The thing about living in an urban area is that there's not always an abundance of greenspace. And this means people walk their dogs a lot because there's no back gardens for dogs to run about in, especially behind my gorgeous, red sandstone tenement.
And the thing about people walking their dogs a lot is that dogs poop. And this means people don't always pick up their dog's poop.
And the thing about people not always picking up their dog's poop is that you see a lot of dog poop. And this means you're frequently forced to observe the stool of canines.
And so sometimes you notice that a particular canine [or two or three or maybe even the whole population] on your street are suffering from terrible diarrhea. And I mean terrible. Like, diarrhea dribbling up the pavement. Or diarrhea in an explosive, lumpy puddle-mound right outside your door. Or diarrhea that someone stepped in and dragged up your stairwell [true story].
It makes you wonder things like, what causes dog diarrhea? what the heck are people feeding their dogs? are dogs insecure about having diarrhea in public? what keeps people from picking up their dog's excrement - you know, for the good of the neighborhood? is there such a thing as Immodium for dogs?
I've noticed that in my predominantly pedestrian lifestyle life seems to pass a little more slowly. I have more time to take things in - more time to notice things, more time to smile at people as they pass, more time to recognize patterns and routines, more time to smell the roses [er, dog poop], more time to attend to the intricacies of life.
Simone Weil [that semi-controversial, modern mystic-activist-philosopher] likens this kind attentiveness to prayer. "Prayer consists of attention," she writes, "It is the orientation of all attention of which the soul is capable toward God."
In one of her essays appearing in Waiting for God, a book compiling her letters and writings, she discusses the way academic study can help us develop and increase the power of our attention, thus enriching our prayer life.
"If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer."
No experience of attention is wasted.
Weil points out that this attention is not marked by muscular effort or will power, which leaves us tired and exhausted. Instead, it's a sort of effortless attention guided primarily by openness, desire, and joy. This true, pure form of attention, Weil writes, "consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object."
When we focus our attention on a given subject and free ourselves from distraction we sometimes come to an understanding of the task at hand. But more importantly, in relation to prayer, when we focus on God and open ourselves to him, he comes and fills us. Our desire for him, which has been placed in us by him, is an invitation to him.
This is the heart of the contemplative - a Divine union marked by the cease of strife, undivided attention, unity, oneness - and the very substance of love. When we open ourselves to God and he comes to us, we experience that beautiful, paradoxical, mutual giving and receiving of love and of self, which exists eternally in the Trinity and has been demonstrated towards us.
Weil goes on to say that not only does the love of God require attention, but so does the love of one's neighbor. She says,
"The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle...The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: 'What are you going through?' It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled 'unfortunate,' but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction."
So in this moment of loving our neighbor, it's needful that we properly attend to her. I must empty my soul of all its distracting contents and receive into myself the one to whom I'm attending. This is a holy task and a mark of love, Divine love.
I like this idea that prayer, and even love, consists of attention. Prayer is surely speaking to God, but it's also receiving him, listening to him, surrendering to him, being present with him, being attentive to him, and being attended by him. Mother Teresa says something along these lines in an interview. When asked, "When you pray, what do you say to God?", she replies, "I don't talk. I simply listen." Then she's asked, "Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?" She replies, "He doesn't talk. He also simply listens." It's a mystical union - of which I don't even pretend to have mastered, or fully experienced.
But that's the beauty of the spiritual life - it's a journey. And Weil centrally affirms that this kind of attention and presence and love - to both God and neighbor - requires practice. Spiritual disciplines, and indeed this season of Lent, provide specific exercises and seasons in which to explore this love and practice this attention. But in Weil's view, the quality of our spiritual lives may also be enhanced by everyday sacraments, like academic study, which fall outside our conventional notions of "spiritual" or "holy".
And so this brings me back to my neighborhood and all its dog poop.
I like this idea that the supposedly "unholy" and perhaps even the mundane [such as the very crude experience of observing dog poo] may be cultivating something fruitful deep inside me. I'm certainly aware that this slow-paced pedestrian life with sporadically-pooped pavements is opening me up and soliciting my attention. [Not that I want to empty myself and orient my soul towards poo - this is perhaps where the metaphor falls apart.]
And so maybe this very common experience of noticing the ordinary is actually exercising my capacity for attention, for prayer.
And maybe this, in turn, is affecting my capacity to attend to and ultimately to love God and my neighbor.
And actually, maybe the whole of life is an exercise in attention.
Or maybe this is all just a load of rubbish, er, poo.