What If?

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM June 6, 2021

It’s in my DNA.

I can trace it back to my great grandmother, whom I never met. She and her family survived Ireland’s Great Famine of the mid-1800’s, a time of starvation and disease, the deaths of a million people and the exodus of a million more. She left County Mayo and emigrated to the United States, taking her heritage and the memory of those bleak times with her.

Her daughter, my grandmother, never knew that terrible hunger and poverty but she often heard stories about it around the kitchen table in Pennsylvania. So even though my grandmother had never personally experienced the same terrible want of the previous generation, she carried the collective memory of those brutal days. She carried the deep knowing, passed down through her relatives, that the ground under her feet was not as solid as some said, that a happy and comfortable life could be upended in a second. She carried worry and anxiety. And she passed it on to me and my family through our blood and bone, through our ancestral DNA, as the Smith/Koellhoffer Worry Gene, or the “What If?” syndrome.

Will my family’s health concerns improve? Will my community flourish in the future? Will I make my connecting flight? Will the Internet connection hold during my Zoom retreat? Will our beautiful planet survive? What if our country continues to be divided? What if my worst fears are realized? What if the choice I’m making today doesn’t turn out as I hoped? What if I fail? What if my dreams don’t come true?

Are you noticing a pattern here? All of these worries are about things largely beyond our control and largely in the future. We can work and plan and think of every eventuality—and many of us are pretty good at that—but ultimately, these efforts can take us only so far. Life is in flux and there are so many variables to consider.

So what to do? We might voice our concerns to a counselor, therapist, or supportive friend or family. We might follow a practice of allowing ourselves a specific, limited time, say twenty minutes a day, to do all our worrying—with no worrying allowed for the remaining twenty three hours and forty minutes of that day. We might enter into a practice of breathprayer as a way to center ourselves and steady our breathing. We might engage in Shinrin Yoku, the practice of tree bathing, taking slow walks in a forest and breathing in the gift of oxygen and tranquility.

We might repeat a mantra to remind ourselves that the Holy One is with us, accompanies us in our anxiety, and never abandons us.
Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the mountains. Where does my strength come from? My strength comes from God, who made heaven and earth.”
Isaiah 49:15-16: “Can a mother forget the infant at her breast or walk away from the baby she bore? But even if a mother forgets, I will never forget you. I’ve written your name on the palm of my hands.”  
Psalm 16:1:  “Keep me safe, O God. You are my hope.”

On an intellectual level, we know that nothing will be changed by our worrying and, in fact, much energy can be given over to the “What ifs” for which there is no satisfactory answer. May we reflect on the wisdom of Mary Oliver, who sounds as if she might have carried a similar worry gene in her own DNA, but who learned to sing it away:

Chris Koellhoffer

I Worried
Mary Oliver

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?
Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Bring to God whatever worry or anxiety or concern weighs most heavily on your heart at this moment.
Make an act of trust that the Holy One is with you in your anxiety, that the Holy One accompanies you in this moment and beyond.
Offer your thanks for the gift of God’s presence.
Sing.

Featured Image: Noah Buscher, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of this upcoming event:

June 6-13:  Guided retreat for the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and of Mary Immaculate, San Antonio, Texas

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Of Juiciness and Justice

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     May 22, 2021

We’re on the edge of June, the time of my birth month and the month that ushers in so much that offers delight and pleasure in the Northern hemisphere: warm days and cool nights, explosions of blossoming all around, leisure time, and the summer fruits that I so enjoy. At the top of that list: strawberries. Whenever I bite into their juicy deliciousness, I pay the Holy One a compliment and say, “Wow, you really knew what you were doing when you dreamt the idea for this!”

There’s simply no way strawberries could be prepared that’s not cause for my gratitude: purchased fresh from a farm stand, rinsed and eaten out of a supermarket package, sprinkled with sugar and swimming in cream, married to a crepe, crowning a shortcake.

