Strangely enough, the one place that most of us avoid is here and now.
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).
I’m sure most readers of your blog have this problem, present company not excepted — thank you for posting about it. It’s worth the struggle to remember the importance of the intersection of Here and Now.
I must admit that as a writer of Orthodox fiction, my own struggle includes the Church’s discouragement of the use of the imagination, and would appreciate any thoughts you have about that aspect of Orthodoxy.
May I, an artist, ‘second that question?’
“And thus the spiritual life calls us towards reality – towards here and now.”
How could you know, Father, that I struggled intensely with this very truth today? Ah…you didn’t, but the Lord does. I was grieving over what I have deemed as past mistakes, wallowing in deep regret over foolish decisions. I even wondered if what I was doing this day was merely an exercise of fultility. I prayed that it wouldn’t be, and yet I could not be certain. When I considered the future, it only seemed to beckon me to a hopelessness, an emptiness.
I wanted to know how to escape such beleaguering thoughts. At one point I considered saying the Jesus Prayer, but that only seemed it would be a stilted response. After the thoughts subsided, I was left feeling down trodden, as if an enemy had come in and stolen some of my treasure. I believed and do even at this moment, that there is always an Orthodox Christian understanding, a mindset or phronema as we Orthodox would call it, to put on in situations like these. So many times in the past, I’ve held my breath (so to speak) and waited for the storms to abate. Such behavior is really more like crossing ones fingers that living by faith. However, I know there is a better way and I must know waht it is and learn to apprehend it.
A prayer comes to mind: “Forgive what I have been, amend what I am, and direct what I shall be.”
As someone with chronic pain and sleeplessness, I am well aware of the problems of the logismoi – they come to me in my sleeplessness, taunting me with things left undone during the day, things I “should not have done,” and a litany of “what if’s” that consume the night. If I get up, I lose the possibility of sleep, so I lie there in hopes of sleep. Even the Jesus Prayer becomes a jumble of words some from the Jesus Prayer and some from other prayers and others from readings, movie scripts, who knows what all. My nightly torment becomes my daily fear. “What if” tonight is the same? Can I stand another night of this? But several nights of sleeplessness and “attacks” by logismoi are nearly always followed by one or two nights of dreamless sleep. God is merciful in this.
Love in Christ,
As a writer of (among other kinds of pieces) speculative fiction/magical realism/sci fi, I wonder a lot about the imagination issue as well.
Also, I have no idea about how to unite my writer/artist life with my praying life, because of the following dilemma:
Writer/artist M.O.=be always open to distractions, images, ideas, and combinations thereof, for the purpose of going deeper into the work(s).
Praying M.O.=be always seeking to pray the Jesus Prayer. Or something like that.
Hey, Claire, I hear ya! In my own writing, I always commend my writing to our Lord and ask Him to inform it and shape it. It does seem to help. Which still begs the question about the role of imagination: If the Church cautions against the use of the imagination, where does that leave a Dostoevsky, or us lesser mortals who dare to create characters which inhabit other times and spaces?
Mrs. Mutton, aren’t you always writing even when you’re not “writing”? I mean, in your walking-around life, always writing in your head/heart. How do you deal w/ that re. the “pray without ceasing” thing?
I am also an artist and very prone to distraction, so thanks to Mrs Mutton and Claire for raising this particular struggle.
Don’t we sometimes need to bring some of these thoughts to God? It is my experience that some of these thoughts (especially fears) tie into the deeper matters of the heart and should be poured out before God. How do we balance this?
(I beg your forgiveness, Father Stephen, that I am daring to write a response here.)
Imagination itself is not evil, it is a gift from God. I would even dare say that in a very real way it is part of how we are made in His image, as it is often one way that we imitate Him in creation. In many instances fiction and art speak more truth (tell more of Christ and His story) than some strictly factual or non-fiction works can do. Christ Himself taught us by parables – fictional stories! – that delivered great truths. He knows our need to be creative in that way, because He made us in His image!
I am sure Father will clarify this, but it seems to me that the Church Fathers are not speaking against creative imagination, but rather the “vain imaginings” of our hearts; those thoughts and actions that lead us toward unreality and away from God. If a story or a piece of art leads us to think of whatsoever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, etc (Phil 4:8) then are they not leading us toward God Who is Reality? If so, how can they be evil?
