My previous article spoke about the “moment” and the unique place it holds within our lives. It is strange, therefore, that the present moment is a place we seem to avoid – a place we dare not go. There are many ways to speculate about such an avoidance. In the experience of many, it is a place that seems almost impossible to read – which is strange indeed when we consider the fact that it is actually the only thing truly present to us.
The present moment, however, has some unique properties in human experience that make it a place we prefer to avoid. It is not past or future – and is thus much less subject to imagination. The imagination is a place where we find ourselves empowered, though the power we have is delusional and only destructive of the self. We may play mental games with the past, imagining that the truth is whatever we think it is, and imagine our own reactions as well. Nevermind the fact that our imagination is most often quite wrong and our reactions utterly beside the point. The imaginary past becomes a “new history” which takes its place in the narrative of our lives. As such, our lives become a lie. They are not the product of history – indeed they are not related at all to history – only to a story we have told ourselves for whatever advantage or disadvantage. We are neither hero nor victim, only imaginary characters in a story known only in the privacy of our own imagination.
The same, of course, is true of the future. We cannot know the future, but we can well imagine it. We experience such imagination as fear or any number of false feelings. What we cannot know cannot be feared (in reality) – it can only be imagined and our fears and expectations become the stuff of our imagination.
These things are vitally important to us as Christians. God is not the product of our imagination. Because this is so, and because we rarely experience the present moment in the present moment – the God whom most people think they know is no God at all, only the imagination of past or present, one of many characters that inhabit the unreality of our unstable minds. We should not be shaken by the skepticism of those who question our thoughts and beliefs about God. We should take such skepticism as a sober encounter of the insobriety of our imaginations.
As a priest, I spend far more time helping people deal with the eradication of false images of God than I do helping them come to grips with the God who is. We are idolaters in the very deepest sense of the word – and we should be the first to acknowledge it.
This danger cannot be eliminated by artificial substitutes such as the “authority of Scripture.” Scripture is certainly authoritative, but if it is not read by a “sober” mind (in the sense of a mind that is not drunk on its own imagination) then it will simply become the occasion for more flights of fancy, fodder for the passions of an unredeemed soul, our egos enlarged beyond control.
The same can be said of the Tradition of the Church or the Writings of the Fathers. The modern Christian world, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, is largely populated by modern imaginations. We have opinions on prayer, but we do not pray. We have opinions on God, Whom we do not know. The list could be magnified.
What is required is the simple task of becoming simple. This is very hard and may even be the task of a life-time. To renounce our fantasies of past and future and accept the reality of my present moment is exceedingly difficult. It requires the renunciation of power. It requires the renunciation of false Gods (ourselves among them). It requires the discipline of a careful life of watchfulness (nepsis – also translated sobriety), and the willingness to be frequently brought up short – the discipline of learning to be wrong without complaint.
Oddly enough, God does not deny us such wonderful opportunities for salvation. Our daily lives frequently contradict our imaginations – though we refuse such obvious rebukes. Our relationships with others, whether in marriage, work, family or elsewhere also bring us the same opportunity. The wonderful mystery of confession allows us to speak the truth about the nonsense of our imaginations and have it brought face-to-face with the reality of God. In the presence of a good confessor, such an encounter is powerful indeed.
We should never discount the siren song of past and future that fills our soul. It is the song of the devil and calls us to a world that does not exist, into a version of ourselves that does not exist, with a notion of a God who does not exist. In such places we are actually powerless, despite the imagination of power. As the prayers of the Church describe it, we become “the devils plaything.”
The true God is kind enough to meet us in the present – where He is only what He is – and we are only what we are. On this common ground “like calls unto like” and we find ourselves – our true selves – and find them in the true God. Now. Here. Present.
Dear Fr Stephen: The most powerful aid for me in tending to the present has been Brother David Steindl-Rast’s book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer. Also the biggest challenge. As always, I am grateful to you for your posts.
As usual, Fr. Stephen, you give me much to ponder. I believe you are right that living in the present is where to be. A book that helps me with that is The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.
“..and calls us to a world that does not exist, into a version of ourselves that does not exist, with a notion of a God who does not exist.”….Great meditation Father Stephen……AA step 2:Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Thank you Father. Trying to understand anything at all outside the fullness of the ascension of Christ, is likely to be very problematic indeed.
Thank you! Again, vital and profound. You note two challenges of particular import: the one is the persistent and deep inclination to idolatry. As one (I think Irish) wit put it when describing the nature of sin: “In the beginning God made man in His image and man returned the compliment.” Absent the Reality that transcends anything we can think or imagine, we readily replace it with a fabrication that supports and expresses our view of the world. It is, as you noted, a destructive idol (but then, all idols are essentially destructive and death-producing since they cut us off from Life and Reality).
The second challenge is the tendency to experience and live even my own life largely in my imagination. In the process, I create a fictional understanding of myself as well. (This fiction also serves to support whatever the construct of existence in which I am invested – whether pleasant or painful.)
You comments regarding these challenges remind me very much of a number of passages by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that have often challenged my persistent tendency to live in my imagination.
