An attentive moment – Andrew Hamilton SJ

As a young Jesuit I learned philosophy. Most of it has washed away, but the saying that ‘all that exists is true, good and beautiful’ stayed with me. It seemed then to be the triumph of wishful thinking over experience – think of election campaigns, Hitler and slugs.

But lately it has come to mind again, not as an intellectual claim, but as the fruit of attending at leisure to the world, as we Australians do most readily in the countryside or when fishing. Imagine yourself sitting outside one spring morning when the sun turns the wattle blossom electric and picks out the moist green of eucalypts, black green of sheoaks and the drier green of acacia and melaleuca; when the wind stirs in the high tree tops, rocking the white cockatoos and magpies; when blue wrens with their silver paper rustling scavenge in the undergrowth among the running postman, pink heath and egg and bacon plant; when currawongs with their brassy call crash land in the ti tree, white napped honey eaters fossick in the blossom trees and, amid the squawking, carolling and intimate calling of unseen birds, two bush thrushes sing variations on their five note song, while on the ridge stands a solitary buck kangaroo, guarding his court grazing in the scrub.

Long and quiet attention breeds stillness. You find yourself placed in this scene, not as observer but as part of it, caught in wonder and gratitude for the gift of sharing this world of beauty, goodness, and possibility. Of entering momentarily the truth of things, while at the same time recognising how undeserved is the gift, and how your self-regard and self-preoccupation mark you as a stranger here.

If you remain attentive you may gradually notice the competitive business that bankrolls this idyllic scene: trees competing for light; plants and birds deploying colour in order to seduce raiders to carry on their seed; wedge-headed kookaburras – trained killers – dashing worms against a rock and leaving them for eating; all the exclusion zones marked out by carolling and whistling; birds seeking the food that will give enough energy to continue seeking food: all creatures poised between life and death, giving life and yielding it. Their brief lives in this festival of light are candles that flare a while and return to darkness having given their bit, done their work.

That perhaps may lead you to wonder that an incompetent like you should be invited into this seething world to live for a space, your own life a passing arc in this cycle of living, dying and regeneration, your dying as well as your living a matter for gratitude, a gift from the God who placed you here.

Then you may find yourself astounded by the larger gift of being called to follow Jesus of whom all this life and movement, all this beauty, goodness and truth, are images, to follow him not only in being part of this world, not only in wondering at this gift and being thankful for it, but also in drawing others to wonder and be grateful for its glory, so that together you may shape a human world based, not on competition, but on respect for the unique place of each person, each being, within it.

It is difficult to listen to yourself thinking such elevated thoughts without seeing the weakness, self-absorption, habitual inattention and competitiveness that make you totally inadequate for the task. Like Sarah, when told at the age of one hundred or so that she would fall pregnant, you might laugh aloud – laugh with delight at the ridiculous thought slowly overtaken by sneaking surmise at the impossible possibility: that a broken-winged bird might be asked to help others to fly, a skeletal tree could harbour the ants, beetles and nests that will feed and shelter others, and that a dung beetle could form the seedbed in which seeds can germinate and later produce a multitude of seeds that will be carried on the wind, be swallowed and dropped far afield, be burned in bushfire, crack open and germinate.

And out of that laughter might come the realisation that, although nothing that exists is perfect, nevertheless all that exists is indeed true, good and beautiful if you only attend to it.