The fragrance of full attention

Lent V: 3 April, 2022

St Andrews’ Anglican Church, Indooroopilly

Isaiah 43.16-21; Ps 126; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8

By Richard Browning

Introduction

It was to be a wonderful day for Linda – a great anniversary brought her entire family and a few special friends to her place for dinner that evening. Work was always going to intrude. Linda was always going to arrive. So when she finally left the office, very expensive bottle of wine at hand, she drove out, not in haste, but urgency.

Filing out of the city and into the more winding paths that led to her property, Linda neared the final bend that marked the entrance gate. It was then that a wombat walked onto the road like he owned it. A tiny tug on the wheel was all that was needed to send her car careering into the gum by the gate at the head of the driveway.

Linda thought it was all over, but realised the red splashed was expensive wine, not blood. She took a moment, conceived a plan, wiped herself off, left the car and walked up the driveway into the din of boisterous celebration. There, she celebrated like nothing ever happened.

It was only after the party was over that she walked to the gate with her partner Sammy and explained what had happened.

Is it possible to conceive such as thing as Linda’s plan and pull it off?

Is it possible to be done to by wombats and trees, but still author an evening as planned?

Should Sammy be mad the accident was kept from him? Or grateful? Grateful for insurance, for Linda’s safety? Grateful for a fabulous evening?

On the Mind

I was in my thirties when I learnt that the eye does not see, it is the mind.

I was already in ministry when I came to understand how it is that our senses are sensors, receiving stimuli which they convert to electric impulses for the mind to receive and see, to hear, to feel and make sense of. It is in the mind that meaning and patterns and sense is made.

So it is possible to calm one’s body and focus on one sense, the activity of breathing say, and notice the rise and fall, the sensation, the rhythm. In the stillness it is possible to notice the thousands of stimuli from all your senses clambering simultaneously for your mind’s attention; and there you can notice your attention moving from one to another; and you can notice thoughts and feelings; you can notice your noticing.

It is possible to sit behind your senses, and notice their input, and notice the ‘you’ behind the input. And if you can notice these things, we can begin to train the mind, and reign in our attention, from being inattentive, distracted, or too easily drawn to things that don’t really, or actually matter.

When you practice this kind of attentiveness, you can notice the stimuli the mind receives is momentary. And even if the chemical residue of the experience remains, the experience itself has gone. Its imprint is held in the mind. The gap between the moment, and the time after the moment is cavernous[1].

An example: Anger

Imagine the possibility that someone at the microphone could speak and offend, and that the one who is offended notices they are offended. The offense is such that they, Will-Smith-like, rise and move to the aisle and march to the front. By the time that person reaches the front and addresses the speaker at the microphone with … with an almighty slap, yes, slap, the drive behind the slapping is a fabrication in the mind; the moment of offense has already passed. I don’t mean fabricated in the sense of a lie. I mean fabricated in the sense of manufactured, constructed. As real and offensive as the stimulus might be, beyond the moment, it is the mind that creates the platform that retells the story that justifies the fire that leads to the slap[2].

What if it were possible to do a Linda, and pause, and notice the feeling arise, offence in this case, and by noticing the rising anger, be released from the reflex, uncoupled from a triggered effect, and by noticing, invite other possibilities.

‘We are what we attend to’ is a notion common to contemplative practice. But what if we can’t control where our attention is directed, or if our attention is held not by lived moments but our reconstructions of them, or that our attention is captive to the trivial and shallow? Who are we then?

This work might be described wakefulness, or living the examined life. It is utterly consistent with the science of mindfulness and the ancient practice of contemplative spirituality, meditation particularly.

On Christian Meditation

What of this relates to Christian life (and the readings for today)?

In the letter to the Philippians today, did you notice heavy verbs Paul used to describe his engagement in faith: his wanting, his becoming (like Christ), attaining, obtaining and pressing on?

What might you do to press on, to attain or become like Christ?

I speak now of Christian meditation. It is exactly as previously described, a quiet disposition of the mind that is trained to notice, to resist chasing after, practiced in letting go, all the while, gaining a fitness in attention.

In Christian meditation, we do all this, and in the uncluttering of the mind, we practice receptivity to Jesus the Christ; we sit opposite Jesus and invite a direct encounter.

Who is this Jesus?

  • This Jesus is the one who spoke to people with sight saying they were blind and those who were blind like they could truly see[3].
  • This Jesus is the one who takes up a bowl and a towel and touches the feet of his disciples saying they now are teachers.
  • This is the Jesus who intentionally turned to Jerusalem, knowing full well the human fondness for violence and the logic of one victim to spare many victims.
  • This Jesus becomes that very victim, and in the very act of being done to, speaks those extraordinary words “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”.
  • This Jesus harbours no anger, where in resurrection, returns, not to bring retribution, but peace.

This is the Jesus we sit before and make ourselves available to. So when we practice mindful attention, and sit in stillness behind our perceiving, training our mind, we are also receptive to this Christ, and receive ourselves from:

the love from whom comes all love,

the light from whom comes all light[4];

the life from whom comes all life;

the great I Am from whom comes our ‘I am’[5].

We are open to receive ourselves from this One, this Jesus, this Perfect Love[6].

In this practice the ego is intentionally subverted and remodelled. We subvert the ego attached to faith and trust not our faith but Christ’s.

