7 Notes on The Practice of Paying Attention: Reverence
Written by Rev. Kate Huey
July 7, 2012
Adapted from Chapter Two, “The Practice of Paying Attention: Reverence,” in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.
Teach us to care and not to care; teach us to sit still. -T.S. Eliot
Reverence, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, is “the proper attitude of a small and curious human being in a vast and fascinating world of experience….
Note: Jesus taught us to “change and become like children” (Matt. 18:3). Of course, it may take us some time to learn the difference between being “child-like” and “child-ish.”
Taylor draws on the thought of Paul Woodruff, who cautions us: “even the best forms of worship may be practiced without feeling (and therefore without reverence)….”
Note: When was the last time I was moved to tears during worship? Or struck speechless with awe? Would the woman who wept as she anointed Jesus’ feet make me uncomfortable, or could I bear to pay close attention to her act of reverence?
Reverence, Taylor writes, is simple to practice: just “sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes….”
Note: Walking past our little garden, a friend cautioned me to “watch out” for the seeds on a fallen stalk of a tall flower: “You could end up with these flowers spreading all the way across your garden!” What a lovely problem, I thought. The dead, brown plant held the promise of so much life, and so much beauty.
Study the elegant beauty of your own body, Taylor writes, beginning with your hand, paying attention to every freckle, every wrinkle, every scar, and the stories they hold.
Note: Lately, I’ve been reading about neuro-plasticity, and un-learning much of what I was taught in school about the brain and our nervous system. In recent decades, we’ve moved toward a deeper appreciation of the brain’s ability to change, based on behavior (think “practice”) and experience. Contemplating nature – including the wonder of our own bodies – is undoubtedly good for the brain as well as the spirit.
Take time for reverence, Taylor writes, to look again: “The practice of paying attention is as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore.”
Note: A recent issue of National Geographic has a photo essay by Jim Richardson on “Our Vanishing Night.” (You can find it on the website as well.) One stunning photograph after another illustrates “light pollution” (the easiest of all to remedy) and the price we pay when “much of the galaxy lies behind the glare and beyond our reach.”
Reverence for creation includes other people “at the center of their own scenes” rather than on “the edges” of our lives, according to Taylor.
Note: Or, as my seminary professor often reminded us, “God is God, and you’re not.”
In ancient practices like praying for enemies, anointing the sick, and bathing the dead, “you are entirely captured by the present moment for once,” Taylor writes.
Note: I’m reminded of the tender scene in Places in the Heart, when Sally Field’s character bathes her dead husband’s body and finds a scar on his side that she had never noticed before.
Barbara Brown Taylor's book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), is available in bookstores and on Amazon.com.
The Rev. Kate Huey is minister for covenantal stewardship, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ.