There is a story from the Washington Post about 10 years ago. A man sat at a Metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin on a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, it was calculated that 1100 people went through the station. Three minutes went by and a man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried on his way. A minute later a woman threw money in the violinist’s case without stopping. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again.
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tugged him along, but the boy continued turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, urged them to move on.
In the 45 minutes, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed or applauded. The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world playing on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before playing in the subway, Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each.
Joshua Bell playing incognito was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste & priorities of people. Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
Today we enter the third week of spiritual practices from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book entitled “An Altar in the World”. Today we focus on the practice of Paying Attention.
It is said that the average visitor spends only 8-15 minutes actually looking at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Perhaps they explore other parts of the Canyon, perhaps not.
What gets your attention? When are you aware of the presence of God beside you, around you, within you? Remember in school? The teacher would call your name and your response – HERE. By calling “here”, it signaled to the teacher that you were present, ready to learn. But have you noticed how difficult it is to always be present to where you are in any given moment? To be Here. Now? For many of us, we are always tempted to be partially somewhere else. If we desire authentic spirituality, we need to show up to where we are now; to resist escaping. To pay attention to this given moment.
As Moses led his flock. 2The angel of the Lord appeared in a flame of fire out of a bush; Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.”
God called, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”
His curiosity leads to a theophany an appearance of the divine; it also leads to an epiphany – a recognition of God’s presence. A voice comes from the bush announcing that Moses is standing on holy ground and must give proper respect to the Holy by taking off his shoes. If you noticed something like a burning bush out of the corner of your eye, you’d turn aside, you’d get off the path wouldn’t you? Of course you would. Except, so often, we have this tendency to walk on by, not notice, not get involved. We’re busy. We’ll come back later. Rational thought also keeps us from turning aside: we don’t believe in visions. We have reasons to keep on walking, don’t we? This is a good place to insert that great quote from The Color Purple: “I think it pisses God off to walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” says Shug Avery.
But Moses, Moses turned aside. He got off the path. And when God saw that he turned aside, God called to him. If Moses hadn’t turned aside, would God have spoken? Yet, God did not speak UNTIL Moses turned aside. One could wonder if his turning aside actually brought forth God’s speech.
Could it be that if we turned aside more often, God would speak more often? How hard it is to turn aside, find time to come into the presence of God; to pay attention. To take off our shoes believing the place where we stand is holy ground. But what if we turn aside and God doesn’t call to us? Worse yet, what if God DOES call to us? What will God expect of us? What if we don’t know if it’s God or our own imagination speaking?
Moses got caught up in these self-doubts too. A burning bush? A voice in the bush? Am I crazy? And then God calls on Moses to lead God’s people.
What is the practice of paying attention? We pay attention to the speedometer, our watches, the cellphone, the list of things to do. But none of those necessarily meets the criteria for reverence. Reverence requires a certain pace. It requires a willingness to take detours, side trips, which were not part of the original plan. Philosopher Paul Woodruff says that “Reverence is the virtue that keeps people from trying to act like gods. Reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self- something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding.” He goes on to say: “Worship is not always reverent; even the best forms of worship may be practiced without feeling and therefore without reverence.”
BBT: “Nature is a good place to start. Nature is full of things bigger and more powerful tan human beings, including but not limited to night skies, oceans, thunderstorms, deserts, grizzly bears, earthquakes, and rain-swollen rivers.” Read from bottom of p. 22.
God is always coming to us in the Sacrament of the present moment – Evelyn Underhill
“Regarded properly, anything can become a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual connection. The Practice of paying attention can be as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore. Like all the other practices in this book, paying attention requires no equipment, no special clothes, no greens fees or personal trainers. You do not even have to be in particularly good shape. All you need is a body on this earth, willing to notice where it is, trusting that even something as small as a hazelnut can become an altar in this world. BBT
The bush is burning. It burns for you and for me. When we take the time to turn aside and see, God calls to us. Let us enter into the spiritual practice of paying attention.