Mrs. Mutton, you ask: “(what of) Dostoevsky, or us lesser mortals who dare to create characters which inhabit other times and spaces?”
As someone with a life long interest in history, I would say it is not really possible to create characters, even whimiscal fantastic characters, who are not human or to create habitats or other times and spaces. History is never about what was, but about what is, a mirror to our present. So too with fiction.
What Dostoevsky and all good ‘fiction’ writers do is to address the reality of here and now with a bit of remove so that it becomes easier to see who we really are.
My apprehension of the fathers warnings against the imagination is two fold: 1) we cannot imagine God, we can merely experience what He chooses to reveal to us. That is always here and now–personal and intimate; 2) if we try to imagine God, we are creating idols and inviting demons into our lives. We have the doctrines and the canons and the lives of the saints as examples of what the revelation looks like so that we are less apt to be deceived.
Certainly writers can be led astray by their passions and imaginings, H.P. Lovecraft comes to mind. Mr. Lovecraft and others are lead astray precisely because they stopped dealing with the human, with our own heart and how it is constituted right now. Good fiction is good precisely because it speaks to the here and now; to our human condition in this time and place, no matter how far away it appears to be. Christian fantasy is wonderful: George McDonald, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, et. al. Is there any place more real and present than Narnia? A character more wonderfully human than Reepicheep?
The best fiction so deeply plumbs the depths of what it means to be human in the here and now that it speaks to all of us in that moment. We are not linear. That is not vain imagining.
Fr. Stephen writes: “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.”
What I physically do in Divine Liturgy or any Church service – is always a response to something that is going on – and these personal actions keep me present in the service. This past Pascha was for me the time I was most present in the here & now and I long to have that again.
Very good questions…sorry to be delayed in my response. The use of imagination discouraged in the fathers is precisely the sort in which we seek God through imaginative techniques (picturing God doing this or that, etc.). The West developed this use in some instances.
I think Michael said it quite well (and Mat. Nikki).
There are serious questions about art and writing – mostly having to do with beauty and the portrayal of truth. What works in Lewis’ fiction is that even though it is an act of fantasy his fantasy is “true.” I would say the same about Tolkien. This can also be a question with art, though harder to express. If it is beautiful, true, etc., it can have very much a here and now quality. Artists, poets, etc., have a need for good spiritual discipline – confession, etc, being sure to spend time here and now with God as possible. Everybody’s work takes their thoughts to places, etc., without harm – if the work we do is good and true. I hope this is a help and that I’ve not created confusion.
My father was an auto-mechanic – and a very good one. The task of diagnosing a problem (especially in the old days) certainly took knowledge and imagination. Many things are like that – imagination itself is not a problem. In my own writing, using the imagery or metaphor of a “one-storey” universe is an act of imagination – it helps us see more clearly the truth of something.
There is a tendency within the history of modern art to think of art, poetry, etc., to be about “self-expression” in which art is about the ego. Occasionally this has led to the cult of personality or various sorts of distortions. The truth of our self is found in Christ – not in the ego. I am not the arbiter of what is art, and do not intend to be. But the continued nurture of the ego will not result in spiritual growth. I would say that for anyone in any profession, there should be a commitment to truth and beauty, to reality as made known to us in the revelation of God. I cannot think of any created thing that falls outside of such concerns.
I want my prayer to be true and real. At one point in my life, I was involved in a group that I would say was dominated by its “imagination” of spiritual things being unable increasingly to make distinctions between reality and imagined realities.
Orthodoxy responds to such things with teachings on “sobriety” or “nepsis.” It is a spiritual self-restraint that disciplines us towards a commitment to reality and truth and diminished focus on the ego.
Just some more thoughts on the topic. It’s a very fruitful area for reflection.
Thanks for your response on prayer, imagination and artmaking.
I had a side question, which probably got lost in the larger questions being addressed. It seems to me that sometime our “logismoi”, (if I am understanding the term correctly), especially our more fearful thoughts, if we are honest about these with God, can lead us into deeper, truer prayer- but perhaps I am being deluded.
