Joyous Attention

May 16, 2021

Reflection by Reverend Rebecca Bryan

Do you believe in God? I don’t believe. I know.

This is one of my all-time favorite film clips. The twinkle in Carl Jung’s eye and the childlike grin that filled his face bring me such joy. Jung was being interviewed in his home in Switzerland in 1959 when the recording was taken. The BBC journalist was either caught off guard by Jung’s response, or inflexible in his checklist of questions, because he moves ahead, without so much as a pause, to ask Jung how he became a doctor.

Wait! I wanted to scream the first time I saw this film. Tell me more about your knowing, Dr. Jung.

I was sitting in the C.G. Jung Institute of New England in Newton, Massachusetts when this happened. My heart beat faster in recognition when the great doctor spoke of knowing God, and I leaned forward on my plastic chair as though he could come back alive from the screen.

I wanted to ask about his knowing and see if it reflected my experience, wanted to ask, “Is it the exchange of love and experience of transcendence I experienced the first time I saw my newborn daughter’s translucent fingernails?” Their tiny moon shape reminded me of wax paper and the silver medallion-shaped tree seeds on my grandmother’s money tree in her backyard.

Is it the same knowing that Wendell Berry experienced and described so eloquently in his poetry? In “The Peace of the Wild Things” when he goes and lies where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

This much I know, writes Christine Beck, the poet whose work I shared this morning.

I know I’ll always want to call my mom to say I saw a cardinal, a goldfinch or a hummingbird.

I know there are mysteries I’ll poke and prod yet never understand—

I know that every wound, every slight, all can be healed by the morning song of cardinal, the flash of wing of hummingbird, the willingness to take my place gently in the world as if I were … a violet among a field of flowers that all look the same, yet each unique as a child’s imaginary game…

Knowing is sacred. It is different from believing, thinking, learning. Knowing comes from within us. It is relational: it moves between us and the world, physical and imaginal. It’s one of the closest experiences I have of God.
If you listen carefully, people tell you what they know all the time. Pay attention, for they are telling you what sustains them.

“I know my daughter so well that it brings me great joy to buy punk rock music, even though I cannot stand listening to it,” said my professor.

We live in a world that, if we’re not careful, will pull us away from such intimacy and knowing into states of reaction, freneticism, and fear. The more angry, frightened, or overwhelmed we get, the harder we sometimes work, research, or think. What if we turned to what we know for solace when we are dysregulated by fear or anger, instead of working, researching, and thinking? What if when a problem looms so big that it overtakes our clarity, we put it down momentarily and turn to something we know. It can be as simple as a beloved house plant or the scent of lilac coming through opened windows.

You might think there’s a big difference between caring for a houseplant and knowing God. I’ve heard astrophysicists, cosmologists, and environmentalists speak about galaxies, creation, and wood frogs the same way Jung spoke of God. They are all describing an exchange of intimacy, wonder, love.

It is the intimacy, the immediacy and the knowing, that makes it sacred.

To do this, we must start small or specific. We must draw in from the vastness of life and move to the particular that we can know and love. 

Children naturally do this. Watch a child fall in love with a leaf she discovered; see how she makes it float in a puddle and then sticks it to her rainboot. How delighted children are when that same leaf stays with them as they run down the sidewalk and how they dutifully stop to retrieve it from the ground when it falls. Children love the world by loving the particular, and so do we. 

In her book Everyday Sacred, Susan Bender writes about how a friend used intimacy with the particular to adjust to living in New York City. When this woman first moved to the city, she was overwhelmed by the sounds, smells, and commotion, so much that she wasn’t sure she could stay. What she did was to focus on the two-block radius around her house. She got to know the shopkeepers, the dogs that were walked in the morning, and the plants that grew in pots on the street corners. These two blocks became her “sanctuary.” From there she could then venture into the larger city because she had the place she knew, the place she called home.

The love generated from knowing – a place, a person, or a part of nature – is like nothing else. It calms us, sustains us, and empowers us. It is the reason Carl Jung’s eyes twinkled when he spoke of knowing God.

This comment of his, by the way, produced incredible discussion. People wanted to know what he meant by God. It’s a fascinating story best understood in the context of his work. He met that something greater than himself that he called God in the inner workings of his own mind. Is that God as you understand it? It doesn’t matter. It brought him great joy.

May we all be so blessed to experience such knowing, the kind that heals us, soothes us, inspires us, and reminds us that we belong.

Amen and blessed be.

Pin It on Pinterest