The Sacrament of the Present Moment

There is a wonderful translation of Jean-Pierre De Caussade’s  Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, which bears the same title as this post. I am borrowing the phrase, not to comment on the volume (though I highly recommend it), but to bring into focus something of at least equal importance.

It is the reality of our moment by moment encounter with God. We confess that God is everywhere present and fills all things, but we still largely walk through the world treating all the things that we encounter as just that – things. We carry no sense within us that God is in fact sharing His life with us in and through all things.

This goes to the very heart of living life as though the world were secular, of living life in a “two-storey” universe – the storey in which we live being the one not inhabited by God.

It has been a common observation that when various reformers set about to reform the Church, they declared “all days to be holy days,” and thus rid the calendar of any particular holy day. The unintended result was that before long not only were all days not holy days, no day was a holy day.

In the same way, the decrees concerning the “priesthood of all believers” rather than making every individual a priest, became a meaningless phrase, for without the sacramental priesthood, the phrase lost its reference of meaning. No one had seen or dealt with a priest so to be told that they had some kind of “priesthood” from Christ was meaningless.

The same has been true of the more recent democratizations of the liturgy where the “people” gather around the altar and God is in our midst. Somehow, God becomes lost. All boundary between myself and the holy disappear and I can no longer know the holy.

Strangely, most of these reforms were not misguided. They were rooted in Scriptural truth and embodied a certain amount of truth. But invariably they were reforms that were lost in the “law of unintended consequences.” The general principle triumphed over the particular instance and the result was the abolition of something important.

But God is indeed “everywhere present and filling all things.” One of the clearest examples of this in Scripture is to be found in the resurrected Christ’s encounter with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They conversed and the disciples did not recognized Him. Indeed, their hearts “burned” within them as they walked along and He instructed them in Scripture concerning the Christ. But things became clear – they recognized the risen Lord when He stopped with them for the evening meal. There He “took bread, blessed, broke and gave it to them,” and we are told, “their eyes were opened.” Those four verbs, “take, bless, break, and give,” are always used in Eucharistic encounters in Scripture. They are keys for our understanding. Nonetheless, the Scriptures do not say that there was a “formal” liturgy or even a clearly demarcated sacred meal. Only that Christ was present, and that He “took bread, blessed, broke and gave it too them.” And He was made known to them.

The Eucharist reveals Christ to us. But as Fr. Alexander Schmemann always noted, the Eucharist not only reveals Christ to us, it also reveals the true nature of creation to us. Bread can no longer be the same if Christ has taken it and made it His body.

It is always possible, indeed it has already happened, that we build a fence around that sacred moment and confine it to the liturgy itself. Outside the service, everything returns to “normal and ordinary,” and the Orthodox become as secular as every Christian around them. This is a denial of the Orthodox faith.

God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” thus there is no “normal and ordinary,” no “secular.” Everything is changed. There is no eating of bread that is not a communion with God. There is no encounter with a tree that is not an encounter with the hard wood of the cross, the “weapon of peace.”

In Jeremiah (23:23-24) we read:

Am I a God at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD.

We do not have a “neutral zone” where we live apart from God. Instead, we have zones of ignorance, where believing Christians live as unbelievers, awaiting their next attendance at a “God permitted” zone.

No, the truth is that God has united Himself not only to humanity in the incarnation, but to matter itself. Man is the “microcosm” according to the Fathers, a “little cosmos” in himself. This is most fully and completely true in Christ, who has truly summed up the cosmos within Himself. Thus we look forward to the redemption and resurrection of the whole created order and not just man (Romans 8).

Thus we are never separated from God who is freely with us, but also giving Himself to us in everything around us. This is no profession of pantheism. God has not become everything else. But everything else holds the possibility of encounter with God as surely as the holy water within the Church or every sacrament He has given us. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fr. Schmemann said that there were two “no’s” in his life and one “yes.” “No” to secularism; “No” to religion as a human institution; and “Yes” to the Kingdom of God. I am saying nothing different.

So this brings us to the “sacrament of the present moment.” Everything, everyone, every place, filled with God, becomes a moment of communion and theophany. Thus we pray for the whole world, and finally know the fullness for which God is preparing us.

