Contentment – Br. Curtis Almquist
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In 1973 an adventurous explorer named Peter Matthiessen set out on a journey by foot to the Crystal Mountain on the Tibetan Plateau of northwest Nepal.i The trip was to accompany George Schaller, a zoologist who had planned the expedition to study the Himalayan blue sheep called “bharal.” The Buddhist lamas had forbidden people to molest these sheep. And so, where the sheep were numerous, there was bound to appear that rarest and most beautiful of the great cats, the snow leopard. In the previous 25 years, only two westerners – George Schaller, this zoologist, being one of them – had laid eyes on the Himalayan snow leopard. For Peter Matthiessen, the hope of glimpsing this near-mythic feline beast in the mountains of Nepal was reason enough for the arduous journey lasting a number of months.
I first read of Peter Matthiessen’s search for the elusive snow leopard many years ago. For Matthiessen, the journey ended up being a spiritual odyssey of a man in search of himself, which is why I have remembered it. I and many people, perhaps some of you, are now on a spiritual quest in search of meaning, transcendent meaning, in search of the holy, in search of the real presence of God in a culture and world where many of the “spiritual signs” we trusted and depended on are shaky or eroding.
One scene from this journey in Nepal many decades ago particularly captured my attention. Near the end of the journey the two explorers finally realized that they would not see the elusive snow leopard after all, but only the foot prints… which seemed somehow symbolic. They said to themselves, “Maybe we’ve seen enough? Maybe it’s better that we don’t see the snow leopard and are spared the desolation of success.”ii I find that phrase, “desolation of success,” so evocative. It’s the very thing we often pray at the end of the day at Compline with the words, “shield the joyous,” i.e., the desolation of success.iii The explorers’ insight is confirmed shortly thereafter as they trek upwards to the Crystal Monastery, which is a true “gompa,” a dwelling inhabited by a solitary monk. The structure is small and of bare stone, carved against a cliff so that nothing could be seen from within except for the snow peaks rising into the sky.
The Lama of the Crystal Monastery was an old monk with twisted arthritic legs, making any movement an arduous and painful occasion. Curiously to Matthiessen, this solitary Lama of the Crystal Mountain appeared to be very happy. Matthiessen writes, “…And yet I wonder how he feels in the silence about his [solitary monastery], which he has not left in eight years now and, because of his legs, may never leave again.” He asks the Lama whether it is so, whether he could be happy in this place and in his condition. “The Lama, this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self-pity or bitterness, as if they belong to [everyone], he casts his arms wide to the sky and to the snow mountains, the high sun and dancing sheep, and cries, ‘Of course I am happy here! It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!’”iv It’s that scene, lodged in my memory, which is so rife with meaning: the lama’s saying, ‘Of course I am happy here! It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!’ The Buddhist Lama here is talking about a spiritual quality which we may know so very little about, a spiritual quality almost as elusive as the snow leopard. I’m speaking here about contentment. Contentment, from the Latin contentus, which is to be “satisfied” or “contained.” Contentment.
There is an old monastic principle about freedom, inner freedom. Freedom is known in the context of limitation, which is quite counter-cultural. We live in a culture where we are identified as “consumers,” in a market economy that is constantly alluring us with dissatisfaction, where what is next or what is new is presumed better than what is now. More is more and never enough. We hear the adages, “Keep your options open,” and “Keep your commitments few.” The notion that what is, is enough is quite radical, and yet there is a buried treasure to be found in the grace of contentment.
