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Thinking Out Loud

For the Time Being

by Michael Jinkins | May 30, 2017


For the Time Being

Sometimes I have no idea why I pull a particular poet from the bookshelf. Perhaps it is an intuition I cannot explain logically. Maybe it is because of a sense felt so deeply I can't express it even to myself. But this morning, as flowers were bursting into bloom all over Louisville, and although the liturgical calendar was well past Christmastide, I reached for W.H. Auden, and for his For the Time Being: Christmas Oratorio. The volume fell open where an old business card was stuck, and I read the closing of a speech by the "Second Wise Man."

"We anticipate or remember but never are.
       To discover how to be living now
       Is the reason I follow the star."


For whatever reason I selected this poet and turned to this passage, Auden spoke to me with almost prophetic urgency.

Late yesterday afternoon, alone at the house, I had set aside time for prayer and meditation. It had been a long day of meetings. As the day wore on, I found myself regretting more and more what I had said in one of the meetings. It wasn't that I had said something unpleasant. Rather I had said something that left me feeling especially vulnerable. It felt as though my "ego" (whatever that is) was standing alone in a stiff winter wind. I found myself wishing I would just shut up and not say what I meant. I also found myself remembering the admonitions of the Desert Fathers to remain silent. As Arsinius, an Egyptian hermit, once said, "I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent."*

Try as I might, I could not settle myself into prayer. I could not contemplate. I could not meditate. "Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner" indeed! Thoughts hijacked my mind making it impossible to settle in. "Lord, silence every voice but thine own!" Wildly distracted monkeys swung from limb to limb in my brain chattering at me about my foolishness. I regretted what I had said. I worried about the consequences. I was all over the map internally. I was everywhere except where I was.

"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," said Jesus. "Do not worry about tomorrow." We are taught by our faith to confess our faults, believe in the everlasting mercy of God and get on with living. We are taught that we should live in what Paul Tillich called "the eternal present." Easier said than realized!

Then Auden comes along. The passage was underlined. Clearly I had valued these words before, though I don't recall why?

"We anticipate and remember but never are.
      To discover how to be living now
      Is the reason I follow the star."


"To discover how to be living now ..."

If there's a beef I have with my Protestant tradition it is that it is long on “shoulds” and short on “hows.” The Desert Fathers, whose spirituality lies at the heart of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, have their Evagrius Ponticus; the Cistercians have the resources inherited from the Benedictines as well as John Cassian; the Jesuits have their Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises, but too often we Protestants give the impression that once you believe that "the just shall live by faith" (or with Evangelical Protestants, "you let Jesus into your heart"), there's little more to do than attend weekly club meetings. But the truth is more complicated.

Somehow we know we need disciplines to reinforce the habits of grace. We need "to discover how to be living now." We need calisthenics for the spiritual heart, for the mind, for the soul, to keep us from atrophying in the past and the future, and to bring us fully awake into the present. Sometimes the thing we most need deliverance from is our own obsessive minds. Then we can be attentive to God and others.

We tend to tell ourselves stories about our "selves" and "others" on endless feedback loops in our brains, narratives that stoke the fires of anger and keep alive old grievances, stories that conjure up old guilts and griefs, resentments and regrets. All of this lies in the land of remembering. We replay a moment of defeat; reminisce a moment of glory. We obsess about a conversation we had or wished we'd had, or regretted having, or intended to make time for.

Like records worn scratchy from playing too often, our voices crack and crackle in our memories. All of these remembrances we use to construct a "self," what Thomas Merton often referred to as a "false self," which justifies ourselves to ourselves, explains ourselves, defends ourselves, and ultimately stands in place of ourselves.

Then there are our anticipations, the conversations we might have, the occasions we might entertain. The "what ifs" of the future rise up in our minds connected to dread or hope, anxieties and fears. And rising in our minds (promising to help prepare us for a future engagement or conversation), in fact, they sap our energy.

Whether seemingly positive or positively awful, anticipations fixate us on an endless array of unrealities, worries and aspirations, when mostly we need to collect ourselves and entrust ourselves to God. Moments of imagined triumph that will finally prove our worth compete with imagined catastrophes that will prove too great for our abilities. Records of things that have never happened or will never occur play incessantly in our minds. Thoughts tripping through our heads like mad Morris dancers accompanied by a cacophony distract us from what is happening now.

And "What IS happening now?"

Unfortunately, too often, we aren't mentally attentive enough to notice. Not really. We are off worshiping at the shrine of St. Elsewhere Perpetua, the patron saint of the habitually distracted. "Lost in thought," a victim of hope, or dread, or fear, or fancy.

"We anticipate and remember but never are.
     To discover how to be living now
      Is the reason I follow the star."


Why does it matter that we aren't present for our own lives? Well, I suppose it matters because it is the only life we're likely to have in this world. God gave it to us to make the most of. And it is such a shame to waste what God has given.

Even the quietest life is blessed by such amazing things.

A child playing quietly with a spool and a thimble she found in an old box, talking to herself and laughing at her own silly jokes. I would hate to have missed her because I was dreading a meeting I need to have tomorrow.

That peculiar and wonderful slant of the spring sunshine as it sets, the way the shadows are cast through the twisted branches of trees still denuded of their leaves, but showing just a hint of promised green. I would hate to have missed the promise of spring because I was obsessed with my anger at something someone said yesterday.

"To discover how to be living now" requires something of us. This doesn't mean it is not a matter of grace and faith, but that it is a matter of grace lived and active faith.

We follow the star, to learn to live this life, the real one that only exists right now in this moment. The star leads us to the one who says, "Take no thought of tomorrow." Perhaps it is the star itself that adds, "And forget about yesterday." Only this moment is. Don't miss it.
__________
* This particular passage comes from Henri J.M. Nouwen's The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry (Seabury, 1981, p. 43), to which I have referred in previous blogs; I have drawn from Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions, 1960) too; but I also highly recommend Benedicta Ward's superb collection, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin, 2003). All three books are accessible for general readers, and Sister Ward's is by far the largest collection, accompanied by an excellent scholarly and clearly written introduction.

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