Excerpts from Ven. Archbishop Sheen's LIFT UP YOUR HEART, 1950
SANCTIFYING THE MOMENT
Millions of men and women today lead what has been called "lives of quiet desperation." They are panicky, worried, neurotic, fearful, and, above all, frustrated souls. And frustration results from failure—either a failure that has already occurred or a failure in prospect. Man may become frustrated by comparing the immensity of the problems facing him with the feebleness of his resources for solving them; in such a case, he is too discouraged, too apprehensive of failure, even to try for a solution. Or he may become frustrated from a lack of someone to love, someone who will love him sufficiently in return. The first type of frustration puts a soul in the harried position of a householder who becomes more and more depressed as the bills mount up, and money fails to materialize: he dreads a future reckoning, The second kind of frustration involves the feeling that life is passing quickly and that the chances for emotional fulfillment are growing less with every year. Both forms of misery are connected, then, with an unhappy individual's consciousness of the passage of time. The frustrated soul is the one most apt to shiver if he sees the old sundial warning: "It is later than you think."
All our anxieties relate to time. Man is the only time-conscious creature. He alone can bring the past to his mind, so that it weighs on the present moment with its accumulated heritage; and he can also bring the future into the present, so as to imagine its occurrences as happening now. No animal ever says: "I have suffered this pain for six years, and it will last until I die." But because man can unite the past to the present by memory, and the future to the present by imagination, it is often necessary to distract him in his sufferings—to break up the continuity of misery. All unhappiness (when there is no immediate cause for sorrow) comes from excessive concentration on the past or from extreme preoccupation with the future. The major problems of psychiatry revolve around an analysis of the despair, pessimism, melancholy, and complexes which are the inheritances of what has been or with the fears, anxieties, worries which are the imaginings of what will be.
In addition to cases of true insanity and mental aberration—when scientific psychiatry is essential—there are many others, in which this unhappy preoccupation with the past and future has a moral basis. A conscience, burdened with the guilt of past sins, is fearful of Divine Judgment. But God in His Mercy has given us two remedies for such an unhappiness: one is the Sacrament of Penance, which blots out the past by remission of our sins and lightens the future by our hope for Divine Mercy through continued repentance and amendment of our lives. Nothing in human experience is as efficacious in curing the memory and imagination as Confession; it cleanses us of guilt, and if we follow the admonitions of Our Lord, we shall put completely out of mind our confessed sins: "No one who looks behind him, when he has once put his hand to the plough, is fitted for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:62.) Confession also heals the imagination, eliminating its anxiety for the future; for now, with Paul, the soul cries out: "Nothing is beyond my powers, thanks to the strength God gives me." (Phil. 4:13.)
The second remedy for the ills that come to us from thinking about time is what might be called the sanctification of the moment—or the Now. Our Lord laid down the rule for us in these words: "Do not fret, then, over tomorrow; leave tomorrow to fret over its own needs; for today, today's troubles are enough." (Matt. 6:34)
This means that each day has its own trials; we are not to borrow troubles from tomorrow, because that day, too, will have its cross. We are to leave the past to Divine Mercy and to trust the future, whatever its trials, to His Loving Providence. [Emphasis in bold added.] Each minute of life has its peculiar duty—regardless of the appearance that minute may take. The Now-moment is the moment of salvation. Each complaint against it is a defeat; each act of resignation to it is a victory. The moment is always an indication to us of God's will. [Ibid.] The ways of pleasing Him are made clear to us in several ways: through His Commandments, by the events of His Incarnate Life in Jesus Christ Our Lord, in the Voice of His Mystical Body, the Church, in the duties of our state of life. And, in a more particular way, God's will is manifested for us in the Now with all of its attendant circumstances, duties, and trials.
