“Live in the present moment as if there were nothing to expect beyond it.” When I first encountered Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence and his relentless insistence on attention to the present, I thought him quite impractical; as teacher and parent, I always had to consider the future. Then COVID hit. As cherished plans crumpled and the future became a blank, de Caussade’s words became as practical as sanity: This moment is the only moment we have.
At the same time, we are educators, and while John Henry Newman is right that there is a knowledge that is a treasure in itself, we are also in the business of preparing students for life after graduation. Listening for a vocation suggests hearing a call to somewhere else, to something not yet present. This post will discuss attention to the present as key to discerning that future vocation.
What does it mean to live well in the present moment? De Caussade advocates faithfulness to the “duties of our state of life,” the responsibilities of our current situation: “For these duties are the clearest indication of God’s will, and nothing should supersede them. [. . .] All the time we spend in fulfilling these duties is most precious and profitable for us, as we can be sure that we are obeying God’s holy will.” De Caussade claims that fulfilling the duty of one moment after another is the straightforward path by which people of old attained holiness. On a college campus, getting up with the alarm and showering, going to class and completing assignments—all these are duties, and therefore precious and profitable.
But “duty” may suggest dreary, begrudging effort, as exemplified by, say, Pollyanna’s grim aunt who adopts her in Eleanor Porter’s novel. Why not aim to live instead where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet, à la Frederick Buechner? Ideally we do that, too, but these deep fires do not always show at the surface of our lives; they flare up and die down, out of sync with each other, giving inconsistent light. Duty, on the other hand, is a steady word, a putting of one foot in front of the other for the long pilgrimage. As George MacDonald argues, the best preparation for the future is seeing well to the present. In faithfully addressing the ordinary, we listen to God and respond to God right now, which sets us up to continue that listening and responding for our next steps.
When duty does feel dreary, students may be developing their most important vocation of all: love of God and of neighbor. Simone Weil argues for the value especially of the most uninteresting studies because they develop our powers of attention. Attention is both the heart of prayer— “prayer is attention,” she says—and the greatest need of a person in suffering, yet the capacity to give attention to a sufferer “is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” Fulfilment of the duty to study, then—however fruitless those hours may seem for understanding, good grades, or personal satisfaction—pays off richly in a miraculous ability to meet the greatest need of our suffering neighbor, the deepest hunger of our suffering world.
At the same time, we need not ignore our own gladness. As my undergraduate advisor said, “I firmly believe that God leads us through our loves.” De Caussade’s spiritual forebear, Ignatius, taught careful attention to our emotions as well as actions, for God speaks through our emotions, not only through our circumstances and our reason, to direct us. Therefore, we stop each day to reflect on the present: becoming aware of God’s presence, giving thanks, confessing sin, and praying from some strong emotion and seeking to understand it, then making a resolution for the next day. If we “listen to our lives,” as Buechner puts it, then we can see patterns over time that guide our next steps; we can discern the deeper fires.
Most importantly, the present moment is the appointed time for meeting God, not only in deliberate reflection but also all day, every day. As COVID began, I was reading Genesis. God speaks to Jacob in a dream, showing him a ramp to heaven with angels ascending and descending, and upon awaking, Jacob exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it! This is the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” Who wouldn’t be glad to stop in the wilderness and put head to stone pillow, even with a murderous brother behind and an uncertain future ahead, if the place were the gate of heaven in disguise? Yet that is what every moment is, fearful or rocky or uncertain as it may be. Paying attention to God in the present, Jacob receives God’s word for the future: a future rich in land and children, and one with the ongoing divine Presence for his journey.
However barren the landscape, my own future vocation may quietly unfold itself as I carefully observe the currents of my daily life. When did I feel most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me? When was I acting because “I have to,” out of compulsion or fear? When was I acting because “I want to,” in freedom, wisdom, and joy? Reflecting on such questions—daily, weekly, monthly—can help us all to discern the ongoing call of the one who is both already with us and leading us onward to an even fuller presence of joy.
Julie Straight is chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, where she also codirected the first-year seminar program, Cornerstone, for seven years. Her current research focuses on the theology of suffering as found in twentieth- and twenty-first-century children’s and young adult literature. For other posts by Julie, click here.