Wisdom from the Margins

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   November 21, 2021

Every person can be a bearer of wisdom.

I met one of those unexpected carriers when I was making my way home from work in New York’s Greenwich Village one evening. There she was: a homeless woman who had set herself up at the side of the stairway leading to the West 4th Street subway station. Strategically placed out of the way of foot traffic, she knelt on the sidewalk next to a neatly placed pile of blankets, the sheets carefully turned down as if she were a guest in a Manhattan hotel. The location was unusual, yes, but that’s not what claimed my attention. What actually rooted my feet to the ground, what halted me in my tracks, was that, seemingly oblivious to the hundreds of commuters passing by, this woman was kneeling outdoors at the side of her makeshift bed, her head bowed in prayer.  

I remember being so captivated that I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t keep my eyes from welling up. The silence was sacred, so I didn’t interrupt her. But clearly, she spoke to me in some profound way, because more than twenty-five years later, this woman is still in front of me, witnessing gratitude as we enter another season of giving thanks.

When I recounted this story shortly after it happened, one listener wondered, “What could that woman possibly be thankful for? I mean, look at what her life was reduced to, sleeping on the sidewalk.” True, on the surface this unnamed woman had an abundance of reasons to complain: the chill of the evening air, the hardness of the concrete on which she knelt, the lack of privacy, the circumstances that had set in motion her place in that scene of homelessness.

I had a different imagining as I gazed at her. I wondered what pleas for safety and protection, what litanies of friends lost to the harshness of street life, what remembrance of kindnesses given and received, what words of gratitude poured from her heart as she engaged in night prayer right there on West 4th Street.

Because the reality is that, if we’re looking for reasons to complain, we’ll have no difficulty finding examples to support our attitude. The list of all the things we wish were different or somehow better in our lives might be pretty lengthy. At the same time, if we’re looking for reasons to be grateful, we will find them just as easily, and that recounting might be endless.

The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen insists we’re called to gratitude no matter what is happening in our lives. He writes that, “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our life–the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections–that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment.”

So what do we choose to pay attention to and emphasize? Can we notice all the seemingly small, subtle, often unexpected moments that make up a human life, and offer a prayer of gratitude to the Holy One?

This Thanksgiving, I’m going to see my sisters and their families in New Jersey. And the woman who knelt in prayer next to the West 4th Street station is coming with me. I hope that she will never stop accompanying all of us and witnessing to us what it means to live with a truly grateful heart.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on what has unfolded in your life since you last offered prayers of gratitude.
Include times that felt like a challenge as well as those that seemed a blessing.
Say “Thank you” to the Holy One for everything.

Featured Image: BBC Creative, Unsplash

NOTE:

Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of an Advent weekend guided retreat, “A Heart for Our Time and Place,” at St. Francis Center for Renewal in Bethlehem, PA, December 3-5. For more information or to register: 610-867-8890 or https://www.stfrancisctr.org/upcoming-events

At this Thanksgiving holiday when we especially remember those who have no welcoming table to come to, please remember the hundreds of volunteers and guests who will come together for the 45th annual Thanksgiving Community Program organized by Friends of the Poor, an IHM sponsored ministry, in Scranton, PA. Friends of the Poor brings together in friendship people in need and people who wish to assist in partnership. The Thanksgiving program includes an Interfaith Prayer Service, a Thanksgiving dinner for 3,500 adults and elderly (this year pre-packaged for giveaway because of the pandemic), and a Thanksgiving food basket giveaway. For me personally, these events are a contemporary version of the banquet feast where all are welcome and none are turned away.

I’m especially grateful this year for all of you who so faithfully follow my blog, Mining the Now. May you and all those you love experience many blessings this Thanksgiving and all through the coming season of Advent.

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An Underground Perspective

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   November 7, 2021

Autumn planting is all about taking the long view. Quite a different feel from the season of spring where seeds are broadcast in sunshine and increasing warmth, causing them to sprout within a week’s time. In autumn, everything pauses and slows down. First frost hovers in the forecast. All about us appears to be in decline or decay. And that, paradoxically, is exactly when we’re summoned to burrow spring bulbs into the cold ground of fall. Clearly, this is not the season of immediate gratification and rapid results. This is the season of hope-filled, patient waiting.

