“The Beginning of Devotion”




by Libbie Steiner



“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” In a perfectly distilled phrase of just six words, poet Mary Oliver commanded my consideration. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant, but I knew that I wanted to know. I knew that it was significant and truthful. There was something about it that made me want to let the words sink into my soul.


Upstream is a collection of Mary Oliver’s essays which tell stories of her life as a poet. I am about halfway through the book, wanting to linger on every word. I read it slowly, savoring the wonderful feeling that is reading a book for the very first time. I want to give it the attention it merits.


Upstream is the first book I’ve read for pleasure in months. Instead of hurrying through books, trying to absorb as much as I can in the shortest amount of time possible as I often do with reading for classes, I read this one with care, stopping to re-read parts that I don’t understand or that particularly resonate with me. Instead of buying the cheapest copy I could find on Amazon, this book is brand-new, a gift from my parents. I have no agenda with this book; I do not expect to distill a paper or a presentation out of it. I only want its quiet wisdom to change me, as all good books have in the past. I don’t need this book to give me anything, only to be itself and to absorb its truth. I only want to pay attention.


Like many of my fellow seniors, it feels as though my attention is being pulled in many different directions. Making plans for next year, trying to spend precious time with friends, and trying to finish my last semester strong academically are all areas of my life that command my attention. It feels as though I am living my life in the same manner that I read for classes: hurriedly, jumping from one topic to the next, hoping to learn as much as possible, but not really absorbing much of substance. I find myself putting God by the wayside, leaving Him out as I spend my time on other, seemingly more pressing issues. Of course, these pressing issues quickly become overwhelming when I leave God out.


“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” This means that to notice something is the first step towards adoration of that thing. If I never stop to notice God around me, how can I even begin to worship Him? I am reminded that though life sometimes seems to be passing by too quickly, I can still find a way to attend to the things that matter. I am reminded to be mindful of God.


The more I give in to worry, the more I hear the voice of God telling me to pay attention. Pay attention, He says as I enjoy nights spent laughing with the people who have become my family. Pay attention, He says, as I tell my parents some of good news. Pay attention, He says, as I study in the library. Pay attention, He says, as I sit with a friend going through tragedy. Pay attention, He says, as I wander through the woods.


When I notice all of the good that there is in this life, in my life, then I can begin to praise God for that goodness. In acknowledging and paying attention to the good in my life, instead of giving in to worry, I can allow God to accompany me in this time of transition.

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