Entering the Wait

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    April 19, 2019

Welcome to this waiting time! Instead of offering a new post this weekend, I invite you to re-visit my post of March 31, 2018: The Space We Live Most of Our Lives. This speaks to the waiting of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, when so much is unknown, uncertain, unfinished, longing for life-giving resolution.

This is most certainly the waiting that is part of our everyday lives. To wait with patience, to wait with openness, to wait while actively working to bring a deeper peace and a wider justice into our world, to wait with hope when the realities around us seem to trumpet only death and despair.

In this sacred time, may we hold in tenderness and prayer all those who are watching and waiting at the bedside of loved ones on their final journey, all those waiting for freedom, for safety, for an end to conflict, for a place to call home.

Wishing you every blessing of these holy days and on the new life unfolding in the Easter season.

NOTE:
May I ask you to hold in prayer two upcoming events: 

April 26:  Greening Our Lives, a day for healthcare professionals I’m leading at Geisinger Holy Spirit Hospital, Camp Hill, PA 

May 4: Spiritual Spa Day, a time of self-care and renewal offered at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY 

Thank you!

Owning Our True Name

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  April 5, 2019

Never too late. These are the words the Holy One whispers to us when we struggle with seeking forgiveness for burdens we carry from our past.

Many years ago, when I was working with candidates in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) program, we met every Sunday morning. After we greeted one another, we moved into a brief period of sharing what was unfolding in our lives. Then we offered aloud any intentions we wished our group to hold in prayer.peoplepraying copy

The very first time we gathered, we were sitting around a table when, one by one, the candidates uttered their intentions aloud. After several had shared, Vaughan spoke up. He solemnly cleared his throat, bowed his head, and intoned, “Father, you know I’m a miserable bastard…”

I thought I would fall off the edge of my chair at this unusual introduction! As weeks passed, however, I discovered that this is how Vaughan phrased his prayer and announced his intentions every week because this is exactly how Vaughan thought of himself—as a “miserable bastard.” He hinted vaguely at terrible acts he had done, at how he had wounded others, and most of all, at how he was certain his chances of ever being forgiven by God were slim to none at best.

And yet, I came to know Vaughan as a person who genuinely cared for the others in our group. As a person who was direct and deeply honest. As a person in anguish, trying to come to grips with his past and struggling to find a meaningful way forward in his present. And I easily imagined the unending compassion with which the Holy One viewed his desire for healing and wholeness.

As the year progressed, and through the support of this loving group and Vaughan’s dawning understanding of God’s unconditional love for him, he began to believe this also. Very gradually, notes of possibility and redemption and hope crept into his language. “Miserable bastard” was still in his vocabulary, but far less frequently.

In our relationships, our work, our everyday living, we sometimes meet people like Vaughan who carry crippling burdens of guilt or shame or regret over the past: an accident, a choice made in haste or impulse, an action taken in anger, a barrage of words fracturing a relationship. Perhaps we have been there ourselves. All those things from the past we wish had never happened, all those things we wish we could erase from present memory, all those things we don’t want to permanently define us.

Though we can’t change the past, we can, with God’s grace, change our attitude towards it. We can learn to accept and befriend our imperfectness and that of the entire world. We can open ourselves to the brokenness of others and deepen the womb-love of compassion in our own hearts. We can ask for forgiveness and pray to develop the eyesight of the Holy One, in whose worldview no one is beyond hope. No matter what. No exceptions.

We’re not far away from hearing the Passion account proclaimed during Holy Week, the sacred story that underscores the largeness of heart of which Love is capable. May we truly hear in that narrative the Holy One’s desire for the fullness of homecoming for each of us:Holy Week crosses copy

“Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“This very day you will be with me in paradise.”

May these last weeks of Lent invite us to let go of any sense of naming ourselves a “miserable bastard” and holding on to the burdens of shame and regret from our past. May today and the days to come instead lead us to hold fast to our rightful title, the essence of who we really are: “beloved.” Now and forever.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on a time in your past (or present) that might hold an element of shame or guilt or regret.
Tell the Holy One how you feel.
Ask for forgiveness and trust that it is given.
Look at yourself with the same tender compassion with which the Holy One gazes at you.
Linger in that sacred gaze, and give thanks.

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayer for all who were part of the Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA, March 29-31. 

Now may I ask you to hold in your prayer a presentation I’ll be offering for the Rosary Society of St. Mary’s Church, Manhasset, NY, April 7. 

In the days ahead, I wish you all the blessings of Holy Week and the new life of the Easter season. 

