Paying Attention

by Julie Lunn.

I’m currently reading Spring Cannot be Cancelled: David Hockney in Normandy by David Hockney and Martin Gayford.[i]  It’s a wonderful, joyful, uplifting book; a biographical text about David Hockney’s recent work during lockdown.  In 2018 Hockney visited France and decided that he would create work on the arrival of Spring in Normandy in 2019.  This was delayed until Spring 2020, however, in preparation, he visited Normandy, bought an old Normandy farmhouse in four acres of ground, and set up a studio within it.  During lockdown, he spent the time iPad painting 116 pictures of the gardens in which his house is set, particularly focussing on the trees and their changing appearance as Spring emerged and progressed.  And all this when he had recently turned 80.

There are numerous quotes of Hockney’s in the book, and one which struck me talks about how important it is to notice.  Hockney refers to the colour of the roads in his native Yorkshire,

When I was first in Yorkshire, I was driving along with a friend and I said, ‘What colour is the road?’  He said, ‘I see what you mean. When you really look at it, it’s a violet grey or a pink grey.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is, but you have to really look. Most people don’t, so they just see grey tarmac in front of them with green stuff at the side, but not that many different greens.’ (p166)

You have to really look.  You have to notice, though most people don’t really look, and don’t notice.  The dustjacket says Hockney ‘is utterly absorbed by his 4 acres of northern France and by the themes that have fascinated him for decades: light, colour, space, perception, water, trees. He has much to teach us, not only about how to see… But about how to live.’  There’s something about the complete absorption of Hockney in his art and in nature, in stillness and in noticing, in focusing on the trees, the sunrise, the beauty of nature, which is so deeply appealing. 

I wonder whether the lockdowns have enabled us to slow down a little and notice more – as George Bailey talked about last week in his very helpful piece about watching, noticing birds.

Simone Weil’s words have long been significant for me: ‘The capacity to give one’s attention…is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it.’[ii]  Her words are challenging and true.  In ministry such attention is essential – the giving of attention to another in pastoral care, in spiritual accompaniment, in supervision.  Yet such dedicated attention is also essential in the life of every Christian – attending – to the other, to the world, to ourselves.  Noticing, seeing, discerning the subtle shift in hues, the nuanced tone-shift in a conversation, the movements of our own hearts and thoughts and desires.

Spiritual authors, John Wesley included, remind us of the need to attend to ourselves and our inner life.  Thomas à Kempis, for example, emphasises the need for the ‘recollection’ of ourselves: ‘If you cannot recollect yourself continuously, do so once a day at least in the morning or in the evening. In the morning make a resolution and in the evening examine yourself on what you have said this day, what you have done and thought…’ [iii]  Pay attention each moment, each day, he is saying, to what you say, do, think.

But watchful attentiveness is also to be given to others and to the world which is God’s creation; an exterior insightful attention which notices, gives time to, discerns.  The sort of attention Jesus gave when he asked ‘Do you want to be made well?’ (John 5:6b); or when he said, ‘Zacchaeus … I must stay at your house today’ (Luke 19.5); or, ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near’ (Matthew 24.32).

There is an exhibition of Hockney’s 116 iPad paintings currently at the RA.  Unfortunately tickets are sold out.  The introduction to the exhibition says, ‘In the midst of a pandemic, David Hockney RA captured the unfolding of spring on his iPad, creating 116 new and optimistic works in praise of the natural world.’[iv]  His detailed attention gives praise to the natural world.  Our intentional, comprehensive attention gives praise to God – the Creator of the world, each other and ourselves.


[i] New York: Thames and Hudson, 2021. 

[ii] Simone Weil, Waiting on God (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951), p. 53.

[iii] A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ Thrift books p15

[iv] https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/david-hockney

19 thoughts on “Paying Attention”

  1. Thank you for this reflection and for sharing two authors I appreciate. The Hockney book is a delight, refreshing.

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  2. Can’t wait to read it!

