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November 21, 2011

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 follow.  If the present moment is a sacrament, why don't we experience it as such?  If the present moment is in fact always a point of contact with Eternity, why do we not experience our lives as constantly immersed in divine reality?  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?  Why should this be so?

    The following passages may guide us as we consider these questions.  The first is a passage from St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.330- c. 395), On the Lords Prayer:

Let us remember 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] 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.

    The second passage is from the opening stanza of “My Song for Today, a poem written by St.Therese of Lisieux:

My 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 only have today!

When she died early in the twentieth century, Therese was only 24 years old. In her short life she wrote an autobiography and a books 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 one. Her poem-prayer reveals an extraordinary focus on the present. In the third stanza, for example, she declares: “To pray for tomorrow, oh no, I cannot! ... Sufficient unto the day are the worries thereof.  The present is the testing ground for faith, and she prays that “her little boat” will 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, presents the same message and adds that in instructing us to pray for today, the Lord seeks to “prevent us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow.”  Our tendency to project ourselves into the future is a great source of anxiety for us. 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. Gregorys message is firm: “we can only call the present our own”; and he urges us to avoid getting ahead of ourselves.  He would have recognized the wisdom of Thereses saying later in her poem-prayer, “Near your divine Heart, I forget all passing things./I no longer dread the fears of the night.” Because the call to presence evokes anxiety in us and because, at least initially, we avoid it out of fear, presence requires practice.  We shall consider aspects of that presence in upcoming reflections.

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Last updated: 11/25/10.