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Singing in the Places of Loss

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM,  March 23, 2019

Loss has been taking center stage in recent news coverage carrying images of natural disasters. Wildfires burning uncontrollably, devouring acres of forests and wiping entire towns off the map. Unrelenting rains triggering massive floods and mud slides. The faces of survivors, numbed by the enormity of what has been destroyed, combing through the ruins for precious mementos. I’m reminded of seeing my own sister many years ago sifting through the ashes of her home for irreplaceable photos of her three young boys. That’s the look of loss that haunts me and that I see repeated over and over in media coverage around the globe.

AleppoWe’ve probably all experienced losing something in our lives: keys, phone, money, glasses, paperwork, and more. My own recent loss of a wallet (with a happy ending), paired with coverage of disasters and areas of conflict, triggered some musing on what it means to lose or be lost.

We refer to the childhood story of the boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41-50) as one of loss, although in typical preteen response he shrugged his shoulders and told his anxious and emotionally drained parents that he was fine the entire time of their frantic searching. In Luke’s Gospel (15:4-32), the adult Jesus tells his version of loss: the sheep, the coin, the child. These might more aptly be named the parables of the lost and found, because in the heart of the Holy One, the search and the hope for safe return never ends, and the desire to welcome home never ceases.

We experience losses of various kinds in addition to material possessions and objects that are part of our everyday lives. We also name as losses illness, injury, and mental and physical diminishment that alter our ability to do what we once did. We may suffer the more subtle loss of a significant relationship that gradually grows distant or is fractured by misunderstanding or hurt. When a reputation is damaged or a trust is shattered, that loss can change the dynamics of how we are with one another. And certainly, death might be called the ultimate loss, resulting in the physical absence of a parent, friend, partner, loved one. We see clearly that part of the human family’s profound yearning is for restoration and repair and return.

This deep longing was visibly present in an episode of Britain’s Got Talent that featured as one of the entrants the Missing People Choir.

The choir is composed of people whose family members, mostly teenagers and young adults, have gone missing. Also in the choir are people who work to find the lost ones and people who support the work of searching for those lost or finding out what happened to them since their disappearance.

The choir was born out of profound grief and came from longing for a way to find meaning in a terrible tragedy, the tragedy of not knowing where their loved ones had gone. In singing, the choir remembers all of the mothers, fathers, partners, guardians, families whose arms ache for homecoming, who grieve for all that has been lost. They echo the consolation and hope of the poignant song, “The Place Where Lost Things Go,”  from Mary Poppins Returns.

The Missing People Choir does not surrender their hope. They refuse to live as if present realities—no matter how full of despair—are ultimate. They console and comfort one another and offer the kind of support only those who carry this kind of grief and heartache can fully understand.

And then they sing. Together. They sing as if the disappeared are held in tender memory and in every note, pause, and vibration. They sing as if death and burial are not the end of the story. They sing as if resurrection has already happened.Missing People Choir copy

Sometimes, you know, singing is all we can do. And sometimes, it is everything.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on a person you love who has become lost to you in some way (e.g., death, separation, distance, differences).
Name what you are missing about this person.
Hold this person in the tender love of God.
Bless this remembering, and give thanks.

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayer supporting all who gathered for a Lenten Evening I led for the National Pastoral Musicians, Scranton Chapter, on March 12. 

Now please hold in your prayer all who will be part of these events: 

March 29-31: Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA. I’ll be one of the directors for the retreat.

April 7:  Presentation for the Rosary Society of St. Mary’s Parish, Manhasset, NY. 

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Present Here and Now

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   March 8, 2019

This is the reality of living in a world both beautiful and broken: that there are some things, perhaps many things, that are far beyond our power to fix and to cure. What are we to do, how are we to be, when the curing and the fixing are not ours to enact, when we’re faced with our inability to save ourselves or others in the ways we desire?

Waitingcouplewithwheelchair copy

As we enter into the season of Lent, a possible response to these questions lies in a simple Lenten prayer:

“Jesus,
by the power of your holy cross,
may we walk with you as you change the world.”

May we walk with you, Jesus. May we accompany you on your final, painful journey. May we companion you in the crucified peoples of our world, near and far. In other words, may we be present as you are today. 

Brother David Steindl-Rast says that “being present means…not only being present to another human being, but present to the water we drink, the flowers we see, to everything that comes our way—every thing, every person, every animal, every plant, every situation in life.”

Perhaps no single thing, he observes, has greater impact on our quality of life than our capacity to be present, moment to moment, as life unfolds. Everything that matters hinges on this capacity that opens the door to meaningful experience. Presence allows us, calls us, to be available to all that life has to offer us.