By speaking of contentment, I’m not talking about passivity. Quite to the contrary. I’m talking about actively engaging life now. Live today. To be content is to not be seduced into thinking we must always stretch our soul ever broader, ever thinner, to take in ever-new experiences, taste new pleasures, hear new things, master new skills, buy new gadgets to be complete. Rather it’s to grow our soul downward, deeper into the ground of our being. Contentment is an active living into the depths life now, today, given all the givens. (Contentment is not about being a victim; it’s certainly not about staying put in a context or relationship that is diminishing or abusive or numbing, where our energies clearly must be directed toward change.) Contentment is more about being than about doing, or acquiring, or mastering, or craving, or searching. Contentment is about being satisfied given the limitations of our present life, what is not changeable. The psalmist prays, “Out of the depths, O Lord, have I cried to you; Lord, hear my prayer.”v And in another place, “Be still and know that I am God.”vi In stillness, in letting be, be enough, in saying “yes” to the life we’ve been given now, the grace of contentment is to be discovered and savored. The poet e. e. cummings writes:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes…vii
Life is inevitably full of movement, and we know that Jesus was often on the go. He says more than once to his followers, “Come, follow me.”viii He sends his followers out: “Go into all the world.”ix He talks about laboring and sowing and harvesting.x And yet Jesus also talks about being. Simply being is what can be so elusive and so lost. “Abide with me,” we hear Jesus saying.”xi “Stay with me,” he says.xii It’s this sense that the incompleteness of life, as we experience it now, is enough. What we need is here. The treasure for which we search is likely buried under our own porch. And so as we heard in this evening’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ saying, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble – and, I would add, today’s provision – is sufficient for today.”xiii Live into what is already at hand. And so we hear Jesus commending us to learn the secrets from the flowers of the field, “Consider the lilies…” he says.xiv “Look at the birds of the air.”xv The great Christian mystic of the fourteenth century, Julian of Norwich, found the truth of all being meditating on the mystery and majesty of an hazelnut.xviSt. Francis of Assisi found creation teeming with God’s presence:
Be praised, my Lord, for all your creatures, and first for brother sun, who makes the day bright and luminous…beautiful and radiant with great splendor…Be praised, my Lord, for sister moon and the stars, in the sky you have made them brilliant and precious and beautiful…
Be praised, my Lord, for our sister, mother earth, who nourishes us and watches over us
and brings forth various fruits with colored flowers and herbs…xvii
We gather here this evening to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, the Greek word “eucharist” meaning “great thanksgiving.” It’s not that we normally live very ordinary, secular, horizontal lives and then have these special occasions, such as this evening, as a “spiritual moment,” a fleeting transcendent experience, then to return to our ordinariness. Rather, we celebrate the Holy Eucharist as a kind of living reminder, a template of how to live our lives all the time: “living eucharistically,” living our lives with a posture of gratitude for all that is.
The real presence of Christ is really present in the ordinary present. To stay in touch with God’s presence requires practice. We don’t need a special cushion on which to sit, nor a special lamp to light, nor a special incense to burn, nor a special prayer or mantra to recite, nor even a special monastery to visit. None of that is bad; it may well help. It is simply not enough. What is enough is now. Start with what is now: with your breath, with what you can see and hear and feel now. Pay attention to now, which is a gift, and be thankful.
The psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”xviii Take time each day to gaze. Sit on your porch. Take time to savor what is now in your life, today. Pray and practice today the living and enjoying of your life in every way you can, especially given what you cannot change. Enjoy life, which is to let joy sink in deeply: to en-joy. So little of life is within our own control and it is all very fleeting. Don’t miss a moment of it. Presume the invitation to transcendence is immanent. This is the grace of contentment, living in the “sacrament of the present moment.” I’m not speaking about tomorrow. Tomorrow is only a possibility. What we have now is the gift of today, which is a splendid gift indeed. Say yes to your life. Savor the moments of your life. Be thankful everywhere and in every way you possibly can for the hugely challenging, utterly amazing gift of life.
vii “i thank You God for most this amazing,” by e. e. cummings
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
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What a fabulous meditation, so helpful and appropriate on many levels for a time of life when we are pairing down everyday in every way! Thank you for the reminder to live in the now.
Simply: today’s ‘Brother, Give Us a Word’, is precisely the sort of detachment, divesting, decluttering that points us toward obtaining the ground of heart- & soul-longing…thank you.
Many thanks for this beautiful sermon and thoughtful comments. I loved this book and writer. And will revisit this favorite reading on the experiencing joy, presence and contentment in God’s creation and our being.
