Psychologists from Harvard University carried out a large study into happiness in 2010 and, among their findings, shared that people spend an average of 46.7% (how precise is that?) of their time thinking about something other than what they are actually doing. So there we have it. The human race is only mentally present about half the time. The phrase, ‘flow’ has been coined for the state of mind which is so lost in the present that it forgets the demanding circumstances of life. Music, art, scenery, stories all afford us the flow we need to preserve our sanity but clearly we don’t get enough of them – and other pleasures – if the 46.7% figure is to be believed.
Questions might fairly be asked about our spiritual life too. The present is the only sphere in which the living God can meet with mortals and it would appear we are dodging quality time with him even there. People cannot avoid looking back and thinking ahead; it is one of the many things that makes us truly human. How we do this may, however, be the key to a flourishing life. Faith must have a relationship with both the past and the future. The mighty saving acts of God in the life of Israel were to be recalled constantly as a way of encouraging the people and giving them the resources to live in the present. The way the nation forgot Yahweh was frequently held up by the prophets as evidence of its unfaithfulness. The breaking of bread affords the Church its own rite of remembrance, nourishing the whole body in both the memory and the efficacy of the cross.
The future, equally, offers essential resources for dealing with the present. The verb ‘to hope’ has been denuded of its power, meaning little more than a vague and insubstantial wish that something might happen. Christian hope, by contrast, is brimming with the expectation that, as God has done before, so he will do again. This is predicated on the mysterious hope of Christ’s return and the fulfilment of the promised redemption.
We draw on memory and hope in the Christian faith to shape the awkward contours of the present, giving substance and meaning to our endeavours. This is a demonstrably different act to the fuzzy outlines of our daydreaming. The latter must evaporate like steam once we return to the present; the former replenishes the faint and weary. Perfect focus is beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals, but memory and hope give us the lenses we crave to identify what lies before us today.
There are edgy and uncomfortable risks for the Church in this. The beauty of ageing is the wisdom which it accumulates. Some of this is gleaned by the process of reminiscence, which all humans do but which becomes more prevalent once youth deserts us. Personal memory is nevertheless subject to impairment; as Franklin Pierce has observed: ‘nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory’. In drawing vital sustenance from the past we should use it to create a Church for the future. In some churches the present merely provides the battleground for those with competing visions of the past and the future. Learning to live resourcefully in the present compels us to value both what God has done and where he is heading.