Wake Up!

FREEMANGod wants man to attend chiefly to two things:

To eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience which [God] has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.

C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters

Despite the fact that we only live in the present, we find that moment to be the most difficult to hold in our awareness. We dwell in our distorted memories of the past or dash about a future whose existence is imaginary. In either case, we avoid the only point at which anything is real.

The fathers describe our awareness of the present as watchfulness (nepsis). We are repeatedly enjoined to be watchful, to be awake.

Arise, O Sleeper, and wake from the dead! And Christ shall give thee light!

The great struggles of our day are fought and won only in the battleground of the present moment. We cannot repent in either the past or the future.

In the desert fathers we are told: There is a voice which cries to a man until his last breath, and it says: “Be converted today.”

Fifteen years ago today, my family and I were received into the Holy Orthodox faith. My oldest child was 17, the youngest was 6. I had read and studied Orthodox writings for over two decades and gave willing, even eager consent to its teachings and claims. But the action of setting my hand to the plow and not looking behind had eluded me for those many years. I met the day of our reception with fear and trembling, more because of the naked prospect of encountering God than from any other existential angst.

I’ve learned since then that the inner life can be exceedingly creative in its efforts to avoid God. I placed myself in an Orthodox arena and found that there is still plenty of room there to play hide and seek. The cry to the heart today, as it was fifteen years ago, remains: “Be converted!”

…To a man’s dying breath.

 

 

Comments

  1. Grant says

    The cross as a symbol can be seen as Time crossing Eternity at the point called Present Time. I wonder if Eternal Life is something like always being in the Present. I know that when I have felt the Holy Spirit it has been something like that -a glorious unconcern with past or future, a deeply compassionate engagement with the present. Thank you again Father.

  2. Dino says

    Utterly brilliant Father!
    To learn to live in such nepsis in the here and now really is the Number1 ascetic struggle – the Number1!
    We can only ever encounter the only Encounter of our existence in that place…

  3. fatherstephen says

    The picture was taken about a year later. I’m not sure we have any pictures from the occasion. We were too overwhelmed to think of them.

  4. George Engelhard says

    Again thank you, Father
    Your talking about the moment reminded me of something that came to me when I was teaching a high school geometry class. I’m not sure how logical it is or if it really “proves” anything, but it makes me smile…
    What’s the Point?
    For something to exist in space and time it must have dimension and duration and it must have a point of location.
    A point, by mathematical (geometric) definition does not have dimension or duration. Therefore,a point does not exist in space and time.
    Since everything in space and time, in order to exist, must have a point of location. Then everything in space and time is dependent on something not in space and time for its existence.

  5. says

    George, that sort of follows along the lines from Fr. Stephen’s posts on existence coming from relationship from a couple of weeks back.

  6. George Engelhard says

    I am only in God’s presence when I am where I am and when I am. God will always be in the past and has always been in the future but I am in neither. The wonderful thing is that God is in the present where and when I am. I can only find Him here and now.

  7. Steve says

    The Holy Orthodox faith is largely “hidden” from view –in ontological terms it is analogous with the tree of life in the garden (past) but also with fulfilment in the eschaton (“future”). Most suitably expressed therefore, in colour!

  8. George Engelhard says

    To be in the Present of God you must trust that he has forgiven the past and is in charge of the future, that He is sovereign in both. Then you can be in the present in His Presence.

  9. says

    May God grant you many years, Father. Courtney and I are very grateful to have discovered St. Anne and to have you as our priest and all the lovely folks there as our community! Many years!

  10. TLO says

    We dwell in our distorted memories of the past or dash about a future whose existence is imaginary.

    One of my favorite quotes for the world of neuroscience is “All biography is fiction and autobiography is hopelessly inventive.”

    In either case, we avoid the only point at which anything is real.

    I don’t think humans actually were designed to recognize that which is “real.” Even color is simply a construct that our brains use to better define the reality around us.

    I think it is clear that we function far better when that which is “real” is overlaid with the stories we tell ourselves. The inventive past and imaginary future are what add color to our existence. What good is “reality” without these?

  11. says

    Fr writes…The cry to the heart today, as it was fifteen years ago, remains: “Be converted!”

    This cry goes back to OT times and still is a voice in our days.

    Blessings.
    david

  12. Dino says

    TLO,

    The inventive past and imaginary future are what add color to our existence. What good is “reality” without these?

    You are understanding and describing secular reality with these words, Father Stephen is referring to what you and I are perhaps not fully understanding – the “One Who Truly exists”:

    God always was, and always is, and always will be. Or rather, God always Is. For Was and Will be are fragments of our time, and of changeable nature, but He is Eternal Being. And this is the Name that He gives to Himself when giving the Oracle to Moses in the Mount. For in Himself He sums up and contains all Being, having neither beginning in the past nor end in the future; like some great Sea of Being, limitless and unbounded, transcending all conception of time and nature, only adumbrated by the intellect (Nous), and that very dimly and scantily.

    —St. Gregory the Theologian

  13. Steve says

    After Pascha, everything necessarily “becomes” a rededication of the Lord’s Resurrection (cf: Thomas Sunday in the Eastern Church). The means by which mankind actively participates in the transformation of the universe – physical & metaphysical.

