Be Present to the Present

Note: This post also appears in the St. Michael and St. Albert bulletins this weekend.

Last weekend I visited my parents in Michigan. It’s a 12-hour drive; my sister and I spent two days helping to sort through and organize 50 years of accumulation in their basement—then I drove 12 hours back home. It was a good weekend, in large part because I mostly avoided my phone and computer to focus on where I was, what I was doing and—most importantly—who I was with.

That is no small thing for me, because I slip easily into thinking about tomorrow, next week, the future. I am a planner by nature and struggle with uncertainty, but providentially, I listened to a wonderful audio version of C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters on the way to my folks’ place. The book is presented as a series of letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape, who is offering advice to his nephew, a junior tempter trying to lure one particular human soul to Hell.

At one point in his correspondence, Screwtape writes:

“Our busi­ness is to get them [humans] away from the eter­nal, and from the Present. … It is far bet­ter to make them live in the Future. Bio­log­i­cal neces­si­ty makes all their pas­sions point in that direc­tion already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in mak­ing them think about it, we make them think of unre­al­i­ties. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eter­ni­ty. It is the most com­plete­ly tem­po­ral part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eter­nal rays.… Hence near­ly all vices are root­ed in the future. Grat­i­tude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambi­tion look ahead…”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

That sounds bad enough, but as I reflected further on this passage while talking with my mom over the weekend, it occurred to me: Not only is worrying about the future living in unreality, it is living in countless unrealities—endless uncertainty. (My pulse quickens just typing that.)  Even worse, all the time that our attention is far afield, the present is constantly slipping away. The situation we are guessing at is taking shape while we strain to see beyond it;  the conversation in our heads keeps us from actually saying what ought to be said; and the person we desire not to lose is sitting alone in the silence of our distracted thoughts.

In last Sunday’s gospel, the Lord reminds us that the two most important commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Love is our mission, and both God and neighbor are always in the present. When we work to love them here and now, we are on mission, and our souls touch eternity.

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