Living in the Present: An Orthodox Perspective

Delivered at the Antiochian Women’s Pre-Lenten Retreat, February 10. 2018, At St. John of Damascus Church in Dedham, Massachusetts

First, let me thank His Grace Bishop ANTHONY for his talk and the Women of New England for asking us to tag team together.

Don’t be at all surprised if I manage to repeat some of what he said. Such cannot be avoided. We come from the same context after all. I may illuminate the subject in some different ways yet our message is very much the same.

We are in the midst of a kind of awakening. The sciences, including neuroscience and the quantum sciences, have discovered that there is mystery at the core of the universe. Psychology is being revolutionized by the discovery of the benefits of mindfulness practice in religious people, including prayer and meditation. Even the Orthodox practice called hesychasm is being studied. Classically, our words for the now ubiquitous term “mindfulness” are “watchfulness and vigilance,” and nepsis. They mean the same thing and I tend to use them interchangeably. It is wonderful that religion, science, and psychology suddenly are no longer always at war. Metropolitan Zizioulas, I believe, said that religion and science are not at odds with each other at all, they “coinhere.” I think he is right. This has been an object of interest and research for me for over 20 years.

That there is mystery at the center of all things is not a new concept for Orthodox Christians. We pray it at almost every service.

O, heavenly king, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
Who are in all places, filling all things ...

The Holy Spirit is in everything and is everywhere. Think about how revolutionary that is! We pray it, we sing it, but do we really know it? Do we practice it? This, to me, is the primary reason why living in the present moment with mindful awareness is an essential Christian practice.

If God is present in all things, that means he is present here and now in this room, in the faces of the people we see, in the very matter that makes up everything we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. If we look deeply, with the eyes of faith, we will see God smiling back at us in the disguise of everyday life and all it encompasses.

Do you know Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s exquisite poem “Aurora Leigh?” In it we find this amazing verse:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware….

The theological word for this is panentheism. “Pan” means all, “en” means in, and “theism” comes from the word “theos” which means God. It differs from pantheism which we do not believe because that word leaves out the all-important little syllable “en.” Pantheism says that all things are God and that is not our faith. But that God is IN all things is our faith.

Every bush is a burning bush, everything is filled with God. Life is sacramental, as Fr. Schmemann delighted in saying. If we perceive it to be so, we will be joining the cosmic, never-ending worship of the God-soaked universe. And we can perceive it to be so by paying attention to the moment in which we live. We certainly don’t want to be one of those who “sit around daubing their faces unaware” in the face of a burning bush do we? I think we want to be among those who see the sacredness of all things, ever ready to take off our shoes (in other words our blinders) and experience life as aflame with holiness.

Let me quote Joseph the Hesychast here: "God is everywhere. There is no place God is not...You cry out to Him, 'Where art Thou, my God?' And He answers, "I am present, my child! I am always beside you.' Both inside and outside, above and below, wherever you turn, everything shouts, 'God!' In Him we live and move. We breathe God, we eat God, we clothe ourselves with God. Everything praises and blesses God. All of creation shouts His praise. Everything animate and inanimate speaks wondrously and glorifies the Creator. Let every breath praise the Lord!"

Several years ago Metropolitan KALLISTOS (Ware) spoke about this in a lecture at St. Demetrios Church in Weston, MA. He said something I have never forgotten. He said, “One of the main tragedies of the Fall is that we can no longer be fully present in the moment in which we live.” This is very important because, as Archimandrite Meletios (Webber) writes, “We can only meet God in the present moment. This is an area where God chooses to place limits on His own power. We choose whether or not to live in the present moment. Because we can encounter God only in that present moment, whenever we live in the past or in the future, we place ourselves beyond His reach.”

Bingo! From Metropolitan KALLISTOS to the teachings of people like the good Archmandrite I realize that I need to understand this more fully and learn how to practice it more consistently. This has become a major part of my spiritual practice (as long as I remember to do it, that is). Here is another basic truth. We must live in the present because that is all there is. There is only now. If we stop and examine what is going on in our heads most of the time, we will find that our minds are busy weaving stories about what happened to us in the past and what may happen in the future, moving often between regret and anxiety. The mind is good at this. Unless we actually direct the mind to be present, it rarely is. Most of the time we are caught in a dream. We are sleep-walking. We don’t often experience life in real time.

Here’s an interesting thought. It has been suggested that there really is only one present moment rather than a succession of present moments one after another and that that one moment extends into eternity. We don’t have time to explore that now, but it sure is compelling. Whether that is true or not, how we live in this moment will definitely effect how we live in the next. By simply paying attention, our lives could improve quite a bit.

Being awake and aware is a great thing. Being unaware might even be dangerous! Have you ever been driving down the road and stop at a red light only to realize that you don’t remember how you got from Mystic Ave to the intersection of Harvard St? It’s a little scary if you think about it. We space out so often! Or we tell ourselves stories which are (I hate to tell you), always wrong! Trust me in this. Always.