Jez Timms, Unsplash

Whenever I shop at a supermarket, I’ve developed the habit of reading the labels affixed to fruit and vegetables, and I’m amazed at the distance they have traveled to reach my corner of the world. Though I try to buy locally as much as possible, I’ve also welcomed Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Costa Rica and, closer to where I live, California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and more into my home. Imagine what these peaches and limes and watermelon and berries have witnessed since their picking!

I’ve also grown into a consciousness of the callouses of hands, the sweat of brows, the aching of backs, the weariness of long haul truckers, the sore shoulders of those who lift and unpack crates—all to bring me nourishment and pleasure.

When I was awakened to social justice issues many years ago through an invitation to advocate for sweatshop workers in New York City and beyond, I learned these workers were mostly women laboring long hours under unsanitary and often dangerous conditions for meager pay. Since then, I read the labels on any clothing I buy, I offer gratitude for the people who labor, and I pray for the safety and well-being of anyone who has had a hand in bringing a shirt or pants to me.

The same awareness applies to summer fruit but especially to my favorite, strawberries. Someone I never met must have had a similar experience of sudden, deep knowing. Alison Luterman describes this coming into the light of understanding in Bread, Body, Spirit, Finding the Sacred in Food:

“Strawberries are too delicate to be picked by machine. The perfectly ripe ones even bruise at too heavy a human touch. It hit her then that every strawberry she had ever eaten—every piece of fruit—had been picked by calloused human hands. Every piece of toast with jelly represented someone’s knees, someone’s aching back and hips, someone with a bandana on her wrist to wipe away the sweat. Why had no one ever told her this before?”  

Why, indeed? But here’s the thing about discovering and knowing: we can never go back to whatever state we were in before our worldview was broken wide open and expanded, before we grew in awareness of both the local and the global price others have paid for our pleasure and enjoyment. So may we keep on enjoying the ripe, juicy gifts of summer, and each time we do, may we give thanks for the givers of those sweet and succulent gifts.

Kelly Neil, Unsplash

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you have a piece of ripe fruit available, you may want to set it some place where you can gaze at it.
Reflect on the abundance of this season and the miracle and mystery that is God’s giving.
Hold in tenderness and prayer all those who have had a part in bringing this fruit to your table.
Eat the fruit slowly, taking into your own body the life and labor of a neighbor across the world.

Featured Image: Louis Hansel, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of these upcoming events:

May 21 -23:   Directed Retreat Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA. I’ll be one of the guest directors for the weekend.

June 6-13: A guided retreat I’ll be leading for the Sisters of the Holy Spirit in San Antonio, Texas.  Thank you!

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Ready for Blossoming

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   May 9, 2021

Listen! The chant of a hundred jonquils opening their orange centers to sun and rain. The song of a peony heavy with ants intent on sipping nectar from the base of its green sepals. The lyric of abundance that surrounds us in spring whenever she makes her debut. Nature insists: blossoming is possible.

This surge of springtime life that St. Hildegard of Bingen calls viriditas is the greening power of God pulsing through every cell. That same movement, from single cell to bud to full flowering, is also taking place in us, with one significant difference. We have the choice to refuse growth and avoid change, or to do deep, inner soul work and cooperate with grace.

Salsabeel Ehsan, Unsplash

If we’ve ever kept close watch on a bud, we know that the journey from infant bud to mature flower is one very slow movement. Some mornings seem to be frozen in time. Some afternoons appear to be nothing but pause or standstill. Some days we may observe no growth whatsoever and then, if we turn our back for just a moment, there it is–the splendor of opening petals.

In the natural world, so many elements can stunt growth or prevent blossoming: an unseasonal frost, a lasting drought, the harshness of brutal hail or excessive heat. In the life of the spirit, some elements—such as a dearth of encouragement, a constant barrage of criticism, experiences of exclusion or attitudes of unwelcome–effect a similar outcome.

Spring invites us to cultivate a particular tenderness for those who long for full flowering but who live in fear or despair that blossoming might forever elude them–all those whose lives are silenced or ignored, who are pressed down by the weight of social sins like racism, exploitation, oppression. May our intention to live as the presence of love offer an optimal convergence of sun and soil and warmth and nourishment for the life of the world.  May the fragile buds in us blossom into the abundant life that is the Holy One’s dream for everyone.