Recently, one of our Sisters who was on hospice care entered into her final journey, her last days among us on this Earth. She was beautifully accepting and at peace with this reality which none of us had the power to alter. Yet we were not powerless. Every day another of our Sisters would come to visit, sit by the dying one’s bed, and reverently and wordlessly massage her feet. Such a witness before us: holding the grief of the world while at the same time acknowledging the human family’s inability to cure. This was walking with Jesus in his last days. This was embodying the presence of the Holy One. Sometimes the seemingly small gestures are all we can do. And sometimes they are everything.

In Out of Solitude, Henri Nouwen wrote about exactly this kind of tender accompaniment when he observed, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Mary, the mother of Jesus, knew both the exquisite pain and the absolute joy of accompaniment and presence. We can imagine her encountering her son as he stumbled toward crucifixion. How could she look into his haunted eyes, view his bruised and mangled body, and not want to save him? That his rescue was beyond her power was anguish of the most excruciating kind for her tender, loving heart.  And so, she remained. She breathed the energies of compassion toward her beloved son’s wounded body and spirit. She was present to him in the only way possible to her on the Via Dolorosa.

We also know this longing, this collective ache for presence. We see presence embodied when we refuse to be silent and instead cry out as witnesses to the injustice and oppression in our world. When we sit with a family member struggling with dementia and listen with profound attention to the same story we’ve heard ten times already. When we embrace or pray with someone who has just received a diagnosis that turns a world upside down. When we bake a cake or deliver a meal to a grieving family. When it seems there is nothing left to do, there is still everything possible to be: present, faithful, tending to the cries of our world.brokenheartineye

Our call, this Lent and always, is to listen to these voices and accompany them. Not to run from them because they make us uncomfortable. Not to avoid them because we have no solutions to offer. But to remain, to stay with, as the Holy One does.

On this Lenten journey and every day, may we be the gate through which Breath enters into and heals the universe. Today and every day, may we become open to the tender Presence that transforms us and changes the world.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Hold in compassionate awareness your family, friends, co-workers, nation, or world community with clear and loving eyes.
What wounds or brokenness—here at home or around the globe–move your heart and cause you to weep?
In the quiet, be a prayerful presence to the suffering of the Holy One in you and in the crucified peoples of our world today.

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayerful support of the day I led for women and men religious of the Dioceses of Brooklyn, NY and Rockville Centre, NY. Special thanks to Maryann Seton Lopiccolo, SC and Pat Moran, CIJ for the invitation. It was my great delight to be in the good company of both new and familiar faces from the NYC/Long Island area. 

Now please hold in your prayer a Lenten evening of presentations, “Making Music in a Beautiful, Yet Wounded World,” which I’ll be offering for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, Scranton Chapter, on March 12.  

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Leaning Towards a Larger Heart

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   February 23, 2019

There can be something of a hierarchy in ranking the desirability of neighbors of any kind. When it comes to the insect world, fuzzy bumblebees and butterflies might be near the top of the list.  But roaches, gnats, mosquitoes? What was the God of creation
thinking when they came into being? Add to that undesirable listing the stink bug family, 95% of which, according to today’s news, will be wiped out by the polar vortex if they’re unable to find warm shelter this winter. Knowing how unpopular agricultural pests are, I suspect there are few who might mourn that statistic.IMG_2017 copy

As someone who grew up surrounded by the wonders of creation spirituality, I tend to hold a tender spot for all of God’s creatures. When stink bugs occasionally appear in my apartment during cold weather, I pretty much leave them in peace, not so much out of an abundance of compassion as a leaning toward practicality. After all, I figure, their days are limited, so why not simply avoid stepping on them and give them a comfortable and safe spot in which to live their last moments on earth?

Strange as it may seem, this winter of living in peaceful cohabitation with an occasional insect roommate or two has offered me a learning. My careful, tentative coexistence with the much maligned stink bug has invited me into ruminations on a parallel experience in the human world. What must it be like, I wonder, to go through one’s life reviled, threatened, or shunned. To be the teenager in the school cafeteria socially ostracized and banished to a table for one. To be the child struggling to stand up under the weight of ongoing verbal abuse that destroys all sense of worth. To be the lonely adult whose unfounded reputation eliminates any possibility of experiencing spaciousness of heart. To be the refugee not understanding the language but accurately translating the tone of unwelcome underneath it. To be those people on the receiving end of bullying, name calling, ridicule, shaming, or worst of all, indifference.

In Jesus’ time, to be a leper, prostitute, tax collector, or foreigner was to be “those people.” To be designated as physically, mentally, spiritually, financially less. To be branded as poor, without power, prestige, or a voice. To be perceived as different, a misfit, vulnerable, outside the acceptable margins. That’s what it meant then to be “those people.” That’s also what it means today.