Here’s an example of one of my finer moments. I was driving up the ramp to 93S in Somerville one morning in one of my rundown, my old car going as fast as the poor thing would go up hill. In my rearview mirror I saw a brand-spanking new, white BMW moving up behind me. My mind kicked into gear!

“Who does he think he is anyway? That guy must think he’s better than I am in that fancy car. And if he thinks he’s going to pass me, he’s got another thing coming!”

I floored it (as if the pedal wasn’t already to the metal) and went not one bit faster than before. Well, of course, all of that was just some silly story my prideful mind was weaving, like a black widow spider. I had turned a perfect stranger into an adversary! Of course, he passed me easily and all I had to show for it was needless anxiety and a headache. I had been the cause of my own needless suffering as is so often the case. I could have been at peace by simply accepting reality as it was, but chose to resist the present moment and tried to change it. I like this saying, “If you can change things, why worry about it? If you can’t change things, why worry about it?”

Now, you may wonder if Jesus ever talked about living in the present moment? Not at length, and yet he does touch upon it in this way. What did Jesus say about the past? “Let the dead bury the dead.” And what did Jesus say about the future? “Don’t worry about tomorrow.” What did our Lord say about the present? “Follow me and love one another.” That’s pretty much the whole of the Christian life in a nutshell, isn’t it?

What that means for us Christians is that the practice of living in the present moment is always centered in Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the one “by whom, for whom, and in whom all things were created.” That is what distinguishes the Christian approach to the subject. The present moment is always for us the time of following Jesus. The present moment is always in some way a personal Encounter between us and the Omnipresent Trinity.

Therefore, we understand that all of life is sacramental for the Lord at every moment is sharing himself with us. Life is communion. By living in the present with awareness and openness, we can come to live a Eucharistic way of life. The present moment is filled with God, with light, with love, with joy, and happiness. If we are attentive, then we will see it. St. Paul says it beautifully, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and exhorts us to “rejoice in the Lord always.”

The Divine Liturgy encourages this as well every time we hear the word “proskomen,” which means “wake up and pay attention?” The church knows that our minds tend to drift.

I like to think of mindfulness as a seed planted by God that lies in the hearts of all people. It is reflective of the image of God in which we were all created because it is a characteristic of God himself. The Old Testament tells us that the “God of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.” The Lord is always awake and present to us, but are we always awake and present to him?

The point of the practice of living in the present is that in this way we train ourselves to be more present more often and therefore capable of being more present to God who is always present to us; always knocking at the door. The present moment is the time of God’s advent. I have heard it even called “the narrow gate” and the “eye of the needle.”

Once, a long time ago, a young woman came to Saturday Vespers on one of those perfect New England Fall evenings. It was beautiful in every way! Cool temperature, bright sunshine shining through the stained glass, peaceful, and still in the church. She sat on the front pew and waited for me. I could see that she was upset. The truth is she was often unhappy.

I knew that in order to make this a good encounter, I should try and help her calm down a bit. So after the preliminary prayer, I invited her to sit with me on the pew and I said to her, ”Why don’t we take some deep breaths together?” She agreed and we sat and took some deep breaths, sitting quietly in the beautiful and peaceful church. After a short while, I watched as her shoulders dropped and her tears stopped.

Finally, when she had settled down, I said, “Now, tell me, at this very moment, RIGHT NOW, is there anything wrong?” She seemed a little confused. “Now, Father? Do you mean right now?” “Yes, right now.” She thought about it and replied, “Well, no, not right now.”

“Then,” I said, “why are you crying?” It turned out she was upset over something her boyfriend had said two weeks prior. She had been stuck in the past and now she was more present. I continued, “Have you ever stopped to notice that most of your moments are like this one. There is usually nothing wrong.”

“I had never thought of that, but, yeah,” she said, “you’re right.”

The present moment is the time for healing, but she had been holding on to the past. Here’s a story about that.

Two Zen monks were traveling to a distant monastery in a pouring rain. They came to a little village whose main thoroughfare had become a swift, flowing stream. They noticed a woman in a beautiful pink kimono trying to cross the creek with no success. One of the monks put down his sack, placed her on his shoulders, and carried her over the water. Then the monks continued their journey.

A few hundred yards down the path the other monk turned and said angrily, “You know it is forbidden for us to touch a woman and you carried her!” His brother monk looked at him and replied, “I let her down a mile ago and are you still carrying her?”

And speaking of breathing, I have a secret to tell you. As you saw in the story of the young woman at confession the breath is a very great tool for living attentively in the present and for prayer itself. Here’s what I mean.

First of all, conscious breathing grounds us in the present moment. The only time we can breathe is now. We can’t breathe in the past, can we? Or in the future, obviously. We can only breathe in the present. So, hesychasts and mystics of all major faiths have recognized the breath as a great aid to prayer because it keeps our minds and bodies in the present. This was confirmed for me by a nun from Greece who told me, “This is what we do in our cells. We practice staying present, paying attention to our breathing, and being still.”