That is our prayer and, I suspect, a current underneath Maya Spector’s delightful poem, “Jailbreak Time”:

Katya Leo, Unsplash

It’s time to break out—
Jailbreak time.
Time to punch our way out of
the dark winter prison.
Lilacs are doing it
in sudden explosions of soft purple,
and the jasmine vines,
and ranunculus, too.
There is no jailer powerful enough
to hold Spring contained.
Let that be a lesson.
Stop holding back the blossoming!
Quit shutting eyes and gritting teeth,
curling fingers into fists, hunching shoulders.
Lose your determination to remain unchanged.
All the forces of nature
want you to open,
Their gentle nudge carries behind it
the force of a flash flood.
Why make a cell your home
when the door is unlocked
and the garden is waiting for you?

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One,
or, if you prefer, go outdoors and pay attention to the Holy One present in viriditas,
the greening power of the Divine.
Notice what hopes and dreams are stirring within you or within creation around you.
Might anything be holding back the blossoming?
What might be needed for “jailbreak time” to happen?
Ask the Holy One to help you move closer to full flowering.

Featured image:   Marina Lakotka, Unsplash

NOTE:
For the next few days, I’ll be taking some time away for my own blossoming. Grateful!

Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of a Directed Retreat Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA, May 23-25. I’ll be a guest director for the weekend. Thank you.

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The Sparkle Effect

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   April 25, 2021

Some time ago, I was part of a reflection process where we explored how the quality of our presence impacts fields of energy wherever we go. We were invited to share a story of a time when our intention to live as the presence of love softened the relational field around us.

I was immediately taken back to the years when I visited a New York detention center where refugees were held while awaiting deportation or asylum hearings. After receiving clearance to visit an inmate (no name given, simply an identifying number), I met Greg and learned that he had fled his African homeland at the height of a brutal civil war. With no papers or documents, he was picked up at Kennedy airport and brought to the detention center.

Siviwe Kapteyn, Unsplash

I was stunned to see the conditions under which these traumatized, fragile, desperate people lived and waited. The converted former warehouse was windowless, offering no chance to glimpse sky or trees, no chance to feel the sun’s warmth, no chance to connect to a world beyond the walls, which were painted a dark, drab olive. A single TV blared loudly for twenty-four hours a day. The atmosphere was so depressing that I almost expected to see Dante’s inscription on the gate to hell—“Abandon hope, all you who enter here”—posted over a door.

Greg was deeply spiritual, so when I asked him what I might bring to relieve his suffering, he replied, “A Bible.” No problem, I naively thought. So as I was leaving, I told the guard that next time I visited I would bring a Bible for Greg.

“No, it’s not allowed,” replied the guard. “You could smuggle drugs in that.”
“How about a rosary then?”
“No, he might take out the metal links and injure someone.”
I went through a list of possible items that might bring comfort to Greg.
“No.” “No.” “No.”

Exasperated, I exclaimed, “Well, what am I allowed to bring in here?”

“Just yourself. That’s it. Only yourself.”

I left, deeply distressed. On the long ride home, I put myself in the place of the detainees and thought that, if I were confined where they were, the total absence of beauty would be terribly deadly for my spirit. And then I hatched a plan.

The next time I visited Greg and every time afterwards, I was a kaleidoscope of color. My most sparkly, glittering earrings. Blouses that were lime green or canary yellow or bright fuchsia. Socks of such fluorescent hues they almost glowed in the dark. Was it my imagination, or did the gruff guard on desk duty show the faintest smile as I checked in? Did the eyes of other inmates light up suddenly as they glimpsed me entering the visiting area? Greg confirmed my intuition with his broad grin and his comment, “Ah, color.  I’ve been missing it so much.”

Helena Lopes, Unsplash

Anne Frank, whose diary written during her time in hiding from the Nazis continues to inspire us today, once wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” There’s no excuse for standing around expecting to be tapped on the shoulder for some heroic act or lifesaving measure that will make a difference. Opportunities of that dimension are rare.

