Sam Thomas, Assistant Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University came to the Institute to work on his project Sustaining Attention: Creation, Craft, and Community.
Sam shared how the practice of paying attention developed in his life, as a novice woodworker surrounded by sharp blades, Sam, half-jokingly remarked, “There are few things that focus one’s attention like the prospect of serious injury.”
During a Work and Well Being event at Saint John’s University, co-sponsored by The Benedictine Institute and the Collegeville Institute, Sam shared some of his reflections on attention through the art of woodworking. According to Sam, paying attention causes us “to bring our full selves to a task, problem, another person or to the art of living well.” Attention includes surprise and self-discovery. It requires giving ourselves over to the other, existing within both our receptivity and passivity and our ability to reverence the tools and materials we work with as they interact with our human limitations.
Sam explained how attention (surprise, receptivity, passivity, and reverence) played out in his experience of crafting a table during his time at the Collegeville Institute. While sitting on a chair designed by Marcel Breuer, at Butler Center (the meeting place of the Collegeville Institute) Sam noticed that the chair needed a table. He began to brainstorm what sort of table would be suitable, and the answer came out of nowhere, “the table would draw its design from another building whose shape was calling to be modified,” the Abbey Bell Banner. Sam wondered, was it his receptivity, his attention to tables, to what tables are, that brought the idea forth or was it Breuer’s work itself? Perhaps, Sam noted, Breuer was correct, the Abby Bell Banner had become what Breuer himself predicted, “a symbol, a distinctive silhouette to be carried in the mind,” and Sam, a 1994 graduate of Saint John’s University had carried that symbol in his mind and his craft all these years.
Today, Sam’s table sits fittingly between the two chairs it was crafted for at the Collegeville Institute, clearly reflecting the lines of the Abbey Bell Banner, and asking those of us who walk by it daily what will we pay attention to, how will we interact with receptivity, passivity, and reverence toward the work we are committed to at the Collegeville Institute.