Rhythms of Grace

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, August 28, 2016

One of the sweetest of lullabies has to be the reassuring evenness of rolling waves breaking on the shore, over and over again.  Anyone who has spent time by the ocean on a stormless day or night knows that familiar, gentle song.

This continual meeting of sea and sand opens the heart and mind to notice other rhythms as well.  Morning sun peeks over the horizon and evening sun sinks in a blaze of color.  A daily walk reveals the routine of animal companions who are creatures of the dawn and dusk: dolphins swimming back and forth on some kind of aquatic timetable; the cautious red fox, the family of skunks, the watchful rabbit, the Purple Martins fluttering in and out of their houses in day’s first light, all going about the tasks of scouting, feeding, caregiving.  Over and over, purposefully, with attention to their surroundings, following a pattern and pausing at regular intervals during the day.

Taking in the rhythms of the natural world reminds us that there are rhythms to the life of the spirit as well.  One of these is the Examen,  a way of reflecting on the events of the day and discerning the movement of our hearts, God’s grace at work in us, and how we have responded.  This way of reflecting is described by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, in his Spiritual Exercises.

rhythm sunriseAn examen-type reflection can take place at any time.  You might pause midday to discern how the day is unfolding.  You might enter into it in the evening, taking a sacred break as night approaches.  It’s an invitation to become aware of how God has been present.  To savor one or more moments of the day, and give thanks.  To notice when you loved and when you were loved.  To express sorrow to God for anything you regret and to ask for forgiveness.  To look forward to a new day and to ask for God’s grace as you begin anew.

Over many years, I’ve been attentive to other expressions for reviewing the day.  Sometimes asking questions in a fresh, creative manner enables us to see with new eyes and hear as if hearing for the first time.  One of the  most compact distillations of an Examen I’ve ever heard came in the words of a small child, who reflected that when he said his prayers at night, he thought about “where I did good and where I messed up.”  What a great Examen!  Brother David Steindl-Rast practices an Examen of gratitude, where, at the end of the day, he names one or more new things for which he has never before expressed gratitude.

In To Bless the Space Between Us, John O’Donohue offers “At the End of the Day, A Mirror of Questions,” as a way to reclaim the sacred in your everyday moments.

Here are some of my favorite questions in that mirror at day’s end:

Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
From the evidence—why was I given this day? 

In Seven Sacred Pauses, Macrina Wiederkehr offers her own list of reflective questions, including:

Have I been a good memory in anyone’s life today?
Have the ears of my heart opened to the voice of God?  to the needs of my sisters and brothers?
What do I know, but live as though I do not know?
How have I affected the quality of this day?
Is there anyone, including myself, whom I need to forgive?
When did I experience my heart opening wide today?
What is the one thing in my life that is standing on tiptoe crying, “May I have your attention, please?” 

The invitation is before us to pause and reflect on what attracts us and grabs our soul,  on what we resist on any given day, on where we invite love to flow through us and where we place obstacles to love.  With God’s grace, may we develop or deepen the regular practice of prayerfully reviewing the day and take a sacred pause this day and in all the days to come.

Takeaway

Take a prayerful pause toward the close of this day.

Use an Examen that is part of your daily spiritual practice, or sit with one or two of the questions offered above.

Invite our loving God to speak to your heart.

Listen, and give thanks.

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Right Here, Right Now

by Chris Koellhoffer, August 14, 2016

This present moment, this sacred now, is all we really have.  Yesterday is unrepeatable and held in memory.  Tomorrow is not guaranteed to any one of us.  This train of thought has lingered with me since I visited the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City this past week.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in New York beginning a certificate program in spiritual direction.  I spent the next 24 hours in the company of frightened yet compassionate strangers, all of us haunted by the eerie silence of a normally noisy city, all of us desperately searching for information and trying to find a way home.  Home for me at that time was the 10th floor of a high rise apartment in Jersey City, across the Hudson River.  From that perch, I prayed and wept for days as I looked out on the smoking, smoldering Manhattan skyline with its terrible, raw scar and its gaping emptiness.  I had not been able to return to the site of this overwhelming loss and grief until just this past week, some 15 years later.

Last week, spending time at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, I realized that I was once again in the company of strangers, all of us reverently trying to absorb the enormity of what we were witnessing.  There were a few hushed whispers, many quiet tears, but mostly, there was the remembering and the cherishing, especially in the memorial exhibition, In Memoriam.  Together, we entered a corridor and gazed up at the “Wall of Faces,” portrait photographs of the nearly 3,000 men, women, and children whose lives were taken by violence that day and in the February 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.  We lingered over the touchscreen tables that offered a further glimpse into the WTC calla lily copyprecious lives commemorated through photographs, audio recordings, mementos.  Outside at the reflecting pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers, we searched for familiar names and let our fingers linger when we found them.

