or their sorrows. These are my treasure, lit with the dark divine light of joy and dolor; these claim my heart; to these, I attend.

Copyright © Mary Therese DesCamp 2008