In my own life especially, but also in the lives of others I see an ongoing, unconscious tendency to look ahead to “ what’s next?” Oh, yes, we vividly conjure up past memories but we are extolled in our spiritual lives to live in the present – in the moment. But the truth is we very often direct our thoughts to the future. Trying to plan the future is a cunningly deceptive task full of pitfalls because we haven’t yet experienced it . It exists in our imaginations only. It holds no certainty. Yet we delight in planning it, controlling it, and basking in what our imaginations create of it. I’m not just talking about the distant future either. We so often do this simply on a day-to-day basis within our own routines.
Engaging in this practice as we do is not just a source of imaginative circumstances that delight us but also a very real source of anxiety and worry. In our concern for the future we are yet grounded enough to know that the delightful or comfortable circumstances we imagine may, in reality, turn out disastrous. This means we’ve lost control. Our imaginations have erred. Knowing this possibility is stressful. Thus it would seem that, indeed, the present moment is as far as we should go. It is neither the filmy recollections of the factual yet unchangeable past, nor the opaque musings of an uncertain future – it is reality!
Nonetheless, I find a fountain of conversational topics in recollections of the past, and, I am equally guilty of projecting my imagination upon the next ten minutes, tomorrow, next week, or next year. When I open my eyes in the morning, not knowing anything of what this day, in fact, will bring, my mind immediately jumps ahead and begins to lay out plans for the next 16 hours. This is close to the present but not exactly it. Sometimes things happen that upset the flow of what my imagination conjured for that day. When that happens things get jumbled and confused. But I keep doing it each morning because most of the time a day plays out the way I see it. If I am so irresistibly compelled to do this and navigate the risks it entails, and if I struggle with placing You in the present, then I should at least give You a constant place in every aspect of my futures.
I want to talk to You about something that’s not possible for me to do. I’d venture a guess that it’s not possible for the overwhelming majority of human beings. It’s about being able to stop measuring time. When one stops to think of it, because of our mortality, measuring time is a rather grim affair. I really wish I could stop doing it. But living in this world, in this culture, pretty much prevents it. All one can do is try to imagine what life would be like without measuring time – and even that is hard to do! The ubiquitous clock and calendar dog us throughout life. We laugh at the lack of a concept of time in older folks who grapple with senility. But I sometimes think it must be nice.
Spiritual writers talk a lot about learning to live in “the present moment” – the “now.” Whenever that is possible the measurement of time becomes suspended; and that’s a good thing in our relationship with You. The ability to ignore the distractions of the clock and calendar enables us to focus more intensely on You in that moment of “now.” But it takes a great deal of practice and it is not sustainable for us. It’s as if we were only meant to experience it in small, euphoric snatches at a time – or, should I say, “out of time.”
In the gloriously “wasted time” of contemplation we sometimes briefly experience moments of “no time.” In the “now-ness” of listening to or performing a certain passage of music we may also experience moments outside of all time. And then, most obviously, in the dreams of our sleep, measurements of time melt away.
If all the clocks and calendars in the world were removed I’m sure we’d still find a way of measuring time – perhaps the sun, moon, and stars. It’s what we humans do! But within our humanity there is the faint, undeveloped ability to experience flashes outside all measurements of time. Within the flash of “now” we enter Your time – no time! All else swiftly and sweetly drops away. The gossamer reality of “no time” comes, it seems, as a kind of surprise-grace from You -- a foretaste of eternity.
The unique phenomenon of “the present moment” is pretty much an unattainable ideal. The crushing pressure of the bookends of the past and future always overpower the present. In fact, if we try to dwell in the present moment the very attempt passes by. So, what is the present moment?
It is no time! And “no time” just doesn’t compute with our way of thinking. For us all time is measurable. If the present moment cannot be measured it must be “no time.” It is also “no place. It is nothing! It is an immeasurable, implacable blank in existence. It is the point of all zero-ness in our being.
In pursuing the present moment in the spiritual life it is more like something that finds you rather than you finding it. Yet, in the life of the spirit it is like the one-way door through which a knocking God attains a profound entry. In measured time it is usually microscopically brief. But at that zero point we dip our toe into the pool of eternity.
Being in the present moment during the normal commerce of the day can, it seems, only happen with the conscious awareness of the past and future; but, in contemplation, when one sits relaxed, breathing slowly, minimizing all sensual stimuli, in silence, eyes closed, we can, occasionally and fleetingly, experience that zero point. It’s a pseudo trance-like state from which we come back not knowing where we have been. All focus was momentarily lost. In such a moment we simply are. I like to think this is a touch of eternity – and I wish I could sustain it.
I would like to tell You about my fascination and struggle with Richard Rohr’s book "The Naked Now."