That day at the memorial and museum, I who am a writer and lover of words had no words.  No words.  Words were not enough for the bright lights snuffed out not only here in New York City but in all the places in our world that have experienced acts of violence and savagery.  No words.  Only a reverencing for all that had been so brutally taken away.  No words.  Just a sense of communion with the corporate ache and the collective weeping of the human family.

Since then I have carried with me a wondering at what those lives might have become, what gifts and graces they might have showered on a world that continues to mourn their absence but honors them by moving forward in hope.  Most probably, none of the beautiful, smiling faces filling wall after wall of the 9/11 memorial had any intuition that a September morning would be their last.  All they had, which is all we have, is the present moment.

Their faces, and the faces of the many who have known both the beauty and the brokenness of our world,  challenge me, impel me, plead with me:  “Live with awareness.  Don’t delay in sharing your love.  Be extravagant with compassion.  And do this right here, right now.”

Takeaway

Pause for a moment of quiet.

Name any loss which you are carrying today.
Ask God for healing for your own heart as well as the hearts of your neighbors across the world.

In the moments ahead of you today, how might you be invited to be a person of peace and tenderness?

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Of Wounds Invisible

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, July 31, 2016

Sometimes the most ordinary of things can reveal a fresh way of looking at our world. For me, that ordinariness is a temporary boot.

In a strange way, I’m going to miss my boot. 15 inches tall, crisscrossed by Velcro, it has caused my usual steady, balanced gait to morph into something resembling the lumbering of an ungainly bear. I was dancing when a fracture occurred as I came down on the side of my foot—and wearing a boot was an unintended and unwelcomeboot consequence of that moment. But in the days since, the boot has offered a powerful spiritual practice to me.

Its “can’t miss it” size and shape have opened up constant conversations. “What happened to you?” often leads to stories about mishaps and encumbrances from friends and strangers alike. The attention it has garnered has deepened in me an awareness of a whole universe we simply can’t see: a world of brokenness that’s not visible. The boot has opened up for me a way to pay attention to the world of the unseen.

When I strap my foot in each morning, I pray for the many I will meet that day who carry wounds imperceptible. Among those I’ll encounter, I wonder who will hold hurts and have raw edges that aren’t announced by the outward signs of bandages or casts. I wonder:

Who might be putting on a brave smile and going out to meet the day with a broken heart?Who has been shattered by a cherished relationship abruptly ended, and not by choice? Who is mourning a beloved companion or partner taken by death?
For whom is loneliness so searing that it eclipses all other thoughts and emotions?
Who yearns to change patterns and habits that hold them captive?
Whose ability to experience joy has been threatened by a daunting diagnosis?
Who is imprisoned by regret?
Whose economic reality weighs them down with despair or wears them out with anxiety?Who struggles to climb out from underneath shame?
Who finds it nearly impossible to move forward with hope?
Who longs for the day to end in a movement toward healing and wholeness?

heart hidden hurt copySo my boot, initially an inconvenience and an irritant, has grown into a daily meditation of sorts, a reminder of the invisible brokenness, diminishment, and limitations in my own life and in the lives of the people who come into my circle of awareness each day. St. Paul wrote of desiring to have the same attitude as Jesus, to see as Jesus did, to put on the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). In much the same way, the poet and mystic Rumi urged us to

“Borrow the Beloved’s eyes.
Look through them and you’ll see
The Beloved’s face…”

With or without the visible reminder on my foot that announces something has been broken, I hope to remember to learn to see from this Divine perspective, to slow down, to look below the surface into the hearts of everyone in our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Reflect on a time in the past when you may have carried hurts that no one else could see.

If someone responded to your pain with tenderness, give thanks for that gift of tenderness.

How might you deepen your own compassion for the wounds of others?

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Naming the Gate

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, July 17, 2016

Sometimes coming up with a reflection on a Gospel passage can be quite a challenge, especially around those passages that are far from “warm and fuzzy.”  At the same time, these hard words can also be an invitation to look beneath the text and dig deep.  Really deep.

In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus is doing some of the prophetic work of denouncing.  He’s pointing out to the people around him what can happen when they fail to pay attention and so make the Holy invisible.  He reproaches the cities where most of his miracles had occurred.  Why?  Because, he says, they didn’t repent.  They weren’t doing the deep inner soul work that would have opened them to a change of heart, to a shift in their worldview.  They had been smack in the middle of holiness and miracles and not even noticed.  They couldn’t see what was right in front of them all along.

