I read somewhere recently about a person who purposely tried to exercise patience in a parking lot. He waited for pedestrians to cross at the Walmart entrance. He let people turn left in front of him. He let someone take a parking space he had spotted. And it was hard to be patient, even for ten minutes in a parking lot. It was an exercise in “living on purpose” rather than living according to habitual obliviousness to our passions and lack of virtue. The lesson he learned was that awareness to life and our reactions to it is a difficult spiritual discipline.
About 35 years ago I determined to live every moment of my life “on purpose”. I set my mind to be aware of other people, of tones of voices, of body language, their dress and faces, but also to be aware of my own self, my voice, how I look at people, my thoughts, my movements, how I drive, even how I walk. I determined to live in the present in full awareness of the moment before me.
As I was becoming Orthodox, I read that watchfulness, or “nepsis”, to live “in the present moment” and be totally aware of everything around us and our relationship to it is called the most difficult spiritual discipline by the desert Fathers. Bp. Kallistos Ware in “The Orthodox Way” says, That watchfulness means to live in the present moment.
Bp. Kallistos is correct, we are scattered, we are distracted by the past and the future so easily… and not even the “distant future”. We are going shopping, so we need to get there. We need to park close to the door, and soon. The “goal” supercedes the people we encounter even in such a mundane and ordinary experience as parking our car. It seems most of our life is not lived in awareness of who we are in relationship to other PEOPLE, but to our own desires. It is not lived according to what is profitable or compassionate or merciful in the moment, but it is lived in past regrets and offenses, the projections and fantasies of the distant future or the goals and desires of the immediate future, but seldom in the present moment.
St. Irenaeus in about 170AD said, The glory of God is a human being who is fully alive. Fully alive means fully awake, alert, attentive and vigilant. “Be ye watchful” Jesus says in Rev. 3:2. The Great Canon of St. Andrew sung during Lent, a time when all of our senses are heightened during the great fast, says
Arise O my soul arise
Why are you sleeping?
The end is at hand, destruction hangs over you,
Come again to your senses that you may be spared by Christ our God
Who is everywhere present and filling all things.
This hearkens to St. Pauls adomonition in Eph 5: 14:
Awake sleeper arise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as fools but as wise making the most of the time because the days are evil.
Jesus said, Be faithful in the small things…If we understand the entirety of our life to be filled with Christ, the small things are much smaller than we imagine. VERY much smaller.
One small thing is how we close a door. It is a very small thing. It is also a manifestation of a very big thing : It is a manifestation of our obliviousness to our selves and our surroundings, our lack of graceful consideration of others and our lack of awareness of the consequences of our habitual and thoughtless actions.
Some 30 years ago, I listened to my house.
No matter what was going on, doors slammed shut,
drawers in the kitchen slammed closed
Pots and pans were dropped into the sink
Cabinet doors banged shut.
People stomped up and down the stairs.
I started being aware of my body, the force I used to close things and set things down, the quiet of the night, the peace of the house and the noise I created. When people were sleeping or on the phone or watching TV, I began to close the doors by turning the knob, pulling the door into place quietly and releasing the knob silently when the door was closed instead of the (AUDIO) “slam, bang and click” we normally hear. I closed drawers and cabinet doors pushing them quietly into place. I didn’t drop and slam dishes and pots and pans into the sink or on the countertops, but placed them there deliberately. At dinner I put down my cups and glasses and silverware deliberately rather than dropping them with a bang and clatter. These seemingly minor exercises translated into heightened awareness of the immediate moment. It became very apparent that this is no small or easy thing. It was a constant battle for watchful mastery over my mind and body. I recall recently reading a Monk who said it took him a year to learn how to close a door at the monastery. That is only a beginning. Ideally, the goal is that every moment of our existence is lived gracefully “on purpose”, with total awareness of what we are doing, who is in front of us, how we exist in Christ who is everywhere present and fills all things.
Through watchfulness and wakefulness, I deal with reality as it is happening, I redeem the time, the present moment God has given me, as St. Paul says. I don’t live in unreality, the fantasy I have created that I think is in the near or far future, not the reality that lies behind me that has “conditioned me” to react in certain ways. Every movement, every event, more importantly, every person is a gift of God and to be accepted and reacted to with grace, patience, love, mercy, consideration, peace and joy.
I look to the Gospels and see Christ with the people. Every moment is a present reality and nothing is accidental, unconciously done, or without awareness. He filled people with Himself because He was fully present. He knew people’s hearts because He paid attention. He manifested the eternal God in each moment of time.
May I always be faithful in the small, seemingly meaningless and inconspicuous things of my life. May I always live in full awareness, in absolute conciousness of everything that surrounds me. May the closing of a door, the setting down of a cup be a manifestation of grace, an act of peace and consideration, a silent witness to the awakening of my heart to the fullness of the relationship I have to all things.