Letters to Peregrinus #61 - On Attention

Niels Larsen Stevns (Danish, 1864-1941)[1] – “Christ and Zacchaeus” (1913),
kept at the Randers Museum of Art.[2] Concerning the text in Luke 19:1-10
Bernard Lonergan, SJ (1904-1984)[3] – “In brief, where exegesis[4] is concerned to determine what a particular person meant, history is concerned to determine what, in most cases, contemporaries do not know.”[5]

Pope St. Leo the Great (Pope from 440-461 CE) – “Those who are not good to others are bad to themselves.”

Teilhard de Chardin, SJ – “Before attempting to probe the secret of life, let us take a good look at it. From a merely external contemplation of it, there is a lesson and a force to be drawn from it: the sense of testimony.”[6]
Dear Peregrinus (Wednesday; feast of St. Leo the Great [Pope from 440-461 CE][7]):

Blessing to you in this month of November, the last of the four months to have thirty days – “Thirty days has September / April, June, and November”. In Anglo-Saxon (i.e., “Old English”), this month was called Blōtmōnaþ, the month when the Anglo-Saxons sacrificed cattle to their gods. The root “blōt- “means “blood sacrifice”.

What Happened?[8]

I am seeking an answer to a question – “What happened that day when Jesus saw Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus saw Him?” (Luke 19:1-10)

It had occurred to me how differently members of the crowd, or Jesus, or Zacchaeus, or the latter’s wife and kids, or the disciples would have answered that question. Did any of them (other than Jesus Himself) know what happened? And is what apparently happened simply a pointer to what really was happening?

Think how often it is the case with us that when something important happens, we do not really understand it until later, sometimes a very long time later. Think how often it happens that when Jesus acts, He is confident that even His disciples did not understand what had just happened, that they had yet to recognize its significance.

John 13 - Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”[9]

And so it is that a sufficient answer to the question “What happened?” must come later. In another place, Jesus Himself associates our ability to conclude accurately about what happened, and its significance, with the sending of the Holy Spirit, Who alone “explains all things” –

John 16:

12 I still have many things to say to you
but they would be too much for you to bear now.
13 However, when the Spirit of truth comes
he will lead you to the complete truth,
since he will not be speaking of his own accord,
but will say only what he has been told; [10]

“What happened that day in Jericho?” How would you answer, old friend? Here is where my search took me.

Luke 19:1-10

I found myself helped towards an answer by this painting by Niels Larsen Stevns, about whom we read: “between 1911 and 1916 he produced ten or so church paintings that are among the most important in Denmark”[11]. The painting (above) proceeds from his contemplation of the text in Luke’s Gospel, which reads in part:

Luke 19 (NJB) - 5 When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today.’ And he hurried down and welcomed him joyfully. 7 They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house,’ they said.[12]

What did all those people – each one of them - think was happening that day, and at that moment, in Jericho, when our Lord suddenly stopped and looked up?

Thoughts about the Painting

COLORS - What first caught my attention was the beautiful shade of green. I think that the green is not intended to signify foliage[13], but the presence (everywhere in the painting!) of a spiritual effect. I feel energy[14] emanating from that color.

The Book of Wisdom 7 –
26 For she [Wisdom] is the reflection of eternal light,
 the spotless mirror of the power of God,
 the image of his goodness.m[15]

On closer inspection, it appears that the gold color surrounds, but often penetrates the boundaries of, each instance of green. And so, I am left with the impression that the green proceeds from the gold – a green and vibrant freshness born of the golden light.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889) in his sonnet “God’s Grandeur” –

And for all this, nature is never spent;
     There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

Further, the green color is both proof of the existence and power of the golden light, as well as the way for a person to find his or her way back to the Light.

The Book of Wisdom 7 –

27 Although she [Wisdom] is one, she can do all things,
    and she renews everything while herself perduring.
Passing into holy souls from age to age,
    she produces friends of God and prophets.n [16]

Notice how Zacchaeus there on the branch appears to see and to be reaching towards the tiniest shard of green – look at his searching fingers – as if Jesus threw it there for Zacchaeus to find. Notice also that the man closest to us (standing center, right – I think that it is Peter) is strikingly tagged with green, which allows his forward foot to step onto a path of golden “paving stones” leading in a direction opposite to where he is looking. (Look at the astonishing “twisting” in that man, who stands so close to Jesus.)

