Finally, Alive to the Moment at Hand

I will always remember a Thanksgiving from decades ago, in my parents’ home in Southern California. Not long after I left home for seminary on the East Coast, a rift opened in my relationship with them. Thousands of miles between us, my parents’ ailing health, and my tight finances all conspired against a reunion.

A church conference Jill and I planned to attend near their Santa Monica home finally brought about a homecoming. It was the perfect occasion to gather—with Jill and the boys and my older brother, Kevin, descending on the home place. Memories flooded me from the moment we walked up the steps of their sea-green stucco house perched on a rise above the sidewalk. My eyes took in the familiar worn places in the gold carpet, the tropical flowers in the backyard, the view of the Pacific from what had been my second story bedroom growing up. It didn’t take me long to show my family the park along the palm-lined coastal palisades, a couple of blocks away, where I had spent hours walking and jogging as a young person. I was seeing everything afresh.

Most of all, with the aroma of a basting turkey filling the house, I took in my parents’ faces. During a spare moment of our stay I pulled out my journal and wrote, “I feel great love for my parents when I look into their eyes. And I feel it from them.” I had been nervous before coming, but now I relaxed and felt grateful. And I really saw them, felt their presence. I don’t think I casually noticed anything that trip. I wanted to absorb it all. I walked through my home terrain with heightened sensitivity.
If you are like me, events and experiences often roll over you, until something, like a separation or illness, yanks you from your distracted, half-souled ways of noticing. Sometimes it takes a harsh, hurtful word from someone or a disappointment in our career to wake us up. But then no longer do we rush from here to there on a mission, or on automatic pilot. Finally we take in the draping folds of a dining room tablecloth, the Christmas tree lights blinking softly on the tree, the contours of a beloved’s face. Or we greet someone, asking how things are going, and this time truly look into his or her eyes to read the subtler signals that convey the real answer.
So I have hope for a better way. We can learn to be more fully present. We’ve been at it for years, if you think about it. The lesson of becoming alive to the present moment begins while growing up. “I woke in bits, like all children,” writes Annie Dillard, “piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again.” But now, as adults, we make room to wake up in odd, unexpected moments. We notice daily things in a sharper light, or suddenly see things that, for all we had known, weren’t there. We no longer feel like we sleepwalk through the scenes of our lives.
The coming awake usually happens right in the thick and thin of how we live. Instead of the stained rug, the dusty coffee table, the creaking kitchen floor, we look around and say, “This is home.” Or a little epiphany happens with our children. Suddenly after days of just tolerating them we wake up to how much we cherish them. We see them not as interruptions in our schedules, not all the time, at least, but as shining gifts from God. Maybe the awareness comes at our workplace, where we have grumbled and gossiped; and suddenly we feel grateful to work, to join in with colleagues, to be able to pay the mortgage. Even Monday mornings don’t seem so bad.

The awakening to awareness happens in our spiritual life, too. Our prayer times seem flat, unpromising, God-deserted. Then, often for reasons we cannot trace, we sense God’s presence brush by. We wake up in the mornings and want to pray. My friend, the Rev’d Rick Lord, once wrote of how Advent is the perfect season for such coming present to the wayside glories scattered throughout life. The season is, he says, “a time to ‘open the eyes of our heart’ to discern how each day unfolds against the background of God’s loving design.”

How might you even more clearly discern the constant goodness of God in life’s ordinary moments? Much of the process involves simply getting still, looking around, and taking time better to notice what has been there all along.

(Some portions of this article have been adapted from my book, Awake My Soul.)

-by Dean Timothy Jones