Br. Curtis, I will never forget the time you addressed a very large gathering at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston. Someone asked you what was the most important word you might give us. You replied instantly, “Now.” I’ve always treasured that moment! And the word “Now” often comes to mind as I face each day. The only reality is Now! The past is gone. The future uncertain. “Now” is the time!
NOW caught my eye on my first day of vacation and I stopped for this email…in Hebrew of our Lords day there was no PRESENT tense only past and future (consider these conjugations in studying Scripture and living)…the present participle only was used to express the p r e s ence, which is always ‘moving’ along….hence you had…being, going, happening, eating, thinking, etc…moving along!
…on ‘your’ Eucharist words, my wake up thought went to my memorization of Archbishop of Canterbury William Temples’ description of WORSHIP, which I memorized (and pasted on my wall) so when i go into the nave i always center on his listed phenomenal experiences there encountered (but go off when often surprised by the Holy Spirit and an experience of synchronicity)…something of your email as I awoke this A.M. and your NOW…(was expecting to start my sewing)….HA!
The Archbishops’ words: (my comments in parenthesis)
“…WORSHIP is to quicken the conscience by the Holiness of God (lots of people quiet w/awe)
to feed the mind with the Truth of God (always seeking/finding something in the
to purge the imagination with the beauty of God (always find in a hat/new suit and altar
the opening of the heart to Gods’ Love (always w/friends past & present thoughts)
and to devote ourselves to the Will of God…” (a constant experience of this Absolute)
….having a great ‘starting’ to my vacation! THX!
Dear Brother Curtis,
I have recently been inspired as I read your daily meditations in “Brother, Give Us a Word” to drill down, read more and listen to the Podcast. Words cannot express how deeply moved I was by last week’s sermon on “Foundaton” and today’s sermon on “Now”. What a great gift you have given me.
In deep appreciation and gratitude,
Dale Pinkham Cavanaugh
Dear Brother Curtis, I have read this sermon with joy and tears and renewed inspiration several times over these past years, and I thank you. It never gets old or loses its impact.
I am so grateful for these daily homilies from all the Brothers. I read them and the Meditations of Father Rohr first thing every morning. They inspire my life and challenge my thinking.
What I’m wondering is why there are no recent sermons from Bro. David and you? I wonder what you
are both doing at the present time? The Brothers of St. John’s monastery are much in my thoughts and prayers.
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Thank you for this sermon which really resonates with me. To live in the present and to be content , no, more than content to be happy with my lot. To live in the ‘here and now’ and not fret about he future.
So amazing and timely a message for me. I am so grateful for your words, Brother Curtis.
Dear Br, Curtis,
Thank you so much for your words concerning
contentment. It is so easy to long for things which
belong to a future time, and be happy with what we have in the present. This is especially true for me, as I live such a privileged life. I have found myself, today, longing for what in essence I already have, so I thank you for this timely sermon.
Thank you as always. I too try to live in the space between “Jesus how can I serve you today,” and “Be still and know that I am God.” Ceaseless prayer (which I struggle to do) helps me to live with this distinction peacefully and lovingly.
This is one of my favorite sermons. It is so poignant for this world we live in. Just Being has helped me so much in my life, and I think it is important to spread this word to others.
Your sermon reminded me of a book I read in the 1970’s by Baba Ram Das “Be Here Now”. In this time of year, Advent, as we prepare for the birth of Jesus and his return, it is good to remember to live in the present, in the Here and Now. The commercialization of the present with all the entrapment in consumming, let us not lose sight of the true meaning of Advent and Christmas, in the presence of the Lord in our lives.
Dear Br. Curtis, how significant is your message, which I definitely need today. I find myself too often thinking about the next thing on my agenda, instead of savoring the present moment. This sermon jars me into a new consciousness of the here and now. Thank you!
Thank you Brother.. Your lovely words have reminded me to be so thankful for the now, for the beauty of the day!