Finally, those who study the Psychology of colors[17] tell us that green is the color of life[18] (a proof of life and growth), and those who walk or dwell in “green” spaces experience within themselves feelings of “harmony, growth, freshness, and energy”. We also learn that the color “gold” (a hue of yellow) symbolizes “happiness, hope, creativity, and intellect”. And, yellow, which sits next to green on the spectrum, is the brightest color on the spectrum. And further, in the biblical tradition, yellow/gold is the divine color, which symbolizes the divine presence, the “glory” (Hebrew, the shekinah)[19] of God.

Larsen Stevns, I think, grasps the necessary coincidence of green and gold – where God is present (dynamis or power), there is Life (energeia or energy) … and abundantly.
John 1:
9 The Word was the real light
 that gives light to everyone;
 he was coming into the world.
 10 He was in the world
 that had come into being through him,
 and the world did not recognize him. [20]

ATTENTION[21] – Every face/head in this painting is strong with attention – not one seems bored or vague or uninterested. How remarkable that Larsen Stevns would spend so much time painting each of those thirty distinct people, when, it seems to us, that they do not matter in the story, they are not “what is happening” in Jericho that day. Why, then, did the painter spend so much time creating in each face and gesture such expressiveness? We are missing something.

But what is striking, when seen in relation to Jesus at the center - His strong gesture towards Zacchaeus, and the sound of His voice - is how unaware of Him the people are. Jesus is doing one thing; His focus is singular – redemption functions in this way. But the attention of the people walking with Him (the crowd, the disciples) fragments in many directions![22] It is not even clear to me that Zacchaeus’s attention is on Jesus Who summons him, though I do notice his upraised left arm, which suggests that he has just let go of the tree’s trunk and is about to jump down rather than to climb down.

And so, the painting compels me to think about attention: to what or to whom I attend habitually… and therefore, to what or to whom I do not.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) wrote: “Imagination is better than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”[23] And, Thich Nhat Hanh (born 1926; now 95-years old)[24] wrote: “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”[25]

Larsen Stevns is so attentive! He sees each person in the crowd; he watches Jesus looking up, and Zacchaeus looking down. He notices the fragmented focus of the crowd, each person caught up in his own agenda, preoccupied with something, haunted by some memory. He watches Jesus in their midst working a tiny act of redemption - “tiny” to the crowd, but not to Zacchaeus – which is how redemption usually works. And he admires Jesus’ stillness, and the alignment of his whole being (feet, arm, face, voice – all in the same direction) towards Zacchaeus – there is no “twisting” in Him.

Sometimes a life is changed by a simple gesture, a reaching out, and a voice that knows his or her name.
DIVINE POWER (dynamis) AND ENERGY (energeia)[26] – The lasting impression in me from this painting (I don’t know how Larsen Stevns makes this happen) is that my attention did not, could not, stay with Jesus or Zacchaeus or on the thirty faces/heads. How could the artist expend so much magnificent effort painting those thirty people, and even Jesus, and I am unable to keep my attention on them?

What is happening … in me?

What stayed with me was the intense, formless, green-proceeding-from-gold, a conflagration “boiling” with life and energy. It is as if there were a wildfire raging, right there behind them, about to overtake them … and not even one is paying attention!

Luke 12: 49 ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already![27]

I recall something from Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, SJ[28], in his book, The Heart of Matter[29]:

A spark had to fall upon me, to make the fire blaze out. And, without a doubt, it was through my mother that it came to me, sprung from the stream of Christian mysticism, to light up and kindle my childish soul. It was through that spark that “My universe,” still but half-personalized, was to become amorised [i.e., constituted by love], and so achieve its full centration.[30] (The Heart of Matter, in Cuenot, p. 4.)

An Answer Searching for Further Understanding

And so, Peregrinus, I offer you my answer, but expecting (!) that you will give me yours. “What really happened that day in Jericho?”

Because of Larsen Stevns, I saw something that I had never noticed before, and have begun to understand. In every miracle that Jesus did, whether dramatic or subtle, there became present the entire Trinity boiling and alive with energy. Our perception of a divine Gift given, as was given to Zacchaeus that day, is so limited, that we cannot guess how the Divine Trinity, each Divine Person actively active, enters in, becoming fully present. And so, we conclude, wrongly, that God gave or revealed Himself[31]  partially.

The “partial” is about us, not about God.

We affirm in the tiny Eucharistic host, or host and cup, that we are given the whole Christ (not a symbol of Him; not a “piece” of Him; not a partial presence … but a real, complete Presence).

