Living in the Present by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Here and Now” published in 1994.
1. A New Beginning
A new beginning! We must learn to live each day, each hour, yes, each minute as a new beginning, as a unique opportunity to make everything new. Imagine that we could live each moment as a moment pregnant with new life. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises. Imagine that we could walk through the new year always listening to a voice saying to us: “I have a gift for you and can’t wait for you to see it!” Imagine.
Is it possible that our imagination can lead us to the truth of our lives? Yes, it can! The problem is that we allow our past, which becomes longer and longer each year, to say to us: “You know it all; you have seen it all, be realistic; the future will be just another repeat of the past. Try to survive it as best you can.” There are many cunning foxes jumping on our shoulders and whispering in our ears the great lie: “There is nothing new under the sun. . . don’t let yourself be fooled.”
When we listen to these foxes, they eventually prove themselves right: our new year, our new day, our new hour become flat, boring, dull, and without anything new.
So what are we to do? First, we must send the foxes back to where they belong: in their foxholes. And then we must open our minds and our hearts to the voice that resounds through the valleys and hills of our life saying: “Let me show you where I live among my people. My name is ‘God-with-you.’ I will wipe away all the tears from your eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past has gone” (see Revelation 21:2—5).
We must choose to listen to that voice, and every choice will open us a little more to discover the new life hidden in the moment, waiting eagerly to be born.
2. Without “Oughts” and “Ifs”
It is hard to live in the present. The past and the future keep harassing us. The past with guilt, the future with worries. So many things have happened in our lives about which we feel uneasy, regretful, angry, confused, or, at least, ambivalent. And all these feelings are often colored by guilt. Guilt that says: “You ought to have done something other than what you did; you ought to have said something other than what you said.” These “oughts” keep us feeling guilty about the past and prevent us from being fully present to the moment.
Worse, however, than our guilt are our worries. Our worries fill our lives with “What ifs”: “What if I lose my job, what if my father dies, what if there is not enough money, what if the economy goes down, what if a war breaks out?” These many “ifs” can so fill our mind that we become blind to the flowers in the garden and the smiling children on the streets, or deaf to the grateful Voice of a friend.
The real enemies of our life are the “oughts” and the “ifs.” They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future. But real life takes place in the here and the now. God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful. When Jesus spoke about God, he always spoke about God as being where and when we are. “When you see me, you see God. When you hear me you hear God.” God is not someone who was or will be, but the One who is, and who is for me in the present moment. That’s why Jesus came to wipe away the burden of the past and the worries for the future. He wants us to discover God right where we are, here and now.
Birthdays need to be celebrated. I think it is more important to celebrate a birthday than a successful exam, a promotion, or a victory. Because to celebrate a birthday means to say to someone: “Thank you for being you.” Celebrating a birthday is exalting life and being glad for it. On a birthday we do not say: “Thanks for what you did, or said, or accomplished.” No, we say: “Thank you for being born and being among us.”
On birthdays we celebrate the present. We do not complain about what happened or speculate about what will happen, but we lift someone up and let everyone say: “We love you.”
I know a friend who, on his birthday, is picked up by his friends, carried to the bathroom, and thrown clothes and all into a tub full of water. Everyone eagerly awaits his birthday, even he himself. I have no idea where this tradition came from, but to be lifted up and “re-baptized” seems like a very good way to have your life celebrated. We are made aware that although we have to keep our feet on the ground, we are created to reach to the heavens, and that, although we easily get dirty, we can always be washed clean again and our life given a new start.
Celebrating a birthday reminds us of the goodness of life, and in this spirit we really need to celebrate people’s birthdays every day, by showing gratitude, kindness, forgiveness, gentleness, and affection. These are ways of saying: “It’s good that you are alive; it’s good that you are walking with me on this earth. Let’s be glad and rejoice. This is the day that God has made for us to be and to be together.”
4. Here and Now
To live in the present, we must believe deeply that what is most important is the here and the now. We are constantly distracted by things that have happened in the past or that might happen in the future. It is not easy to remain focused on the present. Our mind is hard to master and keeps pulling us away from the moment.
Prayer is the discipline of the moment. When we pray, we enter into the presence of God whose name is God- with-us. To pray is to listen attentively to the One who addresses us here and now. When we dare to trust that we are never alone but that God is always with us, always cares for us, and always speaks to us, then we can gradually detach ourselves from the voices that make us guilty or anxious and thus allow ourselves to dwell in the present moment. This is a very hard challenge because radical trust in God is not obvious. Most of us distrust God. Most of us think of God as a fearful, punitive authority or as an empty, powerless nothing. Jesus’ core message was that God is neither a powerless weak ling nor a powerful boss, but a lover, whose only desire is to give us what our hearts most desire.