It is a wonderful book full of many new and often deep insights; but it is not always easy to comprehend. I refer here chiefly to his exposition of how dualistic and non-dualistic thinking affects awareness.
In non-dualistic terms Rohr councils that we stop labeling, ranking, and categorizing people and things and just see them. Seeing, or awareness, non-dualistically is foundational freedom from the “self.” Nothing else, says Rohr, deserves to be called freedom. The problem is that we do not see things as they are; we see them as we are. Christianity is not about “being right.” That is the way the ego and the dualistic mind frame reality. Rohr says it is experience that is always non-dualistic, an open field. In our experiences paradoxes become reality. The mixtures of good and bad, helpful and unhelpful, endearing and maddening, living and dying all point the way to the necessary reality of non-dualistic thinking – of awareness! The word “AND” allows us to consider both sides of things and keeps us from dualistic thinking. The human penchant for seeing others as right or wrong carries through to the way we see ourselves – always in judgmental dualistic terms. The sameness of existential life is not more or less exclusive in any individual. In God’s eyes He is who is, and because of that, we are who are.
Over the last couple of week-ends the gospel readings have talked about prayer, hence the homilies were also about prayer. Reference was made to the fact that most of our prayers are prayers of petition. We constantly ask God for various favors. Something the priest said last week-end kind of stuck with me; something I’d not thought of before. He said, “Asking breeds friendship.”
There are a number of things we could probably list that contribute to friendship: being present to one another, having common interests, common philosophies, or common life-styles, etc., but I had never considered the concept of “asking” as a factor in a relationship – until now! Think about it. When we ask someone for something we, at that moment, are putting ourselves in their hands. Now most of us like to be relied upon, so when someone asks us something they’re relying on us to give them an answer. Even in the most casual situations such a moment has the potential of leading to other questions and answers – and that path can easily lead to the beginning of a friendship.
Friends care for one another’s needs. Our needs are exposed in that for which we ask. If the heart of love is giving then filling the needs of others expressed by what is asked for grows and enriches the bonds of friendship.
Often we conceive of God being bothered by our constant pestering for this or that. In the immensity of God’s love for us this is impossible. You even intimated such in the gospel that talks about the woman’s persistent petitioning of the judge. God realizes that in our persistence in asking we are relying on Him and placing ourselves in His hands. Throughout life, as our relationship with God evolves and grows we can, with a bit of diligence, perceive the palpable essence of our friendship with God as one of asking and being answered.
It’s the subtlety and seeming neutrality of the habitual actions of busyness that lull us into considering them harmless. People of age often tell themselves that keeping busy is good for both mind and body. Sometimes we buy into that philosophy to such an extent that empty moments with nothing to do become abhorrent. That describes me! It has always described me, but even more so now that I am alone. Busyness has become something of a panacea for loneliness.
From my rising in the morning to my retiring at night my mind races ahead to devise what I will do next. Every day I string together a package of tiny, meaningless, detailed things to do so that I never have to twiddle my thumbs. I am overjoyed to do anything with my children and grandchildren, but I always have to consult them before I can confirm. I imagine to myself that this modus vivendi is better than staring at the walls, rocking on the porch, or watching TV all day. But is it?
I think both yes and no. Sometimes I think my children presume that since I am retired and alone now I have nothing to do. I don’t mind that because they ask me to do things for them – which is great! But I always have to check my calendar because of all my other busyness.
When I think about You and Your life I see that You busied Yourself primarily with the needs of others and with Your mission. It must be that which distinguishes the real value of our busyness – that it’s for the needs of others. If we look at the lives of the saints we get the same picture. Neither You nor the saints twiddled thumbs in rocking chairs. That would be letting life pass one by. But to busy oneself with the needs of others over one’s own needs – that’s the key! It’s the key and, at the same time, the stumbling block because of our primary concerns with ourselves.
I was driving home today from a visit with my son, his wife, and my two granddaughters, and I was thinking about the oldest one who is twelve. She has come to that point in life that every young person seems to come to – the point at which her grandfather perceives a measured coolness in her that has supplanted twelve years of little-girl sweetness.
There is a prayer I say regularly that has the lines in it, “...we can seldom help those closest to us. We don’t know what part of ourselves to give and, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted...” But these lines never seemed to hit home until now. Her younger sister hasn’t reached this point yet. She is the sweet little girl who still seeks help. She seeks trustingly what those closest to her have to offer. It’s easy to love and cuddle sweet little girls as they’re growing up, but once that cute little girl (or boy) hits that point of independence the mature test of love is fired in a crucible where the “dross” of cuteness, sweetness, cuddliness, and little girlish or boyishness is shed.
