Risking serene attentiveness

The sunrise along the shores of Lake Michigan. (Christin Tomy)

We live three miles from a coal-fired power plant. On cold, still days, the smoke it releases barely moves; it piles upward in a tall column like a solitary cumulonimbus cloud.

It was on such a morning (a mere 2 degrees!) that I pulled on my snowshoes for a hike in the park adjacent to our farm. The sky was clear and I was sure a beautiful sunrise would await me over the shores of Lake Michigan.

The power plant was ahead of me for much of my hike, its smoke billowing pink in the pre-dawn light. Every few minutes I would glance over my right shoulder to see the eastern sky lightening, and when I looked back, the smoke seemed to glow a brighter, eerier shade of pink.

My anticipated sunrise was just beginning as I reached the shoreline, but what caught my attention even more than the dazzling rays was the lake itself. Due to the difference in temperature between the water and the air, the lake was steaming. Wisps of pink vapor danced over the gently lapping water. The steam seemed spirited, alive.

As I stood mesmerized by this show, I finally noticed my own breath, which also glowed pink with each exhale. In my line of vision it seemed to blend into the vapors over the lake.

That's when it hit me: the power plant, the lake and I . . . we were "breathing" together.

Participants carry signs at a march for climate justice in Milwaukee. (Christin Tomy)

Surprised by serene attentiveness

I had been caught unaware by a moment of serene attentiveness. This term, an idea similar to mindfulness, captivated me during a recent reading of Laudato Si'. "We are speaking of an attitude of the heart," Pope Francis writes, "one which approaches life with serene attentiveness." (226) This attitude allows us to be fully present to each moment and open to the revelation of God in the world around us.

This strikes me not only as one of the most important themes of the encyclical, but also as one of our deepest human needs. Those of us in the Western world are often overstimulated, overwhelmed and, as Susan wrote insightfully in her recent column, even oversaturated to the point of indifference by information about injustice and suffering.

Something isn't working. We don't find peace by tacking it on a to-do list. We can't fight busy with busy. Serene attentiveness offers us another path, a chance to look at things a little differently.

Don't be fooled by the serenity part, though; serene attentiveness is no pie-in-the-sky withdrawal from all that is difficult in the world. It includes attention to beauty, to be sure, but it also requires an honest, clear-eyed, and sometimes piercing openness to reality in all its shades.

Pope Francis is quick to point this out, noting in the earliest paragraphs of Laudato Si' that it's our responsibility "to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it." (LS 19) He invites us to approach the world with an attitude of wonder and awe, but reminds us that we're equally called to be sensitive to its suffering.

My sunlit revelation that morning didn't exclude the reality of the coal plant, which spews its dust on my neighbors and pollutes Lake Michigan. Neither did it ignore the beauty of the steam rising off the lake, or the miracle of my own breath. It held this all in a beautiful, heart-wrenching moment of complexity. Because of that, the moment has stayed with me, inviting me to grapple with it and prompting fruitful reflection.

Basil seedlings are sprouting in our miniature indoor greenhouse. (Christin Tomy)

For, not from

Serene attentiveness, if it's willing to hold the complexity, can help us cultivate an attitude of "for," not only one of "from." Often we speak of climate change (and many social issues, for that matter) in terms of what we wish to avoid: the apocalyptic warnings and dire "if we don't change" predictions. These messages are valid, of course; we've seen what isn't working, and we must pay attention.

But while these messages motivate us to run from certain choices, from can only take us so far. Fear-based approaches don't offer a vision of what we're working for. True change must be motivated by more than fear. We work for what we desire. We care for whom and what we love.

Serene attentiveness, because it helps us notice what we love and care for in the world, provides a much-needed horizon. It reminds us that "to be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little." (LS 222)

Cultivating an attitude of serene attentiveness likely means we'll be called away from some forms of excess in order to experience something even better: abundance. It will involve sacrifice, and it will most certainly lead to transformation.

Are we willing to take that risk?

[Christin Tomy is a novice with the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. She has lived and worked in Central and South America and has a background in Spanish and social work. She is passionate about social justice, good hugs, Iowa and most outdoor activities. She also writes for her community’s blog at catherinescafe.blogspot.com.]