Rock the present moment

March 7, 2012 | 23 comments

One of the topics I’ve struggled with since the beginning of my conversion is the role of ambition in the Christian life. I have an odd personality type that could be described as “mostly extremely lazy, with occasional flashes of Type A behavior.” In other words, by default I sit on the couch and do nothing; but when I do decide to get up from the couch, I make it worth my while. I think this is why the concept of being ambitious is a tricky one for me: It’s easy for me to be tempted to do nothing and call it virtue, passing off sloth for holy detachment. On the other hand, it’s also easy for me to get so into whatever project I’m working on that I turn it into an idol.

This has been my main topic of prayer for months now. I know that placing too much value on worldly accomplishments leads to misery and spiritual death. I also know that we’re not supposed to sit around and do nothing, and that we can bring glory to God by producing top-quality work. So, how can a Christian be both intensely motivated to do his best work, yet still remain detached? I still don’t have all the answers, but I think a lot of it comes down to this:

Rock the present moment.

First, the rock part:

One thing I noticed recently was that I brought great energy to my various writing projects. I wanted to do my best at these tasks, and I wanted to do it for God. The problem was that the Jen’s-Passion-for-Bringing-Glory-to-God-o-Meter dipped down to about zero when it came to work that I didn’t like as much and/or that didn’t have a worldly payoff. I would devote myself with zeal to learning how to write a quality book; but when a lonely neighbor needed someone to talk to, I suddenly had all the enthusiasm of a prisoner on a chain gang.

The problem with ambition is that we tend to put it into practice selectively. This is what Fr. Walter Ciszek was always talking about in He Leadeth Me (a lesson which, somehow, didn’t sink in the first five hundred times I read the book): to turn your life over to God means to turn each individual moment of your life over to God. A God-glorifying life doesn’t hinge on the outcome of grand events; it isn’t dependent on the future. Rather, it’s created from the small moments of each day: the enthusiastic conversation with the chatty woman on the bus, the cup washed with extra care before it’s returned to the cupboard. A new litmus test I use to keep myself from becoming overly ambitious in the wrong areas is, “Do I devote this much care and attention to every area of my life?” If the answer is no, it’s time to recalibrate.

This brings us to the present moment part:

By default, being ambitious is a very future-oriented state of mind. We want to have accomplished X by the time we’re 50, we’re passionate about achieving Y by the end of next week — all of this takes place in the future. I think one of the devil’s most clever tricks in this department is to take our honest efforts to live in the present moment, and use them as fodder for temptation to fixate on tomorrow. For example, a while back I was writing something that I thought was turning out to be great. I could feel the Holy Spirit with me, and just knew that this was what God wanted me to be doing at this moment. All good so far. But then my thoughts drifted to the future: This must mean that God wants this piece to be really successful! It’s going to go viral! Everyone is going to read it! I ended up drifting around in dreams of the future, ignoring the present moment to become more and more attached to what was surely going to happen later in the week.

As it turned out, the piece was mostly a flop, except for some people who wrote me to say how much they hated it. Rather than using it to teach thousands of people about the Lord through my writing, God used it to teach me some lessons in humility. It was a painful experience, mainly because I had relied so heavily on my God’s Will ESP and had gotten attached to my visions of what the Holy Spirit was surely going to do with this project. If I had simply done my best during the writing, then moved on to doing my best with the next thing God called me to (which, in this case, was changing the bag in the kitchen trash can), I don’t think I would have been so impacted by the outcome of the project.

Again, I’m still working on all of this, and will probably struggle to find balance in this area all my life. But I wanted to share what I’ve learned, because it has really helped me be both motivated and detached, simply to remember to rock the present moment.


  1. Michelle

    I have such a hard time living in the present. I always seem to forget how much Satan likes to make us look forward instead of be present in the now. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Dance

    I have often heard it said that you can tell the level of holiness a person has by how much attention they have to the present moment, and I must admit I have found that to be a very good measure.

    You can really feel this in yourself as well. When a friend comes to you with a problem, and you are completely focused on them in the here and now, it’s a very different feeling then you have in your normal waking life. That’s the feeling you want to expand, the feeling like there is nothing else in the world except the person in front of you.

  3. jack

    I cannot tell you how much I needed to read this today…thank you!

  4. Jamie Salvucci

    So extraordinarily needed this today, right now….as I sit on the couch holding a fussy infant. Thank you.

  5. Diane Kavanaugh

    Wow! I am so guilty of doing the exact same thing. I’m in the zone working away with excitement and zeal for a project and the next thing I know I’m daydreaming about all the honors and accolades I will surely receive. This is soon followed by a feeling of self loathing because who am I to think I could ever produce anything anyone would want to read or buy. That’s when all the joy I felt earlier flies right out the window. Yes, the devil knows me well.

    Thank you for this. It really does help.

  6. Joy

    Great post, Jen!!! This is something I, too, have wrestled with. I’ve commented here before about making the memoir less of a MEmoir and more about God — keeping my pride out of it, but maybe changing the focus of my ambition? And you’re absolutely right, what I’ve found is it’s the day-to-day, nitty-gritty stuff that matters so much more.

  7. Jackie

    I definitely needed to read this today; my default setting is to sit on the couch and do nothing as well. I can sit on that couch like nobody’s business ;-). Thanks for the encouragement, Jen!

