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May 17, 2010

presentMy life is but an instant, a passing hour.

My life is but a day that escapes and flies away.

O my God!  You know that to love you on earth

          I have only today!

               ~ St. Therese of the Child Jesus

When she died early in the twentieth century Therese was only 24 years old.  In her short life she wrote an autobiography and a book’s worth of poems, served as novice mistress of her Carmelite community, and managed to “become a saint,” whether or not she would have considered herself to be one.  Her prayer-poem “My Song for Today” (excerpted above) reveals extraordinary focus on the present moment.  In the third stanza of the poem, for example, she declares: “To pray for tomorrow, oh no, I cannot! . . .”  Sufficient unto the day are the worries thereof.  For Therese the testing ground for faith was in the present, and she prayed that “her little boat” would be guided over the stormy waves in peace — just for today!

     The spiritual traditions of humanity, and ancient philosophy as well, are filled with teachings about the importance of living well in the present.  Therese gives testimony to this tradition when she resolves to pray for tomorrow only once it has arrived.  In the meantime, she prays for the grace to give her all to the day before her.  Gregory of Nyssa, who lived in the 4th century, proclaimed the same message, adding that in instructing us to pray for today, the Lord seeks to “prevent us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow.”  “Let us remember”, he writes

that the life in which we ought to be interested is “daily” life.  We can, each of us, only call the present time our own . . . Our Lord tells us to pray for today, and so he prevents us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow.  It is as if [God] were to say to us:  “It is I who gives you this day [and] I who will also give you what you need for this day.  [It is I] who makes the sun to rise.  [It is I] who scatters the darkness of night and reveals to you the rays of the sun.

Clearly we need reminding that it is God who gives us this day, and it is also God who gives what we need for this day.  Gregory’s message is firm:  “we can only call the present our own.”  He urges us to avoid getting ahead of ourselves.

     Living in the present would seem to be the simplest of things.  It is certainly the most natural:  it is where our bodies always find themselves, even if our minds and spirits do not always consent.  Being present turns out to be a challenge for us.  The present and its possibilities often escape us.  Is it because we ourselves are distant and unavailable?  There are some who like to point out that living in the present is impossible since, before we can be truly aware of it, that particular moment has already elapsed.  Technically speaking, this is true.  Pierre Hadot explains that when we speak of living in the present what we refer to is not the mathematical moment but the duration in which an action takes place.  This can be the duration of the sentence one utters, a movement that one executes, or the melody one hears.  (The Present Alone is Our Happiness, p. 163)  The idea here is that it is the quality of our involvement in an activity that constitutes our presence to it.  We are living in the moment when we are fully engaged with a person, thing or event.  The readings above instruct us to “live fully today,” liberated from past and future, striving to be-with whatever our current activity is.

     Living in the moment requires attention.  Our awareness of the infinite value of the present moment is at once an attitude of seriousness about every moment of life and a relaxed state of appreciation for the gift of these moments as they come to us one after another.  Above all, living in the moment requires a transformation of our ordinary modes of presence.  What aspects or dimensions of human presence facilitate our ability to experience the present moment as the sacrament we believe it is?

     First of all, we must be present to ourselves.  The present moment cannot be experienced as sacramental if we are not embodied — aware of and in touch with ourselves.  We can function even when we have lost contact with our feelings, thoughts and motivations. This “schizoid state” occurs in the spiritual realm as well as in the mundane circumstances of life.  Because I am religious or am engaged in religious enterprises does not assure that I am living a spiritual life.  Self presence is an indispensable condition for being available to the movement of the Spirit in my life.

     Secondly, we must value the reality of the present moment.  Our relationship to the present may be substantially obscured by concern for the future — in the form of excitement or anxiety – and absorption in the past.  Memory is a vast storehouse of images, memories and experiences that exerts its influence in every moment of our lives.  Without it we would be seriously deficient, compelled to learn from scratch every time we set out to do something.  But there is a downside to memory; the past is a power that can invade and crowd out the present.  Similarly, we may also lose our connection with the present if we become overly caught up in anticipating the future.  Ancient and contemporary observers have commented on this problem:

The Gospel of Matthew (6:34):  “Take therefore no thought for the morrow:  for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.  Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.”

“Let the soul be happy in the present, and refuse to worry about what will come later,” wrote the poet Horace.

The poet Goethe (Faust II):  “So the Spirit looks neither forward not backward.  The present alone is happiness.”

“What depends on us is the present — the site of action, decision, and freedom; what does not depend on us comprises the past and future, about which we can do nothing.”  (P. Hadot, Art of Living, p. 191)

St. Aloysius Gonzaga is said to have surprised people when, as a child, he was asked what he would do if he were told he was going to die in an hour.  His answer was:  “I would continue to play ball.”  According to Pierre Hadot this response demonstrates that “we can give absolute value to every instant of life, as banal and humble as it may be.  What matters is not what one does but how one does it.”  (Hadot, p. 163)

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Last updated: 11/24/10.