The Making and Meaning of Life – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7

In Psalm 4, which we just sang, there is a wonderful phrase: “You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase.” “Gladness,” in the Hebrew, is often translated as “joy.” Our word “gladness” comes from the Old English meaning “bright, shining, gleaming, joyous.” God has put gladness, joyfulness, into our heart, which is a wonderful elixir when life feels desolating. Gladness, joyfulness, is a gift from God. Which begs the question: How do we cultivate and appropriate the gift of gladness that God has already put into our heart?

For one, you don’t have to wait until everything is peachy. You don’t have to wait until all the bad stuff, all the bad people, all the suffering is over… and then you can get in touch with gladness, with joyfulness. No need to wait. Gladness and joyfulness are “alongsiders.” In the scriptures, so often we read of suffering and joy coexisting, which is a paradox. Often the depth of one’s suffering will forecast the height of one’s forthcoming experience of joy. The psalmist writes, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.”[i]

In our lesson from the First Letter of John, we are spoken of as “beloved children” of God. And in case you missed it, John repeats himself: “We are God’s children now.”[ii] Children innately live in wonder. Unless wonder has been robbed from a child, a child’s world is wonder-filled. Child of God that you are: reclaim the wonder of childhood. Wonder, joy, and gladness are cousins. One of my favorite books from my own childhood is Winnie the Pooh.[iii] There’s this very endearing scene, which you may know from memory, where Pooh Bear is walking down a path accompanied by his little friend, Piglet.

Pooh asks Piglet, “What day is it?”
Piglet answers, “It’s today.”
And Pooh responds, “My favorite day.”

And why not? Why not lean into today with great expectation, with the eyes of your heart open to the grandeur, beauty, joy, and wonder of life?[iv] I am not denying that the day will also most likely share in suffering. However suffering and joy can coexist in our heart. Don’t let the suffering take over. Let the suffering be companioned by joy: what is so marvelous, so astonishing, so wondrous about the gift of life today.

Today is predicted to be an amazing day for you. The psalmist shouts with the resounding proclamation: “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”[v] Today! The English author, G. K. Chesterton, said “the sun rises over and over again because God is enjoying it so much.”[vi] For you to live your life fully, freely, meaningfully, joyfully – for you to have the time of your life – live your life in sync with the Creator of life, and that will make a world of difference. In the Brothers’ Rule of Life, we call our version of this “praying your life.”[vii] Praying your life presumes your whole life matters to God, not just the major encounters and major decisions, not just your cries for help that come out of the depths of your soul, and not just your mountaintop experiences with God. Those extremes of life – the best of times and worst of times – certainly invite our prayer. However most of life is somewhere in the middle, sometimes in the muddle, and even there – especially there – we have an invitation to practice God’s presence, to pray our life.

Prayer is about our relationship with the God. God is the initiator of that relationship. We are always responding to God’s initiative. We may be drawn to pray because of some need – a personal need for help, or healing, or hope – or the need of someone whom we carry in our heart: a loved one, a colleague, someone we meet on the street or read about in the newspaper or online. God is already well apprised of the need. God is God. Our prayer is certainly not a press conference with God, giving God a newsflash, nor is prayer our lobbying efforts towards God. It’s the opposite.

When we are moved to pray, we are not initiating; we are always responding. God has shared with us what God already knows and, in some mysterious way, God is drawing our own heart into the heart of God. Somehow God is using our awareness, our hands, our voice, our presence, to bear the beams of God’s life and light and love into this world. It’s like an underground tunneling project. When we pray, we might think we are tunneling to God, bringing to God some need; however what we discover, with the first shovel-full of dirt, is that God has already tunneled to us. We are simply meeting up with God.  God operates; we cooperate.  Our prayer is always a response to God’s initiative.

The invitation is to pray our life, the whole shebang. There’s nothing too great or too small. I’ll use some language from our own Rule of Life.[viii] We pray about our cares for the world and its peoples, our friends and families, our enemies and those from whom we are estranged. We pray about our work, our successes and failures, our gifts and shortcomings. We pray about our sufferings and poverty, our passion and sexuality, our fears and resistances, our desires and dreams, our losses and grief. We pray not just in the day, but also in the night, our conscious mind also our unconscious self. After all, we spend nearly a third of our entire life sleeping, which is a God-given need. Use the gift of sleep and rest to pray for God’s ministrations, for God’s direction, for God’s inspiration, for God’s healing, and hope, and replenishment. Pray that God defrag your soul while you sleep. For those of us who are rather strong willed, I think God may sometimes have a better chance getting through to us when we are sleeping, when our guard is down, than when we are up and navigating life in full throttle.

How should you pray? I know that some people judge that how they pray is not the right way. Some people (maybe you?) think they should pray “better,” or pray differently. There was an English Benedictine monk named Dom John Chapman who was a much-sought-after spiritual director. His very straightforward advice about prayer was this: “Pray as you can, not as you cannot.”[ix]  Pray as only you can. One of our own predecessors in the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Father Godfrey Callaway, was much revered for his humility and his prayerfulness.[x] He was once asked to describe his own prayer. He said, “Well, I kneel down beside my bed and hope for the best.” And so for you: “Pray as you can, not as you cannot.”

