Sunday, March 08, 2009

Pure Attention:
A Form of Prayer

My friend of many years and now divinity student, Linda Miles, took one of my book recommendations to heart. After reading Waldron's "Thomas Merton: Master of Attention" she decided to use it with a small group at her church. She has given permission for reprint here of the quotations she used and the reflection questions offered. Perhaps you may find them stimulating.

Thomas Merton: Master of Attention
by Robert Waldron

(poem inspired by Simone Weil)

Teach me to be attentive
To all your vestiges;
To the first light,
To the waking bird,
To the leaf’s rustle and to the rain’s drop,
To the scent of water and to the sky’s hue
And to the rise of the wind;
Teach me to be so attentive that
I shall hear the first flakes of the snow’s fall.
Robert Waldron

The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable of toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of the heart cannot make up for it. The highest part of the attention only makes contact with God, when prayer is intense and pure enough for such contact to be established; but the whole attention is turned toward God.
Simone Weil

How Merton had become a “spiritual master” ?

“Merton, of course, prayed in church while chanting the psalms, when attending and later celebrating Mass, and at set times in the day he meditated on biblical texts. But he also prayed while reading, studying, and writing, while sweeping and cleaning his hermitage, while watching the deer outside his door, while gazing upon the Kentucky hills or listening to the birds outside his window, while looking at a blazing fire in his hearth on cold winter days and nights.”(Waldron, p.3)

“Deep prayer is not an esoteric activity only for mystics and proficients: it is available to all of us if we would only pay attention.” (Waldron p. 7)


1 How is prayer like attention?
2. Which experience is more dominant in your prayer, you paying attention to God or God paying attention to you?
3. How satisfied are you by your prayer and what might you change to make it more attentive?
4. How is attention to nature, art, study, or scripture like prayer for you?

“The Hawk” in The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

“The eagle attacked a tree of starlings but before he was near them the whole cloud of them left the tree and avoided him and he came nowhere near them. Then he went away and they all alighted on the ground. They were there moving about and singing for about five minutes. Then, like lightening, it happened. I saw a scare go into the cloud of birds and they opened their wings and began to rise off the ground, and in that split second from behind the house and from over my roof, a hawk came down like a bullet and shot straight into the starlings just as the were getting off the ground. They rose into the air and there was a slight scuffle on the ground as the hawk got his talons into the one bird he had nailed…..”

“It was a terrible and yet a beautiful thing, that lightening flight, straight as an arrow, that killed the slower starling….The hawk, all alone, in the pasture, possessed his prey. He did not fly away with it like a thief. He stayed in the field like a king with the killed bird and nothing came near him. He took his time.”

“I tried to pray, afterward. But the hawk was eating the bird. And I thought of that flight, coming down like a bullet from the sky behind me and over my roof, the sure aim with which he hit this one bird, as though he had picked it out from a mile away…But in the end, I think the hawk is to be studied by saints and contemplatives because he does know his business. I wish I knew my business as well as he does his…”

“I wonder if my admiration for you gives me an affinity for you, artist. I wonder if there will ever be anything co-natural between us, between your flight and my heart stirring to serve Christ, as you, soldier, serve your nature. And God’s love a thousand times more terrible! Now I am going back to the attic and to the shovels and the broken window and the trains in the valley and the prayer of Jesus.”(p.274-275)


1. Is your prayer life like that of the eagle or the hawk? How so?
2. What did Merton see in the hawk and how did he connect it to prayer?
3. Recall a time of prayer that was especially focused for you. What factors contributed to your heightened attention?
4. How can you apply Merton’s spirituality of attention to your life?

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