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In Thy Light

Lavishing Attention in Uncertain Times

By Anna Stewart, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Leadership and Service
Fall 2023

Anna Stewart, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Leadership and Service

Lately, I’ve been stopping to admire the light a lot. The way autumnal light, beaming lower on the horizon, bathes the crimsons, ambers, and golds of trees this time of year. Earlier dusks painting the sky in clear, breathless beauty as I walk to my car under increasingly bare tree limbs. The warmth of a single candle flickering by the sofa – one among many antidotes to those fast-darkening evenings and the chilly mornings when I rise. The pastel hues of my daughter’s miniature lava lamp, casting patterns across her ceiling at bedtime to ward off unwelcome shadows.

These may be small details, observations half-formed in a midday or mid-evening moment, but for me they are also potent reminders – calling me to pay attention to the world around me, to the sacred and the small, to the reverence such details and moments can invite.

In An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, writer Barbara Brown Taylor delves lyrically into how being intentional, purposeful, and fully present not only grounds us as human beings but points us toward God and deeper meaning. In one of the book’s chapters, “The Practice of Paying Attention,” she describes the virtue of cultivating reverence, a practice she now recognizes that she encountered early in her childhood:

“From [my father] I learned by example that reverence was the proper attitude of a small and curious human being in a vast and fascinating world of experience. This world included people and places as well as things. Full appreciation of it required frequent adventures, grand projects, honed skills, and feats of daring. Above all, it required close attention to the way things worked, including one’s own participation in their working or not working.”]

Brown Taylor draws on philosopher Simone Weil (among other writers and thinkers), braiding together considerations from several religious traditions as she ponders how truly paying attention – or with a nod to my own English-major desire for verbs with flair! – lavishing attention on the people, places, and things around us can open us up to reverence. Those seemingly small details just might contain multitudes.

In other words, what might at first blush seem like pausing to consider the trivial in fact becomes a path to something far bigger.

Anna Stewart, Ph.D.

In other words, what might at first blush seem like pausing to consider the trivial in fact becomes a path to something far bigger.

Paraphrasing another philosopher, Brown Taylor muses that reverence (borne out of a kind of sustained attention) is ultimately “the recognition of something greater than the self – something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding.” Reverence, she writes, “stands in awe of something – something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits – so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”

As a lifelong lover of literature and a longtime teacher, I found additional appreciation for this cycle of attention and reverence, walking students through complex texts and guiding them through the practices of close reading. Carefully attending to details, small moments, nuance, and texture – truly lavishing attention, even between the covers of a novel–can open us up to one another. Reading narratives this way can help us to also read the world, inviting us into one another’s stories. These practices of close reading, in books and in life, help us reckon with our limits even as we celebrate our part in a human story far greater than our own.

A little over two weeks ago, I was preparing a brief homily for Monday Morning Prayer. Drawing on the Division of Calling and Spiritual Life’s “Reset/Refresh” theme as well as the year’s morning prayer series “This is How I Sabbath (or Try To),” I decided to reflect on how Sabbath-time can summon us toward this sort of lavish attention.

The scripture for the morning, Psalm 104, delights in the reverent details. The psalmist imagines:
“the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number–
living things both large and small.
The ships go to and fro…”
Even a sea-monster appears, “frolicking” in the expansive ocean.

The psalm offers a beautiful meditation on how lavishing attention can reorient us, pulling us into reverence. I found myself pondering and grappling with this anew when, the day before the scheduled Monday Morning Prayer homily, our campus community learned that one of our students had been violently attacked and rushed to a hospital across the state for critical care.

Recently we gathered as a campus to remember Varun Raj Pucha, who tragically died of those injuries, and to lift up his life. I did not have the privilege of knowing Varun, but I have been grateful for glimpses of him carried through the words of his family, friends, and professors. The pieces of his story and others’ memories of him do not constitute his life, all that he was, or all that he was in the process of becoming. But they can offer us a chance to attend, to revere even as we say goodbye, to gather around a few powerful reminders of a beautiful story that was still being written and of a reverence that beckons us all.

More from the Fall 2023 Issue