Learning to Love a Hyacinth:
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
The Attentive Life and Jane Austen
I first began this blog post over two months ago, and since then it has had ample time to age and mellow after the manner of a good draft. Coming back to it now, in the light of further thoughts and with the clarity of a more complete understanding, I find that some of that original draught has aged well, while other parts of it ought to be strained away. Thus I begin upon the task of shaping months of thought into something worthy of sharing. As a wise teacher of mine has said: you do not know a thing until you can give it away. Here is my attempt to give away what I have learned and am learning about living an attentive life.
To begin studying what it means to live an attentive life, I find that I must necessarily begin with an understanding of the nature of attention. If one looks up the definition of ‘Attention’, it is described at its simplest as "A giving heed; active direction of the mind upon some object or topic" But, with a little etymological excavation, there can be found an even more literal definition which presents us with an image I want to carry through the rest of this post. Attention, from the Latin attendere means literally "To Stretch Toward". When we are paying attention to something, we are leaning in toward it. We are stopping in our walk to kneel down and notice the wildflower that has somehow forced its smiling countenance upon us. To pay attention, when seen this way, is realized to be something which changes your position; realigns you with the object to which you are turning. Such an action must be taking place fully in the present: in the now. To pay attention is literally “to be”. C.S. Lewis writes in the Screwtape Letters* that "the Present is the point at which time touches eternity" ; so, when we are attentively in the present, we are grounded in a reality that is, in fact, bigger than we can see. This action is, by nature, drawing you up out of yourself. I may dare to say that to pay true attention for even a little while, is to breathe a breath of eternity. Which is why Simone Weil * writes that prayer consists of attention. Prayer is the orientation of all attention towards God. Robert Capon in his book entitled The Marriage Supper of the Lamb* writes:
"Man's real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God's image for nothing. The fruits of his attention can be seen in all the arts, crafts, and sciences. It can cost him time and effort, but it pays handsomely."
Capon speaks here of attention as a response to the truth that God is paying attention to us. Attention then, is seen to be a sacramental action that establishes relationship between heaven and earth. We are stretching toward Him, because he is stretching toward us. This is perhaps one of the most remarkable things about our God- that He truly attends to all of his creation. Mike Cosper in his book Recapturing the Wonder * writes that the miracle of God's Providence, is the promise of Him paying attention. God's attention is what keeps life and preserves creation, and it is to His image behind all of creation that we are attending.
Here is the truth, we, all of us, have to learn how to pay attention. We live in a society that is vying for every square inch of our mental space and seeking to crowd out all we see with a ceaseless flow of images. The attentive life is a life that has to be reached toward because silence and the slowness of savouring are not given room in a materialist technocracy. But, the glorious wonder remains that we reach out, because God is reaching out to us through the good, the true, and the beautiful that catches our attention. When I think of the struggle to create room for attention, the image that comes to my mind most is that of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the LORD. We grasp hold of what is beautiful and cry out to be blessed by it. Simone Weil has written and excellent and challenging essay about attention being strengthened by school studies to lead us deeper into prayer, in which she writes this:
“The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work….It is the part played by joy in our studies that makes of them a preparation for spiritual life, for desire directed toward God is the only power capable of raising a soul. Or rather, it is God alone who comes down and possesses the soul, but desire alone draws God down”
In the original sense, the Latin word desiderare is translated as: “to await what the stars will bring” (from the phase de sidere or “of the stars”) First there is this realization of desire being directed toward heaven-leading us back always to the One who satisfies the hungry soul. Attention is an action begotten by this desire to be reunified with our Maker. The Medievals knew this longing that reaches upward when they wrote that the flame, which burns ever higher, is reaching back towards its source in the aether. It too is out of place. Imbedded here also is a paradox found encapsulated in the word wait. We are awaiting what the stars will bring. We are reaching upward, but we do not bring the heavens down. This waiting itself is the struggle of attention. “There is,” Simone Weil writes, “a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it.” When we are paying attention, we are opening a door for God to come in and change us. Weil says this:
“We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them. Man cannot discover them by his own powers, and if he sets out to seek for them he will find in their place counterfeits of which he will be unable to discern the falsity.”
When we speak of stretching toward something, we speak of letting that longing desire open a door through which it may be given us to see in wonder the glory of God. The Angel found Jacob, and he chose to grasp onto Him. We struggle and are wounded by something more real than we. Mike Cosper has found this same image as he considers a life lived with the Lord and wondered at the paradox of struggle and grace. In a life spent in wrestling, when you walk away limping, yet grace overflows. This is the attentive life, a life spent wrestling to see, crying out to be blessed, while grace overflows into the hurting and shadowed spaces of your life. To pay attention is to stretch toward eternity as it is glimpsed in the Creation of the Father of everything eternal. I am beginning to learn that praying looks like many different things in my life, and that attention is the beginning of each of them. Attention is what allows me to see the spaces in which God is moving in my life. And these are not lessons to be learned in a dedicated time and place, but rather in the middle of life with all it’s messiness and joy. As Simone Weil wrote in the quote above, it is joy that trains the intelligence. It is from the joys in my life that I am instructed about attention.
