The opportunity to love:

always to be found just where we are

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Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven as a present reality, close at hand,[1] to be found within each of us[2]. “Behold” (see!) urges St. Paul, “now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation.”[3]

Numerous passages in the Old and New Testaments draw us home to the present, to live our shared life within God’s eternal presence.

Whether we are recovering from an illness or sharing a meal with a friend, worrying about a task or caring for someone in need, everything in our life always takes place right now.

In 1973 John Darley and Daniel Baston, social psychologists of Princeton University, carried out a famous experiment to study the effects of perceived time constraints on a person’s willingness to help someone in need. They chose to study a group likely to have a deep dispositional interest in caring “for the least of these” – seminary students training for ministry.

The researchers asked each of the participating seminary students to deliver a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan – the story Jesus told about helping strangers in need – then they randomly allocated the students to one of two situational conditions.

The verbal instructions about the sermon given to the students in the “hurried condition” ended with the comment, “Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving.”

The verbal instructions about the sermon given to the students in the “unhurried condition” ended with the comment, “It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head on over.”

Each student walked by themselves to the building where the sermon was to be given. And on the way there, they encountered a man slumped in a doorway with his eyes closed, coughing, groaning and obviously in distress. The researchers watched from a distance to see if the student would stop to help the stranger in need.

The experiment found that only 10% of the seminary students in the “hurried condition” group stopped to help the man, while 63% of the students in the “unhurried condition” group stopped.

In other words, thinking they were under a time constraint caused the vast majority of students to put the message of the Good Samaritan on the back burner. Being in a hurry, being preoccupied with a situational concern, can cause a usually caring person (the vast majority of us) to ignore someone in need.

Being present can be far from easy at times. It means being present with all that life is offering us, or throwing at us. It’s easy to be present when the sun is shining. But what about when the sky is full of clouds, when pain and hurt, confusion or depression, fear or loneliness are present?

It can be very tempting to distract ourselves, to look the other way (or not look at all). For a whole host of reasons, we can develop deep habits of distraction. Constantly making plans for this and that, we engineer (or allow) our lives to become filled with noise, to become hurried and overly busy.

Our distractedness often manifests a strong resistance to simply being here. And to the extent we are distracted, we are not present. We become like James Joyce’s fictional character Mr Duffy, who “lived at a little distance from his body” (wherever Mr Duffy’s body was, his mind was elsewhere).[4]

Lost in noise and busyness, we deny ourselves the freedom to live, to be compassionate, to love and receive love.

But wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we can pause to become more fully present.

Meditation is a simple antidote to distractedness. Its gentle processes help us learn a new way to be present with what is present, even when it’s frightening or painful.

Saying our word, following our breath, we try to follow Jesus’ teaching not to get caught-up in anxious thoughts about our life.[5]

Becoming still, becoming quiet, we release ourselves into God’s care.

We discover a solid foothold, a refuge of peaceful awareness which grounds and holds the always-changing weather of our life and helps us meet its varied seasons with an open, loving heart. We learn to be present-with and present-for those around us.

The art of living well, of being fully alive, must involve being present, to what is here and to who is here. As Martin Laird writes, “The mystery of God in Christ seeks to bring Himself to others through us, as food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, justice for the imprisoned, and compassion for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. Contemplation [meditation], and the lifestyle flowing from it, asks but a single question, “What does kindness look like at any given moment?””[6]

Love is the ground and purpose of our practice. There is no beginning and no end outside of this.

And the opportunity to love is always to be found just where we are.

[1] Matthew 3:2 and 4:17.

[2] Lk 17:20-21.

[3] 2 Cor 6:2.

[4] James Joyce, ‘A Painful Case” in The Dubliners (New York Bantam Books, 1990), p. 84.

[5] Matthew 6:34.

[6] Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation and Liberation (Oxford University Press, 2019), p.16.

School of Contemplative Life
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