The clamour for attention.
The Reverend Professor Vernon White Canon in Residence
Sunday, 13th May 2018 at 3.00 PM
Some historians and social commentators like to write history with one broad unifying principle through which they try to interpret everything. In the 19th century it was progress. Or Karl Marx’s principle of dialectic worked out through class struggle. In the 20th & 21st centuries it was ‘the clash of civilisations’. The method has its dangers. It may illuminate some things, but in its effort to fit everything to its chosen principle it will skew others - so good historians are wary of it. But I’m not a historian and have no professional pride at stake. So I am going to try one out. I want to suggest the principle of attention seeking. You could surely write a history of the world under the general title: ‘the clamour for attention’.
Natural history could easily be written up this way, metaphorically. Watch (if only on speeded-up film) plants pushing and shoving their way into sunlight. They are desperate for its attention - and push others aside in the race for it.
Social history much the same. So much of it is a history of tribes and nations tussling for territory – not just to survive but also as a quest for status, to be noticed, to count, to have a seat at the top table. It’s also true of pressure groups within society. Suffragettes, Gay activists, all identity politics, have sought attention, not just for power, but in order to count.
It’s true of our own personal history too. We are individually attention seekers. Here, as so often, the child holds up a mirror to the adult. We’re usually more subtle about it as adults and think we’ve grown out of it - but have we? Even those of us who shrink from public attention still seek to be noticed privately by a few people who matter to them. Perhaps just by one particular person. Even those who seem massively secure and self-sufficient seek it. Even those who seem only to think of others seek it in a sublimated way. I suspect all of us retain some ache to be noticed.
Is it good or bad?
Surely a mixture. It can be bad. A sign of psychological disorder, or serious sin, a nasty remnant of our evolutionary origins; part of an egoism, narcissism, self-assertion, which thrusts others aside and pushes ourselves forward just to feed our own voracious appetite for self-aggrandisement; part of the ancient seduction of the serpent always inviting humanity to be more like God. Jesus reserves his fiercest attacks for it. Those who paraded themselves and their prayers in public, wanting the highest seat and highest honours, were in great spiritual danger - far worse, it seems, than thieves, prostitutes, adulterers.
But is it all bad? Not necessarily. The clamour for attention is not necessarily a sign of sin. Isn’t it just as likely a sign of insecurity, neglect, oppression - a sign in today’s language of being marginalised? When the clamour for attention comes it can often be a thermometer of some injustice, a litmus test for life’s unfairness; or just of some great suffering. God Himself, in Christ, cried out for attention: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’
It is also sometimes just a sign of our personhood. It can be simply a sign that, as persons, we need to relate to others: we need to love and be loved. It’s part of being made in the very image of God Himself, who as Trinity is in Herself essentially a set of relationships. And that means our hearts are bound to be restless until we find a right relationship; it means we are bound to need some sort of attention.
So yes - there are histories to be told of our clamour for attention, both good and bad: histories we need to understand if we are to live wisely and well in this world.
Yet - even more important, surely - there is also their correlate: the story of how God does pay attention! And that is the story told first through the history of Israel. It’s the story of how God did pay attention to His people as they cried to Him out of slavery. It’s the story focussed even more intensely in Jesus, who came above all to pay attention to us.
He paid attention, as we heard in the reading, to the poor; to bring them good news; to bring release to captives; sight to the blind. Jesus attended when a sick woman tugged at his coat. e attended when the man cried out Son of David have mercy on me. He has attended to us all by giving us all the release of forgiveness. He attended when a man at the roadside cried out Son of David have mercy on me!’. Of course he did! - ‘O that thou should’st give dust a tonge to cry to thee and then not heare it crying’, as poet George Herbert wrote.
God’s supreme act of paying attention was the incarnation itself, the very act of becoming human. For that is the sort of attention a lover pays: the act of entering right inside the life of the beloved.
Too much human history, far too much, still suffers without seeing the fruits of this divine attention. There are still slaves. There is still sickness, of mind, body and spirit. Why this is so lies in the mystery of the freedom and complexity God has given us in this world – a mystery for another day, another sermon. But this much is still clear for faith. Divine attention has been paid. It is being paid. And it will ultimately be paid, or everyone everywhere - even if it takes eternity to see how.
In the meantime this too is clear: we also are to pay attention; we too must listen to the cries, especially of neglect or injustice. ‘Attention must be paid!’, said Arthur Miller in his great play The Death of a Salesman. Not just to the great and good who already have the spotlight on them, but to everyone including the so-called ordinary hidden people: the salesman, the unknown warrior…
This Abbey, like any great Cathedral, any great theatre of the Spirit, has encapsulated in its stones and its daily life all these histories of the cry for attention - both good and bad. Its grandeur has been and still is an engine of egoism, if we’re not careful. But also it has been and still is an echo chamber for the genuine cry for attention. And above all it’s a place which keeps telling how God does hear those cries, does pay attention - and invites us to do the same.