Sacrament of the Present Moment

By E. Glenn Hinson, Ph.D.


"We ought to live each moment as if all Eternity converged upon it," a great philosopher once said. I'm not sure we can live with our wicks turned up that high; we might burn ourselves out. But the point is the same one Jesus made in the Mary/Martha story (Luke 10:38-42; Col 1:15-20). Eternity is converging upon each moment, and we must not let busyness and distractedness cause us to miss the sacrament of the present moment.

The word "sacrament" is one which many Baptists have shied away from, thinking it suggested some kind of hocus pocus. Looked at more carefully in Christian usage, however, it points to the means through which we see God's grace at work. Traditionally Christians have pointed to baptism and communion as sacraments. In the middle ages the Church added five more to mark life's passages. What this phrase from Pierre de Caussade does is to remind us that, for those who know how to see, everything may be a means through which we may see God at work.

Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit palaeontolgist and philosopher, said, "To those who know how to see, nothing here below is profane. Everything has been made sacred in its origin by God, and everything will be made divine." Our constant prayer, he added, should be the prayer of the blind man at Bethsaida, "Lord, make me see." See, of course, not in the physical sense only, but seeing as George Herbert prayed, "Teach me my God and King in all things Thee to see, And what I do in anything, to do it as for Thee."

Getting Inside the Story

Now I must confess that Christians have not traditionally interpreted the story of Mary and Martha as I am doing. Early on, they began to view it as a parable of two kinds of vocations--the active and the contemplative. Martha is the exemplar of the active, Mary of the contemplative. According to this interpretation, Jesus was affirming the superiority of the contemplative life.

That view sustained the priority of the monastic vocation throughout the Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformers, however, closing the monasteries, questioned not only the theory of the superiority of the contemplative life but the very idea of contemplation. They made a case for Martha and for work. The Puritans particularly valued work. As one noted historian has observed, they were the industrious sort. One reason they made the sabbath central was because it assured regularity in the calendar over against the irregularity of Holy Days observed by the Medieval Church. It made good business sense.

We Americans have followed the Puritan train. When I have asked people to meditate on Luke 10:38-42, it happens without fail that a number of meditators will speak up for Martha. And I can understand that, for you and I are part of a work and works-righteousness culture. As a matter of fact, I readily admit that I am a workaholic. I like work. It's my play. Nothing makes me less happy than to think that I have no meaningful employment even in retirement at age seventy.

To shift the interpretation, therefore, I invite you to enter with me into this text in imagination. We should imagine that Jesus, evidently making the rugged uphill journey from Jericho to Jerusalem with his disciples, was tired when he came to Martha's house. He welcomed her hospitality, and Martha threw herself into it with gusto. Luke wouldn't have known anything about Carl Jung and Jungian personality measurements, but on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator scale Martha was probably ESTJ or ISTJ. She liked things done decently and in order.

She had a sister named Mary who was her opposite, INFP or ENFP. Most likely, she was the younger sister, too. They both loved Jesus. But while Martha hostessed, Mary plunked down at the Jesus' feet and soaked up every word. Uh, oh!

If you had never heard the story, you know what was coming. "Martha kept puttering around with a lot of work," Luke says. Noticing her sister lounging around Jesus' feet, she stopped and said, "Sir! Doesn't it bother you that my sister sits there on her can and lets me do all the work. Tell her to get up off of it and help me!" Almost a literal translation.

You can feel the heat in that statement, can't you? In American culture we would probably turn the flame up a few notches. And we would much prefer for Jesus to have backed Martha's demand.

Notice, please, he does not criticize Martha's work or good hosting. His double address, "Martha, Martha," suggests a certain gentleness in his reply. "You worry and fret about a lot of things, but there is need of one, for Mary has chosen the good lot which will not be taken from her."

Observe here that I did not supply the noun with "one." The Greek will allow either "one thing" or "one person." Jesus may well have left it ambiguous. The One who was needful was there, Jesus himself. Instead of dividing her attention with a lot of things, Mary chose to focus on "the sacrament of the present moment." She lived it as if all Eternity converged upon it. For Eternity was present in Jesus, and she did not let it slip by. In her busyness and preoccupation with "many things" Martha was missing an opportunity she would never have again.

And how often you and I may miss the sacrament of the present moment. One such occasion stands out vividly in my mind. November 27, 1968, I had arranged to spend the day with Thomas Merton before he left for a trip to the Far East. Because of a special called meeting of the faculty at Southern Seminary, I called to cancel our meeting. He did not return from that trip. He was accidentally electrocuted in Bangkok, Thailand, December 10.

The Cosmic Christ and
the Sacrament of the Present Moment

I've often thought as I've read stories like this that, had I been there, I would have been like Mary rather than Martha. After all, Jesus was there. Martha should have known to drop everything and plop down beside her sister to focus on the One who is needful! I would have!

Would I, indeed?! If I don't do it now, why would I have done it then? To be honest, I have to confess that I'm not in the habit of taking the sacrament of the present moment from the Universal Christ. That, you see, is what Paul challenged the Colossians with. The Colossians were exchanging the opportunity they had to engage the One "who is the image of the unseen God, firstborn of all creation," in whom "everything was created" and "through whom everything is being created" and "in whom all things hold together." In short, they failed to see that "All the world's alive with God" and that "Every bush [is] a burning bush."