The present moment includes some things over which we have control, but it also carries with it difficulties we cannot avoid—such things as a business failure, a bad cold, rain on picnic days, an unwelcome visitor, a fallen cake, a buzzer that doesn't work, a fly in the milk, and a boil on the nose the night of the dance. We do not always know why such things as sickness and setbacks happen to us, for our minds are far too puny to grasp God's plan. Man is a little like a mouse in a piano, which cannot understand why it must be disturbed by someone playing Chopin and forcing it to move off the piano wires. When Job suffered, he posed questions to God: why was he born, and why was he suffering? God appeared to him, but instead of answering Job's questions, He began to ask Job to answer some of the larger questions about the universe. When the Creator had finished pouring queries into the head of the creature, Job realized that the questions of God were wiser than the answers of men. Because God's ways are not our ways—because the salvation of a soul is more important than all material values—because Divine Wisdom can draw good out of evil—the human mind must develop acceptance of the Now, no matter how hard it may be for us to understand its freight of pain. We do not walk out of a theater because the hero is shot in the first act; we give the dramatist credit for having a plot in his mind; so the soul does not walk out on the first act of God's drama of salvation—it is the last act that is to crown the play. The things that happen to us are not always susceptible to Our minds' comprehension or wills' conquering; but they are always within the capacity of our Faith to accept and of our wills' submission. [Ibid.] One question is never asked by Love, and that is "Why?" That word is used only by the three D's of Doubt, Deceit, and the Devil. The happiness of the Garden of Paradise, founded on trusting love, cracked under the Satanic query: "Why has God commanded you?" To true love, each wish of the beloved is a dread command—the lover even wishes that the requests were multiplied, that there might be more frequent opportunities of service. Those who love God do not protest, whatever He may ask of them, nor doubt His kindness when He sends them difficult hours. A sick man takes medicine without asking the physician to justify its bitter taste, because he trusts the doctor's knowledge; so the soul which has sufficient faith accepts all the events of life as gifts from God, in the serene assurance that He knows best.
Every moment brings us more treasures than we can gather. The great value of the Now, spiritually viewed, is that it carries a message God has directed personally to us. Books, sermons, and broadcasts on a religious theme have the appearance of being circular letters, meant for everyone. Sometimes, when such general appeals do appear to have a personal application, the soul gets angry and writes vicious letters to allay its uneasy conscience: excuses can always be found for ignoring the Divine Law. But though moral and spiritual appeals carry God's identical message to all who listen, this is not true of the Now-moment; no one else but I am in exactly these circumstances; no one else has to carry the same burden, whether it be sickness, the death of a loved one, or some other adversity. Nothing is more individually tailored to our spiritual needs than the Now-moment; for that reason it is an occasion of knowledge which can come to no one else. This moment is my school, my textbook, my lesson. Not even Our Lord disdained to learn from His specific Now; being God, He knew all, but there was still one kind of knowledge He could experience as a man. St. Paul describes it: "Son of God though He was, He learned obedience in the school of suffering." (Heb. 5:8)
The University of the Moment has been built uniquely for each of us, and in comparison with the revelation God gives each in it, all other methods of learning are shallow and slow. This wisdom is distilled from intimate experience, is never forgotten; it becomes part of our character, our merit, our eternity. Those who sanctify the moment and offer it up in union with God's will never become frustrated—never grumble or complain. They overcome all obstacles by making them occasions of prayer and channels of merit. What were constrictions are thus made opportunities for growth. [Ibid.] It is the modern pagan who is the victim of circumstance, and not its master. Such a man, having no practical knowledge of God, no trust in His Providence, no assurance of His Love, lacks the shock absorber of Faith and Hope and Love when difficult days come to him. His mind is caught within the pincers of a past he regrets or resents and a future he is afraid he cannot control. Being thus squeezed, his nature is in pain.
The one who accepts God's will in all things escapes such frustration by piercing the disguise of outward events to penetrate to their real character as messengers of the God he loves. It is strange how differently we accept a misfortune—or even an insult—when we know who gave it to us. [Ibid.] A bobby-soxer would normally resent it very much if a well-dressed young woman accidentally stepped on her toes in a streetcar; but if that same bobby-soxer recognized that the one who hurt her was her favorite movie star, she would probably boast of it to her friends. Demands that might seem outrageous from an acquaintance are met with happy compliance if it is a friend who asks our help. In like manner, we are able to adapt with a good grace to the demands of every Now when we recognize God's will and purpose behind the illness and the shocks and disappointments of life.
