Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

Quite some time ago I was preaching on 2 Corinthians 6:1-2:
"we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, 'At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.' Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation."

I observed that many people dwell on what God has done in the past (either in history or in their own lives), while many others spend their whole lives yearning for some future time when God will pour out his blessings. I went on about how it is good to keep an eye on the past (as we do when we glance at the rear vision mirror while driving), as well as on the future (as we do when we look ahead through the windscreen). But what kind of God have we if he is only in the past or the future, and never in the present?

NOW is the day of salvation.

(Of course I remarked how in the astonishing miracle of the Mass, past and future actually become present, enabling us to draw NOW on the benefits of the Lord's passion, even as we allow ourselves to be swept up NOW into the eschaton so that, being lost in wonder, love and praise, we are already part of the worship of the heavenly Mount Zion!)

Last night I went to the birthday party of one of our parishioners, and I was surprised that for a little while a story I told in that sermon - in fact, that I had shamelessly stolen from another tradition! - became the topic of conversation. Some of the people around the table felt that it perfectly describes the way God is present to us NOW when we face difficulties and trials. So, here it is:

One day a man is being chased by a big, fast tiger with a loud growl and razor sharp teeth. The man runs faster and faster, terrified by what might happen to him.

He's just about out of breath when he comes to a screeching halt right at the edge of a cliff. Way below is a turbulent sea, waves crashing on huge jagged rock formations. The man is trapped between the roaring beast and the waves and rocks below. Looking around in the few seconds he has left, he notices a rope hanging over the edge of the cliff. Quickly, he grabs hold of it and lowers himself over the side.

The rope, however, turns out to be far too short. But the man slides down to the end of it, and there he hangs, dangling in space, half way between disaster above and disaster below. He looks up and sees the tiger leering at him, growling and waiting to devour him. Then he looks down at the deadly drop of a thousand feet to the rocks below. "Surely this is as bad as it gets", he thinks to himself. Just then he looks up again and sees two mice starting to nibble at the rope. Tiger above, rocks below, and mice chewing through his lifeline.

Just then the man sees, right in front of him, a little plant with green leaves, growing out of the side of the cliff. There, in the middle of the plant, he can see one perfect, ripe strawberry. His mouth starts to water. Holding onto the rope with one hand and his knees, he stretches as far as he can and picks the strawberry and puts it into his mouth . . . and he says in spontaneous gratitude, "Thank you Jesus."

Well, that's the end of the story. We don't know what happens next. Maybe the man is eaten by the tiger; maybe he falls to his death on the rocks below; maybe he is somehow miraculously rescued. You see, none of these possible endings is the point of the story. The story has no ending.

The tiger above, the rocks below and the mice eating the rope have all ceased to matter. All that matters in that instant of time is the ripe, red strawberry - and the thankfulness to the Lord the man experiences in his soul as he puts the strawberry into his mouth. He is truly living in the now. Enough is enough.

In Jeremiah 23:23-24 we read:

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

Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675 - 1751) was a French Jesuit priest who travelled widely preaching the Gospel and teaching about the life of faith and prayer. Many who heard him rediscovered a sense of the immediacy of God's presence, and it is not too much to say that his following constituted a renewal movement in the Church of his time. He was spiritual director to a community of nuns, and many of his letters to them were published in 1741 under the title "Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence".

de Caussade draws on the anointed teachings of the great spiritual guides such as St Francis de Sales, St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, and St Augustine of Hippo; but he does so in a way that makes them refreshing and accessible.

The point of telling you all this is that on one of her journeys to America, Kitty Muggeridge came across this book and devoured it. She says that it was as if

"de Caussade had joined the cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 12 and was urging me to experience each moment - every moment - as a holy sacrament. I was encouraged to cease my frantic strivings for holiness and rest in the Light of Christ. It was a hallowed place, a holy day, a sacramental moment."

In 1981 Muggeridge gave the English speaking world a deeply moving translation of de Caussade's book which she entitled, "The Sacrament of the Present Moment". She wrote:

"The sacrament of the present moment is relevant today for those who find life purposeless in a society abandoned to the fantasies and arrogance of the pursuit of happiness which so quickly becomes a pursuit of pleasure; in which suffering, mental or physical, must be drugged out of existence; in which there is no place for the Cross in Christianity. Those who are ready to believe in God will find comfort and hope in the quest for perfection through surrendering themselves to his will and discovering in the reality and humiliation of life's trials and tribulation his loving purpose for them."

We go to Mass and have our times of prayer and reflection on the Scriptures, believing (rightly) that in so doing we receive God's grace, love and strength - his very life. But sometimes it is easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that these times are the "exceptions" to the rule. They are not. God gives himself to us in the sacraments so that we might begin to experience the whole of life as sacramental, and somehow become able to receive God's life through all things.

For example, Fr Alexander Schmemann, from the Eastern tradition, teaches that the Eucharist not only reveals Jesus to us; it also reveals the true nature of creation. He said that bread can never be the same again now that Jesus has taken it and made it his body.

Fr Schmemann warns against building a fence around that sacred moment of consecration and confining it to the liturgy itself, so that once Mass is over everything "returns to normal" and we live lives as empty and as secular as non-believers around us.

Fr Stephen Freeman, also from the Eastern tradition, says that

"because God is 'everywhere present and filling all things,' 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' . . .

"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.'"

God has called us to play our part in his redemptive plan. It has been said that we exist, primarily, to journey with whoever may be with us at the time. That, of course, doesn't preclude hopes and dreams for the future. But it does mean that nothing must be allowed to diminish the sense in which each present moment is truly a sacrament of God's love. After all, it was Jesus who said, "Don't worry about tomorrow - it has enough problems of its own. Trust me. I'll take care of tomorrow. You concentrate on how you're doing today."

Or in the words of de Caussaude:
. . . all the "duties of the present moment are marked along its course, one by one they will fulfill them unconfused, unhurried. For the rest they will keep themselves entirely free, waiting always to obey the stirrings of grace as soon as they make themselves known, and to surrender themselves to the care of Providence."

Go HERE to buy
Kitty Muggeridge's

translation of
de Caussaude's book.
You'll be so glad you did.


Anonymous said...

I am reading this book, I find it a very slow process. Such a thin book with and so few words but powerful messages. I wonder if St Theres of Lisieuix was a student.

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