This learning to see in the midst of life, is at the center of Jane Austen's charming Northanger Abbey. The cognizant beginning of my journey towards understanding what it meant to be attentive, was found within the pages of this beloved book. It was my third time reading this story, and I had come to it as to a familiar friend with whom I was to share a meal. (I shall have to write another blog post on the many virtues of re-reading books, but that is for another time.) Almost unexpectedly, I found myself reading a story about the power of learning to love what is beautiful. Perhaps Catherine Morland’s journey to sight is summed up in this interchange of dialogue that takes place between her and Henry Tilney (who, together with his sister, have awakened Catherine to a love of good books, beautiful scenes, and lovely things). She comes into breakfast one morning this conversation takes place:
"What beautiful hyacinths!-I have just learnt to love a hyacinth."
"And how might you learn?-By accident or argument?"
"Your sister taught me; I cannot tell how. Mrs. Allen used to take pains, year after year, to make me like them; but I never could, till I saw them the other day in Milsom-street; I am naturally indifferent to flowers."
"But now you love a hyacinth. So much the better. you have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible....And though the love of hyacinth may be rather domestic, who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?"
Here is encapsulated the joy, the wrestling, and the continuation of a life of attentiveness that meets us in the quiet spaces of our lives. First of all, it is exemplified that we do indeed have to learn to love what is beautiful; we have to cultivate our attention. It is a journey and a process that will hopefully continue all the length of our lives. It is a joyful process too, for to see the beauty in something is a pure and true pleasure. We must not forget that Joy guides the intelligence. When Catherine sees the abundance of hyacinths, she is enchanted by it, and it is precisely this enchantment which is the gift attention. Attention leads us to wonder, because it teaches us to perceive the beauty in everything that is created. It teaches us to love. Simone Weil writes that it not only teaches us to love God, but also to love our neighbor, because it is a recognition of being. Attention is the acknowledgement of and care for existence.
Catherine explains to Henry how all her life she had never loved a hyacinth, though her friend tried time and again to entice her into affection for them. But suddenly, in the light of a new circumstance, she is given new eyes to see them and, consequentially, to love them. Many are the days when practicing attention seems but the scattering of seed upon an unfruitful ground, but not one bit of it has gone to waste. Simone Weil points out that attention, no matter how small, makes a difference in the spiritual landscape of your soul. Whether we feel it or know it is irrelevant; through the sacrament of attention, light has been brought to your soul. And, as she notes, the results may be seen weeks, months, or years in advance. You may notice them in prayer, or in the reading of a poem that delights you and may be understood with intelligence. You may notice it in the studying of a theorem in Geometry. Sometimes we grasp hold of what we know must be true and must wait until the knowledge of that truth is revealed to us. For Catherine, it was the influence of Miss Tilney which at last led her to see what she had not hundreds of times before-the value of a hyacinth. For me, Northanger Abbey upon the third reading taught me what it means to be attentive. I did not even know it had lesson to share the first reading! We all have Miss Tilney’s in our lives, who teach us what is beautiful and help to open our eyes to see it as such. Wise people, good books, Poetry, Art-all of these things help to open the window of our minds that we may perceive the beauty we have hitherto been blind to. And Beauty is the porter which lets truth and goodness into our lives. Beauty sparks in us a desire for truth and goodness, and this will be the saving of us.
As the sagacious Henry notes, once the door is opened, all manner of things may take place. It is in the nature of attentiveness to beget yet more attentiveness. Beauty teaches us to love itself and to recognize it’s handiwork all around us. If once the notion has been planted in our heads, what is to keep us from loving roses, and daffodils, and the moonlight on a clear evening and so on and so forth. One minute you are loving a hyacinth, and the next you are loving the Maker of the hyacinth. In the words of Simone Weil: "Every effort adds a little gold to a treasure no power on earth can take away." That-learning to love a hyacinth- is what it means to live attentively. We may all consider ourselves blessed if we similarly learn but to love a hyacinth today. The attentive life thrives in the small places- it does not call you to create a whole new day, but rather to be willing to have your eyes opened in the midst of the steps you are already walking. Often it looks like allowing the Miss Tilneys in our lives-wise voices and enchanting stories- to open our eyes to glimpse the Attentive God seeking us even in the beauty of a flower. This is to be drawn out of the empty void of self, and to be given meaning and renewal. This too, is the baptism of the imagination and the redemption of the silent places. I cling to what I know to be beautiful, as I kept to Northanger Abbey, and cry out to be blessed, and the miracle of it is that I am blessed; given sight where I had none. God blesses the wrestler and comes to those who wait-Jacob's identity was defined in that moment and so too is mine. Today, may I learn to love a hyacinth-may I see where I have before been blind the gifts of a generous Creator. So much the better-for this way of reaching is a way of blessing. Attentiveness call us to surrender so that the grace of beauty may be poured into our lives. Our Attentive God reaches out toward us in the beauty of a hyacinth. This is the struggle and this is the grace; this is the attentive life.
-Addison Hornstra at Tending the Soul art