“Will You Sit Still and Pay Attention!”
A homily for the people of St. Nicholas with the Holy Innocents
by Ethan Jewett
I grew up a very distracted child. Paying attention was always a real challenge for me, and it was only during graduate school that I learned that my inability to sit still and just pay attention was a medical condition. Once I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, I heaved this great sigh of relief and thought that everything would be different; I’d get my medication and stop being such a flake. Sometimes I marvel at my own naiveté. It’s true that the medication made me fidget less and focus for longer periods of time on the task at hand. But I was and am still very distracted. The problem isn’t just the way the neurons in my brain are firing, but the relationship I have with the rest of the world. And I suspect that this is a dynamic that many of you may be able to relate to.
It’s not easy to keep my eye firmly focused on the important things when there’s so much else swirling around in my peripheral vision. The world seems to be packaged in a way that makes it impossible to sift through all the chaff. Information overload and overstimulation has become a way of life that I just can’t shake, unless I became a hermit and sheltered myself from Comcast digital cable, daily news feeds, and the blogosphere. How can I stay grounded and focused in a world obsessed by how long Paris Hilton spends in jail? Maybe St. Antony of Egypt and the early desert fathers were onto something with their get away from it all attitude.
Today’s Gospel reading is uncharacteristically short, but I love its brevity, simplicity, and leanness. “Here’s the take-away message,” Jesus tells the overly distracted Martha, “let Mary listen to the important things I have to say to her.” Many of us fall into the same trap that ensnares Martha. We become so concerned about all the errands that need running, the chores that need doing, and the incidental tasks of daily existence that we simply can’t sit still and pay attention to the important stuff. It’s a swarm of gnats buzzing around our heads that we just can’t seem to swat away and disperse.
The trouble is that we need a space that grounds us and reorients us to the essentials and puts the trivial and incidental in their proper perspective and place. Today’s Gospel suggests that it is Jesus’ teachings that provide that grounding space for us in the spasmodic world in which we usually live. But this refocusing can’t take place if we don’t insulate ourselves, at least for a few moments, from the constant buzzing around our heads. Why should Jesus have to shout over Paris Hilton, Larry King, or some trend-obsessed Internet blogger? How well can we expect to hear what he has to say with all this background noise?
Upon closer inspection, there is more going on in the Gospel reading than Jesus’ simple rebuke of Martha. “She had a sister named Mary,” the Bible tells us, “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” This is a pregnant statement that has much to say about sitting still and paying attention. Mary sits at the Lord’s feet, first of all, in the traditional posture of a student in the presence of her teacher. This is a deliberate and intentional act signifying Mary’s readiness and openness to listening. She is receptive. This may seem like a simple act, but how often are we unwilling or unable to stop what we are doing and sit face-to-face with someone to communicate? Much of our communication transpires in the quick e-mail sent before we toddle off to lunch, or the few words shouted over our shoulder to someone on the other side of the room, or the laconic text message sent while driving on the expressway. Yes, I’m guilty of all of these. I’m a master multi-tasker. No one thing or person is worthy of my undivided attention.
Pretty insulting, huh? Yet, these values are reinforced all of the time in the messages the world peppers us with, and we hear these messages so often that we accept the values they convey without really reflecting on them. It takes a conscious, deliberate act to stop and say, “No, wait a minute, that’s not what I believe.” I WILL give this person my undivided attention and really listen to what she has to say. Listening is the first step in hearing and understanding, and the first step in listening is putting oneself in a position to be able to listen. Turn off the TV. Turn off the iPod. Turn off AOL Instant Messenger. And God forbid, turn off the cell phone. Now maybe we can sit still and pay attention. OK, I know by now, most of us would be going through withdrawal symptoms from being disconnected from the media and technological onslaught that is the rhythmic hum of our daily life. But the hives and the cold sweats will pass, truly they will.
For many of us, Sundays provide that respite from the gnats buzzing around our heads when we get grounded and reoriented. Yet, to be come truly receptive to what God has to say to us, about ourselves, others, and the world, we have to make a habit of taking the time for quiet, reflection, and introspection. As with any skill, we need practice, lots of practice. Or else, by Monday afternoon, we’ll be Martha obsessing about paying the bills, taking the car in for an oil change, or getting that project off your desk so the boss won’t yell at you. The TV will be back on blaring in the background about Paris Hilton, and e-mails will be littering up our in-boxes. We’ll forget that we should giving our child who’s growing up so fast our undivided attention, taking the time to listen to our friend who’s lonely or frightened, and thanking God that we’re healthy. Are these things less important than our to-do lists and our Blackberries? Let’s take 10 minutes a day, shut it all off, put it all away, find a quiet place, and make a space for God to speak. Silence, pure silence for us to just sit still and pay attention.