By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
My first years as a priest and spiritual director have taught me that many people do not love themselves as they should. This is hardly a matter of selfish egoism – we must, after all, begin with a healthy love of self if we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31). Humility, defined by St. Bernard and others as proper self-knowledge, requires us to recognize our dignity as the unique beings capable of loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4; Mark 12:28-30).
I have found that most people, old and young but especially the college students I mostly minister to, are burdened by their past, convinced that their previous sins and the recurrent memory of them prove their lack of loveliness and disqualify them from the love of God. They are equally troubled by anxious worry about the future, paralyzed in the present by the doomsday scenarios they paint in their minds and strangely morph into guaranteed failures and shortcomings. Easily overlooked from this backward and forward-obsessed vantage point is that neither past nor future exist: what has already happened cannot be undone, and what is yet to occur is entirely contingent, never guaranteed to take place at all. Why, then, would we allow our fleeting words and deeds, now consigned to the realm of memory, to dominate our here and now? And why would we continue to invite future concerns to cripple our peace in the present moment?
Just as I thought that I had brilliantly cracked the code to this theological and pastoral challenge, I realized, to my annoyance, that St. Augustine had beat me to the insight by roughly 1,600 years. Augustine does this to me frequently, and I have resorted to consoling myself with the thought that he and I are collaborative buddies in the care of souls, which Gregory the Great describes as “the art of arts.”
Several passages from St. Augustine’s reflections on time and memory in his wonderful “Confessions” come to my aid now as I seek to help my directees. The great African saint, frustrated by his inability to grasp what time fundamentally is, recognizes that the present instant is so utterly fleeting that as soon as you point it out, it vanishes into the past on the wisps of mere seconds.
He also acknowledges that future time has no reality yet, even though we can speak of it, along with the past, thanks to the fact that time is a distension, or extension, of the mind, which measures and tracks the flow of our experiences and thoughts as we move. What always eludes us, in other words, is the singular present moment, an ever-occurring but ever-evanescent now in which we cannot rest.
Yet for Augustine, God does not experience time as a movement; God dwells, God is, in “ever-present eternity,” without past or future. We cannot hope to attain that ability to gather everything into one simultaneous “now,” yet in recognizing our finite limits, we have a way of overcoming our slavery to the past and anxiety about the future. Augustine notes that the mind has three fundamental actions: memory of the past, attention to the present, and expectation of the future.
All three of those actions of the mind desire and are in us to point us to God, who is eternally present to and in us. God does not define us by our past sins, but rather wants us to rest calmly in His consoling presence as often as we can.
Likewise, God does not want our anxieties about the future to dictate misery for our present experience.
There is great solace in the effort to meet the Lord where He dwells, at the still point of our turning world, the calm eye of our hurricane. In that present moment is the Lord who is love, a perfect love that casts out fear, both of what has come and what is yet to come (1 John 4:18).
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.