The swaddling clothes of an Infant hid the Son of God in Bethlehem, and the appearance of bread and wine hides the Reality of Christ dying again on Calvary, in the Mass. This concealment of Himself that God effects with us is operative in His use of the Now to hide His Will beneath the aspect of very simple, everyday things. We live our lives in dependence on such casual, common benefits as air and water; so Our Lord is pleased to receive from us in return the thousands of unimportant actions and the trifling details that make up our lives—provided that we see, even in our sorrows, "The shade of His Hand outstretched caressingly." Here is the whole secret of sanctity; the method is available to everyone and deserves particular notice from those who ask: "What can I do?" For many good souls are hungry to do great things for God. They complain that they have no opportunities for heroic virtue, no chance at the apostolate. They would be martyrs; but when a meal is late, or a bus is crowded, when the theater is filled, or the dance postponed, or the bacon overdone, they are upset for a whole day. They miss their opportunities for loving God in the little things He asks of them. Our Lord said: "He who is trustworthy over a little sum is trustworthy over a greater." (Luke 16:10) The Divine Beloved speaks to the soul in a whisper, but because the soul is waiting for a trumpet, it loses His Command. All of us would like to make our own crosses tailor-made trials. But not many of us welcome the crosses God sends. Yet it is in doing perfectly the little chores He gives that Saints find holiness. The big, world-shattering things many of us imagine we would like to do for God might, in the end, feed only our egotism. On the other hand, to accept the crosses of our state of life because they come from an all-loving God is to have taken the most important step in the reformation of the world, namely, the reformation of the self. [Ibid.] Sanctity can be built out of patient endurance of the incessant grumbling of a husband—the almost intolerable nagging of a wife—the boss's habit of smoking a pipe while he dictates—the noise the children make with their soup—the unexpected illness—the failure to find a husband—the inability to get rich. All these can become occasions of merit and be made into prayers if they are borne patiently for love of One Who bears so patiently with us, despite our shortcomings, our failures, and our sins.
It is not hard to put up with others' foibles when one realizes how much God has to put up with from us. There is a legend that one day Abraham was visited in the desert by an Arab, who set up loud complaints of the food, the lodging, the bed, and the wine which his generous host had offered him. Finally, Abraham became exasperated and was about to put him out. God appeared to Abraham at that moment and said: "Abraham, I have stood this man for forty years; can't you put up with him for one day?"
To accept the duty of this moment for God is to touch Eternity, to escape from time. This habit of embracing the Now and glorifying God through its demands is an act of the loving will. We do not need an intellectual knowledge of God's plan in order to accept it. When St. Paul was converted he asked merely: "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" We can be warmed by a fire without knowing the chemistry of combustion, and we can be cured by a medicine without knowing its prescription. The Divine Will, pouring into the soul of a simple cripple resigned to suffering, will give him a far greater under standing of theology than a professor will get from a lifetime of theoretical curiosity about religion which he does not practice. The good and the bad thief on the cross had the same crisis of fear and suffering—one of them complained and lost his chance for Heaven that day; the other spiritualized the brief moment of suffering. Some souls win peace and sanctity from the same trials which make others rebels and nervous wrecks.
God cannot seize our wills or force us to use our trials advantageously, but neither can the Devil. We are absolute dictators in deciding whether we wish to offer our will to God. And if we turn it over to Him without reservation, He will do great things in us. As a chisel in the hands of Michelangelo can produce a better statue than a chisel in the hands of a child, so the human will becomes more effective when it has become a liege of God than if we try to rule alone. Our wills operating under our own power may be busy about many things, but in the end they come to nothing. Under Divine Power, the nothingness of our wills becomes effective beyond our fondest dreams.
The phrase which sanctifies any moment is "Thy Will be done." It was that fiat of our Saviour in Gethsemane which initiated our Redemption; it was the fiat of Our Lady which opened the way to the Incarnation. The word cuts all the guy ropes that attach us to the familiar, narrow things we know; it unfurls all our sails to the possibilities of the moment, and it carries one along to whatever port God wills. To say and mean "Thy Will be done" is to put an end to all complaining; for whatever the moment brings to us now bears the imprint of the Divine Will.
