Stretch Your Attention: a book review

I am a distracted man and I live among a distracted people. Our electronic devices buzz and chirp. Our online worlds provide portholes to cat pictures, news (real or fake), click-bait quizzes and a nearly endless supply of slideshows on what celebrities wear (or whatever else they do). We work and care for our families. Duty calls and we plod through it all, but feel pulled away by every-little-thing. Is it any wonder we have little sense of God’s presence in our lives? Laura Davis Werezak has written Attend: Forty Soul Stretches Toward God to help us cultivate a greater awareness of God (and everything else). This is a semi-autobiographical exploration of the spiritual practices Werezak has found helpful. She invites us to incorporate these stretches into our own life and faith.

attendlargeWhat does attend mean?  Attend means to be present (as in ‘attending class’). It can also mean ‘to serve’ and ‘to wait’ (59).  The word literally means “to stretch toward”(2).  So these stretches are designed to help us as readers attend well to the condition of our soul and  to the relationships of those around us, as we stretch toward God.

These forty stretches are organized under four headings taken from Isaiah 30:15, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” So it’s organized as follows: I. Returning, II. Rest, III. Quietness,  and IV. Trust. This provides the flow for the stretches which Werezak describes: We return (or turn) our attention to God by learning to pay attention to life; we rest in the Lord, learning to enjoy His presence; we cultivate our ability to hear him the quietness and risk discovering what it means to trust in the Lord in our actions. Werezak begins by describing the practice of opening a window (physically and spiritually) and allowing  fresh air to blow in and ends with a call to plant a seed of peace through the work of justice.  Between these two practices there is not a sequence but a series of interconnected stretches which aim at helping us to attend well.

One of the things I really enjoy about this book is the scope of the practices which Werezak describes. These practices are spiritual (e.g. ways of prayer and mediation), relational (e.g. writing notes, playing with a child, reconnecting with a friend, listening to others), sensate (lighting candles, watching sunsets and sunrises, breathing, writing down five-sense experiences), and mundane (e.g. making your bed, setting tables). She reveals how we can develop our attention to God in all of life (even if it means unplugging from something for a while).

I always have two questions I ask whenever I read a book on spiritual practices. First: is this book just another Christianized version of a self-help book?  Certainly there is overlap being what Werezak calls attentiveness and the concept of mindfulness borrowed from Buddhism and slapped on the cover of every pop-psychology, business and personal growth book. Indeed I think if you practice many of these stretches, you’d be more mindful, aware, more present, and more appreciative of what you have in life. Making your bed, setting the table, cleaning, cutting an onion à la Robert Farrar Capon and watching a sunrise will help you become aware and intentional. Also, Werezak’s stretches are helpful for getting us pay attention to our relationships.However this isn’t just a self-help book because ultimately her hope is that we stretch our attention to God and his place in our lives.

Second: Is there an ecclesiology here? Books on spiritual practices often lack corporate dimensions. Even influential books like Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines lack a developed ecclesiology. And yet our experience of God is fundamentally shaped through our participation in church. Werezak  focuses her stretches on the personal dimension, emphasizing embodying our attention to God; however she does connect her experience to the wider Body of Christ.  She shares about finding a home in Anglican liturgy and delving deep into Christian tradition. She draws insights from mystics and the weird old prayers of the Book of Common Prayer.  She connects her personal  attempts to pay attention to God with the corporate practices of confession, praying written prayers, saying a creed out loud, listening to some else read the Bible for you, etc.). She sees deep connections between her experience, the church and the world and she connections her practices to the church’s Sacraments (44-45, 65, 80). But the strength of this book is how rooted these stretches are in Werezak’s own experience. These stretches are practices which have nourished her and her  own relationship to God.

Because this book features 40 stretches, this is an excellent devotional reader for Lent (coming up March 1), or as something substantive to read if your church is embarking on one of those forty-day extravaganzas. Certainly this book can be read by yourself (as I did) but books on spiritual practice are often more fruitful and fun if read with a friend. There is enough meat here for some good discussion and it is more fun to do stretches and work-out with a friend. Or with a small group. This book is a worthwhile read. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

In the interest of full disclosure, Laura is a friend of mine. We attended the same Christian grad school, had class together, were once neighbors on the University of British Columbia campus and  we were, together with our spouses, in the same justice-themed-small group. These days we catch up occasionally via Facebook. I know Laura to be a smart, reflective woman with a vibrant faith which comes through beautifully in her prose.

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I am a pastor, husband, father, instigator, pray-er, hoper, writer, trouble-maker, peacemaker, and friend. Who are you?

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