Ah, the siren call of the backyard rhododendron. Thick leaves gleam in the morning sun. I grab my camera, wedge my feet into black garden clogs, and squelch across lawn still bright with dew.
To my squeamish delight, this weird little bug appears, bright as a split lemon.
Will it bite? Does it fly?
I snap shot after shot, serenely transfixed. Spider or bug? What is it?
Two words swim up: Pay Attention. An order. A plea. A guiding phrase.
Ancient seekers often asked community elders for a word or phrase they could meditate on, whether from the scriptures, or wisdom texts, or the mind and mouth of the sage, in the moment.
Five years ago, unaware that “asking for a word” has long been a common spiritual practice, the same idea arrested me. It was New Year’s Eve. Rather than listing resolutions (which I’d conveniently forget in three days), I wanted an overarching “theme” to apply for the coming year. One phrase felt doable.
Two words surfaced: “Pay attention”
Oh dear. For this chronic multi-tasker, trying to focus on one task or idea or person at a time would prove . . . well, trying. As a guiding phrase for the whole year, would it fly? Or would it come back to bite me?
First, living by those two words improved my concentration.
Secondly, attentiveness revved my willingness to enjoy repetitive chores (I still draw the line at ironing).
The third gift repeatedly ambushed me as subtle but striking details aroused my curiosity.
Over time, being more present throughout the day highlighted the wondrous and troubling and flat-out quirky.
Did my guiding phrase bite back? Put it this way: Yes, I’d find myself gripping the phone with one hand, typing with the other, while checking the monitor, stretching my neck and tightening abs. Habits, after all, have teeth.
I’d pause (usually). Busted again. Stung for the moment. Then grateful for another chance.
And a year offers so many chances to live one phrase from the inside, out.
Sure, discouragement rattled my latches. To combat resignation, I repeated (often aloud) this Benedictine guilt-buster:
“Always we begin again”
This has to be one of the bedrock truths undergirding contemplative life. It’s okay to start over. Really. We are not defective. We’re not losers. Or slackers. We get to enjoy a fresh run at the task or idea or relationship before us.
And the fourth gift of attentiveness?
Starting over hones openness, creativity, and a sense of adventure. What will happen this time?
Back to the Mystery Bug
Today, arrested a-fresh, beside the rhododendron, I recall my initial guiding phrase gladly.
Pay attention. The lesson from five years ago reclaims me via one bright yellow bug. I pocket the camera. Take a step back. I can let a sense of failure gnaw, call myself names for losing sight of wisdom I want to live by, or . . . I can start over. Fly with it.
MAKING IT PERSONAL: Is there an invitation for you in this moment, to claim a shining phrase or favorite verse, one you might return to, again and again, throughout the day? Or this week?
TIP: I’m forgetful, so I write mine on yellow post-its, then stick them to mirrors, fridge, dashboard, and desk. The bright yellow catches my eye, like today’s mystery bug, and surprises me into remembrance.
TAKING IT FURTHER: In monastic tradition, listening deeply for the key word or guiding phrase is called Lectio Divina. May I recommend an excellent book? Lectio Divina – The Sacred Art: Transforming Words and Images into Heart-Centered Prayer, by Christine Valters Paintner. Request it from your library, or find it on Amazon.
Share your word or phrase in the Comments section. I’d love to hear what’s giving you wings this week!