Sandra Grunewald, Unsplash

Last week I did some autumn planting of a half dozen narcissus. I’ve always loved their cheerful, cupped faces set against tones of bright orange and pale yellow and creamy white. I hold childhood memories of scrutinizing winter dirt once snow had thawed, searching for barely visible eruptions of green. The spring air was heavy with a comforting certainty that the coming alive of spring would surely follow the hibernation and hiddenness of winter. And as expected, some weeks later, persistent shoots would poke through the thawed earth and grow into narcissus buds.

I felt a particular empathy for the gnarled bulbs I held in my hands last week. I admired their willingness to be buried. Buried more than six inches deep, my instructions read, and covered well. Buried into a silence that is dark. Buried into a time of quiet waiting. Buried into the unknown future. Buried in an act of trust that the harshness of winter is not the final word.

It’s no coincidence that autumn planting takes place before or near the feast of All Souls. That’s the day when we remember all those whose lives once visible and cherished among us have been transformed into the radiant presence of risen life. That’s the time that challenges our faith in all that’s taking place beyond our sight, in all that is birthing a new aliveness, impelled by the grace of the Holy One.

At times we may feel ourselves ushered into a season of enveloping darkness by sudden or subtly changing circumstances. We or those we love and care for may feel our lives so full of loss that they read like the story of Job. We may be buried under anxiety or shame or a sense of failure. We may struggle with the blanketing darkness of depression. We may carry heartache so crushing that wholeness and healing seem like an impossible dream. We may feel unable to lift our head above the weight of a diagnosis or the termination of a desperately needed job. We may come to awareness of an exquisite pain: owning our inability to save another we deeply love, someone who is right now in such a space. We may, in a word, feel ourselves buried. And buried deep.

Christine Caine offers an autumn perspective that juxtaposes how we may feel in such times and what might actually be unfolding:

“When you’re in a dark place,” she writes, “you may sometimes think you’ve been buried. But perhaps, you’ve actually been planted.”

Perhaps we’ve actually been planted. If so, then what fresh and unexpected blessings might the Holy One be inviting us into in this underground season? What practices of surrender and letting go are required so that the grace of the divine may be most fully active in us? What deep inner soul work, what reserves of patience and hope and trust, shall we be cultivating?

MohammadHosein Mohebbi, Unsplash

Here in the Northern hemisphere when everything above ground seems to speak of departure and the finality of endings, let us plant spring bulbs. Let us plant bulbs in the emphatic belief that resurrection is coming, and it will not be denied. May it be so!

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
You may want to place before you a flower bulb or an image of one.
What longings in your own heart need to be more deeply planted, rooted, or nurtured?
Ask the Holy One to bless the deepest desires you hold for yourself and for our world.
Offer a simple act of trust in the power of the divine to bring to completion the dreams buried within you.

Featured image:   Maarten van den Heuvel, Unsplash

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Border Crossings

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   October 25, 2021

Crossing any border can be an invitation full of mystery, anxiety, uncertainty, surprise, suspense, danger. I had a bit of a taste of this recently when I crossed a physical border, traveling from LaGuardia Airport, New York City, United States, to Ottawa International Airport, Ontario, Canada. I confess I carried more than my usual anxiety about the routine “What ifs” of flying, such as: Would my flights be on time? Would I make my connecting flights? Would I be reunited with my luggage at my final destination? 

Hermes Rivera, Unsplash

This time, because of pandemic restrictions, I carried some new concerns: Where to get the required PCR COVID test that needed to be administered no more than 72 hours before my connecting flight? Would I get the negative test results in time for my departing flight? Had I correctly completed all the required information on the ArriveCAN App? Did I have my vaccination card? All leading to the big question: Would I be able to safely and smoothly cross the border into Canada to lead a retreat that had already been re-scheduled several times since 2020? And would I be able to return home?

Since I’m now writing this blog post, having returned from beautiful Pembroke, Ontario, to the comfort of my home in the US, the answer is a resounding and relieved YES. I’m filled with gratitude for the many who helped me navigate the anxiety-producing pre-flight requirements–and the more confusing Customs process upon arrival in Toronto. At the moment of that border crossing, I felt a deep empathy for refugees and migrants whose anguished search for safety and security for their families leads them to risk their very lives in crossing into the unknown.

The experience of the past two weeks has invited me to sit with the many other borders, large and small, that fill our lives. We’ve already crossed, or are in the process of crossing, some of the significant milestones that move us from a known, familiar reality, to newness:

The moment of our birth, leaving the comfort of our mother’s womb for the glare of lights and the cries of joy in the delivery room;

Parenthood, a vantage point from which we note the borders that have been passed through by our children: first steps, first words, first day of school, first time as a licensed driver, first time casting a vote;

As we mature, we move into other transitions, choosing a vocation or path in adulthood and perhaps choosing a life partner. We may change jobs or move into a new residence. We may choose to learn a new language, cultivate a skill, or enter a country or culture other than our own.

