Human beings often prefer the past and the future to the present. A poet scribbles a few meters on his lost lover instead of singing about the kind woman he met that morning; a mother recalls the times when her children were small, preferring the voice of happy young people to the silence of tired twenty-year-olds; businessmen keep track of their investments, calculating future dividends, finding little satisfaction in their current wealth. The fear that boredom may visit them keeps young and old in search of pleasure to be seized and memories to relive. The present is, for the restless, too quiet, too boring, just a reminder to them of what they are sorely lacking.
One night, not long ago, I put on a record and put a hand in the past and one in the future. It wasn’t really hard to do; Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” made him feel good and natural. I guess I felt like the poet scribbling past joy and the businessman anticipating next year’s rewards:
I wonder if you remember me
Many times I have often prayed
In the dark of my night
In the brightness of my day
So if you travel to the northern fair
Where the winds hit hard on the border
Remind me to someone who lives there
She was once a true love of mine.
Part of the beauty of these lines lies in their recognizability. Loss, past joy, the hope of being loved again, and wanting to be remembered well are fundamental parts of the human experience. Giving voice to our pain and our need for goodness and mercy in an uncertain future is cathartic; it produces a warmth of familiarity, despite the pain of unfulfilled desire, because it connects us to our spirits who crave love and rest not bound by time. However, the moments of melancholy longing I experienced while listening to Dylan’s melody, however cathartic, must not become more precious than what God has given us in the present.
Yes, discontent – the black root of prolonged pain, anger and anxiety – is easily watered when you pitch the tent with the past and the future, as these two parts of time are persistent reminders of our smallness. We have no power to change the past and little power over the future, especially when the future involves other people’s choices. How common it is for us, like the mother, caught in a pattern of reminiscence, to think, despite the painful consequences, that clinging to the past or courageously attempting to manipulate the future will bring peace. Yet contrary to what our natural minds tell us, the true joy that brings fulfillment resides here with us, right now, right now.
Love and rest can be found, but they are not found in the past or the future. The past and the future may serve as a reminder of love, but they are not the place where love and rest are experienced. Our noblest desires are lived in the present moment when time becomes irrelevant, as George MacDonald eloquently wrote in his novel mister gibbi: “For the happiness of animals lies in this, that, at their lowest level, they obscure the happiness of those – few at any time on earth – who do not ‘look before and after, and yearn for what is not,’ but live in the holy neglect of the eternal hour “. Traditionally, the term “eternal now” has been applied to the way God experiences time. According to Boethius, God is outside of time and therefore his perception of it is not linear. Time is like a fresco or a sculpture that God can see in its entirety. Here, however, MacDonald is using “eternal now” to denote a state of supreme joy made possible by the humble acceptance of divine love. Animals in their simplicity rely on God to take care of them. Because they accept the blessings God gives them in the present, they are not trapped in the ravages of time: loss and regret. Likewise Christ encouraged his disciples to remember that “the birds of heaven. . . do not sow, nor reap, nor gather in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. ” If the sparrows can rest in their creator and in the goodness of him, the bearers of the image of God can certainly learn to rest under his protection.
When St. Paul exhorted the Corinthians “not to receive the grace of God in vain”, he declared that “now is the day of salvation. ” In other words, the peace of Christ, that “holy neglect” that allows men to love each other and to feel amazement even in the world, is not a memory to be discovered or a goal to be achieved in the years to come, but a reality available to all those who are willing to receive God’s mercy. Living without time means believing that God loves you. Like Adam and Eve who walked with God in Eden, we too can walk with God and experience eternity.
Perhaps all this talk of time and living in the eternal now seems quite esoteric. You may think, I have faith in Christ, but we are not in Eden. I can’t rest long and worry is never far from me. We live in time and, to put it bluntly, as Rich Mullins did, sometimes God “is just plain hard to get”. It may seem a contradiction to believe that one can live without time in time undisturbed by the past and the future. And furthermore, if it is possible to live in MacDonald’s “eternal now”, how do you practically do it? To answer these questions, let’s consider living timeless in terms of the garden. Nature is often useful for clarifying challenging concepts. Matt Civico in his article “The world of gardeners and the Attention Item “states that”[p]people are made for gardens because they are made and nurtured by a God who does gardening ». God fashioned us from the earth and our father Adam and our mother Eve were the first gardeners. If wisdom can be found in the metaphors of industry, how much more will it be found in Dame Nature’s library.
