“Be present.” This sage advice saturates the world around me, yet this same world teems with increasingly numerous varieties of distractions and crises. Countless wonderful people find themselves caught in these chaotic cross currents. Many ride them with apparent, yet frenetic, ease, turning them to useful outcomes. Others compartmentalize, carving parts of their lives to enter the flow. But as good as these strategies are, staying “grounded” proves elusive.
Somewhere along the way you discover voids that have deepened through neglect, neglect reinforced with time spent in the swift currents of distraction. So, yes, that sage advice reverberates loudly in these empty spaces: “Better not to have yielded to distraction, better to have been present!” Hopeful as this sounds it falls short, being a negation of unpleasant reality. It means, instead “be not-distracted.” So does distraction have a real antidote? If so, what is its substance?
From reading Time and Despondency, by Nicole Roccas, I discovered what seems obvious, even cliché. To be in the present, is a life actually lived daily and through time in Christ. Roccas’s thesis finds equivalence to acedia, which the ancient monks identified and treated. It’s a word that our present-day world might comprehend better under the word “despondency.” It turns out that the primary remedy is patience. But then, what is that? It means waiting, trusting, and diligently doing what needs doing, regardless of feelings and moods. In short, diligent waiting.
What follows is my own analogy on patience. That is, diligent waiting and being in the presence of Christ through action, and being present. And although this is not in Roccas’s book, I could not have grasped the core idea without it.
The present moment can’t be viewed except as a memory. You can prove this to yourself by finding a text of some gravity—a book of ethics, the life of a saint, a poem, history—and reading it for the first time aloud. As you read make sure to say each word loud enough to be heard in the next room, clear enough to be understood, and with the proper expression according to the grammatical indications and writing style, and with appropriate cadence for a listener to be able to follow. While you are doing this make sure also to understand what you are reading, both literally and in the full contextual meaning intended by the author.
What I have discovered is that I cannot both read for my understanding and for the benefit of the listener at the same moment, within the moment that I’m reading. No sooner do I begin reading than my mind evaluates the snapshot of prior sentences and phrases (the past), while anticipating upcoming words and sentence structure (the future) so that my mouth and voice can produce the proper and effective sound. That sound is the present, which passes me by before I can experience it as the past. In material and time bound terms the present has no content, and is thoroughly ephemeral, transient in essence.
Therefore to be “in the present” can only have meaning as being the appropriate synthesis of past and future within your reactions in the present. Or to put this another way, the present presents a stage for the whole man to show himself for what he is. As God grants life to a person, therefore, each moment begins with who one is, and ends with a choice about future moments. But now we must recall the ubiquity of distractions in the real world, both within a person’s appetites and simply in the noise of external activity. No person can be in the present without trusting himself to something, or someone, who enables him to react in the present to the reality at hand.
That Someone is Christ: The eternal Lord who exists outside of time. Consequently we, his time bound creation, can trust His directions about life in the present. Those manifold, ubiquitous distractions, however, routinely interfere with our understanding of Him. So we choose, almost unconsciously, not to react in the present according to His will. Thank God, He is merciful!
Returning to the example of reading, if you read and reread that text so that you become both familiar with it and connect with it in a deep and meaningful way, the text in some sense becomes part of you. To that extent it changes you. Then when you read it aloud most of the activity of reading is simply to see the words, and make the sound; the rest takes care of itself. The better that text becomes part of you, the more varied can be the circumstances into which you read it aloud effectively. Each such circumstance will require different adjustments, which, the more comfortable you are with the totality of the text and your own reading limitations, the more quickly and reliably you can make a real-time adjustment.
This provides an analogy on the life in Christ. The more you are truly in Him, the more His will appears in your own actions within the present. The analogy breaks down, however, in that a text is not an active presence, but the Lord is. I dare to believe—because I do not know from experience—that miraculous (not necessarily spectacular) things happen through the Saints in exactly this way. And there we see the simplicity and power of what the Lord taught us to pray: “Thy will be done.”