Free choice, a gift to human souls and angelic beings, needs to be exercised wisely in order to lead us not only to a flourishing life, but also and more importantly, to lead us to God Himself. The Fathers were well aware of the importance of free choice. Saint Gregory the Wonderworker noted that people become irrational or without the Word (ἀλόγοι) by the inclination of their will, but Christ came to grant them the ability to perceive reasonably (Homily 1 on the Annunciation, PG 10.133). To make good choices, we need to be able to perceive what the choices are and enough reasoning to trace out where each choice leads, both temporally and eternally.
In the past few posts, we have been examining the six fundamental tenets concerning the thoughts in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Considering the eternal dimension revealed by the Christian faith not only adds spiritual depth to these tenets, but also orients them towards a purpose that is not simply healthful, but moreover holy. Consider the third principle concerning the thoughts, a principle that is arguably one of the most important to emotional and spiritual health, involving remaining in the present regardless of a bleak past or an uncertain future. I summarized that principle as follows: “We can choose to pay attention to that thought of past failure or future doom or bring ourselves into the reality of the present moment.”
When we choose to let our thoughts take us out of the present and back to the past, our thoughts can become gloomy or nostalgic. When we choose to let them jump ahead to the future, they can become overwhelmed with “what-if” thinking that swells our fears or increases our anxiety. In either case, we see neither God, nor neighbor, but only ourselves and the fanciful products of our imagination. Instead of using our minds to guide our action, to cheerfully approach others, and to do the will of God, we use our minds to withdraw from action, to withdraw from others, and to live in a dreamy world where the will seems of little value.
The choice of living in a world of fantasy versus being in the real world is a choice of great import. The fundamental problem with dwelling on the past or future is that it cheats us of the present moment. The present moment is the only moment that is really ours. It is the only moment in which we are capable of choice. And it is the only moment in which God is to be found. The other thoughts are but the products of a clever, but not really wise, imagination, a storyteller whose embellished tales are often far from the truth, if not outright lies.
In an earlier post on “what-if” thinking I noted, “Saint John Chrysostom and the ancient fathers recognized the dangers inherent in focusing our attention on needs in the near future. They try to set our gaze on further sights, beyond the ‘what-ifs’ of tomorrow into the abiding permanence of eternity, an eternity that can be known in the present moment. They show us that trust in God and the ending of our story that God reveals to us is more important than any story we set spinning in our anxious minds. They show us that if we seek the Kingdom, the calmness of the Kingdom will descend on us like the morning dew.”
If our thoughts are captivated by the past or the future we can easily become enslaved to the emotions attached to those states. We fail to recognize the opportunities for grace and healing in the present if we are caught in the time warp of past concerns and future anxieties. The Lord Christ exhorted His disciples, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” If the kingdom is at hand as our Savior said, the only moment that ultimately matters is the present moment. The present moment is the one in which we can fully exercise our humanity, because in the present we can make choices that are real and have immediate consequences. We can embrace the kingdom here and now by the choices we make in the present. But to embrace that eternal Kingdom, which means to let God eternally govern our souls, we need first to make the decision about where we desire to live and to be: in the past, in the future, or in the present.
To live and be in the present seems so simple, and yet it is also highly challenging, because it is so real. Our thoughts about the past or future are predictable, even if they are depressing or stressful. And predictability provides us with the deceptive security of familiarity. To leave those thoughts behind and to live in the present require courage, self-denial, humility, and love. But the gifts of living in the present are so vast that they make any sacrifice on our part seem small indeed. Living in the present is an integral part of “the narrow way that leads to life and few there be that find it.” May we again be aware of the choices we have and make those choices which leads not only to a happier life now, but most importantly of all, to life eternal.
—Hieromonk Alexios Karakallinos