But we can be faithful to the seemingly small gesture, what I like to name “The Sparkle Effect.” We can carry comfort or beauty or kindness or presence or a smile into the everyday.  We can leave affirmation and encouragement and restored hope in our wake. And yes, we can set our intention to vibrate as the presence of love, to soften the relational field of energy around us. It is from just such faithful ripples that the currents of love expand and reach out to heal the Universe.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Hold in your heart a being who may be most in need of compassion and deep listening. (Since this is Earth month, you may want to remember Earth, our Common Home, or some part of the created world).
Spend several minutes with your intention to be an agent of healing presence today.
Ask the Holy One to bless your intention.

Featured image:  Sharon McCutcheon, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of a virtual evening of prayer sponsored by Villa Pauline Retreat Center that I’ll be leading April 27. Thank you.

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Slowly

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   April 11, 2021

Here in Northeast PA, temperatures are usually lower than in neighborhoods less than a half hour to the south of us. That means that budding and blossoming are taking much longer to visit my corner of the world. Every time I pass by the forsythia bush in our yard, I fret over the seemingly glacial pace at which her buds are opening. A time lapse camera would have to be on high speed to capture any sense of unfolding progress. But I try to remember that the Universe takes its time when it’s creating. And I imagine, as the forsythia and I greet each other, that she whispers conspiratorially, “Slowly, slowly. That’s how I go.”

Yesterday when I was taking my daily walk, I ended by coming into the parking lot near the walking trail. A couple was sitting in their car with the windows rolled down and as I passed by, the driver yelled out, “Good for you! You’re doing great.” I don’t know if he called out his encouragement when he noticed how gingerly I set my foot down with every step. No longer able to walk as well or as painlessly or as quickly as I once did, I smiled and replied,  “Slowly, slowly. That’s how I go.”

Henrique Jacob, Unsplash

It occurred to me when those words came out of my mouth that what is true for the budding forsythia and true for my walking is just as true for all kinds of resurrection. I don’t know that transformation ever happens at high speed. I suspect that, in the life of the spirit and in the process of healing the body and in inner awareness and spiritual growth, there’s next to nothing that happens in an instant and lots more that calls for patience, labor, reflection, and ongoing attentiveness over time and space.

So what might our Easter celebration say about resurrection? What is the risen life of Jesus asking of us? Are we willing to do the deep, inner soul work that his ongoing life requires and to be about it “slowly, slowly”? Are we willing to give our lives over to the work of compassion and justice not simply in a moment of affirmation or praise but in the unglamorous, unnoticed, tedious and sometimes slow-as-molasses hours that make up a day, a week, a lifetime?

We remember how it took multiple visits from the risen Jesus to convince his disciples that he was, indeed, alive. Calling out a familiar, beloved name in the garden. Breaking through into a locked room. Walking the way to Emmaus. Grilling fish on the beach. There was nothing quick or hurried about the gradual grasp of the reality that the disciples’ friend and leader was no longer dead, that he had never ceased calling them to a new way of life. This is no less true for us as we commit to being faithful in the slow times when it might appear that nothing at all is happening, in the uncertain times when we’re shaken by doubt, aching with loss, confused and struggling to believe that any growth is taking place.

The spiritual writer Carlo Caretto left us with a rich illustration of some of the ways resurrection unfolds in our everyday lives. Notice that there’s no mention of haste or speed in his description:

“This is what it means to believe in the resurrection:
When you forgive your enemy
When you feed the hungry
When you defend the weak
You believe in the resurrection.

When you have the courage to marry
When you welcome the newly born child
When you build your home
You believe in the resurrection.

When you wake at peace in the morning
When you sing to the rising sun
When you go to work with joy
You believe in the resurrection.”

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on any area of your life where you may be struggling to grow,
where you may be yearning to see change or transformation.
Ask the Holy One for patience and trust in the unfolding blossoming within.
Give thanks for the ways in which resurrection is taking place, even if you can’t see it.

Featured image: Yoksel Zok, Unsplash

Note:
Please pray for all who will be part of a virtual evening of prayer, “Invitation to Blossoming,” on April 27. Our hour’s time together will explore the learnings that the life force of Spring offers us, the hopes that are stirring within us, and the divine greening power that is healing our world. If you’re interested in participating, register at “Invitation to Blossoming.”

