Jesus’ Name; Jesus’ Heart – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

John 14:7-14

In my childhood and early adolescence I was fascinated by magic and magic tricks. Which also happens to be when I first heard Jesus’ words, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” It was like my discovering the ultimate magic trick. I started asking away in Jesus’ name about most everything I fancied. Everything. It did not work. Not often. It was sure not anything to depend on. I remember “dropping” this Bible verse like dropping a fad. I only later discovered the context of Jesus’ invitation. It’s not just about asking Jesus; it’s also about naming Jesus.

There is an enormous power in knowing someone’s name and then using it. To know someone’s name gives you an access to their identity and a claim on your relationship. I imagine we all know when that power is misused, when someone “name drops.” When someone feigns to know another person – who they are, what they believe, how they can be accessed. If someone invokes the name of a person, but without the license to use their name, it will backfire, eventually… because the namedropper will eventually be exposed. People will know: the person whose name was invoked would not say that. It is inconsistent or incongruous… and the pretender will be discredited.

Which is the key in claiming Jesus’ invitation that he will give us whatever we ask in his name. We must know Jesus to invoke his name. We must know the mind of Jesus, the heart of Jesus, the words of Jesus to speak in his name. And the purpose, the goal for invoking Jesus’ name, is for one reason only: for the sake of love. It’s to know Jesus’ love and then to love others on behalf of Jesus, to love others in Jesus’ name.  Our asking things of Jesus cannot just be on behalf of our own private self, but on behalf of all whom Jesus claims in relationship.

Our community’s principal founder, Richard Meux Benson, says that all of us are related. Father Benson says, “Your life must be a relative life. The moment you are imprisoned in your own self-consciousness, in your own separate individuality, in the selfishness of your own separate existence, you commit a worse suicide than taking the life of your body.” Father Benson says that we are a relative being, and we have no existence except when we ask and act on behalf of another.[i]

We should take Jesus at his word, to ask away. Jesus assures us, “I will give you whatever you ask in my name….” In my adolescence, the problem was not that I was asking for too much; I was asking for too little. We need to know a great deal about Jesus and the enormity of his love – what Jesus would want for those for whom we pray – and then pray our hearts out. And in our praying, we should presume that Jesus will very likely reciprocate, in asking us, asking you, to be a part of the answer to our prayer.


[i] Quoted from Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson, pp. 36-37; 297.

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] Read More

Conversing with God – Br. Jack Crowley

Br. Jack Crowley headshot

Br. Jack Crowley

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 106:6-7, 19-23

Moses was the star of the show this morning. The hero who stood in the breach defending his people from God’s wrath. I can’t imagine how Moses must have felt, walking down Mount Sinai with two stone tablets in hand, being verbally interrupted by God to find out his people had turned astray.

One of the many things I love about Moses was his verbal relationship with God. I use that word verbal intentionally. Moses and God had a lot of conversations. Starting from being called from the burning bush on Mount Horeb, all the way to Moses’ last moments on Mount Nebo with God lovingly telling Moses how his people would reach the promised land. Moses and God had this beautiful back and forth verbal relationship that blossomed over time.

These conversations were not always easy. Moses had the courage to speak to God truthfully, but Moses also had the stamina to listen to what God had to say – even when God was angry. Moses grew from being a man too afraid to speak to Pharaoh directly, even though God directly told Moses to do so, to being a man who verbally defended his people straight to God’s face. Read More

The Powerful Name of Jesus – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

Numbers 6:22-27
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name.[1]  It is the eighth day of Christmas, the day on which Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple, offering him to God with the appointed sacrifices.  In Judaism, this was the occasion on which the father named the child, and for Jewish boys, this was the day of their circumcision, which set them apart from all others and marked them as belonging to God’s holy people, Israel.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us”… as a young Jewish boy.

We recognize, don’t we, that there is power in a name.  In ancient Israel, and in other ancient cultures, there was believed to be a close connection between a person’s name and their soul.  It was as if their identity, their personality, their temperament, and their character were all bound up in their name.  To know someone’s name was to gain insight into them, perhaps even power over them.  Recall the story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger throughout the night beside the river Jabbok, refusing to let go and demanding to know the stranger’s name (Gen. 32:29).  Or remember in the gospels how demons tried to exercise power over Jesus by calling out his name and claiming to know who he was (Mark 3:11).  There was power in knowing someone’s name.

