Monday, December 4, 2017

Becoming Present

At times my mind is a prison cell. No people, no light and no fresh air. Inside these walls the future becomes a fairytale, while the past suffocates the present. I replay my crime over and over again. Ironically, this prison sentence had no jury, judge or verdict. I placed myself there.

My crime could be reduced to one word: fantasy. I contemplate all the things that I, or others, could have done, should have done, did or didn’t do in my life. I imagine my life in a different culture or a different time. It is the ultimate escape.

At other times my mind is a tropical island filled with people, light and fresh air. This island has no past or future. All the delights, affirmations, and opportunities I think I have missed from my life are here in abundance, free of charge, with no end in sight.

My reason for being on this island could be reduced to one word: fantasy. Bored with the status quo, impatient with the world and convinced that I was somehow different from others, I venture out to this island as quickly as possible. After only a few moments of swimming in its clear water, eating its delicious fruit and observing its exotic animals, all my problems disappear. It is the ultimate escape.

My years as a priest, spiritual director and confessor have confirmed for me an important fact about humanity: we spend little time in reality. The reason, I believe, is because we are blind and unable to see the utter beauty, depth and mystery of the present moment. We are, for the most part, futuristic people, spending our lives pursuing, anticipating, and defending ourselves against things to come, most of which never happen.

People often ask me, “How can I grow in the spiritual life?” What they are really asking is: how they can experience more deeply the presence of God in their life. My answer is always the same: learn to live in the present moment. The reason I say this, of course, is because the present moment is where we find God.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus reveals his divinity in the most human moments. Martha and Mary are mourning their brother Lazarus when Jesus raises him from the dead (John 11:17-44). He performs his first miracle at the wedding of friends in Cana (John 2:1-10). Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector, in the middle of a workday (Luke 5:27-29). 

These Gospel narratives, and many others, show Jesus entering the present moment to be with us. We don’t have to manipulate, organize, or control reality for God to be present. He already is. The problem is, we are not.

A few months ago I made a radical decision in my life: I was going to try to do only one thing at a time. If I was cooking, I was just going to cook. If I was praying, I was just going to pray. If I was driving, I was just going to drive. What else could you do, one might ask, while you are cooking, driving or praying? The answer: a million things. How easy it is to talk on the phone, text a friend, listen to music, organize the next month, recall some memory, etc. when we are engaged in the ordinary activities of daily life.

Since I began this experiment, God has taught me an invaluable lesson: I don’t need more time, talent or technology to live a meaningful life. I already have it. Whether it is the traffic jam I am in, the people I live with, or the crowds that I am preaching to, each one of these moments reveals God’s love for me. When I can learn to pay attention to life as it really is and reject the temptation to escape reality through various daydreams and fantasies, I will experience, in a subtle and mysterious way, the presence of God in each moment.

Multi-tasking, despite popular opinion, is not a gift. Occasionally, it is necessary, but as a way of life it reinforces our initial fear that our lives are incomplete and that we are alone. Contrary to this attitude, Jesus tells us, “Do not be anxious about your life…if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith” (Matthew 6:25:30).

The present moment, I am learning, is the only place where this abandonment can occur. It is neither a prison cell nor a tropical island. It is enough, and it is exactly what we need.

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR

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