In Flight

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, April 23, 2017

We’ve lived and experienced the Paschal Mystery—the suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus–for as many years as we’ve been alive. Because of that familiarity, we can sometimes dreamwalk through the Gospel stories we’ve read and prayed and heard so often. Yet grace can break through and intensify our awareness, calling us to pay attention and notice with fresh eyes what has been in front of us all along.

That was my experience this past Holy Thursday. On that night, I joined my IHM Sisters at Our Lady of Peace Residence, our retirement facility in Scranton, for the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. In that place of peace, I was lulled by the familiarity of the first reading from Exodus (12:1-8, 11-14), listing all the details that needed to be in place for the Passover meal: the time of the ritual gathering; the specific type of lamb; the blood on the doorposts; the elements of unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

But then came a sentence whose ending leaped out at me:

“This is how you are to eat it:
with your loins girt,
sandals on your feet,flightrefugees
and your staff in hand,
you shall eat like those who are in flight.”

Flight? Flight, meaning the action of fleeing or attempting to escape? What does it mean, I wondered, to eat and to live like those who are in flight?

The 15th century poet Mira, revered by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs as a champion of human rights, offers an insight. In “I Write of That Journey” she notes,

“All actions have evolved
from the taste of flight;
the hope of freedom
moves our cells
and limbs…”

The hope of freedom moves our very cells. The taste of flight lingers with me now as I sit down to a lovely place setting in a peaceful room and invite to the table:
those who are in flight from the bombing of Aleppo;
those seeking refuge from starvation and genocide in South Sudan;
those frantically fleeing terrorist attacks;
those migrating in search of potable water;
those running from religious persecution;
those hiding from the threat of domestic violence.

All are accompanied by a journeying God, a God on the move:
in movement even before his birth as Mary “went with haste” to visit her cousin in need;
carried in his mother’s womb for a census in the town of Bethlehem;
fleeing to Egypt to escape the slaughter of innocents;
living as an itinerant preacher with no place to rest at the end of a day;
walking the last long steps on the way to Calvary.

In the crucified peoples of our world we can so easily name the suffering and dying of Jesus unfolding right here, right now. Yet the Paschal mystery is not only this suffering and dying of Jesus in us; it must also include his rising in a world that is both beautiful and wounded.

In this season of resurrection when we focus on the rising of Jesus and the call to new life, we also underscore another definition of flight: the action or process of movingflighthope through the air; the process by which an object moves through the atmosphere or beyond it; all of the ways Jesus continues to rise in each of us.

This rising, this other type of flight, calls us to remember and give thanks for the many who have lifted us up, encouraged us, affirmed our dreams, supported our visions, loved us and stood by our side when we thought we had not a single redeeming quality. This rising calls us to applaud the poets and artists and dancers and painters who illuminate a vision of a world marked by tenderness and beauty and right relationship. This rising calls us to celebrate those who are bearers of hope and to take up their witness of resistance to the oppression and exclusion of social sin.

May we remember and hold in awareness and in prayer all those who experience any kind of flight this day. May each one of us rise into new life, into unending compassion, into undaunted hope.

Takeaway:

Spend a bit of quiet time reflecting on the suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus today.
Where in our world are you moved by the flight that is taking place?
What might be taking flight in you?

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayers and support for the many retreats and presentations I was privileged to offer during Lent.

Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of a faculty retreat day at Immaculate Conception School, Annandale, NJ, on May 5.

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As If for the First time

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, April 7, 2017

Have you ever heard words coming out of your mouth, words that perhaps you’ve said multiple times, and then suddenly been caught up in a deep knowing that you’re listening to and understanding those same words in a fresh way? Almost like a first, original hearing or an experience of deep mining.

Adults often insist that they’ll never use some of the sayings their parents repeated to them as they were children growing up. Count me among those adults who are one day stunned or startled to hear themselves uttering things like, “Because I say so” or “You’ll thank me later” or some other nugget of generations past. (Here, feel free to fill in the blanks with the utterance that surprised you as it came out of your mouth in an unguarded, spontaneous moment and that echoed an earlier generation who are now appreciated as amazingly wise).