    Thank you for your reflection – I’ve been noticing the variety of snails in my garden. They have the most gorgeous colour schemes! (Have trees as well, but not as many!) I instinctively apologise if I crunch one underfoot………

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  3. For me one of the greatest joys of motherhood was being able to see things afresh through the eyes of a child.

    ‘The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’
    (Marcel Proust)

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  4. Thank you for this thoughtful and constructive piece. This comes at just the right time for me as I prepare a reflection for my Circuit’s online Playlist presentation – mostly songs and hymns. Some of you will remember the ‘road crossing’ reminder ‘Stop, look, listen, think’. That is probably our theme this week relating to being aware of the guiding of the Holy Spirit. So we will be looking to ‘Paying Attention’!!
    Thank you again.

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  5. I am well aware that I stand alone here, but I have deep reservations about the stress on contemplation of nature as a means of grace. I appreciate the need for attention to the beauty of this wonderful world, and write poems and paint as a result, but my ultimate concern, God, always arises in a social context. There is a demand “written on our hearts”, that we fight for justice and fairness (mentioned in Isaiah), as well as the demand Jesus left us with – that we love our neighbour as we love ourselves. For me this ethical demand is everything and leads me to be wary of the idea of a personal God that relates through presence. So I question the validity of approaches to God through nature mysticism, otherworldliness and personal piety. It can lead to a rather individualistic faith based on self-concern. At worst it leads to pantheism.

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    1. Or maybe, if you take it a step further, Robert, it might lead to Panentheism!
      I have no argument with that, but I wouldn’t mind betting you do 😉

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  6. Robert. Which means you believe God is bigger than the Universe and interpenetrates everything in existence? So why do you ‘question the validity’ of other approaches to God which differ from yours? If you are a Panentheist, you should have no problem with Pantheism, or traditional Christianity, or any of the ways in which people can relate to God. I feel you do God a disservice when you keep pushing your ‘ethics’ (noble as they are) as the only way of knowing God. To be truthful, it often sounds as though your ethics owe as much to Marx and Corbyn than to Christ.
    Though I’m sure Jesus of Nazareth would approve of your socialist leanings, I believe Almighty God is much bigger than our political persuasion! He is the pinnacle of perfection in all areas of life; nature, music, art, science, sport, love, wisdom, truth, beauty and creativity. You are as close to God while writing and painting as you are while serving at your local foodbank.

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    1. In my inner life prior to all theological, philosophical , political and religious theorising, there is a demand, from God, that I should love others, particularly the stranger. For me this ethical spirituality is everything. John Lennon said the same thing when he wrote – All You Need Is Love!
      I have doubts about pantheism because it has no answer to the pain and suffering in life – tsunamis, Covid, evil and so on. It implies a quietism in which we delude ourselves with the thought that “All is for the best in the best of possible worlds”, or worse still, an unethical ignorance of the plight of others that can say “I’m all right Jack” or “Bodies can pile high before we have another lockdown”.

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  7. Do any of us have answers to the pain and suffering in life?
    Yes I agree, we all need to love and to be loved, but I feel we need to love others as they are and not how we would like them to be. And, as a Methodist minister once explained to me, there are many kinds of love. Without doubt, charity is the most noble and selfless form of love, but we all make a positive contribution to the world simply by being the person God created us to be. There is room for us all and a purpose for us all, despite our differences.
    Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saves even a patriotic, Royalist, pro-democracy, pro-capitalism, Tory-voting, traditional worshipping Catholic like me!
    Recommended reading: Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr.

