The Grace of Time Now
‘Remember that the present day is given to you,’ says St. Francis de Sales, ‘in order to gain the future day of eternity.’
Since we know almost nothing of what tomorrow or the day after will bring, what is the point of worrying about them? Why should we be anxious? Why not heed the advice of the saints, who have often warned against anxiety, calling it, as de Sales does, “the greatest evil that can befall a soul, except sin. God commands you to pray, but he forbids you to worry.”
Or is it that we think time future exists somewhere, and so we need to be thinking about it in advance? Collecting, as it were, so many specimens of tomorrow and the next day to squirrel away when needed? As if time were so many coins in a fountain waiting to be fished out. Because — and here is the good news — the future does not even exist. Not any of it. And when it does, it will not be the future, but the present, which is the only moment we need worry about because it will be that for which we are supremely, solely responsible. One cannot take ownership of that which is not.
And, to be sure, the future need never come to pass at all. If God in the next five minutes were to exercise his option of cancelling the whole cosmic dance, the matter of tomorrow would simply not come up. He is Lord of history, after all, the very architect of all that exists, and if vaporizing the universe were to please him, who among his creatures has the power to say no?
In the Letter of James, which was the first to enter the New Testament record, written around AD 48, thus putting it some 15 years after the death of Christ, we read the following:
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain’; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that’ (4:13-15).
I like that. That we are no more than mist that keeps its appearance but for a brief bit and then — puff — it is gone. It helps to keep our pretensions fairly in check. And yet, for all that, we’d like to think we’re actually quite special, “trust(ing),” as the poet Tennyson tells us, “that somehow good / Will be the final goal of ill, / To pangs of nature, sins of will…
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shriveled in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall.
At last — far off — at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream; but what am I?
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the light,
Yes, but mightn’t the cry of that infant bespeak the comforting certainty that there is someone a Someone who hears the cry of every infant? For whom not even the fall of a sparrow goes unnoticed? “O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue / To crie to thee,” exclaims the poet George Herbert, knowing that in the very ground of our beseeching is the God whom we seek. So why not do the will of this God who wills but the good in every moment? Especially when the alternative is sin, a life which has so little to commend that it leads ineluctably to death.
But where exactly do we find this vaunted moment we call the present? This now moment, or Kairos, on which so much depends, including life eternal? T.S. Eliot may be able to tell us, using an image so apt that no other writer has ever improved upon it, which he places right at the center of Four Quartets, his poetic masterpiece. “The still point of the turning world,” he calls it. “Neither flesh nor fleshless,” he will insist. “Neither from nor towards…” Nevertheless, it is there, “at the still point,” that we shall find the dance.
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
Here, then, is the point of intersection, the place and time where all the polarities come together; it is the meeting place of earth and heaven, matter and meaning, nature and grace, grit and glory. Only the saint understands this, of course, whose whole life remains sheer uninterrupted intensity of attention upon that single pinpoint of light and life. Which, we must remember, can only happen, only take place in the present moment.
So unlike the attitude of all those sadly fixated souls stuck in either past or future, who, failing to realize that neither dimension exists, will never reach the still point. “But to apprehend,” says Eliot,
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint —
No occupation either, but something given.
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
It is all there, by the way, the whole shooting match, reduced to two wonderfully simple words, given and taken, which are themselves pointers to the two great themes of the Christian life: grace and virtue. But remember: only in time, in the present moment, does the receiving of the one (grace), followed by the doing of the other (virtue), take place.