I’ve always loved Anthony de Mello’s point about humanity going about life asleep. Key to Ignatian spirituality is awareness, noticing. When we notice the details about our life and surroundings, we get to encounter God.
I recently discovered a book by Rob Walker called The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday. Walker suggests we look around our world at the things we see, but never notice. Look for weeds in the sidewalk or abandoned pay phones, he suggests. Take a walk and just pay attention to the colours you see. Gaze out of a window you pass by all the time but never look through. Spend ten minutes watching a bug crawl around.
To adults, this may seem a waste of time, but practices like these do amazing things. They open our hearts to the gifts of creation all around us. In his Principle and Foundation, St Ignatius says that all things on the earth are created by God as gifts and that we should give them reverence. By focusing our attention on them, we give them respect. Walker says we should draw inspiration from children because they are better at paying attention than we are. The other day my daughter watched the tiniest ant crawl over the pavement at a playground. She went to get a leaf so it could eat some lunch. (I don’t even know what ants eat.) She was noticing a part of God’s creation that I would simply overlook or undervalue.
Ignatius encourages us to use our senses to pray. First, we can place ourselves in a Gospel passage and engage our five senses, keenly paying attention to what we see, hear, smell, feel, and even taste. If we’re with Jesus as he heals someone or eats a meal, the sensual engagement with the story makes it that much more alive to us.
Second, we can make use of our senses in everyday life, as Rob Walker suggests in his book. Noticing the sun shining through the leaves of the trees in my neighbourhood or watching people play with their dogs at a dog park can be beautiful prayerful moments of connection with the Divine. The beautiful moments we encounter in our world are incarnational moments where God comes close. God communicates grace with us through sensory experiences.
And of course interior noticing is foundational, too, in the Ignatian tradition. The Examen keys us into the ways God is speaking to us through our heart and our feelings. Interior noticing is an avenue to better discernment. Feelings can lead us astray, yes, but only if you have an undiscerning heart. One needs to know the language of the interior first in order to make good sense of what God is saying. I recently listened to the story of a brilliant young man named William who got accepted to Harvard. He was a professional violinist and won awards for economics and physics. But when Harvard found out that he went too far in posting distasteful memes on an online forum, they rescinded his admission.
When William recounted the story, he illustrated how important it is to pay attention to your interior feelings: “I’d get a sort of pit in my stomach, a swell. I don’t know what to call it. You know that bad feeling when you know you’re about to do something stupid, you’re about to do something bad, I got that. And the part about what I did that messes me up the most, I guess, is the fact that I didn’t listen to that, and I just went ahead and hit send anyway.”
He didn’t listen to the feeling. In other words, he didn’t discern his choices well. Ignatius might say that the pit-of-his-stomach feeling was a sting of his conscience, a way God was trying to break through. Perhaps William just wasn’t paying attention to that feeling in the moment.
Spiritual direction is a tool that can help us process our interior movements and reactions so we can better notice what comes from God and what does not. The Jesuit John Veltri writes, “In listening to the experiences of a directee, a spiritual director helps the directee to notice his/her deeper interior reactions and how, through these interior reactions, expressed or implied, God has been influencing his/her heart.”
See, the interior movements are often responses to something exterior. There’s a play between lived experience and one’s interior life, so it’s crucial to pay attention to both. “Paying attention,” says Michelle Dean, “is the only thing that guarantees insight.” If you don’t notice, aren’t aware of yourself, your life, your reactions – then you’re blind!
As you read the gospel stories, notice how much of Jesus’ M.O. is getting people to pay attention. He cures the physically blind to drive this point home. He draws attention to the “unnoticed” of society. He uncovers the flaws in the religious leaders’ pious logic. He tells people that anyone can access God, not just a privileged few. Notice!
Consider the ways you’re blinded, and think of ways you can cultivate noticing more in your exterior and interior life. God is there waiting to be seen.
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