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The Illusion of “The Present Moment”

This essay is a reflection on what some have called “the sacrament of the present moment.” It is in two parts, from experiences a decade apart. It is written by a historian, not a theologian.

Scene One: A Retreat in North Carolina

My men’s group held an annual retreat at an Episcopal conference center in North Carolina. By a tranquil lake in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains we enjoyed many years of fellowship and formation.

One year was not so good. We had a retreat speaker who pushed us hard on his thesis that we should live in the present moment. He may have said “live in the now” only ten times in the first session, but it seemed like a hundred times. While I believed that this was wrong-headed, I was unsure how to respond. I didn’t want to cause a problem for the retreat, so I held my comments. But as a historian I knew that Christians are deeply historical people. Our faith is founded on real events in the past, and we celebrate those events as part of our testimony of being among “the cloud of witnesses.” We are also eschatological people. We look forward to the second coming when Jesus will be revealed as Lord of all.

At one of our breaks, I went down by the lake to clear my head. I overheard two friends talking. One asked a logical question: on the view of our speaker, that if we were to “live in the now,” today was the day, wasn’t it? I don’t know how a pop song from years before came to mind. The song was “Today,” a hit made popular in the early sixties by The New Christy Minstrels, later covered by John Denver. There, by a Carolina lake, some forty years later, the words came back.  The tune is sweet and easy to sing.

I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glory
I can’t live on promises winter to spring
Today is my moment and now is my story
I’ll laugh and I’ll cry and I’ll sing.

Well, that’s living in the now, isn’t it? Back in the sixties, the idea of being lost in the moment with another person was just the ticket when one was young.

I went back to the retreat, determined to be a good participant. I told no one of the song in my mind I could now not get rid of, but I thought that this idea of “living in the now” was highly suspect.

Scene Two: Reading During the Pandemic of 2020

During the isolation of the pandemic, I did a lot of reading. Among other books, during that year I read or re-read all the works of Michal Mayne, late dean of Westminster Abbey. I have written about how one of Mayne’s books — A Year Lost and Found — is a book for our time of loss in the COVID crisis. But I saw something else in the Mayne books that I hadn’t seen before. It was his stress on “the sacrament of the present moment,” when one is supposedly detached from the past but not yet engaged with the future. For Mayne and others, such a moment is when God’s Spirit can break through and touch our lives.

I am skeptical, though, not because I don’t believe that there are occasions when the truth of the gospel shines suddenly and brightly for us. I am sure of such occasions because I have, thankfully, experienced such moments of grace and insight. But despite our wishes that time might stand still, it does not. This moment will be a past moment when the clock ticks. Our experiences of today, however wonderful, will be the memories of yesterday before we know it. A special blessing received today will live in our memory tomorrow that will bring back yesterday.

So, where does this — I think — illusion of “living in the now” come from? According to Mayne and other writers it seems to go back to a French Jesuit priest, Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1757).  He is said to be the first to use the phrase “the sacrament of the present moment.” Apparently, this moment of transcendent insight can be raised to the level of a sacrament (though, it seems, without the presence of the real sacraments). Caussade had to withdraw from public ministry for a time because his writing was thought to exhibit “Quietism,” which the papacy had condemned as a heresy. Back then his writings were on the margins of the Church. Not anymore. Despite the endorsement of many writers in our time, and my retreat speaker in North Carolina, it is hard for me to accept what people are asserting in the context. For example, listen to Fr. John Beever, who recently translated Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence. He writes: “We must live from minute to minute. The past is past, the future is yet to be. There is nothing we can do about either.”

For this Christian historian, such an idea seems not to be a little bit wrong; it is thoroughly wrong. First, consider William Faulkner’s comment: “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.” Indeed, anything we know about our “present moment” is an outworking (for good or ill) of the sum of the experiences of our lives. We may not like those experiences, and try to run from them, but we can’t deny or evade them. Those reading this blog who work in pastoral care will know that a large part of their calling is to help troubled souls (i.e., all of us) to deal with, and hopefully heal, our memories of, e.g., hurt, shame, abuse, guilt.  It seems to me to be an illusion that we can somehow abstract ourselves from who and what we are in some undefined yet special “moment.”

Just as the past is not really past and ineluctably bleeds into the present, so the future has great impact on what we might mean by “the present moment.” We Christians believe that there will come a “time” (whatever we mean by that!) when Gabriel will blow his famous, and much anticipated, trumpet, and everything will be changed. All who died in “the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection” will rise incorruptible. There will be the shalom of God, and all will be well. The poor children who never had shoes in this life will wear their golden slippers. There will be hallelujahs all around. Most importantly, all will see Jesus for who he is; every knee will bow and everyone will declare him Lord of all. Contrary to our “live in the now” friends, the future has great impact on our present lives.

To be sure, “today” is very important in our spiritual lives as we wait upon God, but its importance turns on it being the fulcrum of yesterday and tomorrow. Asking to live “in the now,” is, in my view, chasing an illusion not a reality. As faithful people we live in a continuity of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, in which we are guided by a gracious heavenly Father who will see us through to the promised land, where he, Jesus and the Holy Spirit — i.e., one God — reign forever.

Ronald A. Wells is emeritus professor of history at Calvin University, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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