The Joys of the Present

If you are a pet owner, then you know that the time you spend away from your pet can sometimes be a cause of concern.  This is particularly the case if the animal is going to be on its own for at least a couple of days.  You may have someone come by to check on your pet, change their water, give them food, and so on, but you still worry about whether they will be alright when you get back.

Such was the case this Labor Day weekend, as I headed home to visit my parents for a few days.  The Cat had plenty of food and water, toys, and so on, as well someone to check on her on the days I was away, but of course she did not understand what was happening.  All she knew was that the rather tall fellow who puts out her food, cleans her litter box, and whose fingers she likes to play-bite had gone away.  When I walked in the door last night the display of feline joy at my return was unbelievable,  and continued all evening as I was meowed and purred at, rubbed and nuzzled against, jumped on in surprise attacks, and presented with a belly or neck to scratch, much to the detriment of my attempt to get some sleep.

We are of course more than the animals, and yet the thought occurs that in some ways we face a similar limitation.  The Cat did not know why I had left, or where I was, and even if I had tried to explain it to her she would not have understood it.  All she knew was that something had gone wrong, and there was nothing she could do about it.  There was no way for her to comprehend my return after a few days’ absence.

Similarly, many of us spend a great deal of time living in the past, regretting what might have been, or looking forward to the future with uncertainty.  When we do this, we run the risk of not doing the living that we need to do, now.  If time is always both receding from us and arriving, regardless of our wishes to the contrary, then there does not appear to be much good in concentrating on those things which we cannot hope to control.

By no means am I suggesting that the past or the future are to be ignored.  The past must be studied and appreciated, so that we can learn from it.  Otherwise, you would burn yourself every time you touched a hot stove.  Similarly the future must be prepared for with prudence, so that we can try to do things like avoid reasonably foreseeable disasters and put things in place so that our plans have a chance of coming to fruition.  Yet no matter how much we may look at the past or the future with a mixture of emotions, to be captive to such reflections is to lose the opportunities that are presented before us right now.

One of the great spiritual gifts of the Church is the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office, which sadly the laity often knows nothing about.  It divides each day up into sections, devoted to prayer and contemplation, separated by periods of work, study, leisure, rest, and so on.  For those of us not living in religious communities, it may be difficult or impossible to completely adhere to these divisions, as they would be impracticable in many cases. (“Oh excuse me, John, I’m going to have to skip this meeting because it’s time for me to go off and pray Terce.”)

Yet the benefit of this practice is to constantly remind us, as we make our way through each day, of the passage of time without our being overwhelmed by it.  It calls us to do the things that we need to do, with respect to the past and the future, while at the same time stopping and focusing on the here and now by removing ourselves from this flow of time over which we have no control.  It reminds us that we are creatures existing along a timeline, and while we can try to understand the past and prepare for the future, we need to take care of the here and now.

We do not know whether today is our last, or whether we have 1,000 more to come.  I rather hope that I am a bit more prepared for the return of MY master at the end of MY life, whenever that day arrives, than was The Cat last evening.  And hopefully the sense of joy, if not the manifestations of it, will be similar.

Detail of a cat in a medieval Book of Hours
Austrian Institute for Culture, Krems, Austria