PAY ATTENTION - Sarah James
Early last week, I ran out to our local flower shop to browse for a new small plant and to pick up a bunch of eucalyptus to hang in our shower, a small act of love that reminds my husband of his childhood in Australia, which at this time of year, at the tail end of winter, feels far away for him. It was a sunny yet frigid day, and by the time I reached the store, the wind gusts were strong enough to be pushing me down the sidewalks. I lingered longer than planned, waiting for the windstorm gathering quickly outside to calm, chatting with the florist about plant-care and flower deliveries.
An older woman, bundled up in a down jacket, a silk scarf, sunglasses, and a hat, soon rushed in, pushed in by the forceful gusts of wind. She greeted the manager warmly, then turned deliberately toward the flower case.
“How much are the freesia?” “And the ranunculus?” “And the camellias?” “What about the tulips?” Within minutes she had pulled together a small bouquet that rivaled the carefully selected flowers at my wedding. “Oh, and let’s add two lilies.” She ran her chocolate brown hands, identical to the color of my father’s, over the stems of those she had chosen. She turned to me, smiling widely, and said, “I have to have my flowers.”
With her bouquet wrapped in brown craft paper, she ran back out into the crazy East Coast weather. I was moved by this fleeting interaction. Her thoughtfulness. How she knew all the flowers by name, paying attention to each’s individual beauty, placing dark plum with soft cream and bright pink. It was lovely to behold this woman, so many years my senior, in the midst of the mundane. Gathering something, not for the sake of utility, but for the sake of their beauty and her own joy.
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In six weeks, I will officially finish my time in divinity school. As I reflect upon what I have received, what I have created and explored, in the last two years, I realize that what I have before me now is a mosaic of epistemologies. I have gathered many differing and divergent perspectives on what it means to be a human being, theodicy, suffering, relational faith, the meaning of death, and social ethics.
At first, the contradicting theologies, the debates about nature, creation, eschatology, love, crumbled me. I felt without bearings, without a sense of what was unchanging, of what was True with a capital “T” – the definition of an existential crisis. But now, after two years of being in existential crisis, without a faith community, without a religious label, without most of my friends understanding why I’d chosen divinity school in the first place, I can look much more generously at myself, this process of knowing and unknowing, and what I have learned.
It can be dangerous to search for commonality between ideologies, for universality can collapse important difference. However, what I have found to be most true about living within the context of spirituality, faith, religion, whatever you want to call it – the effort to live from a place of higher consciousness – is far simpler than I would have ever imagined two years ago.
The spiritual life requires us to pay attention. It requires us to transcend our habits, to transcend our despair even just for a moment, to witness something important, to be intimate with the life in front of us, and to act in response to what beholding demands of us. To participate in the beauty of the flowers. To bring hope and beauty to other people. To remain with others in their despair or aloneness. To turn toward some of the most unfathomable examples of violence and suffering in our world. All require us to pay attention first. A state of willing receptivity is the prerequisite to kindness, to compassion, to indignation, and for change.
If we are not attuned, we are distracted. If we are distracted, we cannot perceive or begin to understand what the life in front of us needs to flourish. The world’s problems, its distractions, its machinations are overwhelming, multivalent, and disheartening. The woman in the flower shop, though, demonstrated to me that we have the choice to live from a place of loving awareness, even if that awareness, in our corner of the world or the stage of our life, is limited to and graced upon some small thing, some small act of love, or a relatively small engagement with the mystery of the world.
Stop for a moment, and see with the eyes of your heart.
A graduate of Middlebury College, Sarah James studies literature, feminist theory, and theology at Yale Divinity School. She lives in New York City.