In the observations of Fr. Meletios Webber, we prefer either the past or the future. The past is marked by the thoughts of “if only,” the future with thoughts of “what if.” These thoughts are the voice of the logismoi, the constant barrage of thoughts and feelings that distract us from ourselves and from the world as it simply is. They also stand between us and knowledge of the heart.
This is part of the classical teaching of the Orthodox faith – particularly as found in the works of monastic fathers. It is drawn both from the teachings of Scripture and the long experience of faithful men and women who have found their way to the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God, much like our understanding of God Himself, has suffered at the hands of modern Christian treatments, being confused with life after death or with various utopian dreams of secular Christians. The Kingdom of God is not precisely synonymous with life after death, though it is the very character of that life. The difference is that Christ did not speak about the Kingdom as though it were a synonym for a pagan-style after-life. Instead He spoke of something that was already among us or “within” us (Luke 17:21), that could be sought by us (Matt. 6:33), that belonged to the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3), that is entered by “spiritual violence” (Matt. 11:12) that has come near us (Luke 10:9), and other such descriptions.
St. Macarius, one of the Desert Fathers, writes:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there (H.43.7).
We need look no further than our own heart to find the Kingdom of God – for it is there that Christ dwells (cf. Rev. 3:20). But this is the very problem. The Kingdom of God is not to be found by searching the past nor by anxiously searching the future. Instead we are told:
Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).
The difficulty comes in our inability and frequent refusal to be “here and now.” Our mind wanders, even during liturgy or prayer (or especially during liturgy and prayer). We are almost always somewhere other than where we are. At least, this is true of our minds.
Interestingly, our bodies are always here and now. I find it odd that many take issue with physical elements of worship, such as bowing, or making the sign of the cross, or using incense and icons, insisting on the superiority of our “mental” life. In fact our mental life is extremely weak when compared to the relative stability of our bodies.
The tradition of the fathers speaks of “uniting the mind with the heart.” It involves more than being “here and now,” but it does include that simple reality. Of course, though being here and now can be described as a “simple” reality – the difficulty that surrounds its occurrence reveals its depths.
Our avoidance of the present is rooted in our own sin. We regret the past, and carry its guilt, often dwelling there rather than seeking the forgiveness that could set us free. Anxiety drags us into the future and the fears of our own imagination. The great weakness of both the past and future lies precisely in their lack of reality.
Orthodox spiritual practice has always discouraged use of the imagination as a tool – it is far to vulnerable to delusion. The fact that our thoughts of the past and of the future lack reality also give them the quality of delusion. God is not to be found in what is not real. He is the very Ground of reality.
And thus the spiritual life calls us towards reality – towards here and now.
The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness…. Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (from Matthew 6).