I really struggle with the prayers of the church as they often seem inauthentic, or don’t fit, or too formal, or just too many words. I can see the good in these prayers as they force us to look out and up, but there is so much to go through before we can just sit and be, or cry before God with the million things that we struggle with. I hope this question makes sense. Thank you.
Thanks to Father Stephen and all others who responded to my question — those clarifications work very well for me.
Sharon, I also wrestle with the prayers of the Church — usually — but every once in so often, one or another of them will hit a nerve, and the response to that is always deeper, fuller prayer. I would encourage you to keep slogging through them, and to think of them as a battering ram hammering away at the walls we all build around our souls. Inauthentic, they are not, having been written from the depths of the souls of people who really *knew* how to stand in the presence of God with their prayers. That’s why we pray with them, as a tool to teach us hwo to do that, too.
Many times we simply have to say what is on our heart when we pray. The printed prayers of the Church teach us much and may lead us into deeper prayer, but we are always free to speak to God. It is a journey to God, not a journey of mastering the rules.
I am somewhat hesitant to answer a question Father already answered, so forgive me if my thoughts do not contribute anything new.
My understanding of the Church Fathers is that the problem with imagination is that it interferes with prayer. “Secular” pursuits such as art and literature are not prayer per se, though I would certainly agree with Coleridge (in the poem he claimed to have written upon hearing Wordsworth’s Prelude read aloud) that art at its finest leads to prayer, or even becomes prayer, or are two different expressions of the same basic faculty of the soul (an idea tentatively raised by a Roman Catholic theologian, Abbe Bremond), but one must make a distinction between the beginnings of prayer (such as the brief petitions one might make when one is in trouble, or the sweet feelings one might have immediately after one’s conversion or when hearing the beauty of the Liturgy, or even the pious feelings aroused by strong feelings of beauty as in art), and true prayer or noetic prayer. The imagination may be of use at the start, but it has to be left aside (rather quickly, I have found) in order to make progress. Your primary intention in writing is what one might call a “secular” pursuit (I put “secular” in quotes because for the Christian, all is done for the glory of God and thus nothing is truly secular any more), and your imagination is therefore a sacrament to God rather than a direct, noetic communion with Him (Father, if my distinction between a “sacramental” and “noetic” prayer is flawed or poorly stated, please correct me).
I think this is why Tolkien, under criticism that fantasy is escapist, said that good fantasy is not a flight from reality but rather a flight to it. If the imagination at its best does not lead us to God, then we could not have the ikon. For imagination, in the truest sense of the term, does not mean whimsical or arbitrary choices (which is why the Church has rightly rejected modernistic and Italianate and other non-canonical iconography), but rather the unveiling of beauty through images. Thus, the more a writer’s imagination takes us away from the mundane world and gives us a world which is compelling to our minds through its integrity, vividness, and the shock of beauty that follows from the exoticness or different-ness it has from the mundane world, the more we say that an artist has a good imagination.
I am reminded of Metropolitan Ware’s book the Orthodox Way. I cannot recall who is quoting but the reference is something to the effect of, “the most important moment in our life is in the now.”
Thank you Father for this post as it is one of the things I constantly struggle with.
I am so very thankful to God to have found Fr. Webber’s Bread, Water, Wine and Oil! I have gone back several times to remind myself of the way the mind and heart work within the hear and now. What a gift he has of description, and yet each time I must read slowly. And of course the reason I “re-read” is I keep forgetting! Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for addressing this very necessary subject, this very life! Glory to God for all things!
The mind and the body. Many years ago I attended a Quaker high school.
We began every Tuesday morning with Meeting for Worship, which meant sitting in silence before God for 45 minutes. Usually it took at least 15 minutes for peace to settle over us. During that time there was shuffling of feet, coughing, restlessness etc. and then very slowly peace came upon us.
Carrying this a bit futher. On Sunday morning our bodies arrive at church but our minds are still on the way dealing with all the stuff that has gone before.
Rushing in at the last moment usually means that the first fifteen minutes or so are lost causes. Our bodies need to arrive in time for our minds to catch up with them so we can begin the service together.
To take it even a bit further, I lived for several years in a country where you do not drink tap water, unless you want to get parasites. Back in the USA now, my mind still has major problems drinking tap water. It screams out at me, “Don’t do it!”