Every one of us, at some point in life, has entered this phase. I cannot help thinking that we present ourselves to You in this way as well. When we are young we are so carefree, joyous, innocent, and charming – and then we grow up. Then we sample that fateful apple; and a cool independence takes over. No wonder You told us to become like little children. There’s a lot to think about in that. Just as I have noticed the subtle changes in my granddaughter, so You must notice the subtle changes in me that have removed me from childhood’s endearing qualities; and so it is for everyone.
That point of autonomous awareness is as inevitable to life as birth and death. The singular most salient missing quality of that point in time is innocence. How is it that we are only able to maintain it for ten or twelve years?
We quite frequently use adjectives like “pretty, gorgeous, lovely, or beautiful” to describe the physical appearance of a person – usually a female. Quite often we hear such words in life and literature. Who hasn’t heard a person pointing out someone in a crowd and saying, “the pretty one?” It might be just as easy to say “the one in the blue dress,” but we, instead, say “the pretty one.” Certainly it’s one way of describing someone, but it only takes in one aspect of the person being pointed out.
Our visual sense is our dominant one. Our eyes love to be pleased and we make snap judgments on what our eyes see. It seems generally accepted that another person is “pretty” if they are pleasing to the eyes of the beholder. Attraction is based on this, at least initially. But think how shallow this is. In a sense it’s like commercial packaging – we are so taken with external appearances! This seems particularly true in regards to women. Take two individuals, one whose outer appearance is attractive to the eye and one whose outer appearance is not so
attractive to the eye. We would probably call the first one “pretty” or “gorgeous.” But if we really think about it, all that is attractive may not be pretty. If we observe and take note of both our subjects over a period of time we may notice qualities far more attractive and desirable in our un-pretty subject than our pretty one. The wrapping becomes less important than what the package turns out to contain.
I am not much different than most guys when it comes to having my head turned by the well-arranged charms of a female. But I would argue strongly for my belief that in the people I really want to know and be close to outer beauty is not a prime consideration. A person like Mother Teresa was hardly pretty, much less gorgeous, but to me she was exceedingly beautiful and attractive. This cultivation of the ability to discern beauty from head-turning good-looks is critical to assessing the depth of another’s persona.
God loves the pretty and the ugly equally but the beautiful return that love.
Thomas Merton has written, regarding “good works,” that they are necessary but they are not to be taken seriously. To take one’s good works seriously is to be a Pharisee. One has to understand what Merton is saying here before any issue with it can be taken up.
The concept of “doing good” comes at us on many levels. We may be motivated to do them to “please God,” or to feel good, or to look good to others, or because it is a “human” way to act, or because they’re the opposite of evil acts, or because we want something in return, or because it places us in an advantageous position for something else, etc.,etc.. But in what sense does Merton want us to see that good works are “necessary” or “to be taken seriously” or not? In our eyes good works may be “necessary” for any or all of the above reasons, but in God’s eyes they are nothing more or less than extensions of His love to others through us. We should be open to and accept the grace of our instrumentality in the extension of God’s love for mankind. When we regard our good works as anything else we risk assigning their value to ourselves. Thus we are prone to taking them seriously as the coinage of our salvation – a redemption and salvation that does not come from us.
Furthermore, among those motives referred to, those which are concerned with self-advantage and self-gain cannot emanate from God or be extensions of His love. When we mistakenly regard them as such we adopt the attitude of the Pharisees. We lord our insight over that of others and we see our good works as proof that we are right. Thus we operate independently from the Source of all good. Good works are a necessity for the realization of the reign of God – not for the reign of man.
I should reflect more on the good intentions of other people. One reason is because our tendency is to do the opposite; another reason is because we’re usually more enamored of our own good intentions than those of others.
Good intentions are important. They are important in themselves and even more important when they are followed through with good actions. Our tendency to recognize our own good intentions and pat ourselves on the back contributes to our ignoring the same process going on in others – for which we should be patting them on the back. I truly believe that even in the people we try to avoid, in those with whom we don’t get along, in our enemies, there are good intentions like ours that need to be reflected upon.
I understand the meaning of the old saying about the path to hell being paved with good intentions; but one could just as well say it about the path to heaven. The difference, of course, is what we do with our good intention; and we can’t assume that everyone else’s good intentions are (like many of our own) just dead-ends. We may never actually see the follow-through from the good intentions of other people. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any; and it’s hardly fair to judge another on the assumption that there was no follow-through or that their apparent good intentions just died. It’s far better that, in them, we first consider the action of Your grace in the formation of a good intention and, second, the effort of the individual, successful or not, in carrying it out. Furthermore, effort is not an entirely visible quality. The effort that follows upon a good intention is often strictly interior. Because we can’t see inside another person’s heart we have difficulty assigning any merit to intentions they may have. But we don’t see You either, yet we believe. If we believe in You but overlook the good intentions of other people it may be because, in them, we fail to look for You.