Each of these movements involves risk of some sort. Each calls for a letting go or leaving behind, an embracing of the unknown future. We progress through the familiarity of childhood and the letting go of a parent’s hand into an embrace of the responsibilities of adulthood. We enter into deepening relationships with others. 

Border crossings and transitions are also part of our journey of faith. We pass through the boundaries of our earliest images of God and our relationship to Someone so much greater than ourselves. We grow in deep inner soul work. We break open and reflect on our desire to make a difference and live lives of meaning, to deepen our relationship with the Holy One. We say “Yes” to all the letting go and letting come that accompanies that sacred relationship. 

Johannes Plenio, Unsplash

Of course, the ultimate transition for us is death, the inhale and exhale of a last breath, the letting go of this life to cross over into risen life. Each of our previous crossings helps us to prepare for this last one, because in each of the previous border crossings we have been accompanied by a God who does not abandon, a God who dreams the fullness of life for each of us. May we grow in trust that that same God who welcomed us into the world continues to companion us with every step into newness and the unknown.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One. Reflect on a transition, change, or newness that recently came into your life.

What emotions accompanied the change? How were you supported by family, friends, prayer in crossing that border? What learnings were part of that crossing?

Thank the Holy One whose love knows no boundaries and always accompanies you.

Featured image: John Mccann, Unsplash

NOTE: Thanks to all who were part of the Retreat Day for Caregivers in the Diocese of Albany, NY and then the guided retreat for the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Pembroke, ONTARIO that kept me on the road and in the air for the past 14 days. I’m especially grateful for your prayer as I navigated the border crossings from the US to Canada and back again. Travel has certainly become more complex these days!

I’ve now completed all of the 2020 commitments that were held over until 2021 because of the pandemic. After a non-stop schedule from June through October, I’m looking forward to some time working from home and engaging in spiritual direction, writing, planning, and being restored and renewed. Thank you. 

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Where We Begin

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     October 10, 2021

Recently, I reflected on fractures of both the physical and emotional kind. Most probably, we’ve all suffered at least one, perhaps both, types of the wounding of bone and spirit.

So of course I was drawn to a story about Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist. She devoted her early work and writing to expeditions to Samoa and New Guinea and published much of the research and insights she had gleaned from her twenty-four field trips to South Pacific peoples.

As a frequent lecturer, Dr. Mead was once asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about the discovery of early signs of advancement and the development of crude tools, such as fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But Mead’s answer surprised her audience. She commented that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. A broken bone that had had the necessary time and care to recover.

Dr. Mead expanded on her answer by noting that, if this happened in the animal kingdom, an animal would most certainly die. With the excruciating pain of a broken leg, an animal can’t flee from danger, can’t walk to the river for a drink, can’t hunt for food. An injured animal is easy prey for hungry predators. There’s simply not enough time for an animal whose bone has been fractured to heal on its own.

But when a broken femur, the largest bone in the human body, has healed, that healing is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell. Someone has bound up the wound. Someone has carried the person to safety. Someone has tended the person through recovery. That tending is a sign that someone has not only noticed another’s suffering; someone has acted on what they’ve seen.

De. Mead’s observation that civilization begins when someone has helped another through difficulty has echoes of the parable of the Good Samaritan, doesn’t it?

In this powerful parable, others see the wounded one, but that’s all they do. A priest notices the person bleeding and lying in a heap on the other side of the road. The priest remains on his side of the street and keeps going. A Levite also observes the wounded one, but that’s all he does–observe, notice from the security of the familiar place where he stands, and then continues his journey without a second thought of the human suffering he’s just witnessed across the street. Neither of the observers moves from seeing to acting. Neither moves closer. Perhaps they don’t want to get involved. Perhaps they’re fearful of someone who seems unlike themselves and their life experience. Perhaps they’re too busy or don’t want to be delayed. Let’s face it, the neighbor Jesus describes rarely makes an appearance at a convenient time or in a familiar guise. But, as Barbara Brown Taylor notes, the Good Samaritan is the one who crosses the road to the other side where pain and anguish and need are so visible, the person who gets close up to human suffering.

