Illustration of Jane Wilde from Chapter XVIII in the book "Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions", by Frank Harris. Wikipedia

Peter Stockland: Take a moment to live outside the moment

  • December 29, 2019

Earlier this month, I was reading about the fathers of three modern Irish literary geniuses — Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and James Joyce — when I came upon a fascinating fact about Wilde’s mother.

Before she brought infamous Oscar into the world, before she even married his father William Wilde in 1851, Jane Elgee was a poet and writer of violently nationalist editorials under the pen name Speranza.

The editor of the magazine for which she wrote was eventually charged with sedition. Key evidence used against him was a particularly inflammatory editorial “Speranza” had written.

During the trial, Elgee cried out from the public galleries of Dublin’s courthouse that she, not the editor, had written the offending text. She was led from the chamber on the grounds that a woman, especially of her social standing, could not be held responsible for such infamy.

I’ve long been a Wilde aficionado but had never heard the story before. It was new news to me even though it was 171 years old. Yet its appeal was neither personal novelty nor sepia drenched nostalgia posing as history. It was its exposition of human character and lived struggle that put in the shade the very thought of reading for the 4,567,923rd time in the New York Times that Donald Trump is an idiot or in the Toronto Star that the eternally hapless Leafs won’t — wait for it! — win the Stanley Cup again this year.

As the second decade of the 21st century closes, I increasingly refuse to use as a calibration point of personal interest whether something happened yesterday or this morning. My refusal is not because I have far more yesterdays stacked up than I have tomorrows to unravel. Nor has it to do with that ghastly cliché of “living in the moment,” which pushes the pack for being the four stupidest consecutive words ever spoken in English. (Live in which moment? The one that disappeared as you said “mo”? Or the one that vanished as you said “ment”? You can’t live in moments. They’re too momentary.)

Part of my rejection of what might be called “immediatism” lies in a lifelong recognition of the truth of T.S. Eliot’s essential conservative insight that the importance of the past is not its pastness but its presence. But at an even more quotidian level, there is reinforcement of the conviction that we have done ourselves enormous harm by insisting on chopping time into ever diminishing circles like a dog chasing its tail going yip-yip-yip.

We are a society of the micro-moment, which leads to the ill effects of disquietude and anxiety, yes, but even worse is the catalyst for caustic erasure of memory.

There are numerous reasons for this erasure. One I rarely hear mentioned is obliteration of prayer as a widespread social habit. We can’t ascribe that entirely to decline in church attendance. Polling done two years by the Angus Reid Institute and the think tank Cardus confirmed the number of Canadians regularly pray privately is remarkably higher than the number attending worship services regularly. What the pollsters couldn’t pinpoint is how or why people pray.

Anecdotally, I know the vast majority of conversation I’ve had about prayer in recent years centre on instrumental, if not outright transactional, use of prayer. The claim is buttressed by cultural representations that routinely show people prayerfully asking God to provide something, then all but peeping out the window to see if the Heavenly FedEx truck has arrived.

It’s a function of our insatiable immediatism that we forget prayer is not primarily about how it pays off for us in the momentary moment. It’s for speaking into Eternal Mystery and letting the Mystery speak to us, to His creations.

In the medieval sense, prayer is God speaking to Himself through us. Does He care what century, week or moment it is?

Of course, we must mind. We have buses to catch. Deadlines to meet. Children to feed. Still, we could do worse — we do do worse — than to remind ourselves how God makes the ingenious presence of the past His immortal gift to us.

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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