  8. Colin Gormley

    “But then my thoughts drifted to the future: This must mean that God wants this piece to be really successful! It’s going to go viral! Everyone is going to read it! I ended up drifting around in dreams of the future, ignoring the present moment to become more and more attached to what was surely going to happen later in the week.”

    Oh my. All of my bad habits during my writing projects lumped in one neat paragraph.

  9. Elisa | blissfulE

    This is something I’ve been praying about and struggling with. Thank you for sharing what you are learning. It helps me immensely.

  10. Marsha

    This is so encouraging, Jen. Thank you.

  11. Laura

    I am so glad to see that someone else thinks about this! It is something I struggle with daily! The dichotomy of being the best you can be and doing it for the glory of God (and to support my family)and trying to detach from the worldy gets so confusing for me! Especially since I don’t want to be working outside of the home as it is, but would rather be at home with my children. I always wonder if God has blessed me with a good job or if the devil has put golden handcuffs on me. I’m too scared to walk away since my husband doesn’t quite make enough to support us, so instead I go to work begrudgingly and try not to care about the successes I have so as not to become too absorbed in the wordliness (money, glory, accolades) of it all. It keeps my head spinning but at least it keeps me talking to God, looking for guidance all along the way. If you figure it out, please make sure to post it! 🙂

  12. cinhosa

    In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily* and follow me.”

    The footnote for daily in the NAB (the version we read in mass in the U.S.) is:

    Daily: this is a Lucan addition to a saying of Jesus, removing the saying from a context that envisioned the imminent suffering and death of the disciple of Jesus (as does the saying in Mk 8:34–35) to one that focuses on the demands of daily Christian existence.

    I think of demands of the daily Christian experience to be moment-to-moment. When I am in ‘that moment’ of being in the moment, I feel closest to God and able to withstand any amount of crazy.

  13. Leanne Shawler

    That’s what I’m working on too. Being present. Being attentive … Not expecting answers or divine insight but just being in the presence of God.

  14. Red

    Hi Jen, probably a little help from the saints would work. You may want to read a homily by St. Josemaria Escriva whom Blessed Pope John Paul II has called the “Saint of the ordinary”. This homily expresses the nucleus of his message on the vocation to holiness of each and every Christian. You may read it at

  15. Marc

    Awesome! I often find myself beginning to despair over things (HHS mandate comes to mine), but that is usually because I become focused on the “what ifs” of the future. Despair tends to lead to depression and sloth. Through prayer, God is able to steer me back to sanity by placing the immediate needs of my kids in front of me. Sorta like, “Um, Marc, snap out of it. This kid of yours needs a bath, if you couldn’t already tell by the smell.” This post is very Mark-Shea-esque as far as focusing on the present moment and the “next practical thing”…

  16. Jamie

    I have this same inner dialog all the time. It’s so interesting to hear your perspective. I have also read and re-read He Leadeth Me (the author grew up about 5 miles from where I grew up in PA). I am going to be thinking about this all day. The lesson seems clear, doesn’t it? Just do your best in every moment and ambition will take care of itself. There are so many dichotomies in Catholicism (or Christianity in general). The discussions could be endless.

  17. Kathleen Basi

    I haven’t gotten to the “accolades” part, but I definitely have the “I want this and then this and then this and then this” dynamic going on. When we’re given a lot of gifts, we need to share them…but in the appropriateproportion. Those of us who write from home, like you and me and a number of others in this community, are always having to figure out the balace. And I, at least, am always questioning whether it’s “thy will” or “my will.”

  18. Joseph Mazzara

    Okay, I’m curious, what piece was it that was so bad?

  19. Jessica

    Jen, when I read your post I automatically thought of a book that richly explores this topic. It’s called, “Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition” by Brian J. Mahan. I highly recommend it. Have you heard of this book?

  20. robbie

    I am reading Abandonment to Divine Providence, which I think also goes by the title The Sacrament of the Present Moment. I haven’t gotten very far, but it is the most practical book I’ve picked up in a long time. The challenge is the simplest and yet most difficult thing of all: to accept, at exactly this moment, what God is asking of me–which, naturally, is most often exactly just what I *don’t* want. I think you’d like it.

  21. Grey

    What a beautiful creation, how hard my life this day… I do believe when I reach and embraced the love of God is the solution to overcome the challenge of life…

  22. Sage

    This is an outstanding post on a vexing subject for many of us. Your “Lazy-A” personality describes me as well, and I haven’t ever been able to work out the tricky problems spiritual you’re dissecting here. Thank you.

  23. Bonnie

    Ambition that desires to succeed because it will bring glory to God and use the talents and gifts given by God for the good of the world is the proper form of ambition. Ambition becomes a vice when achieving the goal blinds one to actions that are destructive of others and self-seeking. Ambition that is selfish, all consuming, seeks one’s own glory or status, is ruthlessly competitive, ignores primary duties (such as raising your child) to achieve the goal, and/or uses others, is a grave sin. The kind of person who will stop at nothing for that next stage of success, who claws their way to the top, treating others as a means to an end, who will stop at nothing to be “king of the hill” is exhibiting sinful ambition. We should always be quit to root our the wrong kind of ambitious thoughts and actions that creep into our lives. It’s important to remember that while the path to worldly success is nice, it can sometimes be the road to hell.

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