Brett Jordan, Unsplash

And ultimately, it’s in the crossing over to the other side of the road where civilization starts and empathy and compassion are in evidence. Because the neighbor is often on the other side. Outside our comfort zone.  Beyond our familiar life experience. In the invitation to grow in spaciousness of heart. So Dr. Mead’s description of civilization and Jesus’ call for compassion are evidenced and embodied in those who give their lives over to the great act of courage: embracing the other. Bandaging the wounds of hatred and division. Pouring oil and wine and loving presence into the spaces of loneliness and separation and the longing for belonging.

Today and every day, as we approach the other side of the road ahead, may we not only notice but also move our love into action. May we find the courage to be neighbor in the fullest sense of the word.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One. Recall an experience where you noticed the pain or suffering of another.
What was your reaction to this need? Your response?
Ask the Holy One for the grace to recognize the divine in each person you encounter in the days ahead.

Featured Image:  Zac Durant, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer these upcoming events:

October 12-14:
Travel and a day of renewal for Caregivers (October 13) in the Diocese of Albany, NY. This has been re-scheduled several times since the pandemic began, so I’m especially delighted to be finally spending the day with these compassionate and caring people. Special thanks to Harley McDevitt, Director of Pastoral Care for the Diocese of Albany, NY and to her team for their patience and persistence in bringing this day together.

October 15-24:
Travel and a guided retreat for the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Pembroke, Canada. This is another event that has had its share of re-scheduling. Please pray with me that the border crossings will be uneventful in both directions! My deep thanks to Sisters Anne Taylor and Bonnie Zentner who have been unfailingly helpful and thoughtful with all the ups and downs of both the pandemic restrictions and the requirements for international travel at this time. I’m especially grateful to be spending time with this community related to the Grey Nuns, who at one time offered hospitality and shelter to our IHM foundress, Theresa Maxis, when she was exiled from our community. We have never forgotten that gracious gift!

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Reading the Bones

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   September 26, 2021 

The breaking is only the beginning. If you’ve ever fractured a bone, an index finger, a thumb, an ankle, a rib, a leg, a wrist, a shoulder, or any other bone on your skeleton, you know it takes but the flash of a second for a moment of inattentiveness, haste, or loss of strength to lead to a simple slip, a tripping over a pet or a rug, a fall on an icy driveway. These moments can easily become an occasion for breaking as well as an invitation to enter into a process of mending and healing.  

I suspect most of us are less interested in the splintering of bones than in the healing of them, a process full of mystery and movement and the gathering of quiet, invisible forces. The body responds to inflammation by signaling specialized cells to marshal their energies and begin healing. The Reparative Stage starts within a week of the break by forming a callus near the area of fracture. With the Remodeling Stage, new bone will start to grow and replace the callus. Amazingly, this new bone will be stronger and thicker in the spot of the fracture than any of the surrounding bone.  

What lessons can bones teach us? What stories can they reveal to us? Hidden under our skin, our skeletons are works of wonder, full of discoveries and adventures happening right this moment under layers of flesh. How impressive and inspiring is the body’s ability to heal what has been fractured, to arrive at a new version of wholeness, to offer parallels to the life of the spirit. 

nijwam swagiary, Unsplash

Perhaps at some time in our life we’ve experienced fractures of a different, but equally painful, sort, the type that involve the shattering of dreams or the breaking open of our hearts. The abrupt ending of a cherished relationship that we didn’t choose to terminate. The desire for a deeper level of belonging that isn’t reciprocated. The painful disappointment of not being considered or offered a job that we wanted or needed so badly we could almost taste it. The letting go of a cherished friend or beloved family member to the completion of their life among us. The wondering, in times of intense dryness in prayer, if God has utterly abandoned us. The standing before the wreckage of a home bearing the scars and utter devastation of fire, flood, earthquake. How, we may wonder, can life ever return to anything approaching wholeness after this violent fracturing? 

Rehabbing after a bone fracture can be slow, painful, and inconvenient as muscles and tissue also cry for attention. Rehabbing of the heart is no different. It requires a significant investment of patience and time and rest and reflection and deep inner soul work. I’m told that our bones never forget the crushing, splintering, and bruising that has been visited upon them, and that any fracture will show up on an X-ray for years, revealing a history of our breaks and injuries.  