From the reading today of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a better translation of verse nine might be: “We trust ourselves to the ‘faith of Christ’”, not our faith ‘in Christ’. This is more aligned to the thrust of Paul’s message and mission, can be found in translations such as the KJV and CEB, aligns with the form of the genitive noun in the original Greek, allowing a theology that can help rescue us from our own righteousness[7].

This practice gives ourselves the best chance to be available to each moment and respond to it with an open, true presence.

Now I am not saying Mary practiced meditation, (even though, playfully, nard comes from the Himalayas). I am saying that whatever is the moment we find ourselves in, how could we best respond to what that moment requires? How could we be the most free, the most loving, the most gracious? Look at Mary.

On Mary

Mary finds herself before Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One, and by her act of anointing him names him Christ. She sees clearly enough who Jesus is, where he is going and it seems, what will likely happen. Mary enters into the moment with extraordinary vulnerability and spends everything, exposing herself as we know, not just to ridicule, but condemnation. She honours this Christ with wild extravagance. There is skin on skin intimacy and in the use of her hair, an unmistakeable sensuality. Mary gives herself so wholly to the encounter with Jesus, the room is filled with the fragrance of whole bodied presence and devotion.

How could this moment be honoured any better?

On Judas

Judas looks on. He may well be speaking on behalf of other males around the room, but his response is not to the moment who is Jesus. His response is directed at the woman who has responded to the moment. Judas speaks at the woman, grasping at the cost, the touch, the public display, and does a ‘whataboutism’. He demonstrates all the hallmarks of male dominance and faux ‘offendability’. How might it be possible for males like him to notice the outrage as it rises and disentangle the ego from this moment and as Jesus invites, leave her alone … and attend to the gravity within the moment?

On being in the world

This is our task: to train our attention, to disentangle ourselves from false truths and created appearances, anything that distracts us from the reality each moment presents. And by our clear, uncluttered presence with Jesus the Innocent victim, we will find ourselves better equipped to attend to the demands each day presents.

In this lived reality, there is no simple binary. There is no “either Jesus OR the poor”. It is both. It is always both. By attending to Jesus the Innocent Victim we cannot but be found beside the poor and the needs of others. Engagement with Jesus the anointed, rejected and crucified one sustains empathy and stirs compassion. Poverty only exists when too much is grasped at and held by too few.

So whatever wombats or trees we encounter;

whatever life and love we find ourselves among,

whatever demands are asked,

even as we look on as others are assaulted by war or flood or sickness;

whatever each moment asks

may our availability to Jesus the Christ, fill us with what is needed,

and allow our attention to be turned to the real within the moment

and respond with an extravagant loving kindness;

employing reserves of forgiveness, grace, patience and strength,

and even faith, all drawn from Christ.

This is the life Jesus leads and asks us to follow.

End note

Until: An apology for training the mind

(Originally written for training students in stillness)

Breath is the door.

Be aware of your breath. Focus attention on your breath, lightly.

And notice.

And as you notice, slow the breath.

Keep noticing.

Notice your posture.

Notice your thoughts.

Notice the experience of your thoughts.

And notice you noticing your thoughts.

And notice:

memories

recurring desires

uninvited urges,

rising emotions,

scars and prejudices,

fears, even anger.

If you can notice their presence, you can release their hold.

Until we can train our awareness,

noticing what we can touch, and the flow of breath,

we will never notice the power we have given over to what we cannot see –

we will always be done to by our interiority –

and we will remain our own victim, unaware and un-free.


[1] Sam Harris speaks about this really clearly: If you think you can stay angry for a day, or even an hour without continually manufacturing this emotion, by thinking without knowing that you are thinking, you are mistaken.

This is an objective claim about the mechanics of your own subjectivity.

[2] Am I the only one who as a child was angry at a parent for days on end. I mean days. There is only one way this was possible. It is because, unbeknown to me in my immaturity, I used my mind to return to the incident, repeat the story and revisit the sensation of being offended.

[3] Jesus spoke to those seeking to follow him with urgency saying ‘let the dead bury their own dead’, Luke 9:60. This seems pastorally brutal. But in the context of the inner life and transformation, it is profound. Why waste a second on the things that are deadening – do not return to them, even for a moment. This insight came from Rev’d Sue Grimmet shared on a recent retreat on inner transformation, Session 3, 5th March 2022.

[4] The scripture references here are familiar, the obvious being John 1:4-5. This exquisite portion of John Davies poem won’t be, (to be found in ‘The Word in the Wilderness’ by Malcolm Guite):

That Power which gave me eyes the World to view,

to see my self infused an inward light,

whereby my soul, as by a mirror true,

of her form may take a perfect sight

O Light which mak’st the light, which makes the day!

Which set’st the eye without, and mind within;

Lighten my spirit with one clear heavenly ray,

Which now to view itself doth first begin.

[5] I share at the end of these notes an image called ‘I Rise’. I drew it 12 years ago as an identity map. The three chairs before the cherub like figure is what an openness before the Lord in the meditation.

[6] Perfect Love, of the kind Jesus described in the longing father in last week’s Parable of the wayward son, who welcomes and loves, receives and forgives, without condition.

[7] Phil 3.9: … and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (NRSV; NIV use ‘faith in Christ’. KJV, CEB use ‘faith of Christ’.

See BibleHub: Χριστοῦ (genitive masculine singular noun) from Christ: https://biblehub.com/interlinear/philippians/3-9.htm

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