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Let's pamper

23 November 2012

Attention is what matters, says Fiona Newton

A PARISHIONER heard an instruction at the hairdressers which has given me much thought. The stylist said to his colleague: "We're going to pamper Sheila today, so that when she goes out, she feels wonderful."

So her hair was beautifully cut, and she left revitalised. But that wasn't what it was all about. The stylist perceived that Sheila, who spends her working life giving her attention to others, was being given to.

As a priest with six parishes, it has led me to think how I - and others, lay and ordained, who welcome, lead worship, and minister - give people the attention they need in order to "feel wonderful", particularly after worship.

Worship: that sacred space in which we can encounter the active and loving God; the place where we are given silence and music, words and actions, to enable us to delve deeply into ourselves, coming face to face with our desires and our fears, the inspiration of our lives, while at the same time being in contact with others in our community who may need our company, or their own space.

I am haunted by the quiet man who told me that no one had spoken to him when he came to one of our churches. Did every one of the welcoming sidespeople miss him? But that is what he experienced: no contact, no pampering - and probably no feeling wonderful when he left the worship that I had led.

As I drive from one service to another, I have a special opportunity. During the drive, I can focus on who might be present. I can think of the issues that each might be facing. Perhaps, for one, it is a day of recuperation after several days of a very long drive to work; another has overseas connections that are giving cause for concern; there is another with a sick husband; another with her own health worry; another with a new grandchild.

What can give each one the feeling of being brought closer to our Saviour, our cosmic God, our life-giving energy, and of being pampered? Perhaps it could be a brilliant sermon. That's rarely an option. It could be out-of-this-world liturgy, the depth of silence, or the sounds of us all doing our best to sing.

I stumbled over an answer during an episcopal review. The Bishop said quietly: "It is something about the quality of the attention."

That's it. Whether it is the care with which flowers have been put in a little pot by the open door; the effort the organist goes to in the choice of music; the way a sidesperson smiles and looks at the person coming through the door, and welcomes each one "as if he or she were Christ"; the prayer with which I write my talk; the eye-contact during the Peace; the space given to the one who wishes not to be greeted; the gentle, almost imperceptible touch on the arm for the one in tears; the honest laughter together when we realise I have made a ridiculous mistake - the Bishop was right. It is indeed the quality of the attention.

What attention surely can do is to convey something of the presence of Christ. It can give the message of unconditional acceptance: that you matter, and I won't turn my eyes to the person over your shoulder. Attention can mean that your interior development matters to me; that you and your experience are worth hearing; and your joys and your struggles need not be endured alone, but are acknowledged within the liturgy, or the welcome, or the pastoral care of the church.

Forgive the parallel, but I do experience something of the same, in allowing my head to be held by another, and my hair washed. It resonates for me with Maundy Thursday's washing and serving. So similarly, when a worshipper offers a hand in Peace, or the chalice, or an experience of the week's living, my attention is asked for.

"Do follow me," said the young slip of a thing, the last time I went for a haircut. I will, Lord. Oh, I will.

Canon Fiona Newton is Rural Dean of Hoxne, Rector of Brundish, Cratfield, Laxfield, and Wilby, and Priest-in-Charge of Syleham andWingfield, in Suffolk.


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