The young man was making the after-school help session so much longer and more difficult than it had to be. Today, everything was a major debate. Then, without warning, he switched topics to religion. He said, “Do you hear God talking to you?” Based on his prior behavior, I replied (icily), “Yes I do. And if your goal today is to make fun of me for that please know we are not marching down that road.” For the first time that afternoon there was respect in his demeanor and tone as he said, “I promise you, Dr. Flavin, that I would never do that.”
Many years later, I still marvel at the ability of the adolescent mind to instantly switch from disengagement to avid reflection. Neuroscience calls it selective attention. As we mature to adults, we have taught ourselves to divert instead of deeply focus our attention. We call that diverted (or partial attention) multi-tasking.
In a Coronavirus-filled world where our traditional ways of community worship have been interrupted, we are streaming Mass (or watching Mass on TV). It is far too easy to get distracted amidst our personal living space. That distraction registers to us as more of questioning of the presence of God. How to remedy this? We each need to work to bring to consciousness what works for us to guide ourselves to deep reflection.
At a recent Zoom meeting, the Massachusetts Sisters of Providence and Associates discussed simple ideas for making part of our home that Sacred space where I go to be with God. It isn’t as if God now comes by due to my little changes. It is simply that my little changes focus my attention away from the everyday use of that space and back to my dialog with God. It really is not that different than what I do when I enter church. At the door, I shelf my worldly concerns. Then, I move forward focused upon being with God.
Preparing to enter the Sacred space is important. One can find the Mass prayers online and print them. A little prayer time before Mass focuses me upon my listening for God. Turning off the phone ringer, putting the cell phone in the other room, turning off all emails (and things that would allow pop ups), opening the window shades/curtains to be able to feel the presence of God’s Creation (or closing the window if the world outside is a distractor), and lighting that candle serve to demarcate that Sacred space. The simple acts of praying out loud as well as standing and sitting as I would at Mass also aids in my recognition of the TV or streamed Mass as community worship. All of these little changes focus our attention to Who is within that Sacred space, thus allowing us to more deeply sense our ever-present Lord.
Equally important is what I choose to do as I leave the Sacred space. Two things that can guide us in these uncertain times are Jesus’ example and the Greatest Commandment. Jesus distanced Himself from the world to go to a Sacred space to pray and to be with the Father. Upon returning, Jesus brought the Father’s love to the disciples and to all those He encountered on His Journey. With His example Jesus showed us how to live the Greatest Commandment. Jesus’ words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest Commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 26: 36-40).
After I have worshiped God and been open to deepening my personal relationship with God through participation in Mass (albeit remotely via TV or computer), then it is time for me to return to the world where I am called to move to the community aspect of me and my neighbor. In the world today how can I bring God’s love to my neighbor? Maybe it is a phone call, maybe a remote meeting, maybe it is me putting on a mask and walking through my neighborhood. I can stay six to eight feet away (masked) and still have a twinkle in my eye as I converse for a moment with my neighbor. Each of us sharing that together we will get through this.
Back to my student — I explained each of us senses (“hears”) God’s gentle whisper in our own way. Had he thought he had heard God? He replied he was not sure God existed. I smiled and told him that all the saints had similar questions. Questions were important because they were starting points that led us to seek answers. My words to him that day were simpler, but akin to those of Michael Smith. Say to God “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord; I want to see You.” Then listen intently for God’s answer.
Anchor columnist Dr. Helen J. Flavin, Ph.D., is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.