Living the Present Moment: The Wisdom of Archbishop Fulton Sheen

The Words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen

All our anxieties relate to time. A human being is the only time-conscious creature. Humans alone can bring the past to mind, so that it weighs on the present moment with its accumulated heritage; and they 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 a human being 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 that are the inheritances of what has been or with the fears, anxieties, worries, that 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 for whom 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 puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). Confession also heals the imagination, eliminating its anxiety for the future; for now, with Paul, the soul cries out: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens 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: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Mt 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 God’s loving providence. 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.

(excerpt from From the Angel’s Blackboard)

Reflection on the Archbishop's Words by Fr. Andrew Apostoli

If everyone could only reflect on the archbishop’s message here, a lot of people would no longer have to use aspirins, sleeping pills, tranquilizers and the many other remedies they turn to in order to deal with their anxieties. As the Archbishop tells us in his opening words, “All our anxieties relate to time.” God exists in eternity, but we must live in time. Time has three dimensions — past, present, future — and it is important that we learn how to cope with them, and keep them in proper balance to each other. The past exerts an influence on us through our memory. We recall all kinds of events and experiences that we have had. The difficulty arises when our memory recalls only negative experiences such as hurts, injustices and gripes. As the saying goes, “We are replaying the old tapes!” We keep reliving these negative experiences over and over again. The terrible feelings they provoke create a resentment in our hearts that we can end up taking to the grave. In the final analysis, the past has made even the present miserable. When we start to hear the negative tapes playing, we need to hit the eject button. Eventually, we must tape a positive message over those old negative recordings.

This is especially painful, as the archbishop points out, when the memories we recall deal with moral wrongs we have done. Our past sins and other misdeeds make us feel terribly guilty. If we have never repented of them and asked God’s forgiveness, we will more than likely bury them alive in our unconscious. Without realizing it, they will continuously gnaw at our conscience. Sins like abortion and infidelity leave people with no peace of mind and heart unless they are repented of. Denial of our wrongs is never a healing process, but only a prolonging of the agony of conscience until we can admit the wrongs we have done, and ask pardon for them. Here is where the archbishop points out that the beautiful Sacrament of Penance is one of the great gifts God has given in His mercy to help us remedy our moral failures. He describes its power when he says it “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.” God’s mercy drives out the oppressive guilt feelings of the past and encourages us to open our lives to His grace in the future.

A similar negative experience occurs when our imagination becomes extremely preoccupied with the future. Fears and worries, which are not actual but only potential, flood our minds and hearts with the most dire anxieties. These imaginations, which have not yet occurred and probably will never occur, affect us as if they were imminent and unavoidable. How much time and how much energy is lost in our lives because we let dread of the future grip us with a paralyzing fear that keeps us from doing anything with our lives? We cannot do everything, only God can! But we must do what we can. And the best way to accomplish that is to live the present moment to its fullest. There is an old Latin saying: “Age quod agis,” or “Do what you are doing.” If we focus on the present occupation we are involved in, we will neither let negative feelings of the past flood our minds and hearts, nor allow groundless fears for the future take away our self-confidence based on the assurance of God’s help. This is the meaning of the words of St. Paul that the archbishop quotes, “I can do all things through Him Who strengthens me.”

Perhaps we can sum up the balance of time in our lives with its aspects of past, present and future in a saying I once came across on a poster. God was speaking, and these were His words: “Do not focus on the past; My Name is not ‘I WAS.’ Do not focus on the future; My Name is not ‘I WILL BE.’ Live in the present moment, for My Name is ‘I AM.’”

(Fr. Andrew Apostoli, CFR is the Vice-Postulator of the Cause for Canonization of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Please visit our website!)

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Fr. Apostoli, a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, has been teaching and preaching retreats and parish missions for several decades. He is the author of numerous books, and is the vice-postulator for the cause for the canonization of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He also is an EWTN Global Catholic Network host.

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