I have been blessed with a free and solitary week at a cabin on the Massachusetts coastline. My purpose for coming was to give myself “alone” time to try to get back into writing my book and back into feeling like myself. It has been a hard and tumultuous year for me. A concussion and back injury from a fall on the ice in December have made my life difficult and at times painful, and other personal discoveries have profoundly shifted my sense of my self and the world. I needed time “away,” and the cabin has provided.
When the rainy weather finally cleared after a few days here, I went over to the beach for a walk. Immediately I was reminded of my late spiritual director’s admonition to sit and stare at the ocean. He always said it was one of the best ways to let the toxins out of one’s head, and I believe and agree with him. As I was walking, though, I chuckled to myself about that phrase that has become a much-mocked cliche on dating sites and in the broader world: “I like long walks on the beach.” And I thought about that phrase because I was, of course, walking on the beach. And I liked walking on the beach! Maybe I’m as basic as all the folks in the dating profiles.
But then I had another thought. No two walks are exactly alike. Even if I were to walk that beach every day– every hour!– each would have a unique character. Why? Both the beach and I are constantly changing. And the quality of my experience of walking the beach depends on what I choose to give my attention to and the quality of that attention.
Here is a man walking a large hound. I bend over to pet the dog and get a closeup. The dog is beautiful, with soulful eyes and great patience with me. I am reminded of my beloved dog who died in 2016. I am reminded that my kids want to get another dog. I am suddenly aware that the man holding the leash is younger than he appeared when I first saw him. He says something about it being his aunt’s dog and he gestures ahead to his aunt, walking another dog up the stairs. I am holding him up and separating him from his aunt. I stand up and say, “Thanks for sharing your dog with me. He’s beautiful.” The man smiles and walks off. I look ahead on my walk and see that the dog’s paw prints are already being eroded by the rivulets on the beach. And all those thoughts spin around in my head and dissipate as other things gain my attention. Today, a few days later, the dog is not there, nor are his paw prints. I think of other things as I walk.
I am thinking now of the Mass (and, by extension, every form of prayer and every spiritual practice) as I write this. And it strikes me that apart from the great objective grace of Christ’s body and blood, so much of what the Mass offers to us can only be attained with a particular kind of attention. The kind of attention is not all that different from the sort of curiosity that makes the walk on the beach endlessly varied. A natural attention– a turning toward really seeing, toward noticing what’s different, toward seeing anew something we’ve seen before– can transform a simple act of worship into a profound personal experience. And a natural attention joined to love and reverence is, of course, an even more powerful tool. Choosing to pay attention to the graces of the day, the beautiful things around us, the loved ones in our midst, the vulnerable faces of those who’ve just received communion– all of these can open our eyes to what is actually happening, to what God is actually doing in that place and that time.
Whether we are staring at the sea, petting a dog, or trying to become aware of the presence of God, so much depends on the quality of our attention. We carry our distractions and preconceptions with us always. But we carry, too, the ability to wake up and begin to notice that we –like everything– are changing and being changed.