“The humans live in time,” senior devil Screwtape advises his junior Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, “but our Enemy [God] destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. … in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity … or with the Present … obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure."
A student recently alerted me to this quotation. We were discussing Lenten practices, and I explained that I was endeavoring this Lent to do one thing at a time, to finish the present task before moving on to another. Shelve the groceries, file the receipt, replace the car keys — and only then check email. Or set the timer for an hour and prepare tomorrow’s class lecture; during that hour, do not check the weather, search Amazon for the household item the Sisters need, or pull up the score from the baseball team’s last game (one of my students plays). It is harder than one might anticipate! Sometimes I have to make a list of the small tasks accumulating in my mind until the timer goes off.
But the exercise is also purifying. There is something deeply good, deeply human, about shutting the laptop and attending fully to the student who approaches me, or staring at a blank Word document with the stark knowledge that no notifications will pop up to excuse me from the difficult task of crafting an article. If nothing else, the alarming reality of the singlemindedness demanded tips me into prayer: Jesus, this is hard. Please help me!
The capacity for distraction is nothing new. Early monastic advice counsels that, when a monk has decided to pray or read for a time, he determine to remain in one place for that entire time, not getting up to retrieve another book or change locations. Our current age’s multi-capability devices have increased our distractions, but the temptation has always existed.
I often think: if my students could only close their email, disable notifications, and remove their Apple watches, what riches would they discover in the classroom! If they could only walk across campus without music or cell phone conversation, what bird songs they would hear, what precious spring buds they would notice!
God is faithful: He completes what He has begun. He proves true to His promises. He creates in an orderly way and sustains creation in being. He is fully present to each of His creatures. By doing just one thing at a time, by being fully attuned to Him in the present moment, we become more like Him. Perhaps we will even hear the still, small voice of His love and His grace speaking to our inmost hearts.
Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.