Teilhard de Chardin based his mind-blowing christology on this hymn in Colossians 1:15-18. In his view, the whole universe is the Body of Christ. The evolution of the universe is christogenesis. If we really "saw," we would see his great Body being born of the breath of the Spirit in all that was taking place.

A Teilhard disciple, Michel Quoist, has embodied this conception in his classic collection of Prayers. He prefaced the first section with this comment: "If only we knew how to look at life through God's eyes, as we walk through life we would see innumerable tokens of the Father's love for us." He has a prayer before a twenty dollar bill, a pornographic magazine, the sea, eyes, green blackboards. He prefaced the second section with these words: "If we knew how to listen to God in all of life, all of life would become a prayer." He has prayers inspired by seeing an eighteen-year old youth brought in with an overdose of drugs, a drunk in the middle of the street, the hospital, inadequate housing. To those who know how to see and to listen, there's the sacrament of the present moment.

Now you and I can probably excuse ourselves for our failure because we live in a culture which creates infinite difficulties for observing the sacrament of the present moment. I don't think it would be unfair to say that ours is a culture of uncollectedness. In a sermon he preached forty years ago at First Presbyterian Church, Tallahassee, Florida, Douglas Steere fingered Uncollectedness as one of Americans' most urgent problems. He described Uncollected Persons as those who are always pressed for time; have no time for private prayer, leisurely reading, reflecting, setting down thoughts; are impatient; crowd decisions, press and maneuver people; have much to say but no time to listen to others; operate only according to their own plan. In sum, the Uncollected are Divided Selves.

By contrast, Collected Persons have time for others; are present when they speak to others; accept the place where they are and do not pine all the time to be somewhere else; have time to lift their eyes to heaven and look at the stars; are capable of patience; are not afraid to sleep because they are grounded in One whose ultimate triumph is already established; are not utterly planless but look at life in light of Eternity; and are people of prayer. Thus, although Collected Persons are, like Uncollected Persons, divided, they know the source of division and the way to heal it.

On Being Present Where You Are

The way to heal this widespread ailment, he believed, lies in being present where you are. That means to be really present, not just half-way present. You've had those conversations, haven't you, where someone uh-huhed and uh-uhed in all the right places, and then at the end made a comment which made you realize they hadn't heard a word you said. Well, to be really present, you have to be all there.

Douglas Steere admired this quality in Albert Schweitzer, Rufus Jones, and Martin Buber. Buber told how he had learned the importance of being present where he was. As a young professor, a student came to his office one day with a very serious concern. They had a good conversation, but Buber was thinking of the next thing he had to do. The student left his office and committed suicide.

The challenge which stands before us in the Mary/Martha story is how we may improve our presentness, our listening and seeing, in an age and culture that throw so many obstacles in our paths. How can we be truly present where we are? How can we develop what Douglas Steere called "the power of sustained attention"?

There have been two recommendations in Christian history, and they are polar opposites. The first is to spend time among people who are hurting. When Evelyn Underhill, a brilliant student of Christian mysticism, went to Baron Friedrich von Hügel and asked him to serve as her spiritual guide, he told her, "First, go and spend two afternoons a week in the ghetto. If properly entered into and persevered in, it will discipline, mortify, deepen, and quiet your spirituality, and redistribute your blood, some of your blood, away from your brain where too much is lodged at present." Actually, you don't have to go to a ghetto to find someone who is hurting. That could be the next person you encounter.

However, we must realize that we can't stand an uninterrupted diet of exposure to hurt. That is why Christians have gone 180 degrees in the other direction. The other way to improve seeing and listening is in solitude and silence. Solitude permits you to get away from those many things which vie for our attention--jangling noise and blaring light. Silence sensitizes.

I'm speaking here about retreating. The word retreat comes from the Latin word meaning "to draw back." Just as Jesus retreated at critical moments in his ministry, so also should we. Recently I've been thinking of four kinds of retreats that would help us to be present where we are. One is a daily retreat. For me that consists of a three-mile walk each morning. I can't tell you exactly what happens during that walk, but I can tell you the outcome; I am collected. I am present where I am. Some others do the centering prayer developed by Thomas Merton. Father Thomas Keating, who teaches it, says, Find a quiet place twice a day and just show up. Douglas Steere began each day with thirty minutes of silence.

At least once a month, we need an all day retreat. You don't have to do that in a retreat center. Go to the mountains. Go to the sea. Find solitude and spend some time in silence. A couple of times a year, we need longer retreats of thirty-six to forty-eight hours. Finally, we need sabbaticals. Professionals need extended leaves. Mothers need them. People in all walks of life need them.

Let me return, though, to the point with which I began. "We ought to live each moment as if all Eternity converged upon it." I think that was Jesus' conviction. But if it is to happen, we will have to stop our worrying and fretting about everything and seek the One who is needful.

Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, recently retired as Professor of Church History at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, is a noted author and speaker on spirituality, and a member of the Editorial Board for the Oates Journal.