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A Stirring That Will Not Be Denied

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    March 28, 2021

Depending on which hemisphere we call home, we may, at this time of year, already be noticing the first stirrings. The force in the tulip bulb breaking through barely thawed ground. The fragile bud morphing into spring green. The brave crocus poking its head up in hopeful blossoming. The fresh nest growing stick by stick and straw by straw to welcome new life.

Perhaps we can feel those stirrings in ourselves as well. The divine greening power calling us, beckoning us to move forward and embrace the mystery of growth and of transformation. It’s a process that’s exciting and mysterious and scary, all at once, especially for those of us who want to know.

Studio Dekorasyon, Unsplash

What might this life force be inviting us into? What deep, inner soul work is required to set in motion a more vital and passionate living? What reserves of wisdom and courage must be mined if we’re to step into the unknowingness of a new moment?

Two years ago, when I was at the beginning of a recovery whose outcome was uncertain, I remember how my question of “When will I be able to walk again?” was met by kind but evasive answers from my healthcare professionals. Their responses alerted my intuition that no one could even attempt to predict my future, that perhaps there were no answers–or at least none that would comfort me.

On my worst day in the darkness of that unknowing, I broke down. My physical therapist, one of those wise beings who know exactly when to push and when to hold back, reminded me as I wept that therapy is exhausting work, that it challenges us to profound compassion for our bodies and gentleness for our spirits. And then she added, “But the life force is very strong in you.”

Spring began in that moment when someone saw in me what I was incapable of seeing in myself. My therapist’s encouragement ushered in a renewed hopefulness and a fresh determination to engage with my whole heart in the grueling and mysterious work of healing and then to live with gracious acceptance of what could not be healed.

Perhaps the poet, Pablo Neruda, had this in mind when he observed, “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” Irrepressible. Unstoppable. Resilient. Tenacious.

Might those same descriptive adjectives be equally true of resurrection? As we wait with the Holy One in the silent entombment of Holy Saturday, we wait in the presence of Mystery. We wait with a world that is buried by despair, by hopes deferred, by a longing to rise. We wait with the inexplicable truth that the life force present in Jesus is also strong in us. Strong even when and perhaps especially when we’re buried under the weight of burdens and worries. Strong even when our sometimes limited vision blocks the faintest glimmer of hope from our horizon. The life force of Jesus, the ever-present grace of the Holy One, remains with us and in us. May the promise of his risen life invite us into this “Prayer for All Things Rising” by Jan Richardson:

Bruno van der Kraan, Unsplash

“For all things rising
out of the hiddenness of shadows
out of the weight of despair
out of the brokenness of pain
out of the constrictions of compliance
out of the rigidity of stereotypes
out of the prison of prejudice;

for all things rising
into life, into hope
into healing, into power
into freedom, into justice;

we pray, O God,
for all things rising.”

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If possible, surround yourself with images or sounds of new life—in birdsong, in blossoming, in any signs of the greening power of God.
What might be longing to blossom in you?
Hold in tenderness and prayer all things yearning and struggling to rise today.

Featured image: Ali G. Rashidi, Unsplash

NOTE:
Beginning April 1, look for my guest blog for the Triduum on A Nun’s Life, https://anunslife.org. Special thanks to Sister Julie Myers, OSF for the invitation to contribute a post and for her enthusiastic, professional shepherding of this piece from start to posting.

Wishing you all the graces of Holy Week and the new life of Easter, and wishing our Jewish sisters and brothers the blessings of Passover. Thank you for all the ways you inspire my own life and the lives of so many, for your words of encouragement, and for your faithful following of Mining the Now. May you know the fullness of new life and the greening power of the Holy One this season.

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A Perspective on Dust

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    March 12, 2021

Dust. I’ve been thinking a lot about it since Ash Wednesday. Quite honestly, I’ve never been fond of hearing, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” as the cross formed of ashes is traced on my forehead. I understand those words are a reference to the story of God’s admonishing Adam as he departs the garden (Genesis 3:19). I understand those words are a poignant reminder of our impermanence and our mortality.

