Jacques Philippe, author of Interior Freedom, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, Time for God, and several other life-changing books, was in town last week.
Below are some of his thoughts (reconstructed from my notes) on living in the present moment. (You'll have to imagine the endearing accent and the occasional pauses to laugh happily whenever he cracked himself up. I got the sense that years of being a spiritual director give a person a lively sense of how ridiculous human beings can be, as well as an enduring compassion.)
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Living in the present moment means entrusting the past to God’s mercy, the future to His Providence.
However, we distinguish between a good and a bad way of living the present moment.
We see the bad way, for instance, among young people in France right now. They have no rootedness, no interest in the past. Old people, the assume, don’t understand anything. They aspire to invent life anew, from scratch. They’re involved with no projects; they have no interest in the future, with its commitments and responsibilities. (Maybe living "for the present" expresses this mindset better.)
The positive sense of living in the present moment makes room for roots,
for traditions, for “honoring your father and your mother.”
We who aspire to live in the present do have projects, want to serve God, undertake new things. But we live each day, one at a time, in the present moment. That is, we accept a certain poverty, but one that does us a lot of good—because I can’t live my past again—there are no time machines to allow me to go back and make better choices--only in the movies.
We can make plans, but we can’t master the future. Neither the past nor the future belongs to us—but this is a very rich poverty, because the present moment is the moment of the presence of God. This is very important spiritually, and also psychologically: the more we’re in the present moment, the more we’re in contact with God. Also, that’s when we’re most in contact with ourselves. Thus, we find a certain strength and grace to live today what we have to live today.
In prayer, too, if I want to make contact with God, I have to be there, inhabit my body, not allow my thoughts to wander all over.
Grace for today is like manna: it can’t be stockpiled so as to take things easy for a while. (Spiritual life doesn’t work that way.)
It was manna, not a big steak…a poor food, but it had a different taste for each person. Christ prophesies that we’ll be dragged before kings, persecuted, killed, and we think, “Oh my gosh, I, who pass out from fear at the thought of the dentist!”
In the Our Father, we ask for our “daily bread.” It’s much better to do what God likes and eat fresh bread every day than old, stale bread from storage.
God wants us to be free of the past. Clearly there are times when we do have to go back over it. We’ll talk about that later [probably in next week's post]. But each morning we begin again, each morning God has for us a love that is new.
For God, the past doesn’t exist—the devil loves to accuse, using our past (“and then he’s happy, because he’s got a lot of material to work with”).
Whether I’ve been a saint or sinner up to today has no importance. Today I can choose God. Maybe this is a bit of an exaggeration, because If I’ve committed lots of sins I have wounds that are hard to heal. If I’ve been a saint, I’m still always called to grow.
That’s what Christian life is: “I decide today.” On the ladder of holiness, there’s only one step: the one I take today (despite all the truth in St. Teresa’s seven mansions,
St. So-and-So’s thirty steps, and so on). Like the good thief, who recognized that he deserved condemnation, but at the Cross he was attracted by Jesus’ gentleness; he saw a new reality of love, forgiveness, and abandonment into God’s hands. And Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We always seem to have this idea that God gives his grace like an accountant, taking our good actions, our bad actions, adding it all up, and, according to the total, giving us more or less grace. That ‘s not the Gospel. “If today you decide to believe, to hope, to love, you’ll receive now all the grace you need. You’ll receive all God’s love. Maybe you’ll still have wounds, and “work” to do, but what’s sure is that all the grace you need to do that work is given, freely, today.
When the devil accuses us, we should respond as follows: “I have made mistakes, but it doesn’t matter: I decide, I get up again, I trust God, I move ahead again.” We should have the same trust as if we had always been saints. (This idea is in St. Therese.) Our works are the fruit, not the condition, of God’s grace.
Here’s a story to illustrate:
A monk once decided he’d had enough of the monastery and wanted to leave—today!—but at the same time he knew, or at least he thought, that this was a temptation. So he said to himself, OK, I’ve leaving, for sure—but tomorrow! He said the same thing for many days, and stayed, and died happily, in the monastery.
Nothing is unbearable in the present moment if we accept it and attach ourselves to God.