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  8. On Facebook in the Progressive Christian Network discussion forum I recently asked the question “Is God’s love unconditional”. There were 54 comments and every response was a resounding yes! As I would have expected. I then turned the discussion into making a distinction between motivation (unconditional love) and practice (conditional love). The interesting thing is that David Townsend suggested Richard Rohr would interest me on this issue, in particular an article on Dualistic Clarity before non-dual oneness, https://email.cac.org/…/30546B839BCF1F6B4B1B1F623478121.
    I read this and although I agreed with most of what he wrote he proposes a duality I am not sure about. This is what I wrote:- I agreed with the duality he proposed between practical clear-headed critique and open-door compassion and agreed that one without the other leads to problems. Clear headed critique can become a loveless denial of the Gospel. As he says “Christians have managed to avoid most of what Jesus taught so unequivocally and with dualistic clarity: nonviolence, sharing of resources, simplicity, loving our enemies”. The powerlessness of unconditional love is hard to live by and conditional love can soon revert to dialogues of power, exclusiveness and judgment over others.
    This is great but I have reservations. I start with a different duality; between the motivation to love others unconditionally and the practical conditional love we engage in to work for fairness and justice. The criterion I use in my mind to deal with this conflict is to consider intentionality. Clear-headed critique and open-door compassion are generally to do with intent, will, a rational decision on our part, but when we think about motivation there is the implication that we are unintentionally affected by the need of the other person: It is to do with emotion and empathy and not a matter of intent or will or a rational decision.
    A good example of the latter is coming across a homeless person begging on the street. Even though I may ignore the appeal the event is deeply disturbing. Some people even cross the road to avoid eye contact! The unintended affect of the meeting seems to put my sense of self in jeopardy, disturbs my sense of time and sense of priorities. I have read somewhere that unintentional affectivity is a secular description of the Holy Spirit! I feel that this unintentional affectivity gives us the motivation to love our neighbour. It is universal and secular. It is what makes us human. It is the law written on our hearts that Isaiah and others wrote about and it inspires and demands an ethical response. Motivation comes before practice, and practice that ignores motivation is not necessarily of God.
    For me this link between motivation and practice brings a criterion for dealing with these dualities and also a deep sense of the oneness implicit in creation.
    We may seem to be a long way from Julia Lunn’s article, but I maintain that the question we should consider is whether our “Paying Attention” is to do with intent, will or a rational decision on our part (as Richard Rohr suggests), and if so where is the openness to the needs of the other. Where is the love. Where is the ethical concern for the needs of my neighbour?

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    1. I’m sure this all makes perfect sense to those with the intellectual capacity, time and motivation to read it and think it through, but surely love shouldn’t be this complicated? Above all else, Jesus kept things simple: love God and love each other. He encouraged a child-like faith; love shown in simple words and deeds.
      In a nutshell, I think what you are saying is that God’s laws are written on our hearts (we call it our conscience.) When we have a guilty conscience, that is the Holy Spirit working in us and prompting us to do the right thing or to refrain from doing the wrong thing. Sometimes we act on the Spirit’s prompting and sometimes we ignore it and follow our own selfish ways.
      When we can acknowledge that we don’t always do the right thing and recognise our need for forgiveness, we are showing humility. We can come before God with ‘humble and contrite hearts’ and know we are forgiven and restored to a right relationship with God the Father, only through the redeeming grace of Jesus the Son.
      Your are right, we have moved a long way from Julie’s reflection on paying attention. Apologies to Julie, but to be truthful I don’t think anyone will be paying much attention to our long-winded and pretty pointless dialogue, Robert. I would say it’s more about the psyche of the human mind than about God, and who cares what we think, anyway?

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      1. I can go along with most of what you say but there is something in me that cannot accept that God’s love and a right relationship with God the Father comes ONLY through the redeeming grace of Jesus the Son. Presumably the rest of humanity are doomed! Is that short enough for you!

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    2. It’s the second time within a couple of days that I’ve seen the issue of how one approaches street beggars perceived as condition love and how avoiding eye contact leads to a rather shamefaced self-criticism by some Christians.
      In my local town, where there is a lot of food hunger, the street beggar scene has been taken over by pimps, who decide who can have which pitch (and arrange for intruders to be beaten up) and what amount they will take from the proceeds. It runs nicely alongside and follows the same approach as the way they traffic immigrants for sex.
      The hungry and the homeless still need help. That is best provided through other means than direct giving to those begging on the street. Buying the Big Issue, contributing to, or helping with food banks, supporting soup kitchens, and donating to charities that work with the homeless are all ways of helping. It is better to encourage people on the street to contact a help agency rather than give them the money or the food to enable them to stay where they are.

