November 23, 1999
The Preciousness of
the Present Moment
by Bill Volkman
It is only when life is seen in the light of oneness -- our indivisible union in Christ -- that each person and each situation can be seen as precious. For it is awareness of God's unfailing presence in each current situation that inevitably divinizes our perspective as well as our response. Only then will each moment have the potential of infinite possibilities.

In the Fall of 1995, my wife Marge and I attended our first silent two-day contemplative-prayer retreat. About 80 of us spent a weekend together at the Warrenville Cenacle, a local convent.

Our speaker was James Finley. As a young man, Finley spent six years at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, with Thomas Merton as his mentor. Finley presently practices psychotherapy in California, in addition to leading over twenty contemplative-prayer retreats each year.

There were five teaching sessions by Finley, over the course of the weekend, with the balance of the time spent in virtual silence. Early in the first session, Finley made a statement that caught my attention. It went like this: "Life is the awareness of the preciousness of the immediacy of the present moment. "The first time he rattled off this mouthful of words, I whispered to Marge: "What did he just say? Did you write that down? That's important!"

Marge's response was, "Sssh!"

Fortunately, Finley repeated the statement in that session and in later ones. Interestingly, I don't think he ever explained it in detail or elaborated on it in any way. He apparently thought it was self-explanatory. But I must confess that the first couple of times I heard him say it, it sounded like double-talk.

Though parts of the statement kept passing through my mind, I had trouble remembering the sequence of the three prepositional phrases. So I finally wrote it out on the back of one of my business cards, which I then put in my billfold for quick reference. During the sessions I kept pulling it out and re-reading it.

During one of the scheduled meditation times for that day, Marge and I were walking alongside the creek that runs through the retreat property. Our daughter-in-law, Claudia, was sitting by the water's edge reading a book she had just borrowed from the Cenacle library. It was an English translation of Jean-Pierre de Caussade's eighteenth-century French classic, The Sacrament of the Present Moment.

It intrigued me that the title of the book was reminiscent of Finley's words. So I convinced (pressured!) Claudia to let me borrow it right then and there. Before the next session I had read most of the book. So when Finley repeated his statement, I was better able to understand its importance.

The secret of being is found in seeing Christ as our
spouse; it's in being in love with God.
However, it wasn't until weeks later that I appreciated the fuller significance of each phrase. I had no trouble in understanding the import of "awareness" and "preciousness" and "the present moment," but where did "immediacy" fit in? When I looked it up in the dictionary, I found that the primary definitions were: "the state or quality of being immediate; freedom from the intervention of any person or thing; direct relation or connection." "Immediate" means "no intervening member." In other words, Finley's statement means "the right-here-and-now-ness of the present moment." Interestingly, one of the definitions of "immediacy" when used in the area of philosophy is "intuitive knowledge as distinguished from that arrived at by proof or reasoning."

In any event, I concluded that it probably would not be wrong to substitute the word "oneness" for the word "immediacy" in the quotation. It could just as well read: "Life is the awareness of the preciousness of the oneness of the present moment."

I realized that it is only when life is seen in the context of "immediacy" -- that is, in the light of our inseparable union with Christ, of our oneness with God -- that each person and each situation can be seen as precious. For it is our awareness of God's presence with us -- His immediacy -- in each situation that changes our outlook as well as our actions. Only then do we see the preciousness of every second we are alive, as well as the infinite possibilities of each moment.

But living from the inside out -- with an awareness of the immediacy, the closeness of God's presence -- seems so elusive, doesn't it? Living as we always have, with outward things uppermost in our minds, seems so much more comfortable and safe.

This reminds me of the six-year-old girl who ran into her parents' bedroom during a violent thunderstorm. After they had comforted her, the father carried her back to her bedroom. As he was about to leave, he said, "Don't worry, sweetheart, God will be here with you when I leave." To which the little girl responded, "Daddy, if you don't mind, why don't you stay here with God; I'm going back to sleep with Mommy!" It always seems easier and safer to live in our feelings than it does to live by faith.

Is there a special significance to the term "present moment"? Yes, to God there is only now, only an eternal present moment. God is not subject to time -- to the past or to the future. He knows only "isness." He knows only present moments as a continuum, as the eternal now -- not as part of "time." Remember what God calls Himself? "I Am."

When we focus on the past -- with either pride or regret, depending upon our analysis of the cause and effect of each situation -- our favorite phrase is, "If only..."If only such and such had or hadn't happened." The fact is that nothing happens "apart from the Father." That is why Paul said, "...sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret" (II Cor. 7:10). In the wisdom of hindsight, we purpose to change direction, but we aren't meant to live in regret.

As we are faithful to our centering prayer practice, we will experience
life with less fear, less judgment, and less tenseness.
On the other hand, it is just as foolish to live in the future, yearning and grasping for a change of circumstances. For if we focus on the future, we live in a "never-never land" of endless goals, worries and expectations, always waiting for the big break -- once again missing the preciousness of the present moment. Like a broken record, we will continue to say, "Things will be different when..." But we can't enjoy the present if we continue to focus on the future.

Will we ever learn to experience "the secret of being" Paul talks about? The answer lies in recognizing and experiencing "the glory of this mystery [secret]...which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). The liberating secret of being is only available to us to the extent that we realize our inner Divine union with the Beloved. The secret of being is in seeing Christ as our Spouse; it's in being in love with God.

Was there ever a time in your life when everything seemed to be just perfect? How about when you first experienced puppy love, or an extreme infatuation, or an all-encompassing love? At that point, being in love and being with your beloved was all that mattered. You were anxious about nothing, for your mutual love was everything. You both felt invincible, your dreams had no boundaries, and you knew only the preciousness of the rapturous moment. In the same way, we will find that the secret to life, the secret of being, is simply being in love with God; it is being captured and raptured by God's love, and simultaneously responding in kind.

That is what life is all about: responding to our Lover's overtures of unconditional love. The Hound of Heaven has never ceased to chase us and solicit our intimacy and love. But we need to allow ourselves to be so taken by His great love that we can do nothing but love Him with all our heart, mind and soul.

For a number of centuries the Shekinah -- the dwelling place of the visible presence of God -- was in the "Most Holy Place," in the "heart" of the Jewish temple. The "presence" was only visible as a pillar of cloud or fire above the ark of the covenant. A heavy piece of tapestry separated the larger center section of the temple -- called the Holy Place -- from the Most Holy Place, into which the high priest went once a year to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people. But all that is history.

Since the once-and-for-all sacrifice of the Great High Priest, the temple made with hands is no longer the dwelling place of God. Now, the dwelling place of God -- the "Most Holy Place" -- is in human hearts. Humanity no longer has to approach God through an intermediary; no longer is there any separation between us and God. "The mystery which has been hidden...has now been manifested to His saints" (Col. 1:27).

How is it, then, that so many of us still continue to live in fear, condemnation and separation? It's because we don't see God -- we don't recognize the magnitude of His love, forgiveness and power.

As we are faithful to our centering prayer practice, we will experience
more wonder, more playfulness, more tender love and more reality.
In II Corinthians 3:15-16, Paul reminds us that a veil (false self) lies over our hearts until we "turn to the Lord" and "the veil is taken away." We have a part in the gradual removal of that many-layered veil (a veil of separation caused by our blindness to the magnitude of false self). The layers of that veil are the result of many wounds, many misconceptions and much darkness. Our part is to turn to the Lord. We must respond to our Lover's call; we must look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

One of the wonderful by-products of centering prayer, according to James Finley, is the "tendency of the heart and mind to gravitate toward the center of the present moment, where God holds us in His embrace.... Right in the midst of one's daily work there is given, at times, momentary flashes of the divine dimension of the task at hand."

As we are faithful to our centering prayer practice, we will start to see and experience life differently -- with less fear, less judgment, less tenseness; and with a lot more wonder, more playfulness, and more tender affection. A measure of this transformation will stealthily become evident to us and to others. As God heals us and fills us with His love, we, too, will begin to experience "momentary flashes of the divine dimension," times of spontaneous centered living. My own recent experience has evidenced this again and again in small, but significant, ways. Here are a few random illustrations.

One of the first major changes was that I learned how to smile again. Like Martha of Bethany, I took my Christian life very seriously. My face reflected a perpetual anxiety -- I virtually did not know how to smile. My extreme, eager self-effort had resulted in a debilitating self-consciousness. I could not look anyone in the eye, and any attempt to smile was artificial. When it was photo time for the family, I always insisted on taking the pictures. I felt like an ugly duckling, and any attempt to smile froze on my face. But now I can smile again, inside and out; I can look into anyone's eyes -- and it's wonderful! I know God's merciful, healing hand has restored some of my childhood innocence.

A new, spontaneous gratitude is another wonderful gift that God has given me over the past couple of years. Daily, in the midst of my busy schedule, any number of "meaningful coincidences" arise which convince me that God is totally involved in the details of my life. He reminds me to place an important telephone call. He leads me to a misplaced file that I had not been able to find. He whispers an insightful word that enables me to minimize a thorny employee situation, or more efficiently handle an accounting or other business problem.

The gift of an awareness of His intervention in my day-to-day life is special, but it is equally wonderful for me to experience the gift of a spontaneous surge of gratitude. An "Oh, thank you, thank you, my Love" response wells up from within, again and again. And, at the same time, my new smile registers without and within.

The practice of basking in the presence of our Lover
eventually results in the fruit of the Spirit.
Yet another sign of inner transformation is a new attentiveness to the presence of my wife, my family and my business associates. I catch myself being with "precious persons," instead of always trying to fix everyone, getting them to listen to me, or trying to change them to embrace my opinions and my outlook. In conversations, I find myself interrupting others less and listening more -- giving the other person the courtesy of my attention, instead of planning my next major pronouncement!

So I am finding, in innumerable ways, that "those who wait on the Lord will not be disappointed." Gradually, ever so gradually, the discipline of our periodic faith-practice of the prayer of silence results in a transforming union and a contemplative life.

The practice of basking in the presence of our Lover eventually results in responses that reflect the full spectrum of the fruit of the Spirit. The love, joy, and peace for which our hearts have always yearned gradually becomes a reality in our lives. Out of us will flow rivers of living water to our world.

We will have found the pearl of great price: a glorious Person who adores us and is one with us. He comes to us with the ultimate gift: experiential love. As we bask in the warmth of this gift, our icy hearts are thawed and we are empowered to go out and give freely the love we have received. We go out to love the world.

Excerpted from Chapter 14 of the book, Basking in His Presence, by Bill Volkman. © Copyright 1996 Bill Volkman. Published by Union Life Ministries, Inc. First published in the July/August, 1996, issue of Union Life.