Why should our heart pain be any different? All that we have suffered, endured, struggled with, anguished over is imprinted on our souls. But like the healing of broken bones, our hearts can also move closer to a new kind of wholeness, accompanied by the Holy One and those who love and support us. We may not ever forget our losses or our heartache, but perhaps with God’s grace, we can integrate them into the fullness of who we are becoming. Yes, it’s possible, as they say, to grow strong at broken places, perhaps even to a level of new life once thought unimaginable. The wonderful Jan Richardson reminds us of the possibilities hidden within and mined from loss in “Blessing for a Broken Vessel”: 

Fotolia

Do not despair. You hold the memory of what it was to be whole. 

It lives deep in your bones. It abides in your heart that has been torn and mended a hundred times. 

It persists in your lungs that know the mystery of what it means to be full, to be empty, to be full again. 

I am not asking you to give up your grip on the shards you clasp so close to you. 

But to wonder what it would be like for those jagged edges to meet each other in some new pattern that you have never imagined, 

that you have never dared to dream. 

(Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace, copyright 2015) 

Takeaway 

Sit in stillness with the Holy One. Take an inventory of your fractures, physical or emotional. 

Is there anywhere you might still be in need of healing? 

Ask the Holy One for grace to move forward on the path to the abundant life God dreams for you and for all. 

Featured Image:  Owen Beard, Unsplash 

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

October 4-8:  Guided retreat at the residence for the Congregation of the Infant Jesus, which includes Nursing Sisters, Sisters of St. Joseph (Brentwood, NY), and Cenacle Sisters. Thank you! 

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Baggage Claim

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  September 12, 2021

Perhaps you have been something of a traveler these summer months in the North when sunshine and blue skies have issued an invitation to be on the move. Most of my own travel has been related to my mobile spirituality ministry and has included my first flight since the beginning of the pandemic, from Scranton, Pennsylvania to San Antonio, Texas. Like anything else in our lives, travel can offer learnings, and my trip was a meditation on the things we carry.

When I was scanning the departures sign at the Charlotte airport for my connecting flight, my heart sank  when I saw that I would have to trek from Terminal E to Terminal A. Because my originating flight from Scranton was on a smaller plane, I had had to leave my wheeled laptop bag at home. No problem, I thought, and filled a shoulder bag containing my laptop, a speaker for my music presentation, and all the handouts and materials for the retreat I was about to begin. I set out fairly confidently.

Cynthia del Rio, Unsplash

But as I trekked to my connecting flight’s gate, I felt that laptop strap dig ever more deeply into my shoulder. I began to glance with undisguised envy at every piece of luggage on wheels that zipped past me, their owners blithely unaware and showing no sign of pain or discomfort. That’s when I began to reflect on the things we carry.

The things we carry are not only luggage of all shapes and sizes. Scanning the travelers crowding the airport terminal, I saw parents carrying weary toddlers, some in their arms, some riding high on strong shoulders. I saw faces carrying the anguish of tears or the unbearable weight of farewells. I saw welcoming arms embracing the beginning of homecomings. I saw hands clasping the warmth of a beloved’s company or compassionately supporting the frailty of an elder. 

And I began wondering about all the intangible things we sometimes unconsciously carry or take with us. The things we cherish and desire to preserve and protect. The heaviness of emotional burdens triggered by the day’s news or by experiences of loss. How to be, what to do with those things we carry that can overwhelm us or paralyze us or fill us with despair?

Surely, Jesus understood how we can sometimes come to the edge of exhaustion because of the burdens of life and the baggage we carry (Matthew 11:28-30). I’m partial to the translation in The Message Bible, which helps to break open familiar words:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest…Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

During the months leading up to the 2020 national elections in the United States, I discerned that I needed to cut my consumption of news because of the negative impact that intake had on my life. I wasn’t happy with the person I was becoming. I needed to return to a life in balance. I needed to cut back on the things I was carrying that were deadening to my spirit and my emotional and spiritual well-being.

“Learning to live freely and lightly” can sometimes involve a life-saving letting go. We’ve probably heard dramatic stories of mountain climbers or parachutists who have had to let go of the weight of some things they carry in order to preserve something even more precious—their very lives. There’s a scene in Apollo 13 where NASA engineers frantically exhaust every possibility of what they can safely jettison from a damaged spacecraft so that it will be light enough to save the lives of the astronauts on board and to successfully return to Earth using the remaining energy available.

There are elements, of course, that we should hold on to, that we should be carrying. I’m reminded of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Shoulders.”

ke atlas, Unsplash

“A man crosses the street in rain.
Stepping gently, looking two times north and south, because his son is asleep on his shoulders.