There is something else I learned about the breath that came like a bolt from the blue. It is something I learned from Fr. Richard Rohr, a wonderful Franciscan priest-monk, author, teacher, and retreat leader.

Sometimes he begins his retreats with this: there is in Hebrew thought a name of God that is unpronounceable and is represented by four letters: YHWH. It is called the tetragrammaton. We often hear it pronounced YAHWEH, but that is most certainly incorrect simply because it is unpronounceable! “Jehovah,” my friends is totally wrong, just so you know. But if you were to try and pronounce it correctly it would sound like this: (take a breath in and take a breath out). It is the sound of the intake and outtake of a single breath.

If this is so (and I believe it is), then it sheds light on prayer itself. Prayer is life itself! Just as we cannot live without breathing, we cannot live without praying! It appears that God, in his infinite love and mercy, has truly made us as praying beings for every breath we breathe is a recitation of his unpronounceable Name! That is Good News indeed!

The catch is that we are largely unaware of this prayer that flows continually through us. We need to pay attention. What if we were to pay attention and become mindful of the connection between our breathing, God’s name, and prayer? If we became aware of this, would we then be praying without ceasing? Think about it. St. John Cassian taught that "the Doctor of our souls has placed the remedy in the hidden regions of the soul."

I once met the enigmatic and very eccentric priest-monk Fr. Lazarus Moore who was an Orthodox missionary in India for over 30 years when I was still at Oral Roberts University. This was right after I converted to Orthodoxy. He met with a group of us converted seminary students and asked us what books we were reading.

Of course, I spoke right up. “THE WAY OF THE PILGRIM!” I told him. (I think I wanted to impress him.) He nodded. “Do you like that book?” “Sure. Of course! It’s a classic!” Then he said, “I don’t much like it.” We were all shocked! “Why, Father?” we asked. He explained, “I think the pilgrim is wrong. My belief is that human beings are praying all the time they just aren’t aware of it.”

I didn’t know what he meant then, but I think I might now.

It is interesting that in the story of the Woman at the Well Jesus speaks of worshipping in “spirit and truth.” An alternative and more literal translation of those words is “the true worshippers will worship with “the breath” (pneuma) and with “awareness” (alethia or “not sleeping’). Of course, “spirit and truth” are also correct. It is worth considering.

So, much of our spiritual practice comes down to attentiveness and awareness, that is, vigilance, watchfulness, and mindfulness. The practice of living in the present moment is an exercise in remembering God always by being grounded in the present moment which is filled with the Holy Spirit. The remembrance of God is the heart of our faith.

Because our minds tend to wander, we must train them to be still and you know what God says about stillness. “Be still and know that I am God.” Neuroscience has proven that the

brain is elastic. Neuroplasticity is the word they use. We can literally change our minds. In a book entitled HOW DOES GOD CHANGE THE BRAIN, written by two scientists, one an atheist and one an agnostic, they discovered that there are two spiritual practices that are capable of making the most observable changes in the brain: meditation and prayer. An interesting side note is that theology also makes a difference in those who pray. People who believed in a loving and compassionate God tended to become more loving and compassionate. Those who believed in an angry, vengeful God often showed symptoms of PTSD.

Thus, when St. Paul exhorted us to “be transformed by the renewal of your minds,” he was not joking. This kind of transformation is a process that neuroscience has mapped well for us now. Consistent and continual practice produces real change in the brain.

There is one more aspect of the practice of living each moment with mindful awareness I want to point out. The definition of mindfulness contains this instruction: let your awareness be without judgment. What this means is to accept everything that comes without resistance, pleasant or not. This takes faith; faith that God is in all things, and faith that all things will pass. That is behind St. John Chrysostom’s last words as he lay dying on the road to exile, “Thank God for all things.” I believe he was sincere. Remember the words of St. Paul in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Another quote that gives credence to this is from Frank Buechner who writes:

Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. It's in language that's not always easy to decipher, but it's there, powerfully, memorably, unforgettably. Our attentiveness must be nonjudgmental. We must come to embrace each moment as it comes, pleasant or not. As a teacher once said, “We can’t stop the waves, but we can learn to surf.”

I know of no better explanation of this than that given by the Elder Joseph of Optino who said, "Previously, I wanted everything to go my way, but seeing that nothing was done as I wanted, I began to wish that everything be done as it is done; so it was that everything started to be done as I wanted."

Here is a useful metaphor. When there is a violent storm on the ocean only the surface is disturbed. In our depths is a calm and peaceful center. Do you know that we all have an internal life? We need to pay attention to what is happening under our own noses. There may be chaos when we first look, as the treatise attributed to St. Symeon the New Theologian called “Three Forms of Prayer” says, but underneath the chaos is a calm and peaceful center. The image of God and the kingdom of heaven are there and we can discover and connect with them. The Prayer of the Heart, contemplation, silence and stillness all serve to open the eyes of our soul to the reality of God’s presence within. The Fathers speak of it as the mind descending into the heart. Living in the present moment with mindful awareness is a sure path to this transformation descent and to the discovery of the kingdom within.