Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.Luke 12:35-7
Today, Luke has Jesus tell us that to live in discipleship means to be always attentive and ready, when the Lord comes and knocks, to “open immediately.” Daily life, for the true disciple, is a moment by moment coming of Jesus who is asking us to open anew to his call for us. It is to live in vigilance for that summons of Jesus, to us and through us for our family, our community, and our world.
Now what makes this tricky for us is that over the course of our life formation our attention is constantly being refined and defined. Our earliest life formation, from our families and our cultures, teaches us what we are to pay attention to and that we “should not” allow ourselves to attend to, to be interested in, to desire. We learn, in the words of the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, to treat some potential objects and subjects of our attention with contempt.
I have quoted before the scripture scholar James L. Kugel, himself an observant orthodox Jew, who said in response to a question concerning some extremely conservative sects, that as orthodox he was willing to submit to authority about how he would act but not about what he could think. Yet, we all do this all the time. Be it our early life formation, or our self-reduction to our functional lives, or our idealizations about life and ourselves, or our fear of our need for and dependence on others, the new and the Mystery, we limit our attention and fearfully repress much of our natural interest. In other words, we often are not ready to open when Jesus comes and knocks because we have already limited his arrival to certain places and prohibited it from others.
This is most evident in our judgments of others. We know well how it is that we deem some worthy of our attention and so many others as not. It is clear that our view of morality accepts some manifestations of the human condition as acceptable and virtuous and others as not. And as we do to the external, we do the same internally. We reject aspects of our own needs, desires, and interests as acceptable and others as not.
In all of these cases, if Jesus is to come in those places from which we have withdrawn our attention, we will be unable to recognize him. A teacher of ours used to remind us that ignorance is largely a “passion to ignore.” We want to reduce our own lives to the manageable and so we passionately ignore those aspects of ourselves, others, and the world that feel uncontrollable to us. If we understand this, then the challenge and difficulty of the call to vigilance or attention becomes apparent. Jesus is not telling us to bear down yet harder out of our conscious will, to focus yet harder on what we are already paying attention to. Rather, he is calling us to risk opening ourselves to all those aspects of life and our own unconscious that so terrify us.
In a letter to a young poet seeking his advice, Rainer Maria Rilke asks if the young poet remembers the fairy tales of dragons become princesses. Rilke tells him to face those dragons in himself, those things of which he is most fearful, for they are not really terrible but vulnerable. They are asking help from him. Recently a friend and fellow religious and I were speaking about how often a community will stifle the flow of eros in a member who is showing too much excitement or enthusiasm. The group will actually shame the person for his or her manifestation of joy, vitality, or desire. Groups thus become lifeless, environments of nihilism and addiction, because they have fearfully stifled the flow of eros and life.
Our forms of life, personally, in marriage, and in community, become rigid and lifeless because we fear that in us which is, as Phillips says, “the groundswell of new forms of sociability.” Yet, for this groundswell to live, we must be able to bear with “that true state of absolute dependence” which our true openness to full attention will evoke. We must not fear to live “a comedy of errors” which is inevitable when the mysterious dynamism of our own eros is allowed to flow.
We do hold in contempt the “immature” and “childish” nature of our true attention-seeking. This is the same contempt in which Jesus was held. Adrian van Kaam speaks of the centrality in our personality of our “transcendence dynamic.” Deep in us is the insatiable desire for more. In the pseudo-sophistication of our smaller and larger cultures, this is embarrassing. In our attention-seeking, in our desire, we put ourselves out there as we are. And, more often than not, our culture will attempt to shame us back into conformity and submission. This is the reason for the death of such societies and cultures. Without openness to the desire for transcendence, which can be hidden in many other manifestations of desire, there is only reification and rigidity. Vital and potential imagination is stifled. Instead of serving the transcendence and desire, the ever new coming of the Lord, we become mere managers of the rigid and dying structure. We settle for the inverted awe in our own managerial potencies. Then, in the desert of our own impoverishment we become nihilistic. We live static structure as if it were really life.
In the first chapter of Acts, after Jesus has ascended into heaven, two men dressed in white appear to the disciples and ask them, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). To pay attention fully is not to keep staring into the sky. It is to wake up to all of life, in and around us. It is to pay attention, perhaps especially, to that from which we have habitually withdrawn our attention. True attention, in the gospel sense, asks us to open ourselves immediately to the one who is coming and knocking. We must open what has been closed, for Jesus seeks to enter our life and world through that door that has been closed. We can trust that if we do so, the first words of Jesus, as whenever he appeared after his resurrection, will be “Don’t be afraid.” In today’s reading from Romans we hear of how grace abounds all the more over the effects of our sinfulness. Those effects are always a form of the hiding in shame that Adam and Eve do in the creation story of Genesis.
There is a life force in us that is always attention-seeking in search of love. If, for the sake of conformity, safety, and efficiency, we stifle that attention, we and our common cultures will become lifeless. To repress that attention is to cease to be vigilant for the coming of the One who “makes all things new.” We may not recognize the presence because we are too “troubled and anxious about many things.” But, we are capable of “unbridling” our attention by ceasing to expend our energies controlling our worlds out of fear and instead letting be and letting go in trust that God too will laugh at our “comedy of errors.”
Attention-seeking, whatever else it is, is always a love test, and should be treated as such. That is, without contempt. In our attention-seeking it could be assumed that we know neither what we want nor what we expect; and who we are in our starkest dependence on others. And in that true state of absolute dependence lies the possibility, the groundswell of new forms of sociability. Attention-seeking then, ideally, as a comedy of errors, rather than a tragedy of failures. Attention-seeking as something that might come without excuses.Adam Phillips, Attention Seeking, p. 31