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Art, Discipleship, and Paying Attention

January 7, 2011

Both art and discipleship depend on paying attention. I cannot speak for all artists, but I have dabbled in instrumental and choral music, theatre, poetry and prose, and in all these artistic activities, paying attention is paramount. Take acting on stage for example. Being a skillful and creative actor is not just a matter of inspiration and originality, but paying careful attention to other actors, the developing story, the audience, the stage and set, and to oneself. As an actor, paying attention in all these different ways allows one to act in fitting ways that contribute artfully to the theatrical event. Attention makes artful acting possible.

The same is true for the Christian disciple. Many Christians associate discipleship with active doing, but that is only partly true. Discipleship is certainly about living in a Christ-like way, but this living includes paying attention, cultivating comprehensive vision of reality and focused attention to particular details. Just as fitting action on stage depends on paying attention, so fitting action on the world stage depends on paying attention, whether to God, God’s Word, God’s world, other people, and oneself. In reflecting on and practicing this aspect of both Christian discipleship and artistic creation, I have observed the following dimensions of paying attention.

Humility. Paying attention requires selflessness. Prideful acting means I will see what I want to see, and pay attention only to those things that serve my interests. But true attention means seeing something on its own terms, respecting its otherness with an openness to being confronted and transformed by an encounter with the other. For Christian disciples, this humility may be most obvious in paying attention to God’s Word, receiving the Word on its own terms, but a similar humility is required to really pay attention to particular people or particular places, an attention that makes fitting and beautiful action possible.

Habits. It is difficult to develop a lifestyle of paying attention. It is one thing to pay attention periodically, and it is another to be an attentive person. Some people may be naturally more attentive than others, but it is possible to develop attentiveness through habits. In the life of an actor, one such habit is noticing details every time one enters a new environment. This habit can be practiced in regular life, in rehearsals, and in performance itself. For the Christian disciples, habits such as prayer and meditating on Scripture enable the opportunity to develop attention to God and his Word. In both art and the life of discipleship, therefore, good and regular habits are a help and not a hindrance to true creativity.

Inhabiting. Paying attention, therefore, is never a passive or detached activity. It requires active participation and intentional commitment. Or as Luci Shaw observed in her book Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit: Reflections on Creativity and Faith, “attending implies inhabiting.” Some call this an incarnational approach, but I think “inhabiting” is a better word because it shows how the choice to be present, to participate personally, is itself a habit and a lifestyle to learn.

For the Christian, paying attention is both a responsibility and a gift of the Spirit. God has given us new eyes to see, but we have to use them. When we do, we are preparing ourselves for creative and faithful action.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink*
    January 7, 2011 9:49 am

    Janet Soskice has a really excellent essay called “Love and Attention” in her book The Kindness of God that strongly resonates with the themes you have developed here. She writes: “art and morals are two aspects of the same struggle; both involve attending, a task of attention which goes on all the time, efforts of imagination which are important cumulatively.”(7) She quotes Iris Murdoch who writes: “virtue is au fond the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature … Prayer is properly not petition, but simply an attention to God which is a form of love.” (The Sovereignty of Good, 74).

  2. January 13, 2011 1:50 pm

    Simone Weil has a powerful essay on this in “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” where she develops the idea that school/study help us to increase our ability to pay attention, which then increases our ability to pray and give God sustained attention. Which is scary in our current culture and society of the fast and the quick!

  3. January 13, 2011 5:00 pm

    Thanks for these great suggestions!

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