There are great subjective advantages to such an act of resignation to God's Will. The first is this: we escape from the power which the "accidents" of life had over us. The accidents of life are those things which interrupt our ordered existence and cancel our plans—mishaps such as a sickness which forces us to defer a trip, or the summons of the telephone when we are tuned in to our favorite program on the radio. It is a medical fact that tense and worried people have more accidents resulting in fractures than those who have a clear conscience and a Divine Goal in life. Some men and women complain that they "never get a break," that the world is their enemy, that they have "bad luck." A person resigned to God's Holy Will utters no such complaint; whatever comes along, he welcomes it. The disorganized, self-centered soul tries to impose his own will on the universe—and always fails. He is in constant pain for the same reason that a stomach is in pain if it tries a diet of ground glass—it is living contrary to the Divine purpose. Such a soul cannot see how the thing bothering him at this moment can be justified, for he judges all that occurs by the narrow, unrealistic standard: "Is this what I had planned?" But life is a larger business than the egotist assumes. It will not be reduced to so small a thing that it can fit into any human brain. A man cannot even devise a "system" at roulette which will provide for all the possible contingencies of one small, spinning wheel. How can he possibly have the hubris to expect the immensely various world about him—its human beings with their own souls, its willful changes of climate, its complex possibilities of every sort—to accommodate itself to his infinitesimal capacity for making plans?
The difference between people who never get the breaks and those who make every Now an occasion for thanking God is this: the latter live in an area of love greater than their desire to "have their way." As a waif on the streets suffers misfortunes which the child in a loving family does not know, so the man who has not learned to place full trust in God suffers reverses and disasters which would not appear as troubles to loving souls. God does not show Himself equally to all creatures. He does show all men how to turn everything to joy. This does not mean God is unfair, but only that it is impossible for even Him to show Himself to certain hearts under some conditions. The sunlight has no favorites, but it cannot shine as well on a dusty mirror as on a polished one. In the order of Divinity, there is nothing accidental; there is never a collision of blind forces, hurting us, at random. There is, instead, the meeting of a Divine Will and a human will which has a perfect trust that ultimate good is meant for it, although it may not understand how until eternity. Every human being is, in point of fact, like a baby in the arms of its loving mother, who sometimes administers medicine. God sends us all the happenings of everyday life as so many invitations to self-perfection in His service. The baby cries, the egotist protests, but the Saint in the arms of God is content, because he knows God knows exactly what is best for him. [Ibid.] Thus the bitter and the sweet, the joys and sorrows of each moment are viewed as the raw material of sanctity. "Meanwhile, we are well assured that everything helps to secure the good of those who love God, those whom He has called in fulfillment of His design." (Rom. 8:28)
Every commonplace event now becomes a mystery because it is the bearer of the Divine Will. Nothing is insignificant or dull—everything can be sanctified, just as goats and sheep, fish and wheat, grapes and eyes of needles were given dignity as parables of the Kingdom of God. Things the worldly-wise would trample under foot become as precious to Saints as pearls, for they see "sermons in stones and good in everything." Even the bitterest of life's punishments are known to be joys in the making, rare spiritual treasures underneath their harsh and ugly appearances. At the beginning one loves God only for His gifts, for the emotions He sends us. He treats us, then, like a young woman who is being courted. If gifts are no longer given in such abundance after a true marriage has occurred, it is not because the husband's love is less but because it is greater. For now he gives himself. It is not the husband's gift that his wife loves, nor his compliments, nor even the thrill of pleasure she gets from his company. She loves him. The moment the Lover is loved for himself, then the nature of the gift ceases to matter. Similarly, if God withdraws all sensible gifts, all natural happiness, it is only because He wants the union between the soul and Himself to be more personal and less dependent on His generosity. But God never takes away a natural gift without giving a supernatural gift in exchange. Souls do not always understand it, for in the beginning all values are material. It is only later that they see that the void they suffered when they lost some prized form of happiness was filled by a more spiritual insight.
It will seem strange to the worldling, but even our enemies—even those who cheat, malign us-—an become occasions for advancement toward union with God. All contradictions can be turned to good by those who have put their trust in God. Seeing the trial as issuing from the Divine Hand, one never has to wonder how to meet it, nor question why it came, nor seek defense against it. Each trial is an occasion for faith and an opportunity for virtue. Having put oneself in the deeper dimension of Divine Love, one knows as a child in a loving family knows, that even what is not understood is done kindly and for the best. There finally comes a period of union with God when everything seems unreal except Divine Love. The soul in the midst of trials and aches becomes like an airplane flying—it follows the beam of God's Will through the fog and mist.