How appropriate it is for me to consider the Lama of Crystal Mountain and look at my own arthritic legs (with a newly replaced knee) and see that I am being asked to “stay in my cell and let it teach me everything” as a gift and not a limitation. (Rowan Williams in “Where God Happens” taught me about “staying” in this way.) I laugh at God’s sense of humor in bringing me to this place!
As I am in the second year of retirement and deciding what is next, it is so important to live in the NOW! Life is so finite and changes in a flash. Thanks for this aha moment. So excited about coming to visit you all June 19th! You are such a blessing to all!
Dearest Brother Curtis!
We woke to this sermon this morning and listened together with nearly “edge of your seat ” intrigue. It hits us squarely at the center- in so many was and is beautifully crafted and perfectly delivered.
We are coming to see you Brothers tomorrow !!!!
Your sermon reminds me of Baba Ram Das’s book “Be Here Now”. Live in the moment, in the present not in the past or the future. Past is past and cannot be recaptured and the future is unknown.
Particularly helpful at this time of life!
Thanks again for so much for so long Curtis
Today’s message has been the most inspiring I have read in a long while and reminds me to be content in all things even though many obstacles in my life would cause me to worry and fret over. I will dwell on it and try to practice the art of being content, in the day. Thank you.
Thank you for this message and for your words on distraction .You and your brothers ate slowly pulling me back towards the Holy One after a long dry period. I too loved the eecummongs – so joyful and so playful .
Curtis, This is exactly what I needed to hear today and didn’t even know it as I frantically sought to fill up my newly retired life. Thank you!
The cummings poem struck me a wonder: I wonder if he ever visited this monastery living in the area.
March 3, 2013 – Brother Curtis: Your words mean so very much this morning.
Thank you. Will copy them to put into my BCP. Gratefully, Allene Taylor
absolutely wonderful . i needed it badly.
I’ve heard you weave this theme many times, but I’ve never heard it as clearly (or needed is as much) as today. Thank you.
Dear Brother Curtis:
Again, THANK YOU for your words. Christina
curtis. hit the nail on the head. or what i had been thinking about.peter
Another fine sermon about NOW – live now.
“Maybe we have the whole day.” Those are your words remembered by mary and myself from long ago. Thanks for Cassain too. Indeed our cell ( or present life ) will teach us everything. I remember asking my Hebrew teaching friend one day what the meaning of the word for word is in the Hebrew. She stunned me by saying that the word for word meant, “that which is happening.” From that I could grasp or be grasped by understanding that NOW, or the events of our lives Now are the points of our instruction. God “says” and all comes to be. No wonder all “religious experience happens in the present – never the past or future.
Very likely you know this last bit about word as you are such a student of words – just thought I’d share and cheer you on in your illuminating ministry, as well as thank you for “re-minding” me about how to begin this day. Again – NOW.
Blessings on you in your vocation. Mary and I are enriched by knowing you, if occasionally,over these past 25v years. Tom
The Talmud asks: “Who is rich?” and answers: “He who is happy with his lot.”
And in common parlance we talk about; “MAKING a virtue of necessity.”
I appreciate your luminous commentary.
How I would love to support the Brothers, as you have fed my soul so many times! You know and speak of the pain of limitations, but as you have shared, there is indeed happiness in contentment. Such contentment and joy invites thanksgiving and I thank you for this most glorious sermon!
What a beautiful, calming way to start this dreary.rainy, grey Sunday. I’ll forget about making mental lists of what needs to be done in the house – vacuuming, ironing – and just enjoy bring alive and able to go to church and start the week with Eucharist. Pray with me, I can hear you from here!
What wonderfully simply and true are your words. I have known the “desolation of success” and how sweet is its taste and how seductively addictive is each ensuing mouthful…never enough….never enough and more and more to fill the hole within the soul.
Thanks be to God that I have the possibility this moment to live within the moment…some moments better than others…but the possibility to do so is what I am so grateful for!
Hi Curtis – super, duper sermon. Way to go….
Love, A. Scharry