Memories are great because they give us a sense of who we are as individuals. By dipping into the past, we can often find the trajectory of our lives more easily than trying to figure it out as we go. This is why Alzheimer’s is such a cruel disease: it robs the afflicted persons of their past, leaving only the present, without any context or information that brings peace or clarity.
The rest of us, by contrast, often get completely focused on our past or future that we don’t even know what the present is about! It is relatively easy for us to skate through life distracted to the point of not being engaged in the present moment. While the twin attractions of dwelling on the past and living for the future are commonplace and attractive to many of us, we can’t live anywhere but in the present moment. We cannot jump into our DeLorean DMC-12 (can you name the film reference??) and make a hasty run back to when we were children any more than we can make a sharp right turn and find ourselves in the summer of 2033. Think about it. We can spend so much energy trying to rewrite the past or imagining a glorious future that we spend our lives trying to play catch up with the moment we have just allowed to slip past us.
From a spiritual perspective, we need to remember that God can only meet us in the present moment. Yes, God was with us in our past (even when we doubted His presence) and yes, God will be with us in the future. But the God we need today is only available to us now, in the present. Ultimately, there is only NOW.
As challenging or insecure the present might feel, we are called to stay awake, to be open to the grace that is always in abundance, and to remain receptive to whatever it is God is trying to teach us. Being in the present moment requires our full attention so that we are fully awake to experience it. When we are fully present, our minds do not wander. We are focused on what is going on right now, rather than thinking about what just happened or worrying about what is going to happen next. Being present lets us experience each moment in our lives in a way that cannot be fully lived through memory or fantasy and it allows us to cultivate a space of fertile receptivity for the knowledge of God.
OK, you say, I want to be in the present, but how do I do it? How do I turn off the “mind chatter” that always seems to get in my way, seducing me into either the past or the future? Coming into the present in a mindful way is certainly overwhelming at first. The mind chatter is a reality and an obstacle to be surrendered rather than overcome. This takes practice, but when we persist, we will find a state of stillness that is as rewarding as it is frightening at times. We might feel a lack of control because we are not busy planning our next project, assessing our current situation, or anticipating the future. Instead, being present requires that we be flexible, creative, attentive, and open (at least theoretically) to being spontaneous in our response to God’s voice. It is said that each present moment is completely new, that nothing like it has happened or will ever happen again. To grasp this truth, even as a fleeting shadow, is to touch something of the Mystery of God because, as all the mystics of all the great religious traditions attest, God IS the Eternal Present. This might be easier to perceive during morning prayer or meditation, but the goal is to take that same awareness with us as we move through our day, remembering to stay as present as possible in every moment. I am not a master at doing this, I have to admit, but I do work on it and I have to say that the more effort I expend on being present, the less I live my life waiting for the future or longing for a past long gone. God is not waiting in any place but the present for me, and when I open myself to this truth, my life feels a whole lot more integrated into God’s Life.
I invite you, this week, to expend a little effort at living in the present. See if perhaps God isn’t waiting to tell you something important there!