What had Jesus done that they hadn’t been able to see?  He called them to a deeper life.  He prayed and restored healing to their wounded hearts.  He offered compassion to all that was fragile and broken.  All that in plain sight, and yet they hadn’t been paying attention, noticing, listening.  And so they missed the miraculous, the signs and wonders, all around them.

So what does this have to say to us in our time and place?  Might it be a call to open ears, open eyes, open hearts?  A call to see and hear beyond appearances?

Perhaps Bobbie, a Golden Retriever, can offer us a visual.  My sister’s family lived in the suburbs with this beloved dog.   Every morning, someone would open the back door and let Bobbie out into a yard that was completely enclosed by a wire fence.  And this was Bobbie’s pattern:  he would wander around the yard and survey it for a few minutes.  Then he would amble over to the wire gate, sit down in front of the gate, and wait for someone to open it so he could go out and explore the rest of his doggie world.  This was his ritual for years.

Well, one day, the family decided that the fence was no longer necessary, so my brother-gate with golden copyin-law spent an entire day pulling the wire fence out of the ground.  At the end of the day, only one thing was left standing: the little wire gate.  Everything else was clear and open space, now without borders or boundaries.

The next morning, they opened the back door to let Bobbie out and he followed his usual pattern.  He ambled around for a few minutes.  He surveyed the yard that was now entirely open.  And then what did he do?  He went over and sat down in front of the only part of the fence that was still standing: the small wire gate.  In spite of the family calling out and gesturing to the fence-free yard, Bobbie wouldn’t budge.  He was stuck in his pattern of not noticing.  And so he sat there, refusing to move, until someone finally opened the wire gate.  Only then did he walk out of the yard that had been open to him all along.

Since then I’ve often reflected on what that might say to my life, to our lives.  All around us and within us, God is acting.  God is speaking.  God is continually pouring out love.  But often we don’t notice.  We fail to pay attention.  We’re unaware of the amazing and the miraculous right smack in the middle of our everyday lives.

So in reflection times, we might want to ask:  What is the gate in our lives?  What do we resist?  What is that one thing or things that stands in the way of freedom of spirit?  The one thing that keeps us distant from our searching, hurting world?  The one thing that blocks our path to the fullness of God’s dream for each of us?

May we continue to cultivate the practice of paying attention, noticing, living with awareness.  Because in our beautiful, yet wounded world, God is at work.  Grace does abound.  The miraculous is happening right here, right now, within us and among us and all around us.  Let’s not miss it!

Takeaway

Sit with the image of the closed gate in a totally open, unenclosed yard.

What is the gate in your life?
What do you resist?
What is that one thing or things that stands in the way of freedom of spirit?
What is the one thing that blocks your path to the fullness of God’s dream for you?

Today, every time you notice a gate or a doorway, ask God for openness of heart.

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NOTE:
My thanks for your prayer on behalf of all those who were part of the directed retreat at St. Mary by the Sea, Cape May Point, New Jersey, July 7-16.   Today’s blog is from a reflection I offered as one of the retreat directors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living into the Questions

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, July 3, 2016

Having begun my career as an English teacher, I’m pre-disposed to notice words of all kinds, including words in sentences.  So the types of sentences we learned in elementary English classes–declarative, imperative, interrogative, exclamatory—are embedded in my consciousness.  And when it comes to reflecting on the life of the spirit, I’ve found that the power of the question mark is a good place to start.

Some time ago, I was intrigued by the title of Warren Berger’s book,  A More Beautiful Question.  His thesis is that good questions are powerful.  They can reveal desire, purpose, and commitment.  They can be catalysts and create forward movement.  They can be transforming and life changing.  They can surprise, disturb, excite, inspire, and nudge us.  They can act like flashlights that illuminate where we need to go.

A More Beautiful Question made me pay closer attention to questions popping up everywhere, including in the Scriptures:

Why are you weeping?
How can this be?
Who are you looking for?
Why do you search for the living among the dead?

Just a few days ago we celebrated the birth of John the Baptist.  The same John, languishing in prison, who sent his followers to ask Jesus one of the most poignant questions in all of Scripture:  “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?”  In other words:  “Tell me, please.  Have I been wasting my time preaching, pouring out my life, and pointing to you?  Or are you the real thing?”

