Several years ago, a priest friend and I were discussing this question: What are some of the hallmarks of a genuine Christian spirituality. Almost immediately, he gave me one. “Stay awake!” he said. We went on to have a great conversation about this hallmark. In this reflection I will share why this injunction “Stay awake!” is so important for our Christian Spirituality. And I will do this by weaving together the wise words of a variety of philosophers, spiritual writers, and poets.
Jesus invites us to the fullness of life every day. Unfortunately, many of us slumber, not fully awake to the offer. We just don’t pay attention to what is happening around us and inside of us each day. The spiritual writer Alice Camille says some of us “spend many waking hours like sleepwalkers, moving through routines with eyes closed to the possibilities for greater, deeper life being held out in every moment.”
I am reminded of a character in the movie Postcards from the Edge who sends a postcard home from vacation with these words scribbled on it: “Having a wonderful time. Wish I were here.” The sad truth is we can sleepwalk through not only our ordinary days, but even through our vacations! The basic question to ask ourselves is this: What do I pay attention to on any given day? The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote, “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.”
Father Anthony de Mello, SJ, tells this little story that also points to the importance of taking stock of what gets our attention and what does not. A wife was sitting across the breakfast table from her husband whose face was buried in the newspaper. She asks him, “Has it ever occurred to you that there might be more to life than what’s going on in the world?” The sad truth is, sometimes we know more about what’s going on in far away places than we know about what’s going on in our own house! Or we
pay more attention to that famous celebrity than we do to our spouse, our child, our coworker, our friend.
St. Ignatius formulated a practice to counteract our tendency to sleepwalk through life. He called it, the examen. He encouraged his followers to take time each day, often at the end of the day, to reflect on what really happened that day. I sometimes use a couple of questions such as these: What were the highlights of today? What were the lowlights? What did I respond to well? What could I have done better? When did I feel close to God? When far away? Did I help anyone today? Did anyone help me? What am I most grateful for today? What or whom do I want to pray for today?
More than one spiritual writer has said that people often think the basic command of religion is “Do this!” or “Don’t do this!” But in reality, they argue, the basic command of religion is “Look!… Behold!… Wonder!” Didn’t Jesus himself call his disciples to pay attention to flowers, birds, and the needs of the poor? If we truly stay awake to our everyday, Sam Keen says, we might encounter Divinity. He says, “Epiphanies are as common as forget-me-nots. The eternal is curled up in the heart of the here and now.”
And finally, let’s listen to the wise words of the poet Mary Oliver: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Or, in my words, “To stay awake, this is our endless challenge and proper work that can lead us to a deeper, happier, and more meaningful spiritual life!”
On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being VERY attentive), how attentive are you to what is really happening in your daily life?
What helps you to ‘stay awake’ to the here and now?
Do you ever practice St. Ignatius’ ‘examen’?
Can you think of any other hallmarks of Christian spirituality?
I chose a beautiful choral Lenten hymn for today. It’s called “God So Loved the World” by John Stainer. It’s the first hymn on this video.
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