During this year’s very full Lenten schedule of retreats, days of prayer, and presentations, I was often referencing the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus in history. I also spent quite a bit of time reflecting and sharing how that same Mystery of Jesus’ Passion and resurrection is happening right here, right now, inEastercandles our time and place. I kept asking and inviting reflection around the question: “When, where, and in whom does Jesus continue to suffer, die, and rise in our beautiful, yet wounded world today?”

I offer profound thanks to the hundreds of people I met this Lenten season, people in Queens, Long Island, upstate New York and New York’s boroughs, New Jersey, eastern and western Pennsylvania, in cities and towns, in parishes and neighborhoods. You put flesh on the words I was saying. In your presence and your praying and your conversations, you made visible the contemporary Paschal Mystery. I listened intently as you shared your insights, as well as your hopes and your brokenness. Everywhere I went, you presented me with the reality of both crucifixion and resurrection.

Because of you, I experienced over and over an almost mystical state of being in the heart of the Holy. You made it easy to imagine how God—however we name the Divine—must be feeling as Jesus continues to journey to Calvary today, as he continues Easterandholyweekto endure pain and anguish, oppression and exclusion in the crucified peoples of our world. Because of you, I have a palpable sense of how Jesus continues to be entombed and waiting with those who are held captive by fear, imprisoned by doubt, their dreams deferred or buried with seemingly no hope of expression or release. Because of you, I also have an overwhelming sense of how Jesus continues to rise in our world, in you who give your lives over to being agents for authentic change, who work to restore right relationship, who refuse to let sin and death have the final word, who offer yourselves as a healing presence to tend Jesus’ wounds in our fragile neighbors.

Because of you, I have already seen and walked with Jesus through Holy Week. You have lifted up for me Palm Sunday’s delight in receiving praise and affirmation; Holy Thursday’s poignant breaking of bread, tearful good-bye, letting go; Good Friday’s anguish in feeling shamed or abandoned or a failure; the anxious waiting and the hopeful wondering about what’s ahead and what’s possible on Holy Saturday; and the bursting, undaunted, irrepressible hope that is Easter Sunday.

I am so profoundly grateful for what you have revealed to me for my own life. I hold you in my heart and prayer with great care and tenderness. And I pray that we may all continue to walk with Jesus beyond this season. That we may invite the Holy to continue to act in us to bring about God’s dream for our world that continues to suffer, to die, and to rise this day and every day.

Wishing you a happy Easter and all the blessings of new life!

Takeaway

Where in your own life or in our world, do you see or experience Jesus’ suffering and dying today? 

Where do you see signs of hope that point to the rising of Jesus in your family, relationships, neighborhood, country, world? 

What might be needed for you to live the truth that the resurrection of Jesus has truly taken place?

 

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Budding Within

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 24, 2017

So much is in bud, the poet Denise Levertov tells us.  In the Northern hemisphere we might add: even when buried under 2 feet of snow.  Even when assaulted by fierce, unrelenting wind.  Even when held firmly in the grip of unforgiving cold.

Can we hear the whisper, barely audible yet quite emphatic, that is the call of spring?  Have we noticed the lub-dub of the beating heart of our planet?  The irrepressible longing of the Earth moving towards greening?  Have we heard the summons towards newness of life that will not be ignored or denied?

In my part of the world where there are usually marked differences in the seasons, spring is not a time of ripening but a season of possibility and the dreams that are the stuff of longing.  Already, impatient snowdrops and courageous crocus have broken ground.  Thebuddingcrocusinsnow copy forsythia bush is putting out tentative, promising buds.  Indoors, my housemates—a family of African violets and English ivy–peer out at their relatives in the front yard and feel a kinship as they lean towards the light together.

Is it any wonder that, here in the Northern hemisphere, the liturgical season of Lent runs parallel to the natural season of spring?  The word “Lent”, after all, comes from the Old English “lencten” and the German “Lenz”, meaning spring.  And in Old German, related translations of Lent uncover the word, “long,” reflecting the lengthening of days as we journey toward ever increasing daylight.  Or perhaps the root meaning should really be not “long” but “long-ing,” reflecting the desire of all creation for greening and growth.