One particular example touches on the second challenge:
“Let us think of our prayers, your and mine; think of the warmth, the depth and intensity of your prayer when it concerns someone you love or something which matters to your life. Then your heart is open, all your inner self is (focused) in the prayer. Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject matter of your prayer matters to you. For when you have made your passionate, deep, intense prayer concerning the person you love or the situation that worries you, and you turn to the next item, which does not matter so much – if you suddenly grow cold, what has changes? Has God grown cold? Has He gone? No, it means that all the elation, all the intensity of your prayer was not born of God’s presences, of your faith in Him, of your longing for Him, of your awareness of Him; it was born of nothing but your concern for him or her or it, not for God. How can we feel surprised, then, that this absence of God affects us? It is we who make ourselves absent, it is we who grow cold the moment we are no longer concerned with God. Why? Because He does not matter so much.
There are other ways too in which God is ‘absent.’ As long as we ourselves are real, as long as we are truly ourselves, God can be present and can do something with us. But the moment we try to be what we are not, there is nothing left to say or have; we have become a fictitious personality, an unreal presence, and this unreal presence can not be approached by God.”
— Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (pp. 29-30):
In short: we can not experience fully God, Who is Real and Present, if we are not both humbly who we really are and also truly present ourselves.
Dear Father, bless! A very helpful post. Perhaps at some point you could also write a reflection about this living in the imagination (rather than in the awareness of God’s presence) as it relates to the need to be right/win arguments about God (rather than be like Christ, for example). It seems to me there is a relationship here to be explored.
Reading this post it suprised me how similar this train of thought is to Buddhist teachings of the delusional mind that concentrates on the past or future, and the practice of meditation and mindfulness to bring the mind to the present. I hadn’t realised Christianity and Buddhism had these parallels.
Fr. Stephen, I so appreciate this post, thank you! My heart especially needed to be reminded of this:
“What is required is the simple task of becoming simple. This is very hard and may even be the task of a life-time. To renounce our fantasies of past and future and accept the reality of my present moment is exceedingly difficult. It requires the renunciation of power. It requires the renunciation of false Gods (ourselves among them). It requires the discipline of a careful life of watchfulness (nepsis – also translated sobriety), and the willingness to be frequently brought up short – the discipline of learning to be wrong without complaint.”
and also the immediately following paragraph:
“…God does not deny us such wonderful opportunities for salvation. Our daily lives frequently contradict our imaginations – though we refuse such obvious rebukes.”
I am also reminded of comments written in Bread & Water, Wine & Oil: An Orthodox Christian Experience of God by Fr. Meletios Weber. In his first chapter “The Mind, the Heart and Mystery” he addresses our human mind tendency to live anywhere but in the present moment and how our relationship with God is affected.
I need to re-read this also; thank you again, Fr. Stephen!
Thank you Fr. What you said about the mind drunk on imagination as it reads Scripture or any ecclesiastical writing struck home for me. I struggle daily to be simple, but that has only been a recent task. I find myself challenged and humbled by your writing, thank you.
Great wisdom and important lessons are contained in this post. Thank you Fr. Stephen for reminding us of such timeless truths!
I have been trying to learn to really live each moment for awhile now (particularly as my health has been poor – however much life I have ahead of me, I want to really live it), but I’ve found that this is one area that I can’t “improve” on by sheer will-power. I’ve taken to setting aside a space of time regularly to just stop and take pictures with my little point and shoot camera (it’s actually an old useless cell phone). The camera freezes the moments for me, helps me really see them – it’s like “training wheels” for my soul that has learned through the years to be so blind to the present. I don’t know that I’m learning this new way of living very quickly – but I do find myself searching more regularly for God in the moments. I’m praying that I’ll be given enough moments in this life to really learn to live them… Of course, no one knows how many beats their heart has, but everyone can learn to really feel them… We’re all capable of the simplicity of the moment – and it’s there that God is waiting for us… pouring out His Uncreated Grace…
thank you for this, father stephen. nonna, i love taking pictures, also. it makes me appreciate the wonderful creation. i find being grateful every day, even in very hard times, helps me stay in the day. look back, but don’t stare…
I have found that many religions and ideas outside of Christianity are not absolutely wrong but contain kernels of truth. This may be one of those instances.
I find that such contact points with non-Christian ideas and religions should be used when discussing Orthodox Christianity with others. It is far better to say, “this is what we share” than “this is why you’re wrong”.
If ever I befriend a Buddhist, I should keep this in mind if ever we discuss our beliefs.
Thank you for your most wise comment to Marie.
If I may comment: What I have always found most striking about Christ’s rendition of the last judgment is the distinct lack of attention paid to labels, names and/ or isms. I have always, ever since I was little, heard Him speak most loudly in Matthew 25.
“When I was hungry, etc…”
(What also comes through is the sheer astonishment on both sides of the eschatological pass).
May His mercy (true humility) lead all to salvation…
Marie and John,
In religions that contain well-developed systems of ascetic practice and/or meditation, you would expect to find much common ground, because meditation, of whatever kind, has to deal with the mind and its tendency to become distracted. Since the minds of humans have the same basic structure, different ascetic traditions often have similar ways of working with that structure.
Fr. Stephen, what do you know about the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and the Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD)?
By the way, please add the following blog to your blog-roll:
— On Prayer, Monasticism, Asceticism and the Spiritual Life
Who is ‘Orthodox Monk’?