But somehow, hearing them always feels a bit…dismissive. As in, you’re only dust. Relegated to the same category as the dust we try to make disappear every time we clean our homes. Or the dust of unwelcome in Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples (Matthew 10:14), where he suggests that they shake the dust from their feet when their message is resisted. Yes, that kind of dust, to be trampled underfoot and forgotten.

Ahna Ziegler, Unsplash

I prefer to think of the dust of our lives in the way Dan Schutte describes it in the song, “Ashes to Ashes”:

“We have seen in the heavens and held in our arms/ what the hand of our Maker can fashion out of dust.”

Ah, and is there any limit to what the hand of our Maker can create? Might we expand our imagination to include the possibility that we, along with all of creation, have been fashioned out of a different kind of dust, the dust of stars? That we are made, as Carl Sagan observes, “of star stuff.” That the atoms of oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen in our bodies are a direct link to the heavenly bodies created over 4.5 billion years ago. That through this dust, we are forever connected to the universe as it continues to evolve and renew itself in us. That when we gaze in silent wonder at a midnight sky bright with burning orbs, we recognize the shape of something familiar in that cosmic dust and know ourselves related in a collective, holy ancestry.

Yes, that kind of dust! While musing about the origins of stardust, I was moved by a passage that Jan Woodward shared in Texting through Cancer: Ordinary Moments of Community, Love, and Healing. The author wrote of a breast cancer survivor who began chemotherapy and whose hair soon began to fall out as a consequence of the potent drugs used to battle her illness. Early on, she made the decision to totally shave her head rather than wait to become bald little by little. And then, she wondered, what ought she do with the hair clippings from that shaving? Discard them? Save them as a remembrance of a life left behind?

She arrived at a response that was both thoughtful and tender. Going outside in her yard, she scattered the clippings of her shorn hair on the ground. And then, a bit later, a delightful discovery: she witnessed her feathered neighbors, the robins and chickadees and wrens, gathering bits of her hair to weave into nests that would protect and nurture their young for a new cycle of life.

Mateusz Stepien, Unsplash

A whole different image of dust returning to dust. Human dust, winged dust, star dust. May we move through this day attentive to and on the lookout for the holy dust that is the stuff of our lives.

Takeaway
You may want to try this practice by having before you a photo of the night sky or by sitting outside in the evening under the stars.
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Gaze at the image of the stardust from which you came.
What does this dust feel like? Look like?
Share your insights with the Holy One and give thanks that you are so fearfully, wonderfully made.

Featured image:  Vaibhaw Kumar, Unsplash

NOTE:
Thank you for remembering in prayer last weekend’s virtual retreat experience with the wonderful women of Women Helping Women and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Singles, Forest Hills, NY.

Please hold in your prayer these upcoming offerings:

March 13: Lenten retreat day for St. Bonaventure – St. Benedict the Moor parish, Jamaica, NY

March 26-28:  Directed Retreat Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA

Coming soon: A guest post for Holy Week for A Nun’s Life, https://anunslife.org. A Nun’s Life is about just that–LIFE–and how to live it fully in light of the Gospel. 

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Bearing Witness

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    February 28, 2021

Yes, it has been a year. And what has come of it? How have we been marking time or living with a newfound sense of time?

Once it became clear that COVID-19 was not going to fade away as we had once surmised, a friend of mine with a background in social work shared with me an idea that had been simmering in his thoughts for several months. He said that he had begun putting together a program to help individuals and groups deal with an anticipated landslide of requests for grief counseling. Returning to a pre-pandemic way of life meant also coming to terms with the reality that we had not ever been in control, perhaps merely suffering from the illusion of control.

Peter Steiner, Unsplash

My friend was referring, of course, to the obvious mourning of those who had lost someone to the coronavirus, often unable to be with their loved ones and console them as their breath diminished, and who now faced an aching emptiness in their lives going forward. Just as truly, he was speaking of our collective need to name and to make meaning of the many levels of loss, change, and disruption we’ve all experienced during this past year. He reflected that we’ve all met some form of trauma, loosely described as any unhealed wound, a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, a shock, upheaval, sorrow, or heartache. That we are all in some way grieving lives that have been disordered and turned upside down.

