"I took the photograph. But … I missed the race." Dr Sam Wells - 11/08/15

Good morning. Last July I found myself in a village in the Alps on a damp day. I discovered the Tour de France was due to pass a few hours later. I parked myself on the pavement, got my smartphone out, and waited. But then, as the bustle of lycra-suited cyclists hurtled toward me, I realised I had a choice. If I watched them, I couldn’t photograph them. If I took a photograph, by the time I put the camera down, they’d have zoomed past me.

In the subsequent 45 seconds I changed my mind a hundred times. Then suddenly they were upon me. I took the photograph. But … I missed the race.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a famous, handsome actor. He’s playing Hamlet at the Barbican in London. But what he’s finding is that as he’s contemplating suicide and yet reflecting ‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause,’ half the audience are flashing away with their phones and cameras. His skills in creating moments of unbearable intensity are being dismantled by the flashlights and gadgets of his adoring fans.

What makes us mortgage the present tense like this, in a distracted attempt to preserve it for the seldom-compiled photo album, or share it with friends by inviting them to be virtually beside us as we experience the coveted or the dramatic?

Perhaps we don’t trust our memory to cherish the profound impressions of our lives. Perhaps we’re embarked on a perpetual project to persuade others that we’re more interesting than we might superficially appear – and so we decorate our virtual galleries with signs of our social dexterity.

The eighteenth-century priest Jean de Caussade was spiritual director to a convent of French nuns. He wrote a book called The Sacrament of the Present Moment. In it he coached the nuns in the most difficult spiritual practice of all: staying in the present tense. We can’t meet God by relying on past stories or future hopes. We must be present in this very moment now – not just to God, but to one another. That being present is the heart of life – the essence of relationship.

Why couldn’t I just put the gadget down and enjoy the sight of the onrushing cyclists? Maybe I feared my life was just too transitory, too small, too insignificant, too boring – and the photograph was a way of keeping, amplifying, sharing, expanding the ordinary into the extraordinary.
My task (and the challenge of being in the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch for three hours without taking his photograph) is to try not to record, retain, or embellish my life; but to live it.

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