No car must splash him. No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo but he’s not marked. Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE, HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ears fill up with breathing. He hears the hum of a boy’s dream deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able to live in this world if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing with one another.

The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling.”

May we take time in the days ahead to reflect on what we literally or figuratively carry on our shoulders. May we engage in the deep, inner soul work of discernment: reflecting on what to hold onto and cherish because it is for our good and for the common good; what to let go of and jettison from our lives because it weighs down our spirit, impedes our spiritual growth, or pushes against God’s dream, which is the fullness of life for all. May we make room for the courage for love, a love that enables us to carry welcome and compassion and reconciliation into our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One. You may want to sit with your hands open, your palms up.

Who or what are you carrying that you desire to continue holding in love? Might there be anything that you discern is weighing you down and burdensome?

Ask the Holy One for light so that you may choose with wisdom and grace.

Featured Image: Caroline Selfors, Unsplash

NOTE:

Thank you for returning to Mining the Now after a hiatus in August.

On this 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, please join me in remembering in prayer those who are carrying terrible burdens of loss, emptiness, or sorrow from that day, as well as all who suffer and live with the effects of violence every day across our world.

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

September 19-26:  Directed retreat with the Sisters of Mercy, Sea Isle City, NJ. I’ll be one of the guest directors for this retreat.

Please also remember those who would have been part of a directed retreat at St. Mary by-the-Sea, Cape May Point, NJ, September 13-19. I would have been a guest director for this retreat. St. Mary’s has permanently closed so we remember with gratitude the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia who so graciously welcomed many of us to this sacred space over the years.

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Play Time

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     July 18, 2021

This far into summer, play is on my mind. My weeks are full of guided and directed retreats, presentations, and spiritual direction. But August is coming, and in August it’s been my custom to limit my ministry commitments and give myself over to restorative play in its various shapes and sizes. I’m fully aware that the freedom  to do this is a privilege denied to many. I’m also aware that wholeness and well-being demand that I find ways to integrate renewal and restoration into my life.

How many of us have ever imagined God at play? Can we picture the Holy One delighting in creating this world we’ve been given, in all the creatures that are winged and finned and four-legged and two-legged and no-legged? I often taste a perfectly ripe strawberry, savor a spectacular sunset, dip my toes into the ocean, and say to God, “Wow! What a great idea this was. I hope you had fun making it!” I confess I draw the line at mosquitoes (What was God thinking?) and some slithering neighbors, but I know they have a place in the economy of creation, so I praise God for them as well.

Gita Krishmamurti, Unsplash

Joyce Rupp echoes my question of God at play by asking, “Can we image a God who sings a happy song over us, a God who dances with shouts of joy? Could our God be the one who laughs and enjoys life? Scripture tells us that God’s playground is creation and the people who dwell in it. God enjoys this beauty, sees that it is good, and takes great delight in all that is.”

Hopefully, many of us experienced an early childhood where play was central, where we could daydream and make up games and stories, where we felt no limits on our creativity. Perhaps now we need to spend a bit of time returning to a child’s frame of reference and watch the little ones for whom the world and all its newness and freshness are experienced through touch and taste and sight and smell, as Terri Mifek wrote of her granddaughter in Living Faith:

“Our two-year-old granddaughter is absolutely captivated by the flowers in our backyard. She doesn’t just look at them; she leans in and twists her neck so she can study their underside. We joke that maybe she will grow up to be a botanist or perhaps a contemplative…Watching her makes me realize how important it is to maintain that childlike attitude toward the mystery we call God.”

“The mystery we call God” can be discovered in daydreaming, in star gazing, in imagining, in sitting with creation, in doing nothing at all. Perhaps these summer days hold an invitation for all of us to pause, lean in, and gaze in awe. Perhaps we’re being led to a deepened awareness that opportunities to encounter the Holy One’s unrestrained joy might be right around the corner. God at play, God dancing, God doing a jig in the embrace of a friend, the comfort of community, the midnight sky, the stillness of prayer, the lines of a cherished poem. All we have to do is show up, be present, and pay attention. Who knows when a God ready to play might be just as near to us as our very own selves? 

Nabil Naidu, Unsplash

This summer, may we find space or may we make space on our calendars. May we show up. And may we play!  

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One. If possible, sit or walk in a place surrounded by Nature, or listen to beautiful music.
Simply let your mind wander wherever it desires. When your time of play ends, offer a prayer of thanks for the gift of this leisure.

