The Serenity Prayer has a long and rather mysterious history. The first three lines were made popular by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 -1971), as part of a 1934 lecture. The modern prayer is several lines longer. In 1941, the prayer was noticed and later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous. Over the past 60 years the prayer has gone far beyond AA boundaries. It is especially instructive for anyone longing to be an apprentice of Jesus. For the next eight Sundays, (November 6 – December 24), this blog will feature one phrase or cluster of phrases from this beautiful prayer. I hope this series will create motivation and direction in the new year.
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“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time;”
The sentence in bold above begins the part of the Serenity Prayer with which most people are unfamiliar. It raises this question: is it possible for human beings in 2017 to focus on the present moment, let alone enjoy that moment? This question is the basis for blogs, podcasts, articles, news reports, and books that focus on our addiction to social media.
Living in the present is difficult because we usually live in the past or in the future. We are stuck with memories, good and bad, in the past, and many of us waste precious time trying to renegotiate our history. On the other hand, we look forward to the future, dreaming how wonderful it will be, or about how we will handle its problems.
Richard Rohr reminds us that “the mind is always bored in the present. So it must be trained to stop running forward and backward” (Daily Meditation for 11/20/17). Spiritual exercises (silence, solitude, intentional awareness of everything around us, contemplative prayer) can train us to live in the present moment. But these exercises are difficult for most people. Perhaps it is because of one question we haven’t faced: Do we even want to live in the present? Do we feel more in control when we replay the past or worry about the future? The present moment really doesn’t lend itself to our control; it is offered to us as an experience.
Rohr also reminds us that Jesus “teaches and is himself a message of now-ness, here-ness, concreteness, and this-ness.” The only time Jesus talks about future time is when he tells us not to worry about it. . . . Thinking about the future keeps us in our heads, far from presence.” And “Jesus talks about the past in terms of forgiving it. He tells us to “hand the past over to the mercy and action of God. We do not need to keep replaying the past, atoning for it, or agonizing about it.”
Another reason that most of us who live in the traditions of western culture do not live in the present is that we are trained from childhood to be busy and productive. We must have something to show for our efforts or the day is basically a waste of time. If we not multi-tasking, we are not really working. However, living in the moment requires paying attention to one thing at a time and appreciating how it enriches our live: a child who is excitedly sharing his life with us, a new bloom on a flowering plant, beautiful writing or singing or painting, the peaceful presence of the wood, the aroma of a family dinner, the comfort of a hot shower, a robin’s song, the warmth of the hand we are holding.
Twelve step programs have turned this phrase from the Serenity Prayer into a slogan or a mantra: One Day at a Time. The idea is we can handle anything if we take it one day (or one hour or one minute at a time). The deeper beauty of the slogan is that if we aim to fully experience each moment of that one day, we will not only handle it better but also be graced by it.