    In the liturgical calendar, this falls on the Sunday after Pascha, but in our personal lives, every moment, waking, or otherwise, all, is consumed, (read: consumated) in the divine fire of God’s Love.

    This is Salvation, “Peace” that is eternal…

  14. TLO says

    Dino – I was responding chiefly to “we avoid the only point at which anything is real” and I’m really asking whether that “reality” would even make any sense to us if we were not also absorbed in the past/future?

    Without color, most of the world around us would be hidden. Color helps us to define what is around us.

    Similarly, our experiences and hopes for the future color our lives. Without them, how much “reality” would we really be able to see?

    Indeed, is it not possible that rather than “avoiding the only point at which anything is real,” we in fact are constantly seeing that which is real? One does not say, “If only I could shut off the colors of this ocean view then I would truly be able to see the horizon.”

  15. PJ says

    John,

    I don’t think we’re counseled to utterly ignore the future, nor to forget entirely the past, but rather to dispense with anxiety about the future and to relinquish regret about the past. For instance, we should keep in mind the lessons of the past, and cherish the glory to come, but ultimately the present is where we dwell, and it is there alone that we can effect transformation through the Spirit, to the glory of God in Christ. Simply put, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

  16. Steve says

    I don’t think humans actually were designed to recognize that which is “real.” Even color is simply a construct that our brains use to better define the reality around us.

    Ha. Insightful. I enjoyed reading this but must respectfully disagree: (i) Mankind is not an object that he may be designed, like a car or a house (ii) Man is fully theanthropic, meaning he can only be properly described as an image of God Who is Truth<. To disassociate man from truth, is to agree to commit murder.

    I think it is clear that we function far better when that which is “real” is overlaid with the stories we tell ourselves. The inventive past and imaginary future are what add color to our existence. What good is “reality” without these?

    Why parenthesise “real” and “reality”? When God causes us to look in the “mirror”, we see past, present & future (cf: Jeremiah 23:23). It is not because the mirror is “magic”, but because the God Who is Mercy, through his holy spirit, is desirous of imparting a foretaste of things to come.

  17. fatherstephen says

    TLO,
    You’re very generous to us humans. But attending to something other than reality our stories, etc., also generates wars and the rest of the passion-driven life. I’ll put my vote in for some folks attending to reality for a change.

  18. George Engelhard says

    Fr. John Ely, gave a sermon two weeks ago standing in front of the Royal Doors. He pointed to the icon of the Theotokos and said that it was an icon of Christ, of His Incarnation. Then he pointed to Christ Pantocrator and said this is an icon of Christ’s coming again. He said we live in between these two.

  19. TLO says

    PJ:

    we’re counseled to…dispense with anxiety about the future and to relinquish regret about the past.

    Good golly! I can’t think of anything more dehumanizing. without regret of the past and concern for the future, we’d all become sociopaths. There is enormous value in both. A “wise man” who has no regrets is a fraud.

    Steve:

    I place “reality” in quotes because among those who believe in a spiritual realm there is no consensus what that word actually means. Even among Christians there are quite diverse opinions.

    Ironically, that which you define as “Real” is in fact another story. How one is to stop attending to stories and instead attend to a story is beyond me.

    Fr. Stephen:

    I agree. Our stories and passions do cause wars. But stories and passions are what make us human. Take them away even for a moment and what are we?

    It is not possible to continually “live in the moment.” Nor, I would argue, would it be healthy if we could. Heck! We can’t even stop the story-making and passions when we are sleeping.

    (Whenever I hear, “live every moment as if it was your last” I see images of people gasping all day long or clutching their chests or wearing a constant look of surprise. I’m afraid I can’t escape the sillier side of impossible notions.)

  20. Dino says

    TLO,
    one living “in the mind” can never believe, let alone comprehend, someone who has the experience of “being in his heart of hearts” – in the ‘here’ and ‘now’. To such an individual, even the mere existence of such a secret place within seems folly… That “neptic” life is (in the here and now) however, possible!
    [where the One Who Truly exists is beheld, beheld by those rare souls who have shunned what those who live “in the mind” value. Those who live “in the mind” rather than the spiritual heart want to know nothing about such an “inner chamber” – as they are governed by, (rather than reigning supreme over), their senses.]
    Only one who has a substantial experience of both could compare both and tell us which of the too is reality (and which one isn’t) – and they always point to that ‘present moment’…

  21. PJ says

    TLO,

    I don’t think that’s the case. Certainly all my experience tells me otherwise, as do the words of Christ and the example of the great ascetical fathers. But it’s not something that can be argued about. It’s something that must be known. As St. Mark the Monk wrote, “If you love true knowledge, devote yourself to the ascetic life; for mere theoretical knowledge puffs a man up” (On Those Who Think That They Are Made Righteous By Works, 7).