Godhead here in hiding whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more.
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.[32]

So, in each miracle there is hiddenly concentrated (to our perception) the entire Trinitarian presence, and it is important, it seems to me, that we get used to wondering about that.

What happened that day in Jericho? The Trinity was present as energy, hiddenly, but completely not partially. I think that this is what Larsen Stevns sought to express by the green and golden light, and what the author of the Wisdom of Solomon expressed in words so magnificent:

The Book of Wisdom 7 -

22 For within her [Wisdom] is a spirit intelligent, holy,
 unique, manifold, subtle,
 mobile, incisive, unsullied,
 lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, shrewd,*
23 irresistible, beneficent, friendly to human beings,
steadfast, dependable, unperturbed,
almighty, all-surveying,
penetrating all intelligent, pure
and most subtle spirits.*
24 For Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion;
she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things.
25 She is a breath of the power of God,
pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
so nothing impure can find its way into her.
26 For she is a reflection of the eternal light,j
untarnished mirror of God’s active power,
and image of his goodness. [33]


I wish you a happy Thanksgiving Week, Peregrinus. Do you plan to stick around or to go seek out communion among some of your far-flung family? I do not yet know what I will be doing, but I plan to avoid the traffic, and the excessively high gasoline prices, and to seek my Thanksgiving communion locally.

Please tell me what you think of that painting. OK?




[1] Rigmor Lovring on Niels Larsen Stevns in Grove Art Online (Oxford) notes: “Larsen Stevns made a long series of paintings with biblical subjects, in which the anecdotal content is impressed with the stamp of reality, through psychological tension established with the help of a rich and subtle variegation of figural gesture and mimicry.” If you wish to study this painting, then go to: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Niels_Larsen_Stevns-_Zakæus.jpg

[2] Wikipedia – “Randers Museum of Art (Danish: Randers Kunstmuseum) is a Danish art museum in Randers in northeastern Jutland, Denmark. The museum is located in the cultural centre of Kulturhuset (The House of Culture) in the town centre and displays many of the major works of Danish painters, especially those of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

[3] See, for example: https://bernardlonergan.com/biography.php

[4] The Oxford English Dictionary at “exegesis” – “An explanation or interpretation of a text, esp. of scripture or a scriptural passage. Also more generally: a critical discourse or commentary.”

[5] Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology: Volume 14 (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan) (p. 168). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Kindle Edition.

[6] Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, The Phenomenon of Man (1965), p. 137.

[7] St. Leo the Great (Pope from 440 to 461 CE) – “Doctrinally Leo was clear and forcible, but not profound. He knew no Greek. 143 genuine letters and some 97 sermons have survived. The latter cover the whole ecclesiastical year; they provide important evidence of contemporary liturgical practices (e.g. the observance of four sets of fast days, later known as *Ember Days) and reveal a remarkable grasp of liturgical principles. Both his letters and his sermons are distinguished by clarity of thought and purity of language.” [F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 972.]

[8] The Oxford English Dictionary at the 14th century verb “happen” – “Of an event, action, etc.: to take place, to come to pass, occur (typically expressing simple occurrence, with little or no implication of causality); to ensue as an effect or result.”

[9] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 13:7.

[10] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Jn 16:12–13.

[11] Lovring, R. Larsen Stevns, Niels. Grove Art Online. Retrieved 11 Nov. 2021, from https://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000049406

[12] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Lk 19:5–7.

[13] Notice the splash of green on the man closest to us – clearly not foliage growing out of him. The Oxford English Dictionary at “foliage” – “The leaves (of a plant or tree) collectively; leafage.”

[14] Concerning the ancient Christian distinction between God’s power and God’s energies - “Once again, it is in Origen and in Gregory of Nyssa, with important parallels in *Neoplatonism and developments in ps.-*Dionysius and *Maximus the Confessor, that this conception is best delineated. Gregory of Nyssa maintained that we cannot know or say anything about God’s nature (οὐσία – “being”), but we can only know God’s operations (ἐνέργειαι – energeia- energy), which in turn are distinct from, and originated by, divine power (δύναμις – dynamis- power), which we can know, not in itself, but only by inference from its operations and creatures.” [Ilaria Ramelli, “Dynamis—Energeia,” ed. Angelo Di Berardino and James Hoover, trans. Joseph T. Papa, Erik A. Koenke, and Eric E. Hewett, Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic; InterVarsity Press, 2014), 757.]