But to be among “those people” also meant that you had a unique relationship and home in the tender heart of Jesus. You had a reserved seat of honor at his banquet table. You held onto a deep knowing that you were branded not with the mark of a loser but with the sign of the beloved.

In an interview with Krista Tippett, Greg Boyle, SJ, the founder of Homeboy Industries, a ministry with former gang members, remarked that “the measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins [‘those people’] but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship” with them. “So how,” he asked, “can we seek a compassion that can stand in awe of what people have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it?” That’s a question to mine for the rest of our lives.Heartradiating copy

“Those people” is a grouping in which no one desires membership. May we instead be about authentic relationship. May we align ourselves with God’s dream for our world where the category of “those people” no longer exists because they have become our people, in kinship with all. May we, with God’s grace, cultivate a larger heart that will move us from separation to communion today and always.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on a person or group currently branded “outsider.”
Welcome them into your prayer.
Place them and yourself in the heart of God.
Sit together in silence and in gratitude in that holy place.

NOTE:

Thank you to the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, NY for a graced retreat last week, and thank you to all who supported us in prayer.

May I ask you now to hold in your prayer a day of presentation and process I’m leading on March 2 for the women and men religious of the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY and the Diocese of Rockville Centre, NY. Thank you!

 

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Knowing Our Own Beauty

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  February 9, 2019

What do you see when you look in a mirror, in both the external glass looking back at you and the inner reflection mirrored within your heart?

eyewithheartWhen I worked as a communications director, I noticed several responses to this question. Seldom without a camera in hand, I observed how much people appreciated viewing photos. In scrutinizing pictures of a group in which they were included, individuals would often praise other members in the photo, complimenting them on their appearance. Those same individuals, however, would sometimes be highly critical of their own image, harping on what they perceived as flaws. This response happened with such frequency that it led me to wonder, what sets us up to be reluctant or hesitant in acknowledging our own beauty, both inner and outer? What makes us blind to the amazing creation each of us is?

One of the wisdom figures in my life witnessed for me a way of looking at herself with a healthy self-love while at the same time praising God’s artistry. She related that, when she gets up at dawn and stumbles out of bed, her daily practice is to look at her face in the bathroom mirror and greet what she sees with this pronouncement: “Good morning, beautiful!”

“Good morning, beautiful!” Perhaps the 15th century Indian poet, Kabir, was thinking along those lines when he wrote, “If a mirror ever makes you sad, you should know that it does not know you.” Another mystic, Catherine of Siena, spoke of the unintentional insult we direct to the Holy One when we criticize our appearance and worth and dismiss God’s handiwork:

“What is it
You want to change?
Your hair, your face, your body?
Why?

For God is
in love with all those things
and He might weep
when they are gone.”

If we believe we’re the creation of the Holy One, why not move away from destructive self-criticism and move towards praising and giving thanks for what God has brought to birth in us? Why not imagine the utter delight of the Creator as the divine artist pauses to contemplate what love has brought into existence in us? Why not pray and worship with the words of Alan Cohen:

“Dear God,
please help me to recognize
the truth about myself,
no matter how beautiful it is.”

One of the most powerful images of God’s delight in us appeared in a video clip that captured a baby held in his mother’s arms. For several minutes, the little one gazed at his mother with unblinking eyes as his mother returned the same ecstatic expression towards the child of her womb. In their uninterrupted gaze, I saw joy, of course, contentment and astonishment, yes. But also something else, something that could only be named pure, unfiltered, unmistakable adoration and worship. Love looking at Love. Beauty gazing at Beauty. On some deep, primal, intuitive level, the baby looking into the face of his mother and his mother returning that rapt gaze revealed the awe and delight with which the Holy One gazes at us.

The poet Hafiz described this as God saying,
“I am made whole by your life.
Each soul,
Each soul completes me.”

EarthheartcopyThis is Holy Mystery indeed! That we complete the Holy One’s creation. That we help to make whole and bring to fullness the divine artistry. Me. You. Every person made in the image and likeness of the Holy One. So let’s name this for what it is, aware that no matter what is happening in our lives, no matter what choices, regrets, shame, and brokenness we might be carrying, we are still and always a thing of beauty in the eyes of the Holy One.

Our challenge, it seems, is to see with the vision of the Divine. To see from the perspective of the creation account in the Book of Genesis. There, God gazes at everything created by Love. God sees that it is good. Very good. Good and beautiful and beloved. So it is, and so are we.

Takeaway

You might want to practice this while gazing into a mirror.
Settle yourself in stillness with the Holy One.
Take a long, loving look at your image as created by God.
Give thanks that in the eyes of the Holy, you are beloved.
Greet yourself as a reflection of the Beautiful One.
Bring that insight to everyone you see this day.

