By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published May 13, 2010
Oh, Sunday! What a lovely time of week! You see women in flowing skirts, tiny girls with sparkly shoes—and little boys sporting ties. The pews are filled with folks who seem to come directly from a Norman Rockwell painting—but be careful, for appearances can be deceiving.
In truth, everyone is carrying their own invisible cross. Some men are grieving the loss of their wife. Some parents are praying for a son diagnosed with cancer. Some women are worried about the bills.
And as the heads are bowed in prayer, you can imagine the voices. “Dear Lord, help my husband find a good job.” “Oh, Jesus, please send us a baby.” “Take care of my son, Lord, please!”
Since our minds are full of troubles, it is little wonder they wander during Mass. We try to stay focused on the altar, but instead we may find ourselves thrust into the future, rehearsing what we’ll say at work tomorrow or how we’ll cook the Sunday roast.
Our minds are like dogs straining on a leash to run away from us. We struggle to pull them back onto the path of the here and now—and sometimes we succeed. We listen carefully to the prayers, we say the responses and we bow our heads in reverence.
But then, without warning, our minds go skittering into the past. Like some unruly monster pawing through a chest of old, crumbling clothing our mind starts unearthing regrets from 10 or 20 years ago.
There is the long list of “If only I had”—and you can fill in the blanks. “Married John (or not married John), gone to college, had another child, taken that job in Miami, listened to my mother’s advice.”
As regrets flood the landscape of consciousness, we lose our moorings in the here and now. Our minds may meander during the Consecration, the most sacred moment of Mass. During the Eastern Catholic liturgy, there are moments when the priest exhorts the congregation, “Let us be attentive!” This is an essential reminder, since the present holds sacred treasures of beauty and joy.
In “The Screwtape Letters” C.S. Lewis envisions correspondence between two demons trying to win over a man’s soul. They discover that if they can lure the fellow to fantasize about the future—or chew over the past—they will gain the upper hand.
This is because, as Lewis points out, we meet God in the present moment. No wonder the devils delight in tempting people to dwell on past sins and grievances. As the demon named Screwtape puts it, “Our business is to get (humans) away from … the Present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human … to live in the Past.”
The demons also lure us to ponder the future where our fears and hopes reside. “It is far better to make (humans) live in the Future,” Screwtape postulates. “Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so … (thoughts) about the Future inflame hope and fear.”
Many people in the pews—including yours truly—are caught in two webs. There is the future which is approached with hope (a job promotion? a vacation?) or with dread (an operation? a layoff?). And there is the past where we may get entangled in regrets and sorrows.
Problem is, staying in the present is essential to hearing God’s voice. As Lewis says, in the here and now we are obeying “the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.”
When the bells chime during the Consecration, the sounds call our minds back from whatever path they have wandered onto. It may not be possible always to remain in the present, but when we are there we step into an endlessly flowing river containing beauty and love—and the miracle of the Eucharist. Dear Lord, help us to be attentive!
Artwork is by Jef Murray, whose new book of short stories and illustrations, “Seer: A Wizard’s Journal,” is available at www.jefmurray.com. Readers may email the Murrays at email@example.com.