It is for each of us to decide what he is working for—what reward he wishes. For everyone is trying for some prize: if he is not interested in eternal merit, in gaining ultimate union with God, then he is interested in winning the applause of men, or the approbation of a single person, at the very least. The comedian tries to increase his Hooper rating for the sake of mass popularity; the banker works hard to increase his assets so that the business community will think well of him; the student intensifies his pursuit of knowledge to win an A; the social butterfly makes conquests to be known as a "successful debutante." Our Divine Lord knew that most souls were interested only in temporal applause, when He said: "Be sure you do not perform your acts of piety before men, for them to watch; if you do that, you have no title to a reward from your Father Who is in Heaven." (Matt. 6:1) If we do good deeds to others because we love them on the human level, we receive a human recompense in their affection—but not a Divine Super. natural recompense.
"What credit is it to you, if you love those who love you? Even sinners love those who love them. What credit is it to you, if you do good to those who do good to you? Even sinners do as much. What credit is it to you, if you lend to those from whom you expect payment? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much in exchange. No, it is your enemies you must love, and do them good, and lend to them, without any hope of return; then your reward will be a rich one, and you will be true sons of the Most High, generous like Him towards the thankless and unjust." (Luke 6:32-35)
Our Lord lists trivial little acts of goodness—such as giving a drink of cold water to a stranger—and assures us that a supernatural reward awaits us if we do them for His sake, for love of Him. But if we wish to seek these supernatural prizes, we will have to satisfy their conditions: these are not unlike the conditions set down for gaining competence on the natural plane. Suppose a man has the ideal of being a good runner. Three conditions are essential: (1) He must be a born runner. There are certain capacities and talents, certain structures of bones and muscles, certain powers of breathing which are never acquired. They are given. They constitute the capacity to run. Track scouts can look at a schoolboy before he has received any training and can tell whether he will ever be a runner. (2) He must be free to decide for himself. There are some boys who have a talent for running but who refuse to go out for the team. If a boy competes only because he is forced to, the chances are that he will never do it well. (3) Given the talent for running, and the desire for it, the actions a boy performs must all bear on his goal. Excessive smoking or drinking, laziness or disregard for the proper technique could ruin every realization of his talent. All he does must be directed toward the goal of championship.
Apply this to the soul which wishes to run in the race of eternal salvation, to win the incorruptible crown. Three conditions are again required: (1) He must be born to the supernatural order by Baptism; he must enter into the state of Grace, which gives him the capacity, the gift, the talent for the supernatural. To gain a human reward we operate on the human level; to gain a reward from God we must become children of God—the branches must be united to the Vine. All the good acts of a person in the state of Grace merit salvation through God's mercy—for God is the principal cause of merit. "Only by God's grace I am what I am, and the grace He has shewn me has not been without fruit; I have worked harder than all of them, or rather, it was not I, but the grace of God working with me." (1 Cor. 15:10) (2) The soul must be free. There is no merit in virtue if one is forced to practice it or it is followed through necessity. When our human wills respond to the Divine action, they are only secondary to God's Grace as a cause of merit—but although secondary, our contribution is a very real one. God and man cooperate. (3) Whatever the soul does ought to be a morally good act, one destined by its nature to recompense in supernatural coin. There are no indifferent acts when one is in the state of Grace; an act is either meritorious or it is not. (Here, incidentally, sex reaches its sublimest conception, for in Christian marriage its use is a means of Grace; through sex a husband and wife can increase merit for Heaven and eternal union with God.)
Assume that the acts we do are morally good in themselves. Then each task or duty is like a blank check; the value it possesses depends on whose name is signed to it, on whether it is done for the I's sake or for God's sake. Motive is what makes the Saint: sanctification does not depend on our geography, nor on our work or circumstances. Some people imagine that if they were in another place, or married to a different spouse, or had a different job, or had more money, they could do God's work so much better. The truth is that it makes no difference where they are; it all depends on whether what they are doing is God's Will and done for love of Him. [Ibid.] We would all like to make our own crosses; but since Our Lord did not make His Own, neither do we make ours. We can take whatever He gives us, and we can make the supernatural best of it. The typist at her desk working on routine letters, the street cleaner with his broom, the farmer tilling the field with his horses, the doctor bending over a patient, the lawyer trying his case, the student with his books, the sick in their isolation and pain, the teacher drilling her pupils, the mother dressing the children—every such task, every such duty can be ennobled and spiritualized if it is done in God's Name.