In Saints Peter and Paul, whose feast we recently celebrated, we’re reminded of some of questionsclouds copylife’s biggest questions, questions of identity and belonging.  Saul, who became Paul, first hunted Christians and threw them into prison.  Later he’s knocked off his horse by a blinding light, and what happens next?  He hears a question:  “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  And Saul answers the divine question with his own: “Who are you?”  Who are you?  Because he pays attention to these questions, Saul/Paul spends the rest of his life in pursuit of the change of heart this persecuted God invites.

In the Gospel passage for the feast of Peter and Paul, we see that Jesus holds some questions of his own.  It seems there are all kinds of rumors going around, and Jesus wants to know,  “What do people say about who the Chosen One is?”  In other words,  “What’s the word on the street about me?”  The disciples cough up the usual safe responses:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.

But Jesus wants more.  He invites fresh thinking and deep reflection.  He goes right to the personal, to the heart, and asks:  “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Firstborn of the Living God.”  Because he’s been trying to pay attention, to notice, to listen, Peter is able to live into this question at that moment and in the days to come.

What about us today?  We also are asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Who is God for us?  How we identify the Divine, how we live into that question, will impact how we relate to all of our sisters and brothers—the joyful, the broken, the fearful, the doubting, the oppressed, the excluded, the searching.  Our call is to pay attention, to notice, to listen for the Spirit at work within us, among us, around us in the dailiness of our lives.

Questionmarks copyQuestions invite us to a deepened awareness.  As we pray and reflect on the stuff of our lives, we’re also tending to the interrogative, the question marks in our lives:

For what am I most grateful?
What is God grateful for in me?
What draws me or attracts me?  What grabs my soul?  What do I resist?
What is my deepest desire?
What is God’s desire for me?

The writer Jan Philips says that when we look at the brokenness and fragility of our world and the collective hunger and longing of the global community, the questions we listen to and notice are critical.  She says that the question we should be asking is not:

What is wrong with our world and how can we fix it?

The question is:

What does the world we want to live in look like?

Because if we can imagine that world, we can also, with God’s grace, give ourselves over to living out that question with fresh thinking, with creativity, with tenderness and compassion for all who inhabit our planet.  May we continue to contemplate sacred questions, alone and in community.  And may we pursue all this in good company and for the life of our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

What question/questions are you currently holding in your heart?
How might God be inviting you to learn from or grow into these questions?
Take a moment to unite your own searching with the longing and yearning of our world.  Hold all of this in your prayer today.

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My thanks to all who prayed for those on the directed retreat I led at St. Mary by the Sea, Cape May Point, NJ, last week.  Please also hold in your prayer those who will be part of the next directed retreat at St. Mary’s, July 7-16.  Thank you! 

 

 

 

 

The Balancing Act

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, June 19, 2016

Somewhere between the tightly held hand and the fingers opened wide, allowing us to move forward into an unknown future–that’s the undefined space in which we often stand in parenting the young and the fragile.  In celebrating Father’s Day, much will be written, spoken, sung, whispered, shouted in praise of fathers and those who protect, defend, nurture, teach, carry, mentor.

What I’ve been sitting with this weekend is a phrase from my IHM community’s Direction Statement, where “we invite others to join us in bringing about God’s dream for this beautiful, yet wounded world.”  That’s the world we live in, beautiful, and yet wounded.  And those words speak to an enormous challenge for parents, grandparents, guardians, mentors: the challenge of finding balance.  How to hold in one hand an awareness that ours can be a cruel and savage world, sometimes dangerous, often broken by rejection, pain, and injustice, a world where we desire to protect our vulnerable ones from all that is harmful and shield our cherished ones from all that is painful.  And then how to hold in the other hand the trust to let us go into a world that invites us deeper into wonder, feeds our imagination, reveals and affirms our longings, and sees our hopes and dreams unfold and blossom.

My Dad was an insurance executive, so I was raised with an awareness of how tentative life is: even with the most careful foresight, safety, security, and good health were not guaranteed to anyone.  Things could and did go wrong, plans could and might fail.  Buildings collapse.  Fires tear through a house.  Floods sweep away prized possessions.  Cars crumple on impact.  Hearts are broken.  This is fact.

EPSON MFP image
EPSON MFP image

Bringing my sisters and brothers and me into a world fraught with such dangerous and destructive possibility must have been an overwhelming concern for my father.  How, I often wonder, did his ever-present awareness of the uncertainties of life not force him to hold our hands so tightly that we could never live our own lives apart from his side?  Where did he find the confidence to let us make our own mistakes, navigate an uncertain terrain, and discover a world also filled with music, dance, poetry, Nature, and the transformative power of beauty and the arts?