  22. George Engelhard says

    For some the neptic awareness can come unsougthfore and unannounced. The contrast can be quite shocking and frightening. This is especially true if there has been no preparation or stiving for this experience, or if there is no support for this change, if no one else seems to live anywhere else but in there mind. Those individuals may question what they know to be the truth. Those individuals may run from this experience because they do not understand it and have no one to explain it. The only place to run may be deep into sin.

  23. Dino says

    “If you love true knowledge, devote yourself to the ascetic life; for mere theoretical knowledge puffs a man up” is a very pertinent quote…
    theoretical knowledge is never in that same present moment that asetical praxis and nepsis is, and the only place where I have any power to do something is the “now” (the Today Σήμερον), that is why the Church always sings: Today Christ is crucified, Today Christ is risen… Today Christ is born… Today Christ is baptised etc

  24. Dino says

    George Engelhard.
    Yes. Those are usually the dangers of trying out the ‘things of the Church’ -in some way or another- ‘outside of the Church’ …

  25. Steve says

    TLO:

    Pascha is “unrepeatable”. It fills all time & space and doesn’t need to be repeatable. It is of course, irreversible!

    Eugene:

    Glad to hear you’ve thrashed things out with your Igumen!

    Lord have Mercy!

  26. mary benton says

    Hi TLO –

    I both agree and disagree with you :-)

    While it it beneficial and a sign of a well-formed conscience to experience regret, to live in our regrets of the past is neither spiritually nor psychologically healthy. Allowing ourselves to be completely forgiven (or to “let go”, in secular language) does not stop us from learning what we need to learn from our mistakes. Indeed, it enhances our learning because we live in acceptance rather than turmoil and self-punishment.

    Our ability to anticipate the future is one of the blessings we have been given through highly developed frontal lobes that promote individual and species survival. We can anticipate danger and avoid some of it. We can anticipate need and plan for it. That view of the future, from a secular/psychological perspective, is healthy.

    However, on another level, all of our anticipations beyond these (whether fearful or pleasant) are rather pointless because we do not know the future, even when we think we do.

    Allowing the past or future to have a central focus in my living keeps me from living what IS. I can imagine that you have had experiences similar to mine – being wrapped up in thought about past/future, only to look up at the last moment and see something beautiful (e.g. sunset) that was right before my eyes. It was there before but I did not “see” it.

    To take this experience and consider a spiritual analogy, I am often not “seeing” the One I love because I am not in the moment where I can encounter Him. This is not because God is limited to the present moment but because my ability to have a living experience is so limited.

    If your experience of your wife/child/loved one only involved your past memories and future anticipations, you would most likely feel that you were experiencing them very little, as in “a story”. To hold them or gaze upon them in the now-moment is so much richer. And so it is with encounter with God.

    The vast majority of us do not experience this “nepsis” continuously. And I believe the experience of encountering God in the now-moment is a gift. I cannot make it happen – but I can ready my heart by making space (cleaning out all of the un-God, aka repenting) and practicing being in the present moment in stillness – so that I will be capable of receiving the gift.

  27. Dino says

    Mary Benton,
    Brilliantly explained!
    Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this the gate of heaven!’ (Genesis 28 16-7)
    This place is the “here and now” in Man’s innermost chamber, where we encounter the “sun that was right before my eyes”…

  28. says

    This is a teaching I have been attempting to practice over the past year or so. It is a bit difficult, but quite beautiful.

    You mentioned your conversation to Orthodoxy, Fr Stephen, and being present makes me think of my journey into Orthodoxy as well. For several months I wrestled and was stressed out. I was constantly researching topics that conflicted with my Protestant upbringing.

    I was about to give it all up when I felt the Holy Spirit tell me to take a break from all of my readings and listening to podcasts from Ancient Faith Radio. I began going to the Liturgies with no motive other than to be present and listen to the Spirit.

    Now I am at a place where I can begin to read and listen to articles on the ancient Faith, but I realized that this journey into Orthodoxy must be an experiential one and not a philosophical one. And in order for it to be experiential, I must be present.

  29. Marjaana says

    To Jeremy:

    My experience was very similar except that I knew from past experience that I can easily argue myself out of faith. But I also knew in my heart that I needed to be in the church and attend liturgies. So when I converted I read only the minimum that I had to, in order to be accepted. Only after a couple of years, I started reading theology again and was so happy to learn that the theology backed up what I had been experiencing.

  30. George Engelhard says

    The first book I read when I converted was Bp. Ware’s “The Orthodox Church”. When I read the theology section, it coencided with what I already intutitvely knew and had been searching for all my life.

  31. Steve says

    Orthodox theology really does fit the entire breadth of human experience. From the great heights to the deepest depths. Blessings to all.

  32. says

    I can certainly understand your approach to Orthodoxy, Marjaana. In the West, we are ingrained with doctrine that is often times just slightly wrong. Having our thinking modified is a bit of a process.

    George, I had the same experience. Much of Orthodox Theology was what I was already intuitively feeling about the faith. But there are a number of things that had to be unlearned or re-learned. My flaw was trying to tackle everything at once.

    Steve, I feel the only theology that is truly worthwhile is that which comes from experiencing God. And it does seem that (from my short venture into Orthodoxy so far) that much of the theology comes from experience.