Attention Is the Beginning of Devotion- Mark S. Burrows, Ph.D.

I recently came upon an essay of Mary Oliver’s written near the end of her life. In it, she writes of her longing in the Spring to discover what she describes as “the desire to be lost again, as long ago” in childhood. “Now in the spring I kneel,” she writes, “I put my face into the packet of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness.” And then she goes on with this startling admission: “Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” Do you remember “losing yourself” in such childhood moments of delight? Have you dared to do it lately?

She goes on to describe what it means to live with alertness to the world around us. Well, spring is now behind us, but even in these balmy days of mid-summer we’re invited to savor other joys—like the sound of birdsong filling the morning air, or those balmy clouds tracing their way across the skies; like the sense of joy in feeling the warm winds on your face, or digging around in your garden in celebration of the annual riot of green. 

Each of these moments is one way we find ourselves connected to the world around us, discovering how we belong to its complex and mysterious beauty. What does this have to do with “eternity,” though, to return to Oliver’s startling admission? Everything, I’d say—joining in her wisdom; each moment in our lives connects with the vastness of space and the infinite flow of time. 

Here’s the clue: “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” she admits at the close of her essay, and then it all falls together: how we attend to the moments in our days reminds—that is, re-minds—us that we belong to everything, and that we are responsible to it all. Which is to say, we are “response-able,” able to respond to the place where we are. And how? By attending to the moments; by opening ourselves to notice, even cherish, some small, particular glimpse of things, each of which—with us—belongs to everything else. That is part of the tapestry of space and time we call “life.” Trusting in it, delighting in it, is another way to speak of faith.

So, what are you paying attention to these days? How are you opening your life to this intimate sense of devotion? And what are you discovering as you do? There are opportunities enough to do this, right where you live—right at the familiar doorstep you’ve crossed a thousand times, which is—among all the others—a threshold opening to the rest of this world. As you open your life to this world, to our shared world, and connect with others as we seem to be coming out of that long stretch of Covid-burdened dis-connection, we can always discover something particular—and in that discovery, have the chance to “keep our attention” on eternity, in the here-and-now-ness of our lives.



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Mark S. Burrows is a writer, scholar, teacher, and award-winning poet and translator of German poetry. His recent popular works include a collection of poems, The Chance of Home (2018), and two best-selling collections of poems inspired by the writings of the medieval mystic Eckhart: Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart and Meister Eckhart’s Book of Secrets (both co-written with Jon M. Sweeney; 2017 & 2019). His translation of Rilke’s Prayers of a Young Poet marked the first English publication of poems Rilke later gathered as the opening section of The Book of Hours. His poems and translations have appeared in more than 30 journals, internationally, and he currently serves as Poetry Editor for the journals Spiritus and ARTS. Mark is past president of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. His forthcoming book on Rilke, A Wiser Way: Living Your (Deepest) Questions with Rainer Maria Rilke, is forthcoming in 2023, along with a collection of the poems of Hilde Domin. He lives and writes in Camden, ME.

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