The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
These reflections were part of a book study Fr. Rob led on C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters.
My summer sabbatical began with a five-day retreat in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. This retreat was a Men’s Rites of Passage (MROP). The MROP is designed to initiate men into a vision of manhood more in line with the saints of the Church, in contrast to unhealthy, even toxic, expressions of masculinity. There was a wide range of ages, and each initiate was focused on a different phase or aspect of life. I will celebrate my 50th birthday in December, so for me this time had a lot to do with being initiated into the second half of life. It allowed me to reevaluate my understanding of what it has meant to me to be a man, and how I want to be a better man in this next phase of my life.
One of the most meaningful moments of my time at the MROP came rushing back as I read letter 15 last week. Screwtape tells Wormwood that “the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. . . . [God] would therefore have [human beings] continually concerned with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present—either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure. Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present” (p. 75-76). He goes on to say, “nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead” (p. 76).
During a group session, one of our leaders talked about his own past MROP experience. What he left with was a sense of his inability to focus on the present. “I spent my whole life up to that point focused on what was next,” he said. “I was always focused on the future, and missed so much of what was really important.” His statement hit me like a ton of bricks because I realized that I’d done some of that myself over the course of my adult life. I spent a lot of time looking to the future, and what the next thing on the horizon was for me. As a consequence I missed a lot of what was happening for me in the present. It was a powerful moment, and became one of my biggest takeaways of the summer. It allowed me to recommit myself to being present in the present.
Lewis’s words (via Screwtape) resonate with me. I’d never really thought of vices as rooted in the future, but that seems right to me. I’d never really reflected on my own ambition as a potential temptation. Our culture values ambition, or “climbing the ladder,” and ambition of a certain degree is certainly fine. It can be good to be ambitious. Like anything, however, our ambitions can overtake us, and push us to live forward in such a way that causes us to miss the beauty, wonder, and “present graces” that are right in front of us.
I’m reminded of the somewhat trite saying, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, and today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.” How about you? Did this concept of the present being the “point that touches eternity” resonate with you? Do you ever feel like you wish you could be more present? What else has been speaking to you in these letters?