Can we imagine our Lenten hearts erupting in the Song of Songs (2:10-11)?
“Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come!
For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth…”

May we move into this springtime of the liturgical year with what John Soos names as

“the restlessness of being a seed
the darkness of being planted
the struggle toward the light
the pain of growth into the light
the joy of bursting and bearing fruit
the love of being food for someone…”   (To Be of the Earth)

May we begin this springtime of the heart seeking wholeness and a stillness which is generative.
May we tend to our profound hunger for the Holy and the deep longing of the Holy for each one of us.
May we lean towards the light and live lives of meaning beyond ourselves.

May we, in the prayer of the Chinook Psalter,
“be touched by grace, fascinated and moved by this your creation,budsprouting copy
energized by the power of new growth at work in your world…
May our bodies, our minds, our spirits learn a new rhythm paced by the rhythmic pulse of the whole created order.
May spring come to us, be in us, and recreate life in us.”

Blessings on these remaining days of Lent!

Takeaway

What seeds do you hope to plant and nurture in your life today?

What might God be longing to green and grow in you?

NOTE:

My thanks for your prayerful support of days of retreat and reflection in the past two weeks in Sullivan County, NY; Port Washington, NY; and Springfield Gardens, NY. 

Please continue to hold in your prayer these upcoming events:
March 25-29:  “Walking the Lenten Journey with Jesus,”  Parish Lenten mission, St. Susanna Church, Penn Hills, PA 

April 8:  Lenten retreat day for parishioners of Christ the King Church, Springfield Gardens, NY at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY

 

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Becoming the Field

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 12, 2017

Right now, at this very moment, everything in the Universe is moving, vibrating, giving off energy in some form.  This astounding reality is one of many insights quantum physics and the new cosmology have broken open in recent years.  If you have any difficulty fully embracing this, observe how children and animals often intuitively sense a place of safety and goodness in a person they’re encountering for the very first time, and how they’re drawn to this positive energy.  Consider how the vibrational pulse of people in a room can change dramatically when one person with negative energy joins the conversation.  Or recall a time when, even if you couldn’t summon words to articulate or describe it, you knew yourself in the presence of peace and compassion through the energy field of another.

heartekg copyThis past week of offering a guided retreat for Maryknoll Sisters, I experienced a palpable sense of energy, a resonance with the mission of love and service these women have given over to the Universe: lives open to what Vatican II called “the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties” of the people of this world; lives transformed by relationship to the other, to welcoming the other’s wisdom and insight and sense of the Holy.

Each morning and each afternoon of the retreat, we engaged in breathprayer, remembering how the Spirit of God hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation, breathing out breath that was generative, that summoned life.  In inhaling and exhaling, we sent our prayer and compassion and intention beyond the chapel.  Just like the singing bowl rung at the close of our breathprayer, we rang our love out into the Universe without knowing our reach or impact.  We simply trusted in the breathing and the sending.

At Maryknoll, a place made sacred by the lives of hundreds of missionaries, the theme of resonance kept returning to me long after the sounds of the singing bowl had diminished and disappeared.  All around the building were vibrations of images, photos and artwork from countries and cultures around the globe, each one speaking of energies invested and given over in love and sacrifice.

In our shared struggle to contribute to a world of tenderness and peace, Teilhard de Chardin might have been speaking of these vibrations when he wrote, “Our role is not only to ease suffering, bind up wounds, and feed the hungry, but through every form of effort to raise the powers of Love upward to the next stage of consciousness.”

To raise the powers of Love upward to the next consciousness.  To do this from wherever we may happen to live.  Isn’t this what Judy Cannato references in her beautiful IMG_1879 (2)work,  Field of Compassion?  She speaks of British biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphogenic fields, in which “…the human person is a field of energy and information rooted in the body but extending out from the body, interacting with the energy and information of others.”  We humans, she asserts, have the ability to be aware of and to transform our energy fields by the choices we make.  We can, with God’s grace, alter the kinds of energy we pass on to the world around us.  Our call is to make enlightened and compassionate choices that resonate for the good of all.