In “Lines Written in Kensington Gardens”, Victorian poet Matthew Arnold keenly illustrates how a garden operates as an earthly sanctuary amidst uncertainty and decay and serves as a microcosm for the resting soul. In the first two stanzas of Arnold’s poem, the narrator describes Kensington Garden, one of London’s eight public royal gardens. Resting in the “lonely and open clearing of the garden. . . / Protected by deep branches on both hands “, the narrator observes how” each bird “sings its own song” through the hum of the city that surrounds us “and” how green it is “or life-giving to rest under the arms of the trees, while listening “the trembling cry of sheep.” Since Kensington Gardens is a city park, it is known that our narrator cannot possibly hear the cattle; instead the landscape makes him imagine he is in the countryside. This rural image of sheep and shepherds would have immediately reminded Arnold’s audience of the central theme of the pastoral poem – virtue through simplicity – and would have warned them that the narrator wishes his readers to see Kensington Gardens not only as a place of relaxation, but also as a place that favors harmony.
This picture of harmony is further defined in the third stanza, when the narrator observes a kind “nurse” comforting her “baby” and “a thrush… / Deep in her unknown day.” At the beginning of the poem, harmony is seen in the songs of the birds and the warmth of the trees. Since “the city” reduces humanity to an impersonal “hum”, the garden makes room for “every bird” to have its own voice. Here in the garden people are recognized as unique people, each of whom plays a role in adding goodness to the world. Those who visit the garden are encouraged not to see themselves as an appendage to the city but, like birds, as different creatures made to create models of beauty. This is demonstrated by the thrush, which, despite the uncertainty of the weather (the “unknown day”) continues to find meaning in its current task.
Through the example of the nurse, her baby and the thrush, the reader learns that kindness and acceptance free a person from the bonds of the past and the future. Despite the uncertainty of the weather, the “unknown day”, they find meaning in their current tasks. “Here at my feet the wonders pass”, declares the narrator, “what an active life without end is here”. In the garden, the narrator finds a joy that does not depend on time. In the garden, in the present moment, the narrator remembers that virtue and beauty give lasting meaning to his life. The narrator could not feel this satisfying fulfillment if he placed all his attention on the past and the future, if he did not stop to observe what Kensington Gardens could teach him about living well.
The garden teaches the narrator that a person does not have to live in isolation to find rest for the body and soul. You can be a garden of peace in the middle of the city where noise, deadlines and stress are the companions of almost everyone. The city garden is a place where “peace is always new” and where “all things. . . going through / The changes of their quiet day. Notice how the narrator points out how the weather still affects the garden. This small sanctuary is subject to “changes”; the flowers will die in the winter, the birds will fly south in the fall, and the trees will rot. The city garden is not eternal. Yet, despite the constraints of time, the garden lives its timeless days because it focuses its energy on creating harmony, the offspring of virtue and beauty.
Living without time in time, therefore, is not a contradiction, if we stop giving the ultimate value to tomorrow or yesterday. As in a city garden, you can begin to “feel in the middle of the jar of the city / That a peace dwells there. . . / Man has not done and cannot ruin ”, when you cultivate love for yourself and for your neighbor. At the conclusion of the poem, the narrator appeals to the “calm soul of all things” to help him achieve the lasting peace he observes in Kensington Garden. How encouraging it is that we Christians know who “the soul of all things” is and that he wishes to help us make gardens of our sunburned lives. This is what it means to live, as MacDonald said, “in the holy neglect of the eternal hour”, and what St. Paul meant when he reminded the Corinthians that “now is the day of salvation”. Life is in the present moment, for in the present moment God is the source of all love and beauty.