Attentiveness: How to Be a Witness

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

Our worship theme for this month is “care of the soul.” We are all souls, unique beings with a particular essence. Each of us needs someone to be attentive to us. Without someone who can be present with us, really listening and accepting, no matter what, life can so unnecessarily lonely and confusing. 

We all need “a witness” to who we really are, paying attention to the state of our inner being, our soul, often, and at every stage of life.

How do we take on the challenge of being attentive to another person’s soul? It isn’t an easy thing, especially when there is a discord in who we think they are or should be and who we might find beneath the surface. We may have a preconceived idea about who another person is. Or we may be not wanting them to be who they turn out to be. We may be uncomfortable with what feels like a “problem” that we want to solve, yet have no clue how to solve.

Nancy Palmer Jones, a wise UU minister, says, “Many of us feel awkward and helpless in the face of another person’s pain. Many of us feel lost and lonely and helpless in the face of our own pain.” Perhaps we feel constrained by propriety, not comfortable getting too close? We may ask, Is it okay to tell each other how we really are? Is it okay to ask how another really is? Is it okay not to have the “answers,” for ourselves, let alone for others?

What happens when a condition or an illness we have, or another has, is chronic? What if there is no way to fix it or make it go away? Often, we know how to show up, how to leap into supportive action in a moment of crisis, like a death or a contained illness. But what about when a “problem” doesn’t go away?

It is often at those times, in particular, when we begin to realize that ministering to each other is not about fixing, but rather about walking with, about being a witness, attentive to another person’s reality, attentive to our own reality.

This may be a silly example. You know I have boy/girl twins, almost 7 years old. My son is neat and organized. My daughter, on the other hand, is not. I have had hopes that asking her to keep her room clean would someday “take.” I realized last week that she is probably never going to be neat or organized. She is creative. She is artistic. But neat, she isn’t. I am beginning to understand that being attentive to her isn’t about making her be what I want her to be, but rather being as attentive as I can to who she is and who she is becoming.

Being attentive to each other, to the soul of the person before you, or to your own soul, is not about fixing, or molding, or offering advice. It is about caring enough to be fully present. 

Parker Palmer, a well-known Quaker who is widely read by both ministers and educators, says this:

Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved.  It simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.… As Mary Oliver (beloved UU poet) has written, This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know; that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

Nancy Palmer Jones shares how Care of the Soul, the book by Thomas Moore, helped her understand that she didn’t need fixing. Instead, she needed to care for her truest self, the mixed-up and the sparkling. And she needed to allow others to care.

She says that “Moore explains that ‘soul’… doesn’t mean ‘an object of religious belief or … something to do with immortality,’ but rather soul is a ‘dimension of [how we experience] life and ourselves… with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance.’” “Care of the soul” is about connecting deeply to life as it really is, “moments of darkness, periods of foolishness,” everyday joys and sorrows, great crises, persistent problems, inner world, outer world, all. Caring for our soul means not assuming that we’re “doing life all wrong” when we feel bad or when our circumstances are falling apart. Care of the soul means listening, quietly, patiently, to what our woes and our joys, are trying to tell us about the fullness of life we hunger for. It means listening, humbly, patiently, as others tell us their stories, knowing that in the midst of the muddle are the beauty and the wisdom of their soul.

There’s a huge difference, Moore says, between care and cure. “Care of the soul … isn’t about curing, fixing, changing, adjusting or making healthy … it isn’t about some idea of perfection or even improvement….. [Care of the soul] remains patiently in the present, close to life … day by day.” This is where our true religion and spirituality—our true depth and meaning—lie.

How do we invite soulfulness? We step up to a stranger or a friend—in social hour (find a quiet place if you need to), before or after a meeting, at the table over dinner, and with our heart pounding, and ask, “How are you, really?” Then listen humbly, patiently, as the other person, with heart pounding, answers as generously and truthfully and bravely as he or she can.

We look around—in this Zoom, at an event, a retreat—and ask, Who’s missing? Make a phone call, pay a visit,  pick someone up, or make that personal invitation that in many cultures is the only way to say, “You are family. You belong here.”

I will end with this prayer from the Rev. Ashley Horan.

The Holy Work of Showing Up
How is it with your soul?

This is the question that John Wesley, Anglican priest and the founder of Methodism, was known to ask of participants in small reflection groups. I ask you because… I WANT TO KNOW… how is it with your souls?

If your response to that question is anything like mine, I want to invite you to pause as you read this.

Take a deep breath, say a prayer, sing a song, light your chalice, feel the force of gravity pulling us all toward the same center—whatever helps you feel more rooted and less alone.

Now do it again. And again, and again.

And, once you feel that rootedness and connection, hear this: You are loved beyond belief. You are enough, you are precious, your work and your life matter, and you are not alone. You are part of a “we,” a great cloud of witnesses living and dead who have insisted that this beautiful, broken world of ours is a blessing worthy of both deep gratitude and fierce protection.

Our ancestors and our descendants are beckoning us, compelling us onward toward greater connection, greater compassion, greater commitment to one another and to the earth. Together, we are resilient and resourceful enough to say “yes” to that call, to make it our life’s work in a thousand different ways, knowing that we can do no other than bind ourselves more tightly together, and throw ourselves into the holy work of showing up, again and again, to be part of building that world of which we dream but which we have not yet seen.

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