Featured Image: Senjuti Kundu, Unsplash

NOTE:

This will be my last blog until September. As is my custom, I take time during the month of August for offering one guided retreat, my own personal retreat, writing, and some time to be renewed and restored. I look forward to being in touch with you again in September and I’m grateful for your following of Mining the Now.

Please hold in your prayer the following events:

July 23-24: Annual Assembly of my Congregation, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scranton, PA)

July 31: I’ll be the keynote speaker and will facilitate process for the 175th anniversary celebration of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Immaculata, PA). This was originally planned for 2020 but was re-scheduled because of the pandemic. It will be my great joy to join with my IHM Sisters both in person and virtually for this celebration.

August 14-20: Guided retreat for the Sisters of St. Joseph (Brentwood) in Hampton Bays, NY.

August 26-September 2: Please remember all who would have been part of a guided retreat I was scheduled to lead at St. Mary by-the-Sea, Cape May Point, NJ. Sadly, St. Mary’s has now closed. We hold in tenderness and gratitude the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia who, for so many years, offered this place of beauty and peace to many of us.

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Finding the Place of Safety

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    July 4, 2021

In some way or another, we are all seeking it. It lives and finds expression in our shared longing for the place where we can lay down our burdens, where we can be accepted as our true selves, where we can breathe deeply in safe surroundings. It’s the place we can call home.

This past week, I stayed at the IHM Spirituality Center (Immaculata, PA) to offer a guided retreat. Every morning early in the day, and every evening towards dusk, I walked outside in anticipation. There they were, across the road. A family of deer, cautiously leaving the cover of the woods to feed on grass and alfalfa clippings on the center’s beautiful and welcoming land.

Mike Tinnion, Unsplash

I usually spotted what I presume was the mother–carefully watching every move–and at least seven or eight very young deer grown beyond the spotted fawn stage but romping on still wobbly legs. Occasionally, a young buck would make his appearance, standing still with his head raised in a gesture of guardianship. Always, the adults were alert to any changes in the environment. A sudden noise, an approaching car, a footstep on the pavement across the road would result in a hurried gathering of the family and a swift and graceful departure into the cover of trees and shrub.

It occurred to me during this past week that we are all seeking what the deer were. A place of safety, where our lives are without threat. A place that feeds our bodies and also nourishes our souls. A place that offers us refreshment in the cool of the evening and restful sleep as the sun disappears. A place we might name and nestle into as home.

I’m led during this unseasonably and dangerously hot summer in the Pacific Northwest to call into my prayer those who don’t have the gift of a place to call home, a sheltering space, a place that’s largely free from violence, the forces of hatred, and the harshness of the elements. From my air-conditioned room, I look out my window and can’t imagine anyone remaining outside for more than a few minutes in the scorching sun and brutal heat.

During my week at the IHM Spirituality Center, I saw posted images of IHM Sisters from Immaculata, Scranton, and Monroe who at this very moment are ministering to weary, traumatized people at the California border. I’m moved by my Sisters’ service at the same time that I wonder at both the courage and the desperation that impels people to leave their home and embark on a treacherous trek across unforgiving terrain in the unrelenting heat of this summer.

As we observe, in the United States, the founding dream of this nation, I wonder how many of us here and in other countries will be giving thanks for the freedoms and the choices available to us in whatever place we call home. May we widen the space of our hearts in compassion and welcome for those who journey on blistered and bloody feet, who face angry and swelling waves, who risk everything on the promise of arriving at a safe and sheltering home.

Adres Latif, Reuters

Today and in the days to come, may we  open ourselves to the experience described in this excerpt of “Home” by Warsan Shire:

“no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.
you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well, your neighbours running faster than you.

no one leaves home unless home chases you, fire under feet, hot blood in your belly…it’s not something you ever thought of doing until the blade burnt threats into your neck…

you have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land, no one burns their palms under trains beneath carriages, no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck, feeding on newspaper, unless the miles traveled mean something more than journey. no one crawls under fences, no one wants to be beaten, pitied…

i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark, home is the barrel of a gun, and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore, unless home told you to quicken your legs, leave your clothes behind, crawl through the desert, wade through the oceans, drown, save, be hunger, beg, forget pride, your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear, saying, leave, run away from me now, i don’t know what i’ve become, but I know that anywhere is safer than here.”

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One. You may want to have before you an image of a refugee.

Hold in your heart and prayer our neighbors who at this very moment are risking their lives in the search for a safe space for themselves and their families.

Ask the Holy One to widen the spaciousness of your heart, and breathe a prayer of welcome.

