Our church service yesterday morning focused on the theme of taking time to pause and concentrate and absorb. We sang a hymn I hadn’t heard before about the need to behave like cows and sheep, standing in the fields watching and thinking. Our student minister read the well-known poem by Mary Oliver in which she describes spending a whole afternoon contemplating a grasshopper. And in the sermon, our minister described a classroom method biologist Louis Aggasiz practiced at Harvard in which students were required to stare at dead fish for days on end and describe it in detail, only to discover time after time how very little detail they were actually absorbing.
This was good for me to hear. I hadn’t been to church for several weeks because of other options on Sunday mornings. A couple of those weeks I’d been out of town, but other weeks I’d wanted to concentrate on other priorities: spending time with my sisters and their families when they were in town on a rare weekend visit in mid-October, going for a run with a friend another Sunday in early November and urging her to stay for a cup of coffee so that we could catch up a little bit.
So sometimes, going to church feels to me like the opposite of pausing and concentrating. Sometimes, I avoid going with the excuse that when Sunday morning comes, I just can’t rush around anymore. I rush every weekday morning to get the kids to the schoolbus on time; I hurry throughout the course of my work day; I hurry to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour; I hurry to get to bed early enough to try for seven hours of sleep. On Sunday mornings, sometimes I just need a break from hurrying – even if hurrying means something as theoretically contemplative as being at church. I need to pause at home and regroup.
But being back after several weeks away yesterday reminded me that in some ways, the only time I really can stop and concentrate is in church. I tell myself some weekends that I’ll have a leisurely, focused breakfast and maybe even read the paper, but more often than not, I eat while simultaneously unloading the dishwasher and making breakfast for the kids. I imagine going for a leisurely run instead of church, but instead I run with one eye on the clock, calculating what time I need to be done and showered in time to be on time to the next commitment.
I’m not good at pausing and concentrating, and during the holiday season this tendency for distraction only grows worse: instead of letting my mind absorb the present, I’m thinking about the next party, the next cooking project, the next holiday performance on our schedule.
So it was good to be in church yesterday morning to hear this message, and also to be able to enact it just a little bit. In church, there is nothing to do but sit and listen. I couldn’t unload a dishwasher or go for a walk even if I wanted to: it’s church. So that’s the one time of the week when I know I really will just sit still. And it was good to be reminded yesterday of what an important priority that is – at any time of year, but perhaps on the brink of the holiday season most of all.