Cannato asks a series of “What ifs” about these energy fields, this raising upward of the powers of Love:

“What if we experiment with the notion that what Jesus was about was the creation of…a morphogenic field, one that resonates with love and draws others like a magnet?

What if we could intentionally contribute to the fashioning of a field in which attitudes and speech and action flow out of the very best human beings can be?

What if we with great intentionality take up the challenge to love God and neighbor with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength?

What kind of morphic resonance would that create?
How would we change?
How would the world change?”

Takeaway

Imagine your life displayed as a collage of photos and artwork and words and images, an intimate glimpse into the fields of energy you have shared and are sharing with our world.

What do you see?  Hear?  Feel?

What kind of energy field are you giving out to the Universe?

How are you the presence of Love that invites others to see their beauty and worth?

Spend some time in silence giving thanks for the energies of Love within you and around you.

 

NOTE:  My deep thanks to the many who enriched and contributed to the retreat experiences offered during the past two weeks in Scranton, PA; Watchung, NJ;  Ossining, NY; and Sullivan County, NY, and to all of you who supported in prayer these sacred moments.

May I ask you to again surround the next round of retreat experiences with your prayer:

March 18:                   “Standing, Staying, Accompanying,”  St. Peter of Alcantara IHM  Center, Port Washington, NY
March 22:                   Social Justice Ministry, Christ the King parish, Springfield Gardens, NY
March 25-29:              “Walking with Jesus on the Lenten Journey,” parish mission at St. Susanna Church, Penn Hills, PA

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Longing Laid Bare

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, February 26, 2017

At some time or another, we may have had this startling experience: an accidental, unexpected glimpse into the eyes of another, a discovery that reveals the hidden depths of a person’s heart, that exposes their raw, unfiltered desire or longing.

It’s what I saw in the eyes of junior high school students, oblivious to the world unfolding around them and dreamily gazing at their first crush. “Even the back of her head is beautiful,” mumbled one of them when I interrupted his meditation on the girl who sat in front of him in class.

It’s what I saw in the eyes of my mother in unguarded moments when she thought no one was looking at her. After 43 years of marriage, she had outlived my Dad by ten years, and in those ten years without him, her face was sometimes suffused with a wistful longing tinged with sadness.

And it’s what I see every Ash Wednesday when I look into the faces of those lining up for the distribution of ashes. When I served in pastoral ministry at a parish in Southeast ash-wednesdaygetting-ashes-copyQueens, one of my favorite days was Ash Wednesday. Favorite, because I always noticed something different in the faces of people coming forward to receive ashes on this day. I saw hope and desire that was transparent, direct, immediate, and insistent.

On Ash Wednesday, I welcomed many unfamiliar faces, and although I didn’t know their names or their stories, I recognized, in an intuitive way, the longing that looked back at me. Longing for a change of heart. For more engaged prayer. For right relationship. For forgiveness. For a second chance. For God by whatever name one might call the Holy.

Perhaps we connect with Lent as a season of penance and fasting, a letting go of whatever might stand in the way of our largeness of heart and a greater capacity for tenderness and welcome. Perhaps we connect with Lent as an invitation to feasting, to being nourished by prayer and by God’s own desire for us. Lent is all of these elements, certainly, but for me, Lent is most of all forever married to desire and intention, a season when our deepest longings are laid bare.

I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it’s finding ourselves in the Scriptural desert this season imagines. A desert where there’s no place to hide. A desert where the glare of the noonday sun exposes our illusions and distractions for what they are. A desert where we can’t carry allash-wednesday-ashes-copy the baggage we pack for other journeys and so we’re led to re-define what’s really necessary and important, what lives and makes a home in the heart of us.

What I suspect is that on Ash Wednesday, I’ll once again be looking into the eyes. What I know with a certainty is that I’ll be finding there a profound reflection of the deep desire God has for each one of us.

Wishing you every blessing on these Lenten days!

Takeaway

Spend some time in quiet reflection.

Name the longings of your heart.
Who or what has been nudging you, drawing you, and inviting you to pay closer attention?
What is God’s deep desire for you?

