What would it mean to be “fully present with a singularly attentive mind?”

Dear Members and Friends,

How should one live?  Live welcoming to all.

-Mechthild of Magdeburg, 13th century Christian mystic

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?  Sort of like, “What is the greatest commandment? Love God and love your neighbor.”  It sounds easy, and yet when you really begin to look at the implications and the application, these guidelines for living from Jesus and from this 13th century Christian mystic, the difficulty begins to mount.

Contemporary spiritual writer, Sue Monk Kidd, begins to unwrap Mechthild’s guidance when she begins her reflection with the question, “What would it mean to live, welcoming all?”  She points out that Mechthild offers a vision of new and radical availability.  If one were to truly pursue such a vision it could significantly alter my way of being in the world.  For instance, she asks, “What if I practice receiving each person with the whole of my heart, being fully present to them with a singularly attentive mind, or what might be called mindful availability?”

Stop and think about what she is asking.  What would it mean to be “fully present with a singularly attentive mind?”  First, it would mean putting aside the smart phone and turning off the alerts, ring-tones, and even vibrations, so as not to be distracted by the constant flow of news notices, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, updates and posts that clamor for our attention.  It would mean not taking that phone call, unless you were aware it was truly a life or death emergency, but letting it go to voicemail.  (I am not talking about doing this all the time, but when we are truly trying to be fully present and attentive to someone.)  I know I try to do this, but I have taken a telephone call while visiting at the hospital bedside of a person, when I really should have let it go to voicemail.  How many times have you allowed the phone to interrupt your conversation with a spouse, your child, your parent, your best friend?  How many times have you witnessed colleagues leave a work meeting to answer the telephone?  How many times have you?  And can you honestly say it could not have waited for you to get the voicemail and respond?  .

But let’s take it one step further.  Think about the fact that such deep availability to someone requires a hospitality that receives the person as they are, without necessarily seeking to cure, fix, or repair their problems. [my emphasis]  When you practice mindful availability, you are simply there with your heart flung open.  Bringing such a rare quality of presence to another human being is, in itself, a healing and transformative gift.  As the late Henri Nouwen pointed out,  We cannot change people by our convictions … advice and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves … to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center.  This space is the spiritual geography where real change happens.

This is why listening to someone, truly listening – without judging, arguing, debating – is so important.  Listening speaks to one of our deepest needs: to be understood or to feel understood.  [I know personally that this is by far the most important yearning I have in my relationships with people and a yearning that far too often goes unsatisfied.]  Yes, we might like people to agree with us, take our side, but it is a great gift when we feel that the person understands us, even if the person does not agree with us.  It shows the person cares.  They have demonstrated that by taking the time to really listen and hear us through, and to communicate back to us that they have understood us.  It develops trust.  It connects us with another person.

Listening acknowledges and honors the other person’s uniqueness with his or her own stories and truths.  We each need to tell our story, and we each need to hear the other person’s story.  Begin listened to provides the opening we need to tell our stories, to express feelings and ideas we would otherwise be afraid to voice.  In many ways the greatest gift of listening is that it enables us to go deeper into our own stories.  Often I don’t know what I think until I hear what I say.

This all sounds so easy!  Why is it such a struggle for us and why do we have such trouble communicating in a way that brings healing for the deep divisions in our world?  Again, Henri Nouwen offers insight: To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate.  Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.  To give up our preoccupation with evaluating others feels like death.  We are saying goodbye to the self-importance that tells us that we, ABOVE ALL OTHERS, truly know what’s right.  We’re surrendering our cleverness and our discernment skills.  To give this up involves a purposeful grief that must be chosen over and over.  And that is tough!

That is why Jesus stated that No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13, NRSV)  Love is tough!

See you in church.

R. Steven Hudder
Pastor, Christ Congregational United Church of Christ
Palmetto Bay, Florida