I believe he’s on to something. Perhaps because that imagining was in my consciousness, I was struck recently reading a post by Brené Brown where she noted that, “Grief requires witnessing.”

She shared it as a comment on David Kessler’s observation that “what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.”

During this Lenten season when we reflect on the forces that inexorably led Jesus closer to Calvary, I’ve been sitting with the grief that requires witnessing. Simon of Cyrene watching the unsteady steps of this quiet man and opening his heart to help shoulder the cross. Veronica stepping out from her place in the crowd and offering consolation with a towel. The women of Jerusalem aware that Jesus is some mother’s child and that he has been torn from the shelter of her embrace. Mary, looking into the haunted eyes, at the bruised and bloody body of Jesus, and knowing that her place is not to save her son but to be present to his excruciating suffering. The words exchanged between these onlookers and Jesus on the way to Calvary were few. But the testament to the power of presence is enduring. If we place ourselves in the crowd on that day, we might wonder: What might we ourselves have been impelled to do? How we might have been moved to be?

Henrique Jacob, Unsplash

Grief requires witnessing, now no less than then. Like these holy ones we remember during Lent, where might we now be called to stand with, stay with, and witness to the pain, anguish, and heartbreak of a world that is both beautiful and broken?

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Hold in your heart and prayer a person, place, or situation in our world where suffering is present.
Sit in silence and surround them with your healing compassion.
Bear witness to their grief.
What is it calling you to be or to do?

Featured image:   Jametlene Reskp, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer these upcoming events:

March 6:   Virtual Lenten retreat for members of Women Helping Women and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Single Adults, Forest Hills, NY, two amazing groups of people who gather regularly to make the world a better, more loving place.

March 13:  Retreat day for parishioners of St. Bonaventure – St. Benedict the Moor parish, Jamaica, NY.

Please also remember those who would have been part of a day for Spiritual Directors and a retreat weekend at the Franciscan Center for Spiritual Renewal, Aston, PA. Those events have been canceled.

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Hearts and Ashes

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM      February 14, 2021

Ash Wednesday has long been a favorite of mine, but perhaps not for the reasons you might suspect. Those who know me well are quite aware that I’m not overly fond of fasting and penance. I’ve long harbored a secret wish to reverse the course of the liturgical seasons, increasing Advent to six weeks and reducing Lent to four weeks. This way, I reason, there would be more days of joyful expectation and fewer days of self-denial. Enough said.

So clearly, I’m not at all a penitential soul. But here’s what I love about Ash Wednesday: it’s one of those rare times when longing is laid bare, and laid bare in almost everyone unapologetically and without embarrassment. For a number of years, I was privileged to help with the distribution of ashes at the beginning of Lent. And I immediately observed something different from what I noticed on people’s faces as they came to receive the Eucharist, perhaps because receiving the Eucharist was a more commonplace weekly practice. Ash Wednesday, however, had the distinction of being a once-a-year moment, and it showed.

What I read on people’s faces as they approached to receive blessed ashes: the absolute ache of pure, unadulterated longing. A desire to return to God with all one’s heart. A yearning to begin again, perhaps for the hundredth time. A hope, no, a certainty, that it just might not be too late to seek forgiveness. A knowing of one’s failings that was swept aside by the deeper knowing of the Holy One’s tender understanding. An intuition that homecoming was not only possible; it was anticipated and welcome.

The intensity of that longing still haunts me. It reminds me of the story of a goatherd who was far from his beloved and yet who could hear, from a thousand miles away, the sound of her comb running through her hair. Yes, that kind of longing. It was all there, in every pair of eyes, in every open face moving towards me up the center aisle of the church. The depths of that yearning seared my soul, melted my heart, caused my eyes to well up with the transparency of it all. As our gazes met, I looked tenderly at each person and saw that every face held a perfect mirror of my own profound desire to return to God with all my heart.

