by Chris Roe.
In the 2017 film Lady Bird, the teenage title character (going by a nickname) must write about where she lives. Her teacher in the convent she studies at remarks on her relationship to Sacramento, a town she spends much of the film decrying as a dump from which she cannot wait to break free.
Nun: You clearly love Sacramento.
Lady Bird: I do?
Nun: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Lady Bird: I was just describing it.
Nun: Well it comes across as love.
Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Nun: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?
I’m an assistant in a L’Arche community, where I support and live alongside people with learning disabilities, growing together in mutual relationships in a Christian context. It is an enriching, moving and demanding place to be. Some of my favourite days as an assistant come when I walk into town with one particular person with learning difficulties. Alone it would take fifteen to twenty minutes; with this person, it’s more like an hour.
We walk slowly. We pause and comment on what we’ll do when we get to town. We notice cars as they go by, especially those that bear resemblance to a Beetle. We stop at traffic lights and wait patiently for the green man to light up before crossing, while our fellow pedestrians cut corners. We notice the ground beneath us and the people around us. We’re aware of each other’s presence. We relax into the rhythm of our day.
My experience is reflected in John Swinton’s book on time, disability and discipleship. Swinton argues that there is often a gap between the speed and pace at which many of us attempt to live our lives and the speed at which we can most readily give and receive the love of God. Being slow, travelling in a gentle manner and taking rest are aspects of God’s time; in order to live well we should start from a slow place too. We must take the time, God’s time, to be attentive to one another.
Paying attention is surely among the most basic ways we express love to one another. We’re often very aware of our loved ones’ presence in a room, and we can identify all the small signs indicating their mood. Being in a community, whether at Church or elsewhere, also involves becoming aware of each other’s wants and needs. Personally, I’ve found great riches in small groups (I’m thinking especially of student faith societies), perhaps because smaller groups can more easily generate intimacy and awareness of each other. We must take the gift of God’s time and inhabit it in a way that reflects God’s love.
As Lady Bird discovers regarding her home town, what we pay attention to reveals a great deal. We cannot attend to all things, and so we have to make choices. What choices do we make- who do we pray for? Which global conflicts do we remember, and why? Do we consider the concerns of the elderly if we are young, and vice versa? Whose gifts in our congregations are noticed? How much time do our meetings spend discussing buildings; is it healthy? How are we aware of God in our activities and liturgies?
Sadly, being a L’Arche assistant isn’t always about gentle walks! Being attentive involves commitment; we cannot only do it when we feel like it. It’s difficult to be lovingly attentive when you’re weary or someone is uncooperative. Living together, especially living with a vast range of intellectual ability, is tough. As assistants we also have to maintain quality care services, which involves paperwork. It’s easy to end up in a whirlwind of administration, doing important work but struggling to be present to those we’re meant to live in community with. It’s a gift of the person I walk into town with that they can drag us out of that and force us to attend the present.
How do we walk more slowly and pay deep attention to that which is present before us?
Of course, we must also be kind towards ourselves and allow ourselves to be forgiven when we get it wrong. The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognise the resurrected Christ. Yet Jesus walked, talked and broke bread with them. It is at the point they are leaving the city of Jerusalem, departing in despair from fellow followers, that Jesus appears to them! Even as we struggle to pay attention to God, God pays attention to us.
 John Swinton, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Time and Gentle Discipleship, (SCM Press, 2016), particularly chapter 4.
 Luke 24: 13-32