by Michael Wright
In the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot famously described an experience of time he called the “still point of the turning world,” an experience “where past and future are gathered” together, saturated by “a grace of sense, a white light still and moving.” Decades later, the Buddhist poet Jane Hirshfield said, “In every instant, two gates. / One opens to fragrant paradise, one to hell. / Mostly we go through neither.” Both poets are looking for language for the spiritual substance of the present, the only space of time where we live and move and have our being.
After two years of doing social media for a seminary, I’ve had a hard time distinguishing this “spirituality of the present” with historical amnesia and aimlessness. Later in the poem, T.S. Eliot looks around the streets of London and sees men and women “distracted from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning.” On the surface, it may look like living in the moment, but rather than entering it, they are pulled apart, skimming on time’s surface. Of course, it’s much easier to be distracted than to open gates to spiritual insight, it’s much easier to react to the latest viral fancies than commit to longer writing projects, much easier to forget than to remember. It’s a struggle I’m haunted by as we enter the new year. How can I find this still point if I’m unaware of the past and future that gathers it?
If I start thinking, “I have to restore my historical consciousness!” or “My life depends on reknitting the past and future into my experience of the present!” I will feel overwhelmed and probably implode into depression. But maybe changing my experience of time can start with more simple decisions. What if I kept a calendar? What if I wrote in saints’ days and birthdays and monthly goals instead of only knowing the release days of the latest movie? What if I started each morning sidestepping the day’s outrages streaming from the dim light of my phone and wrote for an hour? What if I engaged traditions older than the latest viral post? Filled in the gaps with books I still haven’t read and hymns from my Southern upbringing? And what if I practiced meditation to start dipping below the surface of my distracted mind to the still point within my own heart?
These are the kinds of practices I’ve been dreaming about for the new year. I think I’ll start with the empty calendar, be kind to myself in the process, and hope that, in time, I can cultivate a fuller experience of my life and the grace that sustains it, new every morning.
Michael Wright (MA, Theology and the Arts) is the associate editor for FULLER studio and magazine at Fuller Seminary, and he writes and lectures on poetry, popular culture, and spirituality. Connect with him on Twitter at @mjeffreywright.