Sustained Attention

I was on a 3-day retreat with other ministers at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos. “El Retiro” is build on a hill – one of “los altos”? – in the midst of the city. There is a freeway nearby, not to mention Mountain View and Sunnyvale and all the rest of Silicon Valley. Being there has the effect of abiding on an island of calm in a sea of digital productivity and conspicuous consumption.

On my last day, after most of the retreatants had already left, I rode my bike along the paths surrounding and crisscrossing the hill. Near the top of the hill was a Rosary Path as well as a few places set aside to sit and pray or just to be quiet. I was enticed by a path that led to a granite kneeler. I leaned my bike against a tree, walked the path, and knelt. There was a plaque to deceased postal worker retreatants from 1972. That seemed very specific and brought up all kinds of questions. Why were postal workers on retreat? Did they die while on retreat? Why 1972? Who had commissioned this plaque?

Perhaps because of the specificity of the dedication of this sacred space, I started looking around me and noticing the specific details of the place where I was kneeling. In particular, I noticed the lichen. There was whitish lichen on the granite piece of stone where my elbows rested. With my thumb, I brushed the circles of lichen and marveled that these are life forms that are neither animal or plant. They belong to a different kingdom altogether. Then I noticed different colors of lichen – one that was sort of mustard green and another that was reddish-brown. They all looked like flattened cross-sections of cauliflower. No two were the same size. They were circular, but not perfectly. Their texture was neither soft nor prickly. It felt kind of like rough linen.

Then I looked to the side and noticed a leaf. If you had been there, you might have said, “Which leaf?,” for there were many thousands of leaves within view. Reminds me of the time Jesus was in a crowd and said, “Who touched me?,” and his disciples said, “What do you mean, ‘Who touched me?,’ there is a huge crowd here. Lots of people are touching you. Lots of leaves begged for my attention, but I chose one. Alive. Low to the ground. A serrated edge. Green, yes, but I counted dozens of shades of green. The central seam of the leaf was parallel to the ground. The top half had a darker sheen to it than the lower half. The seam itself was the darkest part of the leaf and tributaries of that central vein made their way into both halves of the leaf, looking like silhouettes of tiny trees. The two halves of the leaf reminded me of a pair of wings or two lobes of lungs or a hot dog bun split open.

Kneeling there, I realized that the leaf I was looking at was made distinct not on its own but by its context – the other leaves that made up the plant of which it was a part, the position of that plant on the ground next to other plants, the angle of the sun and the shadows cast by other plants and branches, even the angle of my viewing it. I wondered what the shadowed underside of the leaf looked like, but decided not to investigate, to leave it unexplored and unknown.

Reading a description of a single leaf on a single plant on a single day isn’t very exciting, but as I learn to slow down, writing about something to which I gave sustained attention is rather exciting. We tend to think the things worth noticing are the things that grab our attention, but perhaps the greater adventure is to look deeply into what is right in front of us, unassuming, bathed in the glory of its unspectacularness.

To quote James Finley, “The inessential is always imposing itself. But the essential, like love, never imposes itself, only waits to be found.”

One response to “Sustained Attention”

  1. I know El Retiro. My dad used to go on retreat there every year when we were growing up. He loved the Jesuit preachers. Your contemplation of the leaf is very Mertonesque. You are fast becoming a “monk in the city”

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