2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3.

[15] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Wis 7:26.

Ex 33:11; Jb 42:2; Ps 104:29; Jl 3:1.

[16] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Wis 7:27.

[17] For example, see: https://www.colorsexplained.com/color-green-meaning-of-the-color-green/

[18] Strangely, green is also associated in some cultures with “evil” and its deepest source in the sin of envy! We say that a person is “green with envy.” (In the Wisdom of Solomon, we read that Satan fell from Heaven, with the other high angels, because of envy.) How does this make sense that the same color has come to mean things so opposite? I think we have our answer when we look at the disease of cancer. Cancer has to do with cells that have no check on their growth – too much life in them, if you will – with the result that they kill surrounding cells by their ungovernable growth. Those cells “want” if you will simply to be more, and to be more to such a degree that they destroy other cells.

[19] The Oxford English Dictionary at “shekinah” – “The visible manifestation of the Divine Majesty, esp. when resting between the cherubim over the mercy-seat or in the temple of Solomon; a glory or refulgent light symbolizing the Divine Presence.”

[20] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Jn 1:9–10.

[21] The Oxford English Dictionary at the 14th century noun “attention” – “The action, fact, or state of attending or giving heed; earnest direction of the mind, consideration, or regard; esp. in to pay or give attention.”

[22] Looking at those people, I felt that I was seeing America, my homeland, with so many of us imprisoned inside of our own agenda, unable to come into focus together beyond ourselves, even when Christ Himself stands in our midst, inviting an outsider to join us. We are not paying attention, or unable anymore to attend to what is most important … because everything is important (which is the trap that splinters our focus).

[23] Oliver, Mary. Devotions, “Yes! No!” on page 264. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[24] See: https://thichnhathanhfoundation.org/thich-nhat-hanh – “Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, poet, and peace activist, revered throughout the world for his powerful teachings and bestselling writings on mindfulness and peace. His key teaching is that, through mindfulness, we can learn to live happily in the present moment—the only way to truly develop peace, both in one’s self and in the world.”

[25] This quote expresses perhaps the central point in all of his teaching. Or as we talk about it at the Faber Institute, we already have all that we need from God (not more than we need) to be joyful and confident and effective in the world, but we have to learn how to notice what God gives us, and what God prefers to accomplish Himself “for us and for our salvation.”

[26] “It is thanks to his dynamis that God, after the creation, remains present to the world in the same way as the soul is present to the human body, thanks to its dynamis, which allows the world to endure in existence, even though it is utterly transcendent, just as the soul operates in the body through its vital ἐνέργεια, although it maintains all the pureness and simplicity of its essence (De an. 24C, 44BC). [Ilaria Ramelli, “Dynamis—Energeia,” ed. Angelo Di Berardino and James Hoover, trans. Joseph T. Papa, Erik A. Koenke, and Eric E. Hewett, Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic; InterVarsity Press, 2014), 758.]

[27] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Lk 12:49.

[28] See: https://teilharddechardin.org/index.php/biography

[29] Vol. XIII (La Coeur de la Matiere. Paris, Seiuil, 1976) The Heart of Matter. N.Y.: Harcourt Brace Javonovich, 1979. The last of the Collected Works, the book contains in the title essay a spiritual autobiography and in "The Christic" a development of The Divine Milieu. Written towards the end of his life they sum up Teilhard's unique vision.

[30] “centration” – Teilhard has his own meaning for this word, though perhaps it was affected by the groundbreaking studies on childhood development by the eminent Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980), who coined this word, which then passes into the Oxford English Dictionary at “centration” – “Psychology. In children at an early stage of cognitive development: the tendency to focus attention exclusively on a single salient feature of an object or situation, and neglect other relevant features; an instance of this.”

[31] I have no idea what pronoun to us of the divine Persons. Referring to them as “It” is not only wrong, but if Stephen King is right (and I think that he is), “It” is the proper pronoun of the Prince of Darkness (a being that always appears as something else, so as to trick us).

[32] St. Thomas Aquinas in one of his most beautiful poems – “Adoro te devote”[32], as here poetically rendered by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ. The original Latin reads: “Adoro te devote, latens Deitas, quae sub his figuris vere latitas: tibi se cor meum totum subiicit, quia te contemplans totum deficit.”

* Jm 3:17

* 1:6–10

[33] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Wis 7:22–26.

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