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

Your Time Is Now

Yesterday afternoon I decided to attend daily mass a few blocks from my house, and then pick up some things for dinner at a nearby deli, where I used to shop as an undergraduate at Georgetown University.  Monday happened to be the first day of classes, since the students all moved in this past weekend, and the relative quiet of the neighborhood around campus in summer is now broken once again.  There were young people everywhere, some carrying bags full of shopping, others bumping into one another and asking, “How was your summer?”, others heading back from class, internships, or athletic practice.

As I walked about, I experienced this rather vivid sense of time travel which is a bit hard to describe.  Perhaps the feeling was originally triggered by seeing a classmate of mine (whom I only knew slightly) on C-Span that morning, speaking on a panel discussion about the Republican National Convention, and remembering what she was like when she was about 19 years old.  It wasn’t that I actually ran into someone I knew after mass, for although I still know a professor or two at Georgetown, almost everyone who would remember me there is long gone.

Rather, it was something like putting myself back into that time when I was a new Hoya.  I still remember walking this particular route, on a Monday in August many years ago, as I made my way from campus down into the village for the first time.  It isn’t as though I had never walked this route since: as a matter of fact I probably take it at least a couple of times a month, if I am going to patronize certain commercial establishments, or attend a lecture on campus, etc.

Instead, it was a certain combination of golden, late afternoon light,  walking among these groups of students, that was a sort of journey beyond just that of heading home after church with some groceries.  It was not just that click or flash, where you are suddenly reminded of something and then it fade, but rather quite a lengthy visitation or reverie, putting me in mind of people I had known and had not thought of in many years, whose names I have forgotten but who at one time if I saw them on the other side of Prospect Street I would have acknowledged, even if not necessarily stopped to talk to.  Although I did not know the students around me, and they did not know me, there was a very strange sense that I could almost detail their lives…

And then of course, I realized that this is all rubbish.

Living in the past does no one any good – e.g., Miss Havisham.  We all know people who fit the old stereotypes of people who cannot left go of the past.  There are high school or college athletes for example, who got stuck in their own golden, afternoon light with the wet lawn beneath their feat, when they were young, handsome, and had a full head of hair.  Decades later they are unhappy, and seem to resent life and themselves in equal measure.  And this is simply one example among many.

Today the Church remembers the great St. Augustine, who spent the first part of his life having rather a good time carousing about.  By his mid-30’s however, that attempt to simultaneously hold on to youthful excess underneath a veneer of adult respectability became impossible for him to maintain.  He abandoned what he thought his life was supposed to be as a successful academic, and went down a completely different path.  How fortunate for all of us that he took that later call he received in life, and ran with it, rather than remaining trapped in a kind of hedonistic time which would have become increasingly ridiculous and sad as he grew older.

We are all living in the age in which we were meant to born, which is a rather sobering thought.  The question becomes what each of us will do with that inescapable fact, in the time we have each been given.  There is nothing wrong with periodically looking back with some sense of nostalgia, nor looking to the future with longing.  Yet if you spend most of your life doing these things, then you miss out on the opportunities you have before you today, here and now.

It was certainly an interesting experience I had yesterday afternoon, feeling as though I had returned to the past for several minutes, with my whole future in front of me just waiting to be defined.  In the end, however, I was very glad to find that the feeling passed, with no real sense of regret or loss.  There are too many things that need doing, for me to sit about and live in the past, and after all: if St. Augustine only started to figure out where his talents were really needed in his 30’s, then I am in most excellent company.

Aerial view of Georgetown on a summer late afternoon