Fathers are charged with shaping the worldview of their children, of imagining the kind of world they want to live in, and then dedicating their love and energies to moving that vision forward.  The other side of a dangerous world is a world where we have the courage to let beauty and wonder have their way as antidotes to fear.

Our Dad did this by waking us up in the middle of the night to climb out on the deck and meditate on a sky full of stars.  He told magical bedtime stories of the Lenape tribe who inhabited our woods long before us, who preserved and protected the land because one day, he would whisper, a family of very special children would move onto this same land.  He taught me the name of every rooted, winged, and running creature that shared our space, and then observed that, “They all have names for you, too.”  How could I not grow up full of wonder when I spent so much time in our back yard contemplating what words the tulip tree, the black snake, and the cardinal had chosen to describe me?

I don’t know if my Dad ever read Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,”   but I do know that he lived these words and found solace and encouragement in their truth:

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the space of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.  I come into the presence of still water,
and I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

This Father’s Day and every day, let us give thanks for those who are able to hold the tension of what’s wrong with our world—violence, hatred, indifference—and balance that with a vision of a world suffused by the beautiful unfolding of God’s dream for all of us.  Let us be grateful for all who have the courage and the trust to risk bringing new life onto our planet and then giving their lives over to companioning, nurturing, and offering a vision of how beautiful this might be.

A Happy Father’s Day to all of you who bless us in so many ways!

Takeaway

Today, reflect on the influence of your own father or significant adults in your life.

Who has done the delicate dance of protecting you from danger and also opening you up
to a world that is beautiful?

Spend some time in gratitude for all of these gifts.

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Rooted in Love

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, June 5, 2016
Re-posted and formatted June 11, 2016 

Here’s to the ones who stay, who remain, who refuse–out of conviction or vision or selfless love–to abandon or give up on their commitments.  Stay.  Remain.  Accompany.  These are the words I imagined hearing as I was inspecting and tending my container garden on the porch this morning.

One of the pots in my patio garden is home to spearmint, a sturdy perennial herb.  It survived an early outdoor planting and the challenge of near freezing nightly drops in temperature.   In just two weeks, its leaves have filled the pot and its runner vines have sprouted, indicating a desire to grow beyond its boundaries and break out of its confinement.

I was reminded of a time when I lived on Long Island and enjoyed the scent of mint Mintwithrunnervinesgrowing outside the kitchen door.  One of my community members didn’t share my appreciation of this determined herb.  Over time, she tried every means available to eradicate mint from its coveted spot.  She pulled out its long tentacles of underground root runners, sprayed it, even crushed its leaves underfoot.  Still, knowing mint’s propensity for refusing to give up, I was unconcerned for its survival.  Every time I passed the patch of mint that was under threat of disappearance, it was as if I could hear it saying, “See you around.  I’m here to stay.”  And stay it did.

The fragrance and presence of mint is an invitation to reflect on the qualities of mint that we see in human form:  people who have stood with, remained with, and accompanied us in life.  Recently, I read a series of questions designed to highlight the people we remember most and the reasons why we remember them with affection and in detail.

Among the first set of questions were these:

1.Name the 5 wealthiest people in the world.
2.Name 5 Heisman trophy winners.
3.Name the last 5 winners of the Miss America pageant.

Reflect on those for a few minutes and see how many names you can recall.  Done? Not surprisingly, few of us remember the headliners of years past, even though they are accomplished and perhaps most acclaimed in their fields.  We know that even seemingly significant achievements and accomplishments can fade over time.

Now try these questions:

1.Name a teacher who aided you when you were in school.
2.List a few friends who helped you through a difficult time.
3.Name a person who made you feel special and appreciated.

Not surprisingly, it may have been easier for you to come up with names this time.  Clearly, the people we tend to remember most are the ones who have accompanied us, cared for us, loved us.  People who have refused to give up on us, who will not turn back and abandon us, no matter how difficult this accompaniment becomes.  People who remain, who stay while others go.  People who continue to show up.  People who persist.

Takeaway

Mint is tenacious (some might say stubborn or worse!), faithful, able to adapt to hardship and changing environments.  Its fragrant leaves are often used in teas and lotions to heal, to refresh, to soothe anxiety, to calm troubled hearts.

With what qualities of mint do you resonate?

Reflect on people you know who stand with others and remain with them through their pain, anxiety, and struggles.

What values do these people hold that you might wish to deepen in your own life?

Who or what helps you to persevere and to remain present to others?

 

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