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December 5, 2011

The tendency to project oneself into the future and to be weighed down by the past obscures our relationship to the present.  Memory, a vast storehouse of images, memories and experiences, is active in every moment of life.  Without the aid of memory we would be in serious trouble, having to learn from scratch every time we set out to do something. The downside of memory is that the past can invade and crowd out the present.  We also lose our connection to the present when we become overly caught up in our concerns for the future.  Here are just a few articulations of the time problem from a variety of sources, ancient and  contemporary:

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 unto 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.

Marcus Aurelius observed, "We live only in the present, so infinitely small.  The rest either has already been lived, or it is uncertain."

The poet Goethe (Faust II): "So the Spirit looks neither forward nor backward. The present alone is our happiness."

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

     In Words to Live By Eknath Easwaran discusses the importance of spiritual practices in combating the emotions that prevail when we lose proper relationship to the present.  As meditation deepens

we develop the ability to withdraw our attention more and more from the past and the future to focus it on the present.  And as we begin to live more and more in the present, we make the exhilarating discovery that past and future exist only in our minds.  It is a tremendous realization, for it means that we are released from any burden of guilt about the past and any anxiety about the future .

     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."  For Pierre Hadot this guileless 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." (Art of Living, p. 163)

     Anxiety is no laughing matter.  In normal times, it waxes and wanes in a person's life.  We are anxious one day, but more carefree the next.  Often enough, we discover that we have been needlessly anxiety-ridden, that we worried for nothing. Thus have spiritual writers throughout the ages warned against anxiety. Jesus himself tells us not to be anxious of mind. St. Francis de Sales counseled his directees in the 17th century not to look ahead in fear but to put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations. Directives to combat anxiety are meant to help us to ground ourselves in the present moment. The practice of the presence of God, of living faithfully in the moment, trains us to face anxiety squarely, and thus gradually to grow more secure.

     Because anxiety never leaves us completely Ė it is an aspect of our human condition Ė the practice of presence is indispensable in spiritual living.  Prayerful recitation of prayers and inspired sayings (as above) is an effective means of returning to the present moment.  The practice of just sitting and doing nothing in particular for a period of time is also a way of slowing down and learning to be in the present moment

Presence to Other/others

     Finally, we are in the world with others.  We strive to live in the present so that we might experience to the full the delightful gift of our existence.  We live also to obey the commands of our Creator, who renews our life moment by moment, and who calls us to serve the world and others.  Adrian van Kaam taught that our presence to others has the potential to be a reflection of the presence of the Mystery to us. The wording is noteworthy: a reflection of the presence of the Mystery to us. We reflect Godís presence. Ultimately, our contribution in building the Kingdom of God derives from what we receive from the Lord. This receptivity is based on presence, Godís faithful presence to us, our growing awareness of and presence to Godís presence to us.  When Godís presence shines to others through us, we give witness to the gracious Mystery who abides in all, for all.

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Last updated: 11/25/10.