Staring Out a Window
(Is.63:16-17; 64:1,3-8; 1Cor.1:3-9; Mk.13:33-37)
When did you last stare out a window, thinking about nothing in particular?
These days, most people seem to regard daydreaming as a waste of time. They think it’s better to be working, studying, or doing something productive, because staring out a window is just a sign of boredom and distraction.
Yet, in his book The School of Life, Alain de Botton says the point of staring out a window is not to find out what’s going on outside. Rather, it’s to discover what’s in our own minds.
It’s easy to imagine we know what we think, what we feel and what’s going on in our heads, he says. But that’s actually rare, because so much of ourselves remains unused and unexplored. However, if we do it right, staring out a window can help us get to know our deeper selves.[i]
Indeed, some of our greatest insights and most creative ideas only come when we stop trying to force our minds. And importantly, some of our best prayers only flow when we let our hearts and minds wander. [ii]
In the coming weeks, staring out a window may prove to be very useful as we enter another season of Advent and prepare to farewell the year 2023.
The British author Oliver Burkeman describes himself as ‘a recovering productivity addict.’ In his book Four Thousand Weeks, he says that the average human lifespan is just that: about 4,000 weeks. That’s if we make it to 80. If we only live to 70, then it’s roughly 3,600 weeks. And if we live as long as Queen Elizabeth II, then we’ll get about 5,000 weeks.
His point is that the average human life span is ‘absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.’ This may come as an icy blast of reality, he says, but it shouldn’t make us anxious. Rather, it should be cause for relief because it means we can let go of some things that were always impossible, anyway.
The day will never arrive, he says, when you finally have everything under control. When the flood of emails has been contained, when your to-do lists have stopped growing, when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and at home … None of this is ever going to happen, he says.
And that’s good news, because it means we can let go of all that, and focus instead on what is possible – and what is important. [iii]
In today’s Gospel Jesus warns us, ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come … You don’t know when the master of the house is coming.’
That master is Jesus, of course. He’s coming at Christmas, he’s coming at the end of our lives, he’s coming at the end of all time (2Thess.1:6-7) – and we need to be prepared (Mt.25:31-46).
But as Richard Rohr tells us, Jesus is also already here. We’re just not aware of it. How do we know? It’s because God’s love keeps us alive with every breath we take. And each breath means that God is choosing to give us life. In this sense, we have nothing to attain or even learn, however we do need to unlearn some things.
To recognise God’s loving presence in our lives, he says, we must accept that human culture is in a mass hypnotic trance. We are sleep-walkers. All great religious teachers have recognized that we humans do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see. As Jesus says, ‘If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light’ (Lk.11:34).
The purpose of religion, then, is to teach us how to see and be present to reality. That’s why Jesus today tells us to ‘be awake’ and ‘stay watchful.’
And this is where staring out the window (or at an image of Christ), becomes so important, for prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts. Rather, it’s a stance. It’s a way of living in the Presence, living in awareness of the Presence, and even of enjoying the Presence. For the contemplative is not just aware of God’s Loving Presence, but trusts, allows and delights in it.
When we allow the Holy Spirit to gently flow in and through us, we begin to see what is, to see who we are, and to see what is happening.
What is – is love. It is God, who is love itself, giving away God every moment as the reality of our life.
Who we are is love, too, because we are created in God’s image.
And What is happening is God living in us, with us, and through us as love. [iv]
So, this Advent, take time to stare out a window. And ask yourself: do I really have 4,000 weeks?
[i] Alain de Botton, The School of Life, Penguin, London, 2020, pp.120-121.
[ii] Describing the human mind, Plato said that our ideas are like birds fluttering around in the aviary of our brains. But before we can get these birds to settle, we need to make time for purpose-free calm.
[iii] Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Penguin, London, 2022.
[iv] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations: A Contemplative Heart – Be Awake, 23 August 2023.