To do something “in the name of” another person, or to evoke or call upon a person’ name, was an act of utmost weight and power because it made the other person effectively present in the transaction.  Someone who was authorized to act “in the name of” another shared that person’s power and authority. Read More

Desire, Distilled – Br. Keith Nelson

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

I was blessed in the second year of my novitiate to work with a spiritual director who was a Trappist monk. Once a month, he patiently listened to the many words I would summon as I circled around my inmost experience of prayer. With a verbal precision sifted by silence, and great love, he would wait. And at the right moment, which would always come, he would name the heart of the matter. Suddenly, words would feel small and superfluous, and the way forward obvious, in the presence of a God whose one desire was simply to be with me.

He shared with me an adage I still remember:

Filled with ardent desire
yet not pressing the point
we become a place
where the Lord may rest.

The words capture the essential invitation in swift, clean strokes. We let our thirst for God rise up from within. We refrain from any agenda of our own contriving, any attachment to this or that experience. And we wait. As we wait, it may happen that God rests – and we rest in God, drawn by this harmonious alignment of wills. Read More

Breaking Apart

Breaking Apart: Struggle, Discernment, Prayer with Br. Lucas Hall, SSJE

⇓ Download, print and share: Breaking Apart

It was November 2011 when I began to plan my suicide.

No particular event prompted it. My grandmother had recently died, which was sad, but not unexpected, and she had lived a long life. I had, just a few weeks prior, lost a local election, but I never really expected to win; I was thrilled that I simply hadn’t come in last place, that I’d convinced thousands of real-life people with jobs and lives to vote for me. To be honest, the personal and professional busyness was probably a distraction from the deeper problem.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety (like many of us), and I took pills, and they worked well, and I basically agree with the diagnosis. But leaving it there doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel true to what I lived. I certainly experienced depression and anxiety to a degree that would register on a clinical level, but I do not think that’s the full story. I’m convinced that these were the psychological damages wrought by a deeper, fundamental problem. Read More

Shamelessly Free – Br. Lain Wilson

Malachi 3:13-4:2a
Luke 11:5-13

If you’ve been around children for more than about five minutes, I’m sure you’ve gotten frustrated. They interrupt and question when you just want to have a nice conversation. They run ahead, or behind, or zigzag, or sit down when you just want to have a nice walk. Think about that behavior. Now imagine yourself doing it. Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you think about what other people may think about your doing or asking? Name that uncomfortable emotion. Is it embarrassment or, perhaps, shame?

The word in our Gospel reading translated as “persistence” literally means “shamelessness.” Your friend knocks at the door late at night, and knocks, and keeps knocking, without regard for what you think about him. He needs something. Like a child, he is unashamed of his need, unashamed to ask, unashamed to persist.

Children appear in both our readings this morning, and imagining a particularly shameless child helps us to understand not only what it means to persist in prayer, as Jesus exhorts us, but to persevere in a relationship with God. God, Malachi tells us, will have compassion on those who serve God, as parents have compassion on “children who serve them” (Mal 3:17). I imagine this group not just as obedient children, but as shameless children, unembarrassed to revere God, unconcerned by what others, who see no profit in serving God, may think about them. This is the shamelessness of the psalmist, who persists in giving thanks to God despite those who mock him. This is the shamelessness of Saint Paul, who is unashamed of the Gospel (Rom 1:16).

This is difficult. We face enormous personal and social pressures to care about what others think, to conform, to grow up. But when we apply this to God, how easily we complicate our relationship with God. What childlike shamelessness gives us, I think, is single-minded freedom. Think back to that child. How would she express her need, how would she pray, how would she relate to God? Where do you feel resistance in doing likewise? What would it take for you to turn to God like her—unencumbered, unembarrassed, unashamed? Ask Jesus to give you that freedom—the freedom to ask, to search, to knock . . . the freedom to be shameless.

Amen.

Pray Your Heart Out – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Season of Creation

Romans 8:19-23

This morning we begin a 5-part Sunday morning sermon series on the Season of Creation. This “Creation” focus for our preaching and prayers is going on with other Christians throughout the world, across the denominational spectrum. In the upcoming four Sundays, the preachers here at the monastery will focus on themes related to “Creation”: to Learn, to Act, to Advocate, to Bless, and, beginning this morning, to Pray.