This year the feast of love, Valentine’s Day, stands at the edge of Lent’s beginning. How fitting that a holiday when we proclaim and express our affection for cherished people in our lives should introduce a season when we are overwhelmed by the boundless, unconditional, unaccountably generous love of the Holy One for each of us. This same Holy One who inhabited our human condition and knows so well our limits and incompleteness. This same Holy One who, some spiritual teachers note, is actually the very one who initiates our own longing for the divine. So may we enter into this holiday of love and embrace this season of love in the company of the Holy One, in the company of all lovers of God whose lives have been captured by this insistent, mysterious desire.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Share the deepest longing of your heart.
Pause in silence to listen to the Holy One’s desire for you.
Give thanks for your belovedness.

Featured image: Tim Marshall, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer my preparation for programs, retreats, and spiritual direction that will fill my Lenten calendar. And as always, know that you and your intentions are in my prayers of gratitude in the Lenten season ahead.

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Finding Where We’re Fed

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM January 29, 2021

We are all in some way driven or moved by our hunger. The great herds of zebras and wildebeests thundering across the African plains, braving crocodile-infested waters in search of good grazing. The radiant yellow hibiscus bending across its pot to absorb the nutrients of streaming sunlight. The thoughtful adult planning creative meals to enhance the limits of a tight budget.

One of the consequences of spending so much time at home these days has been a renewed interest in food.  Perhaps we’ve been comforted by the family-size bag of kettle cooked potato chips (guilty!) or similar snacks. Perhaps we’ve had the advantage of unexpected time to actually pay attention to what we eat and when and how we eat. Perhaps we find ourselves living with a greater awareness of food, of those who grew it, packaged it, trucked it, delivered it. Perhaps we’re growing into the Buddhist practice that admonishes us to be there when we eat, to be present to the food before us, not multi-tasking while we gulp down a sandwich but instead giving a meal our full attention and respect, chewing slowly, savoring taste, giving thanks.

Another aspect of living during a pandemic and in the turbulence of a divisive political climate has been the discovery of what else we consume and take in that does not nourish our souls or bodies but instead harms or depletes them. During the chaotic years of the previous presidential administration, I noticed something about my limited consumption of early morning news and then the national news in the evening: most of  it invaded and disturbed my peace of mind. I slowly began to whittle down even that small amount of time. I eliminated from my diet as much as possible the voices of cruelty and exclusion, the messages of bullying and domination.

And then the question became: what is feeding me in their place? What makes my heart leap? My pulse quicken with hope? My senses stand at alert? Because whatever makes my soul come alive, makes my entire body stand in expectant attention, is sustenance of the most profound kind. That’s what nourishes my deep hunger. That’s where I need to linger and pause. That’s the miracle of the loaves and fishes played out anew in this time and place, where there’s more than enough and the enough fills and energizes me and others.

Nine Koepfer, Unsplash

Perhaps it’s wilderness time, communion with the revelations of the natural world. In a tree gloriously draped in snowfall. In a crow perched like a sentinel on a bare tree top. In an encounter with a foraging deer as we both dwell in the other’s gaze. Perhaps it’s stillness and a deep listening to the Holy. Perhaps it’s the muted colors of Monet or Renoir or the summons in every note of classical or pop or rap or jazz music. Perhaps it’s the way the lines of a poem feel in our mouth. Perhaps it’s our sinking into and becoming totally lost in the pages of a novel. Perhaps it’s the quiet inspiration that is the love of a good friend.

Whatever it may be, may we eat it! Consume it. Chew it. Savor it. Allow it to enter our soul. Take it in, offer thanks, bless it, and know ourselves fed.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on whatever nourishes or quickens or delights your soul.
Name the creators or the inhabitants of this gift, and what it is that draws you.
Give thanks for this food and for the Creator and giver of every good gift.
Then take another bite, and savor it.

NOTE:
Please remember in your prayer:
Directed Prayer Weekend (in-person) at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA, January 29-31. I’ll be one of the guest directors for this weekend. Please pray for all who will be part of these sacred days. Thank you!

Featured image: Motoki Tonn, Unsplash

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