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayer for all who were present for the Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville.

Please now hold in your prayer the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, NY who will be part of a guided retreat I’ll be leading February 11-15. Thank you.

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Finding a Way in the Wilderness

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  January 25, 2019

The desert isn’t the only place where we may experience wilderness. Sometimes a heavy snow or torrential rain or a blinding dust storm can provide an equally powerful stand-in for the places where we struggle to find both our way and our enlightenment.frozen water copy

A few months ago, I was among the many in Northeast Pennsylvania caught in a quick moving blizzard that unfortunately coincided with the evening rush hour traffic. Very quickly I realized that I was in a frighteningly dangerous perfect storm. Sleet and snow pummeled us so fiercely that highways became treacherous and visibility severely limited. For the last three miles of my commute I was basically driving blind, unable to see the road or any landmarks in front of me, hindered by windshield wipers totally encased in chunks of ice. I feared for my life and my safety and for the safety of other travelers around me and I unleashed some pretty desperate prayers into the universe. I’m deeply grateful that I eventually arrived home with my car intact.

My emotions took a bit longer to settle. And the memory of being truly powerless, unsure of the way forward, wondering if I would ever come out safely on the other side has invited me to sit with some parallels in the life of the spirit.

Around that time, a comment from a wise friend with whom I shared a spiritual struggle opened a window for me. My friend remarked that sometimes when we can’t see what is ahead, we feel lost but we’re not—we’re actually a little bewildered.

Bewildered. I had never thought of the word in that sense. So immediately I searched for its root. “Bewilder” is derived from the roots be + wilder, (to cause to become lost), or be (thoroughly) + wilder (to lead astray, to lead into the wild). So to be bewildered is to be utterly confused, puzzled, mystified, flustered, disconcerted, and yes—speaking to my travel experience–even snowed, for to snow under is to be utterly overwhelmed, to be bewildered.

When we think of Jesus going into the wilderness of the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), we remember he was tempted to exhibit hubris, to claim power, wealth, prestige. We can imagine he experienced all of the feelings that we sometimes share in other forms of the wilderness of the spirit. The sense of being lost. The sense of standing utterly alone. The sense that there is no clear, uncomplicated way forward. The sense that all the old and familiar maps and road signs no longer work in the strange new terrain in which we find ourselves. When we’re in a wilderness space, we may long to fast forward from Point A to the end of the story where the devil departs and angels arrive to minister to Jesus (Matthew 4:11). We may overlook the fact that, in Luke’s account, the devil ends his tempting and leaves Jesus, but only for a while (Luke 4:13). Whether we name it by geography—desert, blizzard, fog—or state of the heart—dryness, despair, confusion, uncertainty—the wilderness is not usually a place we desire to be.

And yet, in my own spiritual direction and in my companioning of others, I’ve discovered that the wilderness can be a powerful teacher, offering us lessons we may not be able to arrive at any other way. In the wilderness, we learn total dependence and trust in the Holy One. We learn there’s no escape, no detour, to distract us from an honest look into our own places of lack. Stripped of the usual supports and landmarks and staying with the difficult practice of deep inner soul work, we learn in the wilderness to see with a fresh clarity and perspective.

In “Desert Listening”, Wendy M. Wright notes of the early desert fathers and mothers that, “the greater and more difficult journey was not from the cities of the Roman Empire to the solitudes of Egypt, Syria, or Palestine; it was through the crooked pathways of the heart. To make those pathways straight for the advent of the Lord was the spiritual struggle of the wilderness.”

That is our spiritual struggle as well. Perhaps we’ve journeyed into the wilderness many times during our lives. Perhaps we are there now. Perhaps we’ve honed some of the skills of wilderness survival: profound trust in a God whose love is constant and unconditional; the company of wise and experienced wilderness guides who can listen and hear beneath and beyond the words we utter; faithfulness to the practice of prayer even when and especially when we feel like a mound of dry and brittle bones.buddingcrocusinsnow copy

As we plant ourselves in a state of discernment and attentive listening to Mystery, may time spent in the wilderness deepen our consciousness of the Holy One’s faithful presence, the Holy One forever at work in our wild and precious lives.

 

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Recall an experience of being in the wilderness.
What did that space feel like, look like, sound like?
Who or what accompanied you in your confusion and uncertainty?
Who showed you the face of a loving God?
Give thanks for holy companions and for the enduring presence of the Holy One in your life both then and now.

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayerful remembrance of all those who are part of the Directed Prayer Weekend January 25-27 at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA.

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