28 May 2013

What does it Mean to Live in the Present Moment?

[[Dear Sister, could you please write about what it means to be attentive to or "live in" the present moment? I have heard about this a lot but it is hard for me to understand. For example I need to plan for the future; does that mean I am not attentive to the present moment? Some-times I love to think about my past and the ways God has blessed me. Does this mean that I am not focused on the present moment? How could this be true? I keep thinking there must be some trick to this [idea of dwelling in or being attentive to the present moment] because the moment I feel like I am focused on the present moment that moment is gone! It reminds me of those optical illusions: when you look straight at them they slip away or turn into something else.]]

The Eternal God and Absolute Futurity

I like your sense of humor in all of this and yes, I think you are right that there is a kind of "trick" to it. Your observation on optical illusions is also very apt I think. From a theological point of view we are drawn into the future by God; God IS (the) absolute future so when we speak of being attentive to the present moment  (i.e., to the constant inbreaking of futurity) we are really speaking about living in God and allowing ourselves to be gifted by him at each moment of our lives.  Here is where I think your comment on optical illusions is especially appropriate because if we try to focus on achieving this by our own efforts, or look at time "straight on" as though it was an object somehow under our control, or if we think of the present moment as something other than the constantly renewed inbreaking of futurity we will miss our goal of attentiveness to the present moment entirely. Again, our experience of future is our share in God's own life and that is where our focus must be, not on time as separate from that. Our openness to futurity (and thus to the present moment) is a conscious share in eternal life and occurs as God draws us into it and into Godself. We can only be open to it and receive it as gift. As with the optical illusions you referred to, in part that means relaxing some and simply letting things come to us as they will.

Not too long ago I wrote about our hunger or yearning for newness and I pointed out the difference between the Greek words for newness. You may remember I spoke of kainotes or kaine as a qualitative newness which is tied to God's eternity. It differs from neos which is simply a newness in time or mere novelty (e.g., yesterday I did not own this book or this new pair of shoes, today I do). I noted that God is always new in the sense of kainotes because he is eternal and that God is eternal because he is "Living" or eternally new and makes all things new as well. cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Always Beginners and/or Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: On Divine Paradox Theology's sense of God as absolute future is directly related to all of this and too to our experience of the gift of abundant or eschatological life.

This is one reason some theologians refer to God and the Kingdom of God as "The Eternal Now" (cf some of the sermons of Paul Tillich in a book of the same name). This is part of the reason I speak of heaven as a share in God's own life or sovereignty. Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: On the Feast of the Ascension Time (and the passage of time) is a dimension of our still-limited share in God's life, in the absolute future. It, especially as the inbreaking of futurity, must be continually renewed, continually received as gift until that day when God is all in all. Meanwhile our yearning for qualitative newness (kaine!) is also our yearning for the absolute future we identify as eternity; it is a yearning for the "day" (the eternal now) when our own share in the absolute future which is God's own life is fully realized.

Living in the present moment as Celebration!

All that said let me try to deal with your specific questions.  When you focus in a prayerful (i.e., an attentive and grateful) way on how God has blessed you in the past, you open yourself to God here and now and thus to future blessings and the blessings of futurity. Sometimes events of the past can constrain us and prevent openness to the future. For instance, this can happen when such events traumatize us or when we are unable to accomplish the healing of forgiveness. The past can also be merely constraining as when our relationship with it is one of mere sentimentality or when we enshrine it in forms of dead traditionalism and language. (This latter can be a serious instance of resistance to and even sin against the Holy Spirit!) But none of these are what you are describing here.

What you have described instead is a form of celebration and it seems to me that genuine celebration is always a way of living in the present moment which frees us from any enslaving constraints of the past and thus opens us to the future (or perhaps better said, marks us as open to the future, as truly drawn by and into the future). When we think of the Eucharist, for instance, it is significant that the very making present of the risen Christ in the consecration  is accompanied by Jesus' command that, "Whenever you do this remember me" (or, "do this in remembrance of me"). The rite of penance and the reading of our ancient Scriptural stories, for instance, also work in this way; they provide us a means of remembering which opens us to futurity and newness. Celebration is precisely that attitude and act of remembering which makes the past a present reality in a way which leaves us free and thus draws us into the future. This is very different from the ways the past may bind and enslave us and leave us unable to embrace the future.

You also speak of planning for the future and wonder if that means you are not being attentive to the present moment.  I think that so long as your planning does not mean being completely controlling of what will or can happen or does not refer to a lack of openness to the surprising ways life and meaning come to us you are okay. The paradox though (there is ALWAYS paradox!) is that if we do not do some planning for the future it cannot break in on us in the way it is meant to. Instead it will simply pass us by relatively untouched. We will be older, more bored by and perhaps more quietly despairing of the mere passage of time, but the future will not have broken in on us in the powerful way we know and mark with Pentecost for instance. (cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Always Beginners) Remember that the inbreaking of futurity is not simply the arrival of empty time, but the arrival of a reality filled with meaning and hope that creates genuine future; it is the arrival of the presence of God to, for, and with us. Planning ordinarily indicates our own awareness of the limitations of time, an awareness of our own limitations in truly engaging with it, and our openness to the inbreaking of absolute future. Besides the relaxation spoken of above such openness requires work (cooperation) on our own part. It also requires structure or "routine".

This is one of the reasons hermits have Rules and horaria. Our days are structured in ways which allow opportunities for the inbreaking of God's powerful presence and for celebration of this presence. There is plenty of time and actual provision for prayer, personal work (journaling, the work connected with spiritual direction, etc), and recreation (not the same as mere entertainment!). Also built into the hermit's days are different kinds of prayer, different types and degrees of silence and solitude, and different kinds of penance (practices which generally are meant to help extend and support the celebration of the present moment we call  prayer; for some the very imposition of structure or routine is a piece of eremitical penance!).

I personally disagree with hermits who have no essential structure or shape to their days and say, for instance, that they depend entirely on responding to the Holy Spirit at each moment as the Spirit determines. I suspect they are fooling themselves --- at least a lot of the time; I am afraid that more often than not, time is merely sliding by in relative unfruitfulness and unresponsiveness. (Occasional desert days where we leave the usual schedule behind are important as PART of the overall structure of the life; so is sufficient time for true monastic leisure. By the way, I am also generally skeptical of the approach of spiritual direction clients, for instance, who make no room for formal prayer periods in their days and say, "Oh I pray all the time during the day and that's what works for me.") While we cannot force the Holy Spirit with the structure we build into our days, we can assist ourselves in achieving necessary attentiveness and focus in this way; we can create opportunities for the Spirit to touch, heal, convert, and thus draw us into the future. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those hermits whose horaria are so rigid and inflexible that the Spirit is given little space to work real newness or bring them beyond where they already are.

I haven't spoken about the more mundane elements involved in living in the present moment except by way of allusion (healing of memories, the place of spiritual direction and therapy, the role of journaling, the place of detachment which helps break the bonds of enmeshment, etc.); instead in this post I have mainly spoken of the theological underpinnings of the idea of living in the present moment and intended it as a beginning.  Because of this I think it is likely this response will raise more questions for you. If so, or if I need to clarify something, please get back to me. In the meantime, the following post may also be of some help: Notes From Stillsong: A Missed Opportunity, A Moment of Judgment