Because man’s intelligence allows him to use his memory and recall events of the past and exercise imagination that envisions the future, man dwells in all three dimensions of time: past, present, and future.
He can easily retreat to the past and evoke images of earlier happiness in the form of fond memories that distract from the duties of the moment, and he can dream about the future and fantasize about castles in the air to escape the burdens of life. These exercises of memory and imagination, however, do not represent the proper use of these faculties.
The memory educates man through experience, lessons he has learned from foolish mistakes that provide wisdom. Imagination also serves a valuable purpose, whetting the mind to think about ideals and discerning the difference between the way things are now and the way things ought to be in the future.
To be human is to live in the present here and now, to learn from the past and grow in prudence, and to seek excellence in the future by rejecting mediocrity and striving for higher purposes.
Methods of Escape
However, human weakness often ignores the present to romanticize the past or to fantasize about the future with naïve optimism.
In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the master devil Screwtape counsels his younger apprentice Wormwood about a reliable technique that leads souls away from God’s truth into the temptations devised by the cunning demons. The business of devils, explains Screwtape, involves diverting human minds from the present and the eternal by leading them into the past and the future.
He explains that God intends his children to contemplate eternity—death, heaven, and hell—and to dwell in the immediacy of the present moment—“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.” The present is pregnant with meaning and possibility.
Screwtape instructs Wormwood that these methods of escape divorce persons from reality, luring them into a dead past that is unchangeable and “frozen” or enticing them with futuristic utopian ideas that amount to “unrealities.” Screwtape recommends that fantasies about the future promise more success than forays into the past because thoughts about the future evoke hope and fear—false hope and irrational fear.
Screwtape elaborates: the diabolical strategy muddles the intellect to confuse the future with eternity without realizing that “the Future is, of all things, the least like eternity.” Eternity is as objectively real as God, but the future is vague and undetermined.
He adds that many of the deadly sins entertain preoccupations with the future because “avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.” They constantly anticipate the gratification of the insatiable appetites and uncontrollable wills that rule these vices and always seek more of the same pleasure. To ignore the present and attend to the future, then, is to worry about uncertainties or to dream of unattainable pleasures.
Divorced from the Present
The Christian, however, lives in the supreme reality of the present moment. When God provided manna in the wilderness to the Israelites, he gave a generous supply sufficient for the day, not for storage or saving for the indefinite future. In the Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” does not make petitions for the next weeks or the years ahead.
God enjoins trust in His Providence for the future rather than fear or anxiety about the unknown, warning “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal.” God also exhorts man not be enslaved by fear: “Do not be anxious about your life, what shall you eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.”
Screwtape explains the critical importance of divorcing man from the present because all of man’s choices and actions in the present affect eternity: “For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” The love of neighbor and the love of God that man practices today carry weight and have consequences beyond the moment that extend to eternity.
The voice of conscience urges man here and now to perform this duty, to practice this work of mercy, to pay this debt, to apologize to this person, and to thank God for this gift. Each day’s crosses are not the burdens of the past or the problems of the future but the present difficulties of this illness, this injustice, and this suffering and sorrow a person faces daily in the morning and evening.
Today is the time God gives a grace he did not give last year or yesterday—someone’s beautiful compliment, an invitation to a dinner or a party, a friend or stranger’s kind deed, a pleasant surprise, a spirited conversation, an exquisite pleasure like a friendly letter in the mail that came as unexpectedly as good luck.
No Thought of Reward
In Hans Anderson’s “The Travelling Companion,” poor John always lives in the present and fulfills his primary obligations immediately. On his journey he pays a poor man’s debts with his last $50, offers to carry home a woman with a broken leg, and offers to repair a broken puppet.
He performs these many kind deeds anonymously, not letting his left hand know what his right hand is doing, as he forgets about his works of charity performed with no thought of reward.
However, these good deeds resemble potent, life-giving seeds that bring him heavenly blessings in the form of a beautiful bride and a dream come true. The present, then, touches eternity because the deeds of a good Samaritan performed today and the charity that quickly responds to human need evoke God’s greatest praise: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
In Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps at Mud-Time” a man does the humble task of chopping wood with passion and joy, combining work with pleasure. Rejoicing in the fresh air of an April day (“The time when most I loved my task”), the woodcutter sends away two strangers, lumberjacks who offer to chop the wood for pay without any awareness of the special delight the wood cutter experiences in doing the work he enjoys: “But yield who will to their separation, /My object in living is to unite/ My vocation with my avocation as my two eyes make one in sight.”
To do the present duty of honest work, to receive the grace of a beautiful day, and to be grateful for work that combines both pure pleasure and real profit is living in the present and touching eternity: “Only where love and need are one, / And the work is play for mortal stakes, / Is the deed ever really done/ For Heaven and the future’s sake.”
This zeal and effort to do one’s best in the simple ordinary duties of life that serve others goes beyond the momentary satisfaction of achievement, reward, or comfort but has far-reaching consequences that are inestimable. The deed of a present moment prompted by love resounds beyond the period of a day and produces waves into the future that reach eternity.
Screwtape wants Wormwood to make their victims out of touch with daily obligations, ungrateful for the gift of another day, and unsuspecting of the grace-filled moment before them. By tempting man to dwell in the past and luxuriate in the future, the devils create a sense of apathy toward the present and a cynicism that regards the here and now as a time to be endured or to be escaped to overcome boredom.
Screwtape must detach man from the present lest he greet the new day like the Psalmist who praises God: “I will sing aloud of thy steadfast love in the morning” and “So I will bless thee as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on thy name.”
If man is lost in the past or imagining the future, he will never see what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins describes as the glory of a new day that touches eternity:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, eastward at the brown brink eastward, springs–