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A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

ThinkstockPhotos-178013733When a monk asks you a question, it’s generally wise to listen. I learned this lesson on an annual silent retreat at a monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During his sermon, a brother was describing the various perspectives on the “real presence” of Christ in the eucharist, but, rather than tease out the fineries of the real presence of Christ in the elements, he suggested that, even better than inquiring into the presence of Christ, we might ask instead, “am I really present?”

One of our greatest contemporary problems is a lack of being present. In a word, our problem is a lack of attention. Attention consists of being here now. It is a faculty whose power of engagement can be strengthened like a muscle through habitual practice. Attention is a finite resource. What we pay attention to can either pay great dividends or bankrupt our souls because what we attend to is an indication of what we believe to be worthy of our attention, that is, what we value. And, what we value is a direct result of what we love.

Attention is developed through the practice of saying “no” to one thing in order to say “yes” to another. One must develop the habit of ignoring the many in order to attend the one. This movement of saying “no” to say “yes,” of ignoring in order to attend, can be developed through the practice of spiritual disciplines like fasting, silence, and the celebration of the Sabbath. We fast from consuming in order to feast upon God and gain bread, enabled to feed others. We enter into silence in order to hear from God and receive a word, enabled to speak to others. We cease our work in order to rest and be reminded of who we are: humans, not robots, having a “self,” enabled to love others.

With the rise of the modernist conception of the “individual,” “choice,” and “freedom” came the fall of certain traditional authorities and rituals. Couple this with the proliferation of social media and the commodification of nearly every corner of our environment, and we’ve become convinced that virtual reality is even better than the real thing. There is a perpetual fear that you miss too much these days if you just stop and think. We have been launched into a new horizon (or fallen over the cliff) into “life” in an age of distraction.

The problem of our cultural moment is commonly commented upon. And yet our being-in-the-world is acrobatic: we talk one way about our cultural attention-deficit disorder and act another, doing nothing about it.

So, this is yet another voice crying out in our wilderness. We need to educate our faculty of attention, and this requires a community of disciples that can carry each other along in the process. It also requires knowing the proper objects of attention, good models, and loads of hard, hands-on, bodily practice. Again, St. Paul provides the way for being made whole:

“Brothers and sisters, to the degree that anything is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, or commendable; if anything is virtuous or is worthy of praise, attend to these things. What you have learned, and received, and heard, and observed in me – practice these things – and the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil 4:8-9, translation mine)

This is an abridged version of a longer article. Read the full version of this devotional in its original publication here. [Transpositions

Kevin Antlitz
Ministry Fellow at Princeton