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      1. Thank you, Pavel. Wise words as usual, but also an opportunity for me to get back to Julie’s topic of paying attention. In our small town we don’t have a problem with homelessness, at least not a visible one, but I’ve heard of the issues you mention in our nearest big town. My husband once witnessed several ‘homeless’ people being dropped off, complete with sleeping bags, by a man in a flash car, and taking up their positions in doorways ready for a hard day’s begging! Many people in this area are very cynical about the street beggars.
        On a recent visit to London, however, where most people avoid eye contact and it’s so easy to walk by even on the same side, my husband, son and I passed a woman who was drinking beer in a shop doorway. She muttered a few words as we walked by, just as we walked by countless others before and after. Whether it was my conscience, the Holy Spirit, or mere curiosity I’ll never know, but I glanced back and I did make eye contact with her. I let my husband and son walk on, but I stopped. I paid attention. I said ‘God bless you’ she said ‘God bless you, too.’ I blew a kiss. She returned it. I slipped a note in her hand, and as I walked away I hoped she would buy food, but I thought it more likely she would buy drink. And guess what? I didn’t mind. I thought if I have helped her seek some solace and oblivion from the reality of her existence, at this moment in time that’s no bad thing. OK, I wasn’t helping her long-term; I wasn’t solving her problems or easing her predicament, but I paid attention, and I did what I could in that moment to show that another human being had noticed her.

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  9. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘reply’ option to your last comment, Robert, so I’ll respond to it in a separate post. You must have a very narrow-minded and restricted view of the redeeming work of Jesus and the grace of God if you think most of humanity is doomed (or if you think that is what most Christians believe!)
    And it doesn’t sit comfortably with your claim to be a Panentheist, who shouldn’t really be so concerned about what others believe or don’t believe. When you believe ‘everything belongs’ you don’t need to exclude or dismiss anyone else’s beliefs and opinions. They are all equally valid, just different.

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  10. Going back to theology it is surprising how one thing leads to another. I made notes on “The Divine Dance” by Richard Rohr some time back and was struck by his stress on Universalism or Oneness. I get the impression the Catholic Church were not amused! Like me Rohr questions the assumption that God’s love depends on adherence to orthodox credal Christianity, so to suggest that people of other faiths and even people of no faith are included in the Kingdom didn’t go down too well! This radical inclusiveness is in direct opposition to the belief that God’s love comes ONLY through the redeeming grace of Jesus.
    I have a question. Given the stress on oneness it puzzles me as to why he writes of dualism in the Dualistic Clarity article, Any ideas?

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    1. Sorry, I can’t help you there as I haven’t read the article.
      All I know is, although a lot of what RR teaches has been criticized as unorthodox, he has not been ex-communicated and has a huge following within the Catholic Church, especially among the younger priests.
      And if you listen closely to what Pope Francis is saying (especially in his book, Let Us Dream) it is clear that he is also thinking along the same lines, although his position prevents him from abandoning traditional Catholic doctrines, as that would risk splitting the church in two. There are already rumblings about him being too liberal.
      RR teaches that once we have found our true identity in Christ we can tolerate all other points of view, other traditions and other faiths, without seeing them as a threat to our own. We can calmly hold on to what is important to us (my traditional beliefs, your more progressive ones) while allowing others the freedom to hold on to theirs. We don’t need to convert anyone, or to win them round to our way of living out our faith, because we are all held in the all-embracing love and grace of God, the ‘One Absolute.’ Our security and identity are founded in God, not in being right, or in being holier or wiser than anyone else.

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