Carpe diem! Everyone wants to seize the day. But as Irish novelist, John McGahern, says: “There is nothing more difficult to seize than the day!” Why? Because we have a great naivete about this.
For example, a young man once wrote to Rainer Marie Rilke complaining that he wanted to be a poet, but his daily life offered little in the way of inspiration. His life was not the stuff of poetry, he complained: too much drudgery, too many pressures, life in a small village. How could he write poetry out of such life? He concluded by saying that he envied Rilke’s life as an admired poet, living in a big city, meeting exciting people. Rilke wasn’t exactly sympathetic: “If your daily life seems poor to you,” he replied, “than you aren’t poet enough to call forth its riches. For a poet, there are no uninteresting places, no uninteresting life.” The day is there to be seized.
Robertson Davies, a renowned Canadian writer, recounts something similar. He tells of an incident where he received a letter from a young man asking him to write a letter of reference for a financial grant so that the young man, a budding writer, would have money to go off to a Mexican resort to work on his next novel. Davies replied that would not write the letter, not because he didn’t want to support him, he wished him well as a writer, but because he felt the young man had a false fantasy as to how he might seize the moment and write his novel. Davies cautioned him about false romanticism: “You want to write something deep and inspirational between drinking margaritas and walking the beach”. Nothing much will come of that, he warned. Stay home and write your book there. Annie Dillard gives similar advice. She prefers to do her writing in a plywood shack with no view. For her, it’s easier to seize the moment in a quiet, hidden place than on some public perch that offers a vista of the world.
What these examples point to is that we often miss the moment because we have an overly-romantic, false, notion of what that means, like the two would-be writers who sought help from Rilke and Davies. How do we seize the day?
I like David Steindl-Rast’s answer. He offers a wonderful metaphor for what it means to seize the day: For him, we seize the day by “meeting the angels of each hour”. Who are these angels? They are the unique riches inherent in each hour itself.
Every season, whether chronological, cultural, or religious, brings with it a certain spirit, mood, and feeling that we sometimes capture and sometimes miss. The same is true for the various periods of a day – morning, noon, early afternoon, late afternoon, evening, night. Each has its unique light, its unique impact on our feelings, and (speaking in metaphor) its unique angels who carry its special grace. For example, the light of the morning greets us differently than the light of the late afternoon. Thus, the angels of sunrise impact us differently than the angels of sunset. To seize the day is to meet these angels and let them bless us.
But they can be easily missed. Who among us hasn’t spoken words to this effect: “I was so busy and pressured this year that I missed spring.” “I couldn’t get into Christmas this year, a friend died in early December and I couldn’t get into the spirit of the season.” “I missed lent this year. I was so preoccupied with other things that it came and went before I even realized it was here. You know how these things happen!”
Indeed we do. Many things keep us from meeting the angels of the hour – preoccupation, tiredness, distraction, heartache, anger, daydreams, stress, hurriedness. It’s easy to miss a special season and it’s even easier to miss an ordinary morning, afternoon, evening, or an entire day.
What do we do so as to not miss them? We need to pray. Simply put: If we don’t pray on a given morning, that omission doesn’t offend God. We don’t owe God our prayer. It’s a gift, not a debt owed. But, if we miss praying some morning there is, as our experience makes evident again and again, the real danger that we will also miss the morning. The morning will come and go and we will not meet its angels – its unique light, mood, spirit, refreshment. Noon will catch us before we are even aware that there was a morning. The noon-day and afternoon sun will bring their own angels, but, having missed the angels of the morning, we are pretty prone to miss the angels of noon and the afternoon as well. A day will come and a day will go and we won’t seize it … and then it will not matter much, in terms of grace and joy in our lives, whether we are walking a beach in Mexico or sitting in a plywood shack.