In this mystery of God’s presence we learn that even time itself is overcome – for forgiveness reaches backwards in time, and thus not even the past is fixed in some secular mode, but is subject to the Spirit of God and may be changed by forgiveness. As God has promised through His beloved Apostle:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:9-11).

And because the existence of all is underwritten by the Good God (“in Him we live and move and have our being”) we are in no way the lords of our own existence. We do not control history nor its outcome. Acts of murder do not remove the existence of our victims, only increase our own distance from the truth of existence. There is no place to run, to flee, to hide ourselves from the truth which resides in God and it is to this truth that we must finally be reconciled if we are ourselves to stand in the truth at the end of all things. And so to everything that is we announce the goodness of the Kingdom of God and ask forgiveness of everything and everyone and for all time. Less than this would not be the fullness of life. Glory to God for all things.

27 comments:

  1. That is a liberating truth! I think we in the West suffer from the plague of secular thought, since we are told that we are “consumers”. Our satanically inspired view has poisoned the other societies of the world as well. Not that it hasn’t existed in other forms, but this is the modern manifestation we live with. I think this line of thinking goes perfect with the declaration of the Holy Martyr Proclus, “I am of the Race of Christ!” The truth conveyed in such a statement, I think, is a manifestation of a total life in communion with Christ.

  2. In the same way, pantheism in the end becomes indistinguishable from atheism. And when universal salvation is preached, salvation becomes reduced from the awesome reality of theosis to a vague and frankly laughable sentimentalism.

    Thank you very much for this post.

  3. Another powerful and timely message — thank you, Father. That the past can be changed by forgiveness is a great encouragement.

  4. With regard to forgiveness stretching back in time, one of my favorite lines of poetry comes from the very end of Czeslaw Milosz’s “What I Learned from Jeanne Hersh”:

    12. That in our lives we should not succumb to despair because of our errors and our sins, for the past is never closed down and receives the meaning we give it by our subsequent acts.

  5. A priest once said in a homily : The response when Moses asked for His name (Exodus 3:14) – I am who I am – speaks about living in the “Present Moment”. Not “who I was”, nor “who I will be” – but “The God of the Eternal Present”.

  6. Thank you, Father Stephen for this post. I will have to read it a few more times in order for it to sink in. 🙂

    And thank you Stephen H for that quote from Czeslaw Milosz. It especially spoke to my heart since I have been living in regret lately over past decisions.

  7. Are there more than one translations of this book, and if so, to which one do you refer?

    A beautiful post, one which I will need to read a few times just as Darlene said! Thank you.

  8. Christ is in our midst!

    He is and ever shall be!

    Thank You Father, may He continue to enlighten and inspire you in the truth of the Gospel!

    Chrst is present everywhere at all times.

    If we can repent of our own vain imaginings and enter into our hearts in humility, by Gods grace we can know Him there in the midst of our hearts.
    We never have to lose sight of His Presence or communion with Him because He is always with us.

    But just like in the Garden we eat of the fruit of this world and imagine we have the knowledge of good and evil but it is really only our own vain imaginings leading us away from living communion with our Saviour.

    Christ said repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Our Lord also said the Kingdom of Heaven is inside of you.

    No matter where you are or what state you find yourself in take heart for our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ is Present with you loving you and giving you new life.

    Knock and the door will be open!

    Seek the truth and the truth will set you free!

    With Thanks giving in your heart cry out continually

    Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have Mercy on us!

    Lo, I am with you always even onto the end.

  9. Father, wonderful post, but I have another question. Do all await a physical bodily resurrection or is it only those who have died with Christ that recieve a glorified physical body?

  10. Tiny House,
    There are a number of translations. My preference is the relatively recent one with the title The Sacrament of the Present Moment, translated by Kitty Muggeridge. Older translations usually have the more traditional title: Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence.

  11. …..This is simply amazing!
    Thank you!

    -from a soon-to-be Orthodox
    Doksa to Theo panton eneken!

  12. Transmitter or receiver?

    As the radio is the transmitter of all that it contains, and, as the various wave ‘bands’ send out all that one ‘tunes’ into.
    We must continuously set our ‘dials’ to the station of The Most Holy Spirit.
    And none other!

