A full jar is never quite full, the old story goes. Luisella Planeta Leoni/Pixabay

Gerry Turcotte: Always room for prayer in life’s overflowing jar

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  • February 14, 2020

A good friend of mine, a fellow scotch aficionado, sent me a story which is an adaptation of a well-known leadership story, popularized by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

In my friend’s version, a philosophy professor, hoping to instil a sense of values and priorities in his students, conducts an experiment. He fills a jar to the brim with a number of small stones and then asks his students if the jar is full. Naturally, they respond that it is. 

He then pours in scoops of small pebbles, which slide in between the cracks around the stones. Once again, he asks his students if the jar is full to which they all agree. 

Finally, he scoops sand into the jar and it quickly fills every crevasse until it is truly full. 

“This,” he explains, “is a metaphor for your lives. It is so easy to fill your life with busyness and clutter, that we forget what really matters. The stones should be your priority: your family, your health, your peace of mind. The pebbles are other important things, like your home, your job, maybe your transportation. And the sand? Well, it’s everything else. Social media, petty jealousies, addictions.”

Needless to say, the students are taken by the example. But the professor isn’t done yet. 

“If you were to fill the jar first with the sand, as we often do, it is almost impossible to get the pebbles, much less the stones, in. There will never be room for what matters. So set your priorities. Take the time to let those you love know how you feel. Take the time to build and cherish your priorities, so that the small stuff doesn’t crowd it out.”

Of course, this story came to me via a scotch fanatic, so the ultimate punchline is that a student supposedly walks up to the counter and pours in a bottle of single malt scotch. It naturally soaks in and truly fills the jar, to which the student proclaims that, “no matter how full your life is, there is always room for scotch.”

I had two quick thoughts. One is that I would expel the student immediately for bringing in a bottle of scotch to class … and then wasting it in such an uncivilized way! But then it occurred to me that this was also an incredibly powerful way to think about prayer. 

Whether we practise this or not, it seems to me that our jar is always already filled with prayer — filled indeed to the brim — with our own prayers, certainly, either unspoken or otherwise, but also those that are offered for us. And of course the prayers that Christ has made on our behalf are always and ever present. Inevitably, perhaps, we begin to fill our jar with things that matter and things that don’t. We jam the spaces with stones, and pebbles, sand and yes, even scotch, until we wonder, at times, if there is any room for prayer.

Yet prayer, which seems so expendable at times, is critical to the very life system that sustains us. Prayer allows us space to breathe, even as the sand of triviality and grief intrudes. Prayer offers hope when we feel suffocated by the plethora of trivialities that threaten to weigh us down. Deep reflection can fill the cracks and spaces that might otherwise be cluttered or crammed with fears and dissolution. 

In Philippians we read, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4: 6-7).

Even writing this I know that it often isn’t so simple. As the sand rushes in to overwhelm us, we often don’t think to turn to prayer. Instead we panic and saturate the sand with fear, with temptations and addictions, with anything that might take our minds off the overwhelming tide. 

But unlike the stones that won’t fit in the jar full of sand, prayer was there before, and it is there still. Prayer can be invoked to still the tide — prayer can displace the sands; can give us room to breathe. Prayer can help us to see the angels that surround and sustain us even when we fail to see them. 

Or as George Eliot once so beautifully phrased it: “The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.”

Let us take this metaphor to heart and remember to sift the sand and find the angels that prayer makes visible.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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