NOTE:

In the beginning days of this Lenten season, please hold in your prayer all who will be part of these retreats and days of prayer I’ll be leading: 

March 1, Ash Wednesday retreat day,  Diocese of Scranton, PA
March 4, Mount St. Mary House of Prayer, Watchung, NJ
March 5-10, Maryknoll Sisters, Ossining, NY
March 12, The Catholic Churches of Sullivan County, NY

Photo credits:  Pinterest; St. Clement Parish; Catholic Online

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Changing the Menu

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, February 12, 2017

A new year often brings resolutions designed to promote our well-being and good health. Perhaps more exercise. More regular sleep. More attentiveness to our diet, with changes reflecting healthy eating patterns. We may plunge into January with enthusiasm and resolve, and then sometimes notice a lessening of commitment as the days move forward.

At least, that’s what I observed about my own diet recently, although in a somewhat different way. After weeks of companioning and listening to so many people who, saturated by world news, shared their anguish, their fear, their anger, their dismay at deepening attitudes of exclusion towards the most vulnerable and fragile people in our world, I began to experience an indigestion of sorts, an agita that was both physical andmenuearth-copy spiritual. How did I not realize that I had been eating a woefully unbalanced diet, heavy on cynicism and despair and light on all the things that animate and inspire?

One Saturday afternoon, I had the television on while a figure skating program played out in the background. I wasn’t really watching it because I was focused on working on a project, but my attention abruptly changed when an ethereal piece of music began to play. I stopped what I was doing and looked up immediately. The beauty I heard invited my full attention. It was a Shawshank moment.

In one of my favorite films, “The Shawshank Redemption,” Andy Dufresne, a cultured man of refined tastes, is wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in Shawshank prison. For a man of his background, the experience of brutality, violence, and absolute lack of the beautiful makes prison life excruciatingly painful. Day after day, year after year, the same deadly routine, the same dull shade of despair.

One day, after months of requesting funds to update the prison library, Andy receives a donation, boxes of books and music. He immediately takes out a record, leans back in a chair, and plays “Duettino – Sull ‘Aria” from The Marriage of Figaro. Then, in quiet defiance of the prison authorities, he locks the office door and turns on the public address system so the music pours out into the entire prison. The soaring, operatic voices penetrate every cell, float out over the prison yard and into the infirmary. Longtime inmates stop in their tracks and let the music wash over them. Hardened faces become soft and tender. Not a muscle moves, not a word is spoken as the music saturates each inmate.   For a moment, Shawshank prison and everyone in it is transformed.

menu-copyMy Shawshank moment came at a time when hauntingly beautiful music grabbed my soul and transported me beyond the figure skating program on TV. The music invited me into an epiphany of sorts, for, like Andy Dufresne, I was also being held captive. I was imprisoned by a daily diet of news that trumpeted fear mongering and enemy-making, by feelings of helplessness, by an overwhelming sense of our collective paralysis to change direction. I needed to break out of this prison and feed myself with other sources of nourishment. I needed a change of diet. More engaged prayer. More thoughtful tending to my longing and hunger for the Holy. Upping my dose of connection to those who work for justice and embody peace. Increasing my daily intake of the arts, of music and dance and poetry and painting, food that offers a more hope-filled response to the wounds of our world.

So with God’s grace, I’m adjusting my daily diet. I’m eating more beauty and hope and tenderness and welcome. Care to try this menu with me?

Takeaway

Create a meal of the beautiful. Arrange a bouquet of flowers. Play a piece of instrumental music. Read some inspiring words of poetry out loud. Gaze at a work of art. Walk under a canopy of trees. Savor stillness.

After a period of absorbing and digesting what’s before you and around you, take some time to reflect:

Give thanks for all that is beautiful in your life.
How has the experience of beauty changed you and set you free?
Hold in your prayer those whose worldview is limited by despair or fear of change and of fresh thinking.

NOTE:  Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of a retreat day, “Taking Heart,” that I’ll be facilitating at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY, February 18. Many thanks!

