Recently I tried something dangerous with my sons: forging! Fires ablaze, molten hot steel, and heavy hammers wielded by an 11 and 13 year old; not usually a recipe for a successful outing but the Boy Scout troop we are a part of decided to give it a try last weekend. Like the other dads, I was brimming with manly excitement on the day the campout began. I knew nothing of forging but I made a quick study on youtube and purposed to pound out three railroad spike knives and a few great memories with the boys. However, in the process of working on our first project something happened. Through it I learned three valuable lessons about the importance of cultivating my attention rigorously in order to live a life of love and veneration.
After our first few blows against the cold anvil steel, I placed our railroad spike in the flame of the forge to heat up again. I then turned to reposition the tools but by the time I turned back, half of the spike had melted away! One minute we were making a blade worthy of the Dwarfs of the Lonely Mountain, the next all we had was a molten twig like the leftovers from a sparkler on the 4th of July! In an instant I learned that when you are forging, nothing, not one thing, can overtake your attention.
Cultivate attention to preparation
Here in lies my first lesson. I should have spent more time surveying the setup, prepare the tools, and coordinating roles with my son before we began. The Scripture says in Luke 14:28, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has what is needed to complete it?” Attention to preparation is an essential part of any work worth undertaking but I was too excited to slow down and prepare properly. Additionally, my son’s excitement to get started was hard to resist. Like a young man with zeal but little knowledge, I thrust the project into the fire before all was prepared and ultimately paid the price. I believe this lesson is as true in forging as it is in my work, my prayer life, and especially in my relationships.
Cultivate my attention daily and purposefully
You should have seen the disappointment on my son’s face when he realized that the early form of his blade was now only slag in the fire. Slag is what you dig out of the coal ash when you make a mistake like this—molten rock and metal fused into a useless lump. His disappointment lingered almost as long as the oily soot on his cheeks that day. I felt terrible as if somehow I had caused his distress directly. He tried to hide his frustration as he sat on a stump near the forge but would not speak for a long while. Here is where I learned my second lesson: if I do not cultivate my attention daily and purposefully, accidents happen and these can strain the relationships with those I love the most. Now, I can rationalize this accident, size it up against “real trauma” and say it wasn’t my fault, but I know that would be just another distraction. I needed to pay attention to my son’s disappointment and look into my failing, the slag in the bottom of the forge of my own heart, to remind myself of why deep intentionality with my attention is worth the effort.
Cultivate attention to the state of my heart
As my son and I returned to salvage the project the best we could, another problem arose. It kept taking longer to heat the spike and make it pliable. The fire was quickly waning. A more experienced friend taught us why. In forging, slag builds up over time as a natural process of creating and can plug the fan beneath the flames and kill the fire. A good blacksmith, he said, pays attention to the flame and periodically sifts the coals, dredges up the slag, and removes it.
As I reflected on this later, I remembered that St. Paul wrote about slag in his letter to the Church in Rome when he said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...” (Rom 3:23). Slag builds up in my heart and removing it is critical to keeping the fires of inspiration hot. Simply put, I need to cultivate attention to the state of the flame in the forge of my heart. I know to do this but regularly I let my attention get drawn away by distractions. I know how to remove the slag too. For me this is regular confession to God in quiet reflection daily. I’m embarrassed to admit how difficult it is to make time to do that. In my heart there are projects incomplete, bits of intentions left undone, and parts of prayers dangling mid-sentence—all melted away in moments of distraction. No wonder the fires of inspiration flicker somedays! I am so thankful for learning this third lesson.
My wife has a quote on the chalkboard in our house by Simone Weil, a French philosopher, Christian mystic, and political activist, that says, “Attention is the purest form of generosity.” I appreciate that reminder. Learning to cultivate my attention is a form of charity, veneration and love that takes sacrifice and practice, especially in my work at RS and with my family.
There are so many exciting projects but without attention to preparation, accidents will happen. There are people who count on me and our RS team daily who are struggling to survive and succeed, and without my cultivating attention daily I will inadvertently disappoint and fail those who I care for the most and finally, I need to lead by example in cultivating attention to my heart and removing the slag to keep the flame burning hot enough to be effective. There is no greater gift I can give myself and those I love than well cultivated attention.
By the end of the weekend my sons and I had completed three railroad spike knives and polished them to a brilliant shine. We were exhausted but I had learned a lot about an ancient art and the cultivation of my attention as an act of generosity, love, and veneration.
Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.