As I reread the above reflection prior to sending this, I thought how nice it would be if our minds could, would, remind us not to sin, “Don’t do it” As Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is the man ….whose delight in in the law of the Lord.”
We need to learn to teach our minds the way of the Lord.
Thank you, all.
I don’t quite “get it” but maybe that’s because I’m seeking a formula, always my temptation–so I’ll just inch along in my struggle with the issue!
I think part of the problem with imagination, worry, etc is it takes us away from the person who we are with. If it is prayer it is time with the Father in the Son, through the Holy Spirit. My mind often wanders when in formal prayer and not so much when I’m speaking my own words. I greatly value both forms though. Imagination and technology can take us far away from our neighbor (I think the Greek translation of neighbor is “near one”) The tele-far-phone-sound and tele-far-vision take us away from those who are speaking to us and we can see physically. It tends to make a priority of those who are far off from those who are near.
Our imagination, like so many other things, is a gift from God that we must learn to use wisely. If we follow it into bad neighborhoods we should leave and seek holy ground. All the great homilies, prayers and teachings of the Church exist because of the power of imagination and can act to hold us in the here and now. Ironically many addicts pay a great price to avoid living in the everydayness, the bitter, grinding agony of existence.
“The hour through which you are at present passing, the man whom you meet here and now, the task on which you are engaged at this very moment–these are always the most important in your whole life.” Nikolai Leskov
I too was helped by this post. I always need to be reminded to pay attention to the “now.” I’m struck by that sometimes, as I’m driving home from work, and saying my prayer-rope. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been asleep for most of my life — so concerned have I been with past and future.
But on another subject, I’ve been struck lately, in these difficult economic times, by how much of the Savior’s teachings on the Kingdom also seemed to involve almsgiving and the sharing of wealth. What did Zachaeus do? Give away a third of his wealth? It couldn’t have been any easier for him than it would be for us. And the Lord exclaimed that salvation had come to him. There are also many other places where the Lord exhorts people– almost in a kind of exclamation — to sell their possessions, give away their wealth, and thereby obtain purses that never grow old.
I’m not much of a Christian social justice guy; I tend to be more interested in prayer and the life of the heart (which of course any “good work” should spring out of naturally). But I remain convicted by many passages in the Gospel that absolutely require me to give until it hurts; actually, to give until my whole way of life changes. Hard when one has a family with step-children and so forth… not much I can do to radically change my situation. Some Protestant/emerging church groups are doing it well (e.g., The Simple Way in Phillie), as maybe do Orthodox monastics.
Surely the Kingdom of God ultimately requires a radical redistribution of wealth, not by government fiat, but by repentance and reconsideration of what makes a good life. Maybe I’ll just have to paraphrase the thought usually expressed about martyrdom: “If you can’t be perfect through voluntary poverty, at least stay close to those who can.”
Thank you for this post — it is what I needed to read today. My (Orthodox) wife left me to be with someone else last year, and too often I find myself (even now, so much later), wishing I could go back to the past that we had together or lamenting the future that we will never have together. It struck me as I was reading this post that I am often not living in the present.
It is so true that God commands us to deal with reality. This is my reality, a reality that I had never envisioned for myself but one which God is well aware of, and I’m sure that He wants me to use this reality to grow closer to Him. And to forgive — much easier said than done.
Often our realities are painful, so we prefer to think of the past or the future. Thanks for clarifying that such imaginations are not what God wants for us, however.
-A brother in Christ
Pause, reflect, and pray . . . living in the moment.
To the brother in Christ:
My (Orthodox) wife also left me about 13 years ago, so I can empathize deeply with your situation. Take heart! It DOES get better, in God’s time. Prayer definitely helps — definitely, defintely — and during my own time of deep grief, I’d say an occasional prayer rope to the Mother of God (“Most Holy Mother of God, save us” on each knot).
It does get better. God keep you! There’s joy at the end.
Would you ever consider writing a commentary on scripture?….please?
This is the antidote to paralysis of indecision in daily life and senseless speculation on future life. thank you!
James Thurber once observed that those who say, “If only”, are living in the pluperfect subjunctive.
You made my day. Pluperfect subjunctive. I feel a sermon coming on.
Bless me father.
With your permission I would like to translate this post of yours and publish it on my blog. Can I?
May God bless!