Many of us probably learned something about prayer when we were children. As a child I was taught to close my eyes and fold my hands when I pray. Before bedtime, I knelt at my bedside. You, too, may have memories from your childhood about prayer. But we don’t just want to be stuck in our past prayer. What would be inviting to you now for your prayer? What of praying with an icon, with a candle, with incense; perhaps using prayer beads or praying the Rosary; perhaps praying silently with your tears; praying with your eyes open or with your eyes closed; praying by writing; praying with gestures of your body or with dance; praying with your breath; praying in stillness and silence, or praying with music; praying using Scripture or poetry; praying with words, your words or someone else’s words; praying with your dreams or with the gift of tongues; praying when you are inside a holy place or praying outside in what for you is a sacred space; praying alone or praying with someone else or with a group. There is no “right” way to pray.

Prayer is about our relationship to God, and so our prayer will take on many different forms, and those forms may change over time. Just like in a long-term relation­ship with another person, the ways you relate – and how those ways have stayed the same, and how they have changed over time – will be the makings of a real relationship, a relationship that is alive. But don’t be stuck just to the archival ways you have prayed in the past. Pray your life now. What is prompting you to pray now, and how? Respond to that invitation, which is God’s invitation. And then, like with every relationship, don’t do all the talking. Listen. Listen up!

If you are “praying your life,” learning to practice the presence of God as you wend your way through your day and through your life, does that mean you don’t demarcate specific times in which to focus your prayer? No, it’s not one or the other. It’s both. I have three suggestions, especially if your life is very busy:

  1. Pray the “book ends” of your day. At the very the beginning of your day collect yourself in God’s presence. Offer a prayer that acknowledges the gift of your life, your dependence upon God, your availability to God. One of my favorite old movies is “The Blues Brothers,” with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. They are absolutely hopeless and hapless until they become absolutely convinced they are on “a mission from God.” And we all are! Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuits, taught that our mission in life is “to know God, and to love God, and to serve God.”[xi] Begin your day with that end: “to know God, and to love God, and to serve God.” Find a prayer or write a prayer to begin your day, because you are on a mission. Saint Paul calls us all “an ambassador of Christ.[xii]
  2. Likewise, pray a bookend at the close of your day.[xiii] Collect your day and then pray a night prayer to complete the day, calling to mind your awareness of need (yours and others), your sorrow and repentance for where you blew it, your gratitude for the amazing gift of life.[xiv] You may find a written prayer that gives you the language to do this, or you may want to write your own prayer, your own prayer Collect, for the completion of the day. Don’t live your life as a run-on sentence. Punctuate the beginning and end of the day by acknowledging the promise of God’s presence and God’s provision, and your availability to be on a mission from God.
  3. And then plan for several prayerful interventions in your day. Depending on your schedule, you may be able to demarcate specific times that check the flow of your day – like we do here in the Monastery – or you might simply demarcate several “prayer pauses” in the course of the day. Perhaps these prayer periods may be between appointments or classes or clients, perhaps while you’re walking or driving from point A to point B, or perhaps every time you sit down or stand up. Whatever. Incorporate some kind of prayer cue that you work into the rhythm of your day. I’m not suggesting a long period of prayer.  This may only be 30 seconds…. The point is a re-gathering, re-centering, re-collecting where you are and how you are and what you are in God’s presence.

Have the time of your life. Practice the presence of God as you wend your way through the day, knowing that God is always up to something in you and with you and through you. Live your life as an adventure, child of God that you are.[xv] This will give you meaning and deep satisfaction in life, will open the gate to joy and gladness, and it will make a world of difference.


[i] Psalm 30:5.

[ii] 1 John 3:1-7.

[iii] Winnie-the-Pooh, also called Pooh Bear, a fictional anthropomorphic teddy bear created by A. A. Milne, first published in 1926.

[iv] Saint Paul writes: “With the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (Ephesians 1:18-19)

[v] Psalm 118:24.

[vi] G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy (1995), p. 59.

[vii] “Prayer and Life”: chapter 22 of The SSJE Rule of Life: http://ssje.org/ssje/category/rule-of-life/

[viii] These descriptive phrases about our invitation to prayer come from SSJE’s Rule of Life: http://ssje.org/ssje/category/rule-of-life/

[ix] Dom John Chapman, OSB (1865-1933) was Abbot of Downside Abbey in Stratton-on-the-Fosse. He is quoted here from The Spiritual Letters of Dom John Chapman.

[x] Godfrey Callaway, SSJE (1867-1942).

[xi] This comes from Ignatius’ “Foundation and First Principle” of his Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), was a Spanish knight who, out a wound to his body and soul, became a priest and who, in 1541, founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

[xii] 2 Corinthians 5:20.

[xiii] Ignatius of Loyola calls this the “Examination of Conscience,” also called the “Examination of Consciousness.”

[xiv] The name of the monastic night prayer, “Compline,” comes from the Old English, “to complete.”

[xv] Jesus’ promise is to give us life abundantly: John 10:10.

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