Here’s an idea that ought to twist your brain into a pretzel: in science, the present does not exist. When I first learned this, my first thought was of Charles Dickens. If he’d understood the only identifiable aspects of time are Past and Future, would he have cut the Ghost of Christmas Present from his famous tale? What a tragedy that would have been. The Ghost of Christmas Present is one of my favorite characters of all time, pronouncer of one of the greatest of all lines – “Come in! And know me better, man!”
Philosopher and physicist Marcelo Gleiser explains the lack of an actual “present” in this way: “‘Now’ is not only a cognitive illusion, but also a mathematical trick, related to how we define space and time quantitatively. After all, if the present is a moment in time without duration, it can’t exist.”
I have to admit that Gleiser’s reasoning went over my head initially, but when I look at the concept of time without the influence of strange notions put upon me by science fiction stories, where people find it possible to travel back and forth through time, the reasoning becomes obvious. Time is nothing more than a way of measuring change, and since everything which exists is in a perpetual state of change, there can only be past and future – how a thing was before change, and what it will be after change. There can be no present.
Something in Gleiser’s words haunts me, however – “If the present is a moment in time without duration…” What if there is such a moment – one that cannot be measured? “Now” does not exist scientifically; of that I have no doubt, but I am haunted by the idea that there is more to these moments – these microscopic spaces between the “has changed” and “will change” – than mere illusion. I wonder if these are the places in which we encounter the transcendent Spirit of God.
I’ll attempt to use words to illustrate my meaning, but as I’ve said before – though a writer, I am also a mystic; thus I’m compelled to attempt these illustrations, but I’m simultaneously frustrated with the futility of language to convey the transcendent.
Last week, I experienced several of these now moments. Truly, I believe each of us is living through hundreds of them a day, but we are rarely awake enough to acknowledge them. My awareness of the Holy Now became keen as I accompanied my son to his final swim meet of the season – a championship meet in which he was privileged to take part.
It was relay day. God, I love relays. For some reason, the intensity of the race is amplified when multiple swimmers combine their efforts toward a common goal. I found a place to sit among our team’s families, and though race time was yet hours off, my skin literally tingled with anticipation.
The first now moment came earlier than expected. It occurred as four of Samuel’s teammates raced in the Girls 200 IM Relay. I happened to be seated next to one of the girl’s grandmother, and I think there was deep wisdom in that sweet lady, because as she and I chatted before the race, I sensed there was an awareness in her. She knew of the Holy Now, and she knew we were on the verge of seeing it. Her granddaughter swam breaststroke in the relay – those who know swimming know this is the most difficult of the four strokes – and the child swam it beautifully.
Sometimes, we don’t so much say a thing, as we hear ourselves saying it, as if we’re merely giving wind to the truth which hovers in the air. I turned to the girl’s grandmother and heard from my own mouth, “Wow, she’s doing great,” and she nodded. There were tears in her eyes, as there were in mine, and I thought to myself that the reality of Heaven is made up of moments like these.
Her tears, I could understand, but why were my eyes wet? I think it might have to do with surprise. There is an element of the unexpected in the Now, which I suppose is necessary in order to rouse us from our preoccupation with the Was and the Will Be. When you see a child of ten doing something so difficult, and doing it with such grace and skill, it surprises you; it shocks you into the present. The tears must be a reaction to seeing an incredible thing – the sort that may even occur all the time – and the realization that, more often than not, we miss it.
My son swam shortly after – anchor for the Boys 200 IM Relay. I’d pulled my phone out to record the race, but as the buzzer sounded, I forgot to raise the device. Shortly into the first leg, I realized my oversight, and I told myself that, when the time came, I’d snap a picture of Samuel as he blurred past my front-row seat in the bleachers; maybe I’d get lucky and nail a shot of him side-breathing. Maybe I’d be able to capture the intensity in his expression. But something in me knew such a thing is not possible. This was the Holy Now happening before me. You cannot hold on to it, and once it’s passed, you can never find your way back to it.
Samuel cheered his teammate onward from the starter block, cheered him right up to the wall, and as my boy’s body passed into the shimmering blue and his arms began to perform their practiced, mesmerizing arcs, my camera remained on the bench. My attention was unencumbered. I was swept up and embraced in the space between what was and what will be. Enraptured by the Holy Now.
Jesus said, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” I think I’m starting to understand what he meant by that. A gathering might be two – like me and that sweet grannie shedding tears together on a metal bench – or it may be thousands. The numbers are not important. What’s important is the understanding, the awareness that we are together in the moment, and we are experiencing something that can never be experienced again.