Dear Fr O’Shea,
…. It was the same again this summer. I was at a retreat and the retreat director went on and on about living in the now. I have to say I'm tired of hearing about the now. It’s only in the past few years. Before that we never heard about the now. What’s wrong- are people ashamed of the past or what? Every book on spirituality you pick up now is about the now. Shouldn’t there be some kind of balance? Our past made us what we are and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. I'm asking you because you write a lot about it too. I'm sure it suits a lot of people to write about the now when they don’t know much about the past…. Any comment? Eleanor
Thanks for your letter, most of which I reproduce above; and thanks for allowing me to reply here as well as by letter, with a few additions. Your letter also inspired me to write about the now in this month’s ‘Jacob’s Well’ section of this site.
Every moment of our life is new and original; it is not a repetition of a previous moment. It is like a snowflake: it has a unique pattern and it vanishes immediately. In a strict sense, nothing exists except what exists now. That does not mean that the past never happened, or that what happened in the past has no interest for us now. To stress the unique reality of now is not to dismiss the past. I spend a lot of my time reading the early and mediaeval Christian writers, as well as many others from later centuries. Much of what they wrote, centuries ago, is of great interest and significance to us still. When their writing is sometimes vague and far from experience, it says nothing to us now, as it may have said little or nothing to their contemporaries; but when it was written from real experience it lasts forever. At their best they wrote in the now! – their now. When we read what they wrote we are reading in our now. When there is a match, the text jumps off the page. If this is the case with the classics of spirituality, how much more when we read the Scriptures – especially in the Liturgy?
Nothing and no one ever exists except in the now. This is commonplace understanding today, but of course when something is mentioned repeatedly we get tired of listening. When we talk a lot, there is a risk that talking will become a substitute for the real thing. However, it is still important to remind ourselves and one another to live in the reality of the present moment rather than in memories of the past. But if we only talk about it we soon sicken of the words; we have to do something about it. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). One very useful thing we can do is meditation. As soon as we begin a practice of meditation we get moment by moment reminders of how hard it is to sit still and live in the present for longer than a couple of seconds at a time. Pascal famously said, “All human evil comes from a single cause, human beings’ inability to sit still in a room.” We have to persevere with our practice, seeing ever more clearly how scattered our minds are, how accustomed we have become to living in fantasy and confusion.
The present moment appears very brief and (when we sit still) very empty. This is why we look for something larger and more exciting. But this is an attempt to escape from our own reality. Living in the present moment is often less exciting than memory or fantasy, and being faithful to it is a hard discipline. Someone asked me once if meditation was a flight from reality. On the contrary it is like a sharp drill for boring down into it. Reality isn’t guaranteed. What we describe as reality is often a mix of day-dreaming, thinking, planning, imagining, hating, longing…. Once as I watched a troubled young couple being married I began to estimate the number of people standing before the altar: there was the visible couple standing there (that’s 2); then there was his idea of who he was, and her idea of who she was (that makes 4); then his idea of her, and her idea of him (that’s 6). I didn’t know them very well, but I supposed that he had an idea of who she should be, as she had an idea of what he should be. That would bring it up to 8…. All but two of those people will have to die away, leaving just the real young couple. It has to be so if the marriage is to last. It is a challenging adventure. Whether married or not, we all have a lot of dying to do. We are married to reality, but that is often a dysfunctional marriage. Trying to live in the now is not an easy option; it is not an escape from anything, just as marriage is not an escape; it is a determined effort to die to our false self, “to wither into the truth,” as Yeats put it.
I hope the retreat director had you meditating on that retreat. If not, then he or she was in danger of substituting words for reality. A priest had preached enthusiastically about marriage. As the congregation left the church one woman said to another: “I wish I knew as little about marriage as that young man!” You have realised, Eleanor, that words by themselves are not enough. That is a major step. Don’t give up!