 

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Cultivating a Crossroads Heart

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, January 29, 2017

This past weekend, in our chapel at the IHM Center in Scranton, those gathered witnessed the incorporation of a Sister from another community into the fullness of life of our IHM congregation.  This tender, beautiful ceremony formally welcomed our Sister Elvia to transfer her perpetual vows from the community she had originally entered and into our IHM community, as a Sister, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scranton, PA).

The ceremony was also a celebration of what it means to cultivate a crossroads heart, to pay attention to Holy Mystery, to live in a state of readiness for whatever unfolds in the ordinary and the everyday.  I’m still holding close to my heart the emotional impact of witnessing Elvia’s leap of faith and trust.  And her incorporation has invited me to reflect on similar journeys in my life, times that called for thoughtful and sometimes challenging discernment.  I invite you also to enter into today’s reflection and find the parallels to your own efforts of sorting out and responding to God’s path for you. 

One of the most profound graces of my life came about many years ago when I was applying to study to become a spiritual director.  As a requirement for acceptance into the program, I was asked to write a spiritual autobiography.  There were guidelines and a suggestion of what we might want to include, so it seemed that for a writer like me, this would be an easy assignment.  Not so!  I struggled with it for days right up until the deadline.  When I sat down to read what I had put to paper,  I was stunned at the map of my soul’s landscape that spread out in front of me.

That map revealed that very little in my life had moved forward in a straight, unwavering line.  There were seeming detours and interruptions, roads taken and not taken.  As in any life, times of both heartache and delight, emotional pain and loss, as well as blessings too numerous to count.  What stood out in my map reading was the outline of God’s presence in my life, the traces of the Holy that marked each step.  There was discernment large and small, the messiness of decision-making, the struggling with ambiguity and the longing for absolute certainty.  There were times of paralysis.  There were periods of desperately waiting for a burning bush or a blinding light to knock me off my imaginary horse.

Or an eyebrow.  Once, when I was companioned by a spiritual director in a long discernment process about a major life change, I kept coming to the edge of a final cheyebrow-copyoice—and then I’d back away, frozen in immobility.  The retreating had nothing to do with logic and everything to do with fear.  The path I was already on was comfortable and familiar, but not life-giving for me, yet it was the one I knew.  The possible path ahead appeared to hold the abundant life God dreams for each of us, but it was unknown.  So back and forth I went.  Observing this back-and-forth dance over and over, my director finally asked, “Chris, what is it that you really want?”  I heard myself say, “I want an eyebrow!”  I explained that I wanted to see on my director’s face some indication of the path I should embrace and choose.  I wanted her eyebrow to go up or down, revealing what she thought was the better choice for me.

As a now long-time spiritual director, I know it’s not the role of a spiritual guide to provide an eyebrow or a quick and easy answer, but to listen with and companion another with attention and intention.  In Discernment, a Path to Spiritual Awakening, Rose Mary Dougherty notes that, “The habit of discernment fine-tunes the ear of the heart so that we hear more clearly the invitations to love intrinsic to every moment of life.  In the habit of discernment, our choices are again and again refined by the invitations to love.  Gradually we come to know what is consonant with love, what we need to do or need not to do, and, with grace, we are free to respond.”

What is consonant with love: that’s the question  Deuteronomy (30:19-20) poses to us:

“I call heaven and earth to witness the choice you make.
Choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”

In discernments large and small, may we choose what is consonant with love.  May wechoicesoldnew discern wisely and well, gathering the best information and wisdom we can and summoning, with God’s grace, the courage we need to move into the unknown.  May we listen with openness to the present moment and so cultivate a heart always ready for the crossroads ahead.

Takeaway

Reflect on a time when you were faced with a significant choice in your life.
What factors were involved?
Who or what helped you to choose?
How did prayer figure into your decision-making?
What were the consequences of your choice?

Spend some quiet time in prayers of gratitude for God’s presence and the accompaniment and support of others at that time of decision-making.

NOTE:  Thank you to all of you who held in your prayer the directed retreat weekend at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville.  Special thanks to Brother Chris Derby, SJ, Susan Bowers-Baker, all of the Center staff, directors, and retreatants who contributed to making the weekend a graced experience in that holy place.

 

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