Emery House, our rural monastery in West Newbury, Massachusetts, is bordered by the Merrimack River, and so a story about the Merrimack, told by Henry David Thoreau, is particularly endearing. In the first two weeks of September 1839, Thoreau set off on a homemade wooden boat with his older brother, John, to explore the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.[i]  Later, while living in his sparse cabin at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote about this river experience, his first book. The writing project took him 10 years, not because of the length of the book, but because of the depth of his grief. After the river trek, Henry’s beloved brother, John, had cut himself while shaving and contracted tetanus, dying in agony the following week. John was 28; Henry, 25. In his grief, Henry was destroyed… almost.

Henry David Thoreau’s healing, his resuscitation, came at Walden Pond as he intently watched the goings on of flowers and trees, of birds and animals. Observing the natural wonders, he slowly realized that death is not the end of life but rather an intrinsic part of life. He learned from observation that the very process of decay, diminishment, and death is a life process. It is the way that God has created all of the earth, from the life of the tiniest bird and flower to humankind. Thoreau wrote in his Journal, “Do not the flowers die every autumn? …Yet death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident. [Death] is as common as life. Every blade in the field, every leaf in the forest, lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.”[ii]

Two realizations had happened in Thoreau: in his mind and in his heart. In his mind, he came to embrace a “disindividualized” view of life. Thoreau writes, “The individual may die, but the materials that make up the individual do not. They are subsumed into new forms and so live on,” true for every living thing that has ever been created.[iii] And emotionally, Thoreau’s grief in his brother’s death never went away; however his grief came to be companioned by gratitude and wonder. Thoreau’s love for his brother, John, his joy in the life together they had shared, and his many memories had not died. They actually took new form and lived on. Thoreau realized that death is not the end of life but, rather an essential part of life, by God’s design, and this is something we share with everything and with everyone and for all time. Thoreau said that, in a certain sense, there is no death; everything is part and parcel of life. Thoreau’s epiphany brought to my mind what we pray at a funeral, that at death, the life of this departed one “is changed, not ended.”[iv]

So we look to the whole of creation as if it were an icon, a window through which to know God on God’s terms:

  • the window of creation opening our eyes to the majestic beauty of God;
  • the window of creation opening our eyes to the panoply of the diversity which God creates, multiplies, shares, and invites; in the beginning, God’s creation teems with beauty and diversity, and God said, “it is good”;[v]
  • the window of creation – what is the most massive and mighty, and what is the most tiny and delicate – with a lifespan the prepares and provides for what is next. This is why we call it “the created order.” We read in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…”[vi]

We have an invitation and an inspiration for our prayer as we learn from God’s creation that surrounds us and fills us.

  • Be still enough, focused enough, close enough to notice, expectant enough to notice the majesty and terminality of creation. You might ask, “Notice what?” To which I would only smile.
  • The autumn season is upon us. The colors and fragrances of plants, and flowers, and trees are changing, preparing the way for the next season. Outside in front of the monastery, the sycamores, these elephantine trees soaring into the sky, have decided this is a year to divest their bark, their old bark. Behold, a fresh skin of bark is awaiting. Very soon these great soaring trees will also surrender their leaves… which leave space for new life to emerge in the spring. In our Rule of Life, we write how the autumn of life prepares the way: “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death.”[vii] Is death an end in itself? Not at all. Death is part of life; death is the portal to the new life that Jesus promises us.[viii]
  • See how the creation that surrounds us does not clutch at its life, but rather lives and gives its life. Letting go is an important life practice. I love an ancient word in the church’s vocabulary: oblation, from the Latin meaning an offering, a gift. We live the gift of our lives as an oblation, offering our lives back to God the custody God has temporarily entrusted to us.

We notice, we acquiesce, we participate most fully in life when we live with the terms by which God has created all of life, which is terminal. All of creation is a teacher for our prayer.

We also have an invitation to pray for the creation that surrounds us. So much of creation does not advocate well for itself when faced with human intrusion. One word captures how I, personally, pray for plants and animals, for birds and fish, mountains and meadows. My own prayer word is “channeling.” I pray that I can channel light; I pray that I can channel fresh water; I pray that I can channel the needed nourishment; I pray that I can channel a fresh breeze. I sometimes pray I can channel CO2 to some poor plant. I am placing myself with one hand pointing to the heavens, and the other hand channeling some life I sense this creature, this created thing, needs. I pray, co-operating with the Creator. I pray I can be a conduit of God’s life to this creature in need. If you were to ask me, “So does your channeling prayer do any good?” I would say, “Absolutely!” “Yes, I am quite sure.”

So this is free-form prayer, what captures my heart’s attention in the moment. And yet there are some specific creatures – by creatures I mean plants and animals, trees and meadows, mountains and waterways – some specific creatures that have a particular, ongoing claim on my heart’s attention. Maybe you, also? To what in creation are you drawn to give attention in your prayer? How do you pray to be a channel of God’s light, and life, and love to this creature? How are you drawn to pray? You might not be ready to publish, but I imagine you do have some prayer practice for creation. What is it?

For almost 20 years I have been fascinated with the work of Johannes Fritz, an Austrian biologist, who has devoted his life to saving an endangered bird species, the northern bald ibis. The ibis is a goose-sized black bird with a bald head and an enormous beak. Perhaps you’ve read about Dr. Fritz who feeds and cuddles the baby ibises and then, using his ultralight aircraft, he leads them in flight to a new safer winter migration path that bypasses the Alps. Global warming figures into the urgency of his work. Dr. Fritz has rewilded more about 300 of these ibises. It’s his life’s work. I mention this particular legacy as an amazing example of passion and advocacy. His passion is what I am talking about when I speak of praying for whatever in creation has captured your heart’s attention. Pray as an intermediary. Be like a third point in a triangle, whose two other points are God and the creature that has caught your heart’s attention. Pray your intercession, and then channel the power or provision for what God gives you for this fellow creature. Pray. Do pray.

In our lesson from the Letter to the Romans, we hear Saint Paul say, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…”[ix] Creation is waiting for us to do our own part in the company of fellow creatures.

“i thank You God for most this amazing day, the words of 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….”[x]


[i] Henry David Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849.

[ii] From October 1837 to November 1861, Thoreau kept a handwritten Journal. Thoreau’s Walden was first published in 1854.

[iii] Three Roads Back; How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives, by Robert D. Richardson (Princeton Univ. Press, 2023), pp. 53-54.

[iv] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 382.

[v] Genesis 1 – 2:3.

[vi] Ecclesiastes 3:1-2.

[vii] Quoted from SSJE’s The Rule of Life (Cowley, 1997), chapter 48: “Holy Death.”

[viii] John 14:3-10.

[ix] Romans 8:19.

[x] E. E. Cummings (1894-1962):

 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) 

 

 

Make Your Gifts Your Prayer – Br. Lain Wilson

Leviticus 23:1-11, 26-38
Matthew 13:54-58

A juggler enters a monastery. He soon discovers that, unlike the other monks, he’s not good at typical monkish things: he can’t cook, he can’t sing, he has terrible handwriting. The only thing he can do is juggle, and what use is that? In despair, he goes one night to a statue of the Virgin Mary . . .  and juggles—offering to her, as his prayer, the only thing he has.

The medieval French tale of the “Juggler of Our Lady” imparts a familiar lesson: God gives us gifts that God wants us to use and to offer back in prayer and worship. Our reading from Leviticus this morning gets at something similar: “When you enter the land I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest” (Lev 23:10). This section of the reading is from the oldest layer of this passage, and significantly is directed not at the collective, or to priests, but to the individual farmer. “I have given you, as a gift, this land—you shall give me, as a gift, the fruits of that land.” Read More

Life and the Living God – Br. Lucas Hall

Br. Lucas Hall

Isaiah 55:10-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

As many of you know, when a man comes to join the monastery, he passes through a number of stages before finally taking vows for life. Before each of these transitions, he’s given some time of retreat, alone in prayer, to really listen for the call of God, to discern, to confirm his response the question and the choice he has before him.

It was a little more than a year ago when I was on one of these retreats, looking ahead to taking my life vows. I was up at Emery House, our farmhouse and woodlands up in northern Massachusetts. There were a number of things I did up there to facilitate my prayer. I prayed the daily office. I journaled. I met regularly with another brother. But what I didn’t plan to do, or expect to do, was what I still remember most about that time.

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