To pray is to listen to that voice of love. That is what obedience is all about. The word “obedience” comes from the Latin word ob-audire, which means to listen with great attentiveness. Without listening, we become “deaf” to the voice of love. The Latin word for deaf is surdus. To be completely deaf is to be absurdus, yes, absurd. When we no longer pray, no longer listen to the voice of love that speaks to us in the moment, our lives become absurd lives in which we are thrown back and forth between the past and the future.
If we could just be, for a few minutes each day, fully where we are, we would indeed discover that we are not alone and that the One who is with us wants only one thing: to give us love.
5. Our Inner Room
Listening to the voice of love requires that we direct our minds and hearts toward that voice with all our attention. How can we do that? The most fruitful way — in my experience — is to take a simple prayer, a sentence or a word, and slowly repeat it. We can use the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, the name of Jesus, or any word that reminds us of God’s love and put it in the center of our inner room, like a candle in a dark space.
Obviously we will be constantly distracted. We will think about what happened yesterday or what will hap pen tomorrow. We will have long, imaginary discussions with our friends or enemies. We will plan our next day, prepare our upcoming talk, or organize our next meeting. Still, as long as we keep the candle in our dark room burning, we can return to that light and see clearly the presence of the One who offers us what we most desire.
This is not always a satisfying experience. Often we are so restless and so unable to find inner quietude that we can’t wait to get busy again, thus avoiding the confrontation with the chaotic state of our minds and hearts. Still, when we remain faithful to our discipline, even if it is only ten minutes a day, we gradually come to see — by the candlelight of our prayers — that there is a space within us where God dwells and where we are invited to dwell with God. Once we come to know that inner, holy place, a place more beautiful and precious than any place we can travel to, we want to be there and be spiritually fed.
6. With Others
One of the discoveries we make in prayer is that the closer we come to God, the closer we come to all our brothers and sisters in the human family. God is not a private God. The God who dwells in our inner sanctuary is also the God who dwells in the inner sanctuary of each human being. As we recognize God’s presence in our own hearts, we can also recognize that presence in the hearts of others, because the God who has chosen us as a dwelling-place gives us the eyes to see the God who dwells in others. When we see only demons within our selves, we can see only demons in others, but when we see God within ourselves, we can see God also in others.
This might sound rather theoretical, but when we pray, we will increasingly experience ourselves as part of a human family infinitely bound by God who created us to share, all of us, in the divine light.
We often wonder what we can do for others, especially for those in great need. It is not a sign of powerlessness when we say: “We must pray for one another.” To pray for one another is, first of all, to acknowledge, in the presence of God, that we belong to each other as children of the same God. Without this acknowledgment of human solidarity, what we do for one another does not flow from who we truly are. We are brothers and sisters, not competitors or rivals. We are children of one God, not partisans of different gods.
To pray, that is, to listen to the voice of the One who calls us the “beloved,” is to learn that that voice excludes no one. Where I dwell, God dwells with me and where God dwells with me I find all my sisters and brothers. And so intimacy with God and solidarity with all people are two aspects of dwelling in the present moment that can never be separated.
7. The Hub of Life
In my home country, the Netherlands, you still see many large wagon wheels, not on wagons, but as decorations at the entrances of farms or on the walls of restaurants. I have always been fascinated by these wagon wheels: with their wide rims, strong wooden spokes, and big hubs. These wheels help me to understand the importance of a life lived from the center. When I move along the rim, I can reach one spoke after the other, but when I stay at the hub, I am in touch with all the spokes at once.
To pray is to move to the center of all life and all love. The closer I come to the hub of life, the closer I come to all that receives its strength and energy from there. My tendency is to get so distracted by the diversity of the many spokes of life, that I am busy but not truly life- giving, all over the place but not focused. By directing my attention to the heart of life, I am connected with its rich variety while remaining centered. What does the hub represent? I think of it as my own heart, the heart of God, and the heart of the world. When I pray, I enter into the depth of my own heart and find there the heart of God, who speaks to me of love. And I recognize, right there, the place where all of my sisters and brothers are in communion with one another. The great paradox of the spiritual life is, indeed, that the most personal is most universal, that the most intimate, is most communal, and that the most contemplative is most active.
The wagon wheel shows that the hub is the center of all energy and movement, even when it often seems not to be moving at all. In God all action and all rest are one. So too prayer!