    The Advocate’s station is the only One that fools for Christ should ever be tuned into.

    Granted the ‘station’ is often difficult to tune~in~to as we often fumble in recognizing it.
    None the less, we must do our utmost for His highest, to “live” within “The Sacrament of the present second”

    Deo Volente!

  13. Father – I read this when you first wrote it. I loved it, but I have not lived it. My first thought is to try harder, but my A.A. training has taught me that is exactly the wrong thing to do.

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  14. Father Stephen,
    When you refer to the illusional, unrealistic, unblessed stadium of two -storey universe do you equal that to the totally unreasonable acceptance of life as there are two Christ (s). Out of the Liturgy people act totally as you described -now back to old as if we are out of the God zone. There is a notion I came across, maybe this is the same case of the inner man and the one that acts in the outside world. Just,maybe,when these states of recognizing everyday life become one in a Person to the Image of Christ,then the fullness of the liturgical life, one storey universe and recognizing Christ can happen? That same recognition leads to the reality of the microcosm-being the person and the macrocosm- Everything where God is,
    becoming one on one level of existence. As an addition, once I heard this comparison, the part of the mouth that immediately touches- takes in the Eucharist-Christ’s Body and Blood is the palate- the roof of the mouth being our personal heaven as the roof of the heaven above us. In Macedonian is more comparable,meaning NEPCE-palate and NEBO- heaven,pronounced similarly.
    But,my other question is- what should the faithful do? What are the options? Although, for the Orthodox the answer is undoubtedly one Christ only, maybe we should have in mind our everyday illusions of other representations of everyday life. Practise the faith and go on with the old ways and understanding,wait for God’s Mercy for your turning point- the salvation in the life to the fullest.
    And I guess, the hardest way, the way of the life in the monastery to be life in the world, to live as if you are already the children of Kingdom of Heaven, practise the faith with the reality of the perspective of the Person to the image of God, crusified on the cross of the gap of the inner and outer, of the one dying in perspective and the inner awakening, torn apart between the old and new.
    Have I understood the concerning topic correctly Father Stephen? Because, if the way I see it is true, then definitely, to be really faithful and love God today in the world is harder than living in the monastery. It will mean, recognizing and living with Christ on the streets and definitely outcast places and corners so commonly met in today’s world as it is.
    P.s. When I really have to try hard to do this,feeling the shred, besides Jesus Prayer there is one sentence I read that really helps me on the way- I have nothing more important than the love for you Christ, my God. It is lovely, but it really hurts, it hurts to the bone- life, oh, life…

  15. David W, your comment to bring this article to the foreground is timely.

    Blagica your reference to the ‘God zone’ also highlights a theme connected to David’s thoughts.

    In my failures I often think I’ve left the ‘God zone’. But St Siluoan’s lesson was not to push away the pain of one’s failure but accept it with the grace of humility —by keeping one’s mind in ‘hell’ (if need be) and despair not. It’s to give thanks that God is in our midst. Even if it seems as though we’re far from heaven, Christ overcomes such ephemeral distance. Glory to God for His mercy.

  16. Dee of St Hermans,
    Even if it seems as though we’re far from heaven, Christ overcomes such ephemeral distance. Glory to God for His mercy.
    Thanks Dee and God Bless

  17. “… maybe we should have in mind our everyday illusions of other representations of everyday life. Practise the faith and go on with the old ways and understanding,wait for God’s Mercy for your turning point…”
    Blagica…I like the flow of your words as you express yourself. And I resonate with your “p.s.”. Our love for Christ is also our cross.
    Just some thoughts, upon the back of Dee’s comment:
    I think to myself, what choice to we have but to go on with the old ways? Though it is not like we say “I want to remain as the old man. I think it is more like, in each moment, in our mundane daily existence, if our heart is oriented toward God, no matter how things may look or how we feel, we are being transformed from old to new. It is God’s working every moment we say “yes” to Him. We enter into His presence through the Church, through the sacraments, through the tradition, through the rituals which bring us to, and keep us in, that “moment”, His eternal presence. It can not be any other way, as He is the logos of all creation. So rather than wait for His mercy, I believe it is always present, as He is Mercy. We cry out for mercy that we may receive that which is (or Who is) always there!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *