Coming home to the present

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that God is not only the First Cause of the temporality of the universe, but He is also the sustaining cause of all that exists (CCC 301). This means that at every moment God holds us in existence, and, in a mysterious sense, we participate in His own being and life.

Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’

The Holy Bible. (2006). (Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition, Ac 17:27–28). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

God is close to us, closer than we are to ourselves. According to St Augustine, God is “higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self” (Confessions, 3.6.11). God is not only present in our deepest self, but also in all that surrounds us, sustaining all the universe in being and directing all things to their proper end (Himself).

So to ask “where is God?” is in someway analogous to the fish asking “where is water?”. God is not far from us – if we are baptised and in a state of grace He dwells especially within us, enabling us to participate in His own divine life. So in one sense, to try to “attain” God, to “search” for Him is a fool’s quest – you already have Him and He has you! So if that is objectively the truth, why doesn’t our subjective life mirror this great reality?

The Happy Life

Aristotle argued that happiness is our final end, for happiness is “that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1097a30-34). St Thomas Aquinas equated this final end with the beatific vision, which we hope to enjoy in the next life – the pure contemplation of the perfect goodness of God. However, he also argued that, while perfect happiness and joy is only possible in the next life (beatitudo), in this life we can also achieve a kind of imperfect happiness and joy (felicitas). We should expect this to be the case, according to the biblical admonition from St Paul “Rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16), which applies to this life also.

The natural object of our will is goodness. Our conception of what is good and what isn’t is disordered in this life. Therefore, there is a purification of our intellect and habits that are required. By growing in both the natural and infused virtues, we can achieve this felicitas in our current life. Of course, in the final analysis, to rejoice in this life and experience the peace of Christ, we need to orientate our life entirely to God – who is Goodness Itself and, therefore, the natural object of our will.

Virtue according to St Antony

At this stage, it is useful to listen to what St Antony the Great, the legendary Desert Father, has to say about virtue. From his Life written by St Athanasius, we observe St Antony preaching that virtue…

is not distant from us, nor does it stand external to us, but its realization lies in us, and the task is easy if only we shall will it.

Athanasius of Alexandria. (1980). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. (R. J. Payne, Ed., R. C. Gregg, Trans.) (p. 46). Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

St Antony here has a high view of the capacity of humans for virtue, noting that the source of virtue lies internal to us and that the virtues are easy to obtain once we will the attaining. We should probably assume that St Antony is here talking about and to Christians who have received the Holy Spirit in baptism. St Antony expands on this some more:

For the Lord has told us before, the Kingdom of God is within you. All virtue needs, then, is our willing, since it is in us, and arises from us. For virtue exists when the soul maintains its intellectual part according to nature. It holds fast according to nature when it remains as it was made—and it was made beautiful and perfectly straight.

Athanasius of Alexandria. (1980). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. (R. J. Payne, Ed., R. C. Gregg, Trans.) (p. 46). Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Drawing on the teaching of Our Lord that the Kingdom of God is within us, our saint is implying that the power to obtain virtue, and therefore a blessed life, is something we already possess. He teaches that this involves maintaining our “intellectual part according to nature”. To understand what he means by this, let’s examine a longer expansion on this theme:

As far as the soul is concerned, being straight consists in its intellectual part’s being according to nature, as it was created. But when it turns from its course and is twisted away from what it naturally is, then we speak of the vice of the soul. So the task is not difficult, for if we remain as we were made, we are in virtue, but if we turn our thoughts toward contemptible things, we are condemned as evil. If the task depended on something external that must be procured, it would be truly difficult, but since the matter centers in us, let us protect ourselves from sordid ideas, and, since we have received it as a trust, let us preserve the soul for the Lord, so that he may recognize his work as being just the same as he made it.

[…] Conducting our lives in this manner, let us carefully keep watch, and as Scripture says, let us keep our heart in all watchfulness.

Athanasius of Alexandria. (1980). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. (R. J. Payne, Ed., R. C. Gregg, Trans.) (pp. 46–47). Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

From the above, we can see that remaining as we were made in our intellectual nature involves avoiding “contemptible” thoughts. The path to virtue, or, rather, realizing the capacity for virtue in us already by the indwelling Spirit, depends on being aware of our thought life. We must take each thought captive and subject it to Christ (2 Cor 10:5), and remain awake with our lanterns ready (Matt 25). We see here an emphasis on awareness that we also observe in other world religions. The Desert and Eastern Fathers, in particular, emphasize this concept under the term “watchfulness” or “stillness”. To provide just a few examples from many, consider the following quotes:

Do everything possible to attain stillness and freedom from distraction, and struggle to live according to God’s will, battling against invisible enemies.

Evagrius Ponticus (4th cent.), On Asceticism and Stillness

What is it then to be a fool for Christ? It is to control one’s thoughts when they stray out of line. It is to make the mind empty and free so as to be able to offer it in a state of readiness when Christ’s teachings are to be assimilated, swept clean for the words of God that it needs to welcome.

St John Chrysostom (died 407AD), On the Incomprehensibility of God, Sermon 5

He who acts righteously…is he who drives the devil from his heart. He seizes this brood of devilish thoughts and dashes it to pieces against Christ.

St Benedict of Nursia (6th century) – Rule, Prologue 28

As we can see from the quotes above, in the early centuries of the Church, there was much emphasis in the ascetic life on calming and quieting one’s thought-life. Or, perhaps more precisely, one’s passions, which ultimately manifest as thoughts of “striving” towards the (potentially) disordered objects of desire. The implication of this is that, if with the help of grace, we can gain some mastery over our passions and thought-life, we will somewhat naturally “fall into” a virtuous and therefore happy life.

Awareness and the present moment

However, to gain this mastery of our thought-life, we need to “wake up”, to be aware of what is passing through our consciousness:

Wake up, keep watch! […] Keep watch night and day in the ardour and intensity of prayer so as to prepare yourself to fight…

Isaac of Ninevah (7th century), Ascetic Treatises, 34

Most of us blunder through life without realizing what we are doing. We are like mere machines, or animals, responding unthinkingly to events around us. We are unconscious, unaware – we have no chance of exhibiting real agency and choice. Without awareness, without watchfulness, we cease to act like full human beings – our behavior can be predicted by simply examining our “inputs.” Someone speaks poorly about us; we are sure to speak poorly about them. If our job is threatened, we are certain to worry about it incessantly, forgetting the providence of our Father. Without watchfulness and awareness, we lose our God-given agency, which is one of the highest dignities we possess.

The reason we are so frequently unaware is that we are always searching and longing for something to satisfy us. The ironic thing is that, as baptized Christians in a state of grace, we already have all that we need. Every moment in this state is a moment where we could be communing with Him, who is the fulfillment of all our desires. We can cease striving; we are already home.

The enemy of our spiritual life does not want us to believe that. Rather, we are constantly tempted to find satisfaction in the future – I will be happy when: I find a wife/husband, I get a promotion at work, my social media presence increases, I get to go on holidays, etc. Another strategy of our enemy is to bring the uncertainty of the future into our present and fill it with worries and anxiety. In either case, the enemy does not want us to sit happily in communion with our God in the present moment, peacefully trusting Him in all things. He wants to tempt and draw us out of the present, out of our rest in God, because then we are more vulnerable to his evil propositions.

In the western part of the Church, we are saturated with theological content. This can be good and lead us to a more profound love of God. But it can also be a temptation where we are forever searching for a new idea, a new spirituality, a new way of looking at the world and God. But why do we need to search so much? Is God, who dwells in you NOW, not enough? I believe that the Western Church needs to take a note from our Eastern brothers and sisters, and instead focus more on stillness, unceasing prayer, awareness and coming home to the present moment. Only there can we find peace and “rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16).

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