‘Happiness is a right, but you have to catch it yourself’ said Benjamin Franklin of the American Constitution. It was a very English thing for an 18th century American to say. We English have traditionally held that pulling yourself up by your own boot-straps is something of a moral imperative.

Pelagius, writing in the 5th century, was a very English heretic. Pelagius argued that human beings did not need divine grace in order to fulfil God’s purpose for them because they could perfectly well fulfil it through their own efforts and character. Part of his argument entailed the denial of original sin, as it was then understood. Original sin was seen to have been inherited from Adam’s wilful disobedience to God, his perceived lack of need for God.

Today, original sin manifests itself as original selfishness, our natural propensity for the furthering of self interest at the expense of anyone or anything which gets in its way. Self reliance has become a moral imperative, so that to be poor is to fail, and failure today is easily confused with sin. The original selfishness which has ‘spawned’ this philosophy has its origins in the instinct for survival which we have inherited from our earliest humanoid ancestors, as argued by Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’.

 In modern society unredeemed original selfishness leads to a state of collective and chronic loneliness. In terms of the individual, those who have led selfish lives often find themselves alone and unvisited in their final years, a situation exacerbated, perhaps, by the selfishness they have passed on to others. This is not to say that all lonely people, whatever their age or circumstances, are inherently selfish and therefore paying a price for how they have failed others. Loneliness is the price many of us will come to pay, sooner or later, for the climate of selfishness we, in our western society, have generated and grown used to. Furthermore, our collective greed and individual selfishness suggests that its ultimate casualty will be ourselves, the demise of our species within the next couple of centuries, ultimate loneliness.  But our denial of this increasingly obvious fact does not seem to be making us less selfish, either in terms of how we think about the planet we are bequeathing to the next three or four generations, or how we conceive of our own happiness at this moment.

Perhaps the difficulty lies primarily with the way time itself has become a kind of currency. We are seldom sufficiently present to the present moment to appreciate its unique value. We have more important things to do than to stop and think about it. The present moment is disposable.

We are used to thinking about disposable assets, but we seldom think about disposable time. Disposable time, and how it is used, is central to the question of happiness and to that of loneliness. Too little disposable time forces us to compress our lives into a rapidly diminishing time framework, usually at the expense of our relationships and of our mental and physical health. Later in life, the sacrificing of relationships will lead to us having too much disposable time, too many hours to fill and too few people left with whom to share them.

 Do we simply write this scenario off as the inevitable price we pay for living in the times we live in? Or is there a way for re-connecting with the source of true happiness from within any given moment? Can we find ways of being present to a greater stillness from within any one transient moment in daily life?

There are two stories from the Gospels which hint at how we might re-think our happiness priorities in this respect and so arrive at such a mental vantage point. The first story is that of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man who wants to know what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God. Like many religious people, he has led a good life but he is afraid of parting with his disposable assets. Material assets may not constitute happiness, but they do impart a feeling of safety, so to let go of them willingly is frightening. This was the young man’s problem. Furthermore, like many of us today, he felt that he was defined by what he owned, or by what he had achieved (which often amounts to the same thing), so his happiness depended on maintaining his ‘profile’, or its equivalent, and this required time.  

The other story concerns two sisters, Martha and Mary. Jesus is having supper at their house and Martha chides him for allowing her sister to sit listening to him when Mary’s time would be better spent helping her with the meal. (Where is their brother, one can’t help wondering?) But Jesus replies that Mary has ‘the better part’. The story concerns the proper deployment of disposable time when it comes to what makes for real happiness.

This is not to say that spirituality is more important than practical action, but that there are deep human needs which take precedence over everything else and meeting them requires time.  The deepest of these needs is our need for God.

Once this need is recognised for what it is, it alters the way we think about disposable time. It also radically alters the way we experience happiness. If what we have in the way of disposable time does not allow us to be at peace for at least a part of each day, what is it we lack, or, better put, what are the time-wasting preoccupations that create an obstacle to this mysterious, unnameable and elusive happiness? 


There are many Christians who believe we are living in the ‘end times’.


Wars, rumors of wars, plagues, climate apocalypse in various guises, are all predicted in the bible, if you choose to read it only in that way. But more to the point, all are predictable, given the way human beings behave towards each other, towards other species, towards this planet.

There are many Christians who believe we are living in the ‘end times’. They are not entirely mistaken, because we have been living in these ‘end times’ ever since the moment Christ ascended into heaven. Like the disciples who were left staring into the sky, we are looking up and ahead to the ultimate moment while living in the ‘now’ moment.

A comparable situation exists for each of us as individuals, whether or not we are Christians or people of faith. From the moment we are born we embark on the journey of our mortality. We live our lives in ‘end times’. We do not know how long it will take for us to reach home, as it were, but we are all on our way there. I would hazard a guess that most of us are aware of this inevitable progression, and think about it quite often during the average day.

I found myself thinking about these things this morning, as I read about the outbreak of bubonic plague in China and of the new strain of potentially species-leaping swine ‘flu. I thought about it all in the context of that precise moment, while looking out at a greyish windy sky, a pool of water with its long grasses growing around it like thick hair and the bit of the tree I can also see from that corner of the room, a Crimson King that we planted 26 years ago and which has now come into its full glory. The pool took seven years to stabilise, so that the water is now kept crystal clear by the grasses and surrounding plants. It all took time. Now we are moving on, so that the couple who have bought this place can pick up where we left off.

I thought about how every day is a matter of picking up where we and others have left off and of the decisions that need to be taken, the mindsets that are needed to work good or ill in the world. I thought of all this as a single moment. I held it before God. I wondered if anyone else was doing something similar at that precise moment.

I think being able to simply hold the present moment in a good place in our minds is the beginning of prayer. The will to the good, to healing, to remaking the present, so that it can embody hope for the future, is something we are all called to do. But I also believe that there is more to it than that. It involves giving ourselves completely to the ‘now’ moment itself, surrendering into it, so that love can pour into the ‘space’ we create when we do this surrendering. So the other word for this kind of surrendering, involves dropping deeply into love, as we would jump or drop into a pool of water.

Prayer also involves what Jesus called ‘dying’, or living as if we were ‘dying into’ an eternal present moment. He tells us that for this to be possible we have to do some surrendering. We have to surrender ‘self’. He is not talking about suppression of who we are in order to become someone else. Neither does he mean trying to suppress what we think is unlovable in ourselves. Prayer is not about any kind of suppression. It is quite the opposite. It is about dynamic engagement with a God who loves us as we are, and it is about trust. By dynamic engagement I mean something akin to getting on to a moving walkway – but much more exciting and unpredictable than those we experience in airport transit corridors when one is too tired to walk at the end of a long-haul flight. When we pray we walk in step, in pace, with God.

Prayer is about getting on to the dynamic movement which, on the whole, we only understand as the passage of time. The present moment that we are surrendering into embodies all of time as we know it. If we do this exercise frequently enough we also experience that multi-dimensional phenomenon which some artists and mathematicians come close to describing, but which most of us simply know as eternity – time without end.

So why am I saying all this? I’m saying it because I’m inviting all of us to become practitioners of this kind of surrendering into the eternity of the present moment which is also a matter of movement, of ‘going with’ the purposes (the moving staircase, perhaps) of God. “But what if you don’t believe in God?” I hear some people ask. I cannot really answer that, except to ask that you do the surrendering and the dropping into love, in the moment, not with what you believe you have at your disposal in the way of focus and self-control, but with a willingness to self-abandonment, so that your courage and generosity of spirit can ‘move’ the power that heals, restores and redeems. You may change the world. You may also give the power a name some time. One never knows.

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