Featured Image: Einar Storsul, Unsplash

NOTE:

Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of a directed retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA. I’ll be one of the guest directors for the July 12-18 retreat. It will be a bittersweet experience for me, as it will be my last time at the Jesuit Center, which is closing August 15. So many members of the Society of Jesus, as well as thousands of people seeking a deepening of their spiritual lives, have passed through that holy place. Please remember them all.

Please also pray for my IHM Congregation on July 9-11 as we celebrate the 175th anniversary of our founding. This is actually the 176th year, since we were unable to celebrate our anniversary fully in 2020. I’m both proud and grateful to carry forward the dream of our founders, Theresa Maxis and Louis Gillet, into our shared future. Thank you for your prayer.

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A Time for Every Season

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   June 20, 2021

Timing may not be everything, but it is certainly something. That’s what my teacher, the garden, keeps gently reminding me. So far, my grade in the school of flower wisdom may be barely hovering above a C, but I’m open, and I’m paying attention, and I’m learning, and that surely counts for something, doesn’t it?

Last spring, as soon as the last petal of tulips had fallen to the ground, I cut back the leaves and the stem. Too early, it turned out, because this spring the tulips that emerged were stunted and deformed. I learned—too late for last season—that after the flower is finished blooming, the leaves should be allowed to grow and soak up the sunshine to help nourish the bulbs underground. Lesson learned.

This spring, perhaps overcompensating, I declined to cut back my first ever peony until her flowers had shriveled completely and gone to seed. Too late, I learned, for the seed pods that grew in place of the blossoms took nourishment away from any new growth. Lesson learned once again.

After a week of temperatures in the 80’s this spring, I presumed warm weather was here to stay, and in my eagerness for greening, I planted in the yard a young bush I had been harboring inside. When the temperature dipped to the 30’s the following week, the leaves turned transparent white in protest and dropped one by one like a character in O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf.” I imagined the bush looking at me every time I walked by, totally baffled by my planting ignorance. I’m consoled that my near fatal bad timing has been redeemed by the tender new leaves reappearing at a painfully slow pace.

The list goes on and so do the learnings. A not-yet-blooming black-eyed Susan I had transplanted and carefully nurtured was mowed down yesterday by a landscaper who, I’m quite sure, thought he was clearing an out of the way patch of weeds. Nature is at the mercy of our actions, and thankfully, Nature can be both forgiving and resilient.

I’m led to muse about how this translates to the life of the spirit. Certainly, we can be impatient with the slow work of transformation and try with all our might to hasten deep, inner soul work. We learn the process can’t be speeded up. Or we can be aware of the need to change a behavior or move away from a critical attitude, and yet drag our spiritual feet in moving forward. We can confuse our desire for genuine spiritual wholeness with the reality that we first need to cultivate the soil of readiness that makes possible the fullness of blossoming later.

As we tend to the garden of the Holy One’s wisdom, may we learn to forgive ourselves for decisions made in haste or words sincerely offered but shared at a moment that is less than optimal. May we learn to cultivate patience and attentiveness at every stage of spiritual development. And may we add one more lesson to the school of flower wisdom: Mary Oliver’s deep knowing that, for some things, there are no wrong seasons.

Nick Fewings, Unsplash

Hurricane  

It didn’t behave
like anything you had
ever imagined. The wind
tore at the trees, the rain
fell for days slant and hard.
The back of the hand
to everything. I watched
the trees bow and their leaves fall
and crawl back into the earth.
As though, that was that.
This was one hurricane
I lived through, the other one
was of a different sort, and
lasted longer. Then
I felt my own leaves giving up and
falling. The back of the hand to
everything
. But listen now to what happened
to the actual trees;
toward the end of that summer they
pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs.
It was the wrong season, yes,
but they couldn’t stop. They
looked like telephone poles and didn’t
care. And after the leaves came
blossoms. For some things
there are no wrong seasons.
Which is what I dream of for me.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on any lesson the natural world has shared with you.
How did you, or how might you integrate that learning into your life?
Give thanks for the blessings of creation all around you and to the Creator who has formed and shaped our beautiful world.

Featured Image:   Mike Erskine, Unsplash

NOTE:
June 23-30:  Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of a guided retreat I’m offering at the IHM Spirituality Center in Malvern, PA.
The Sisters of IHM (Immaculata) have a rich connection and shared heritage with my Congregation, the Sisters of IHM (Scranton), so I’m especially delighted to spend the week of retreat in their good company.

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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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