The Expectations of Beauty

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    September 13, 2020

Let’s hear it for words that open doors, invite exploration, encourage daydreaming. Let’s savor questions that send us down the rabbit hole to be transported into new, unexpected, and transformative ways of knowing. Let’s linger with phrases like “Why?” and “What if?” and “I wonder…” Let’s applaud parents, teachers, mentors, caregivers, friends, and so many others who have liberated our curiosity and imagination by encouraging our use of the question mark.

Goldenrod and New England Aster,
Burton Wetlands State Park

And let’s take in the wisdom of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In an interview with Krista Tippett she relates that when she entered forestry school as a young woman, she offered a question as her main reason for studying botany. Her why: she had long wondered why purple asters and chrome yellow goldenrod, often intermingled in the wild fields where she lived, looked so beautiful together. She was really asking her signature question, “Why is the world so beautiful?” In response, she was told “that that was not science, that if I was interested in beauty, I should go to art school.”

Fortunately for us, Robin Wall Kimmerer moved forward undeterred. She focused her deep attention on the living world of plants, seeking to know not only their names but also their songs. In time, she discovered a biophysical reason for why New England asters and goldenrod often grow together: the complementary colors of purple and gold, being opposites on the color wheel, are so vivid that they actually attract far more pollinators than if those two plants grew somewhere apart from one another. Each plant benefits from combining its beauty with the beauty of the other.

Kimmerer observes that she pays a price of sorts for what she notices in aster and goldenrod, because their beauty requests something of her. “When I am in their presence,” she reveals, “their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.”

Perhaps you, like me, have sensed that expectation of reciprocity your entire life. Perhaps your formative years were grounded in what we now call creation spirituality. Perhaps you were encouraged, even expected, to “waste” time daydreaming. To ask sometimes unanswerable questions. To befriend tulip trees and marigolds and phlox. To ponder the caginess of crows. To wonder what the dog hears beyond our ears. To marvel at the industry of ants. To star watch.

Hopefully, these months of social distancing and showing respect for the human lives  around us have kept us all at a respectful space apart from one another. But happily, the same precautions don’t apply to our neighbors in the plant kingdom. Perhaps we’re among the blessed who have spent hours, maybe even days, inhaling the fragrance of a summer garden, or discovering mystery on a nature trail, or simply sitting and gazing and feeling ourselves welcomed into the plant kingdom.

New England Aster, The Hills magazine

If any of those are true for you as they surely all are for me, then clearly we have taken in an abundance of wild, extravagant artistry and grace these past months. And then Kimmerer’s question arises: What does such beauty ask of us? How are we becoming the complementary color? How are we making something beautiful in response to our immersions in awe, astonishment, wonder?

How are we continuing to embrace the question, “Why is the world so beautiful?” And what, then, does such beauty ask or expect of us?

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If possible, do this in the presence of a living plant, flower, shrub, or tree.
Inhale their gift of healing oxygen.
Listen to and take in any wisdom they offer you.
Speak your profound thanks for their beauty.
Bow to the Creator of this green energy, this irrepressible life force.

NOTE:
I’m grateful for your returning to Mining the Now after a pause during August.
I’m grateful also for your prayerful remembrance of all those who were part of two retreats I led during August, a virtual guided retreat for the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood, and a virtual directed retreat.

Please remember in prayer also those who would have been part of a guided retreat, “Many Voices Made of Longing,” that I was scheduled to lead August 27- September 3 at St. Mary by-the-Sea, Cape May Point, NJ. That retreat has been re-scheduled to August 26 – September 2, 2021.

Now may I ask you to hold in prayer all who will be part of these coming events:

September 18: A virtual Zoom Retreat for members of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

September 21-27: An in-person Directed Retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA. I’ll be one of the guest directors this week. Thank you.

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Still Singing

birdsvincent-van-zalinge-ECPZmD3V_cQ-unsplash copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM      July 26, 2020

Perhaps you, like me, need no alarm clock on spring or summer mornings. Whether we’re immersed in the natural world or surrounded by brick and mortar, most probably the barely rising sun is accompanied by birdsong of some sort. The chatter of robins and chickadees and cardinals, maybe the clucking of pigeons or the cooing of mourning doves, is as reliable as that 5:30 AM buzzer for rousing us from sleep. Birdsong is our invitation to enter into a new day.

It was birdsong that lingered in my consciousness as I worked on another writing project and came across this astounding quote from Scott Hoezee in Earth Gospel:

“Some time ago an ornithologist observed a single red-eyed vireo singing its song 22,197 times in a single day! Conservative estimates say that in North America alone there are as many as six billion land birds. So let us be conservative and say that on a given day in the season of spring—the time of year when birds tend to sing the most—each of these birds sings its song ten thousand times. That would be, in North America alone, sixty trillion songs in just one day.”

Besides being amazed by this statistic—a bird singing its song ten thousand times in one day–I get why birds would be singing the most at this time of year. Spring is the season of so many joyous milestones: finding a mate, starting a new life, discovering a purpose together. It’s the season of brooding over eggs, watching in awe as chicks make their way to the light, learning to be a fierce protector. It’s the season of plentiful plump earthworms and returning insects to round out the menu for ever-hungry, ever clamoring little beaks.  It seems birds simply can’t keep themselves from singing at such a happy time.

Summer continues the season of excitement and discovery. Feeling the sun’s warmth, sheltering a growing brood, testing the flap of unsteady but eager young wings as fledglings learn to fly, teaching a master class in foraging for a next meal. Singing and singing and singing.birdsgary-bendig-WPmPsdX2ySw-unsplash copy

But what about the rest of the seasons, I wondered, thinking about our own cycles  where abundance seems to give way to diminishment, where delight is sometimes replaced by pain and loss. Do birds still sing in autumn when greenery begins to enter into the cycle of dying, when food sources give way to decay? What about when some are summoned to follow an internal compass and navigate to foreign lands? What about when the endurance of feathers and wings is tested to the verge of utter exhaustion? Singing and singing and singing.

And then the harshness of winter: snow and wind and ice pelting their feathers; barren shrubs and trees offering no protection from the elements; last year’s nests abandoned as no longer life-giving. Is it even possible to find anything to chirp about in winter?

I’ve learned that our feathered neighbors may sing a bit less in fall and winter, but that they never stop sending out their cries and caws and whistles and songs. Their early morning chatter may become subdued, but never muted. Singing and singing and singing in every season of life.

I thank our winged neighbors for reminding us that, no matter what is unfolding in our lives, no matter what season we may find ourselves in, there is always, always a song lingering in our throats. At times it may be as faint as a whisper or as muffled as a broken cry. But it is there, at the ready, always as near as the Holy One.birdskyle-szegedi-8SV4bmzMqy8-unsplash copy

The poet, Mary Oliver, wrote that she believed in singing “especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed.” I invite you to delight in the following song pouring out from 140 musicians and singers at the height of the pandemic in New York City. Broadway was dark, jobs had vanished, the future was uncertain. And yet, these artists gathered together, summoned their gifts, and opened their hearts to ask the rhetorical question: How can I keep from singing?

How, indeed.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
As you pause, pay attention to whatever song your heart is singing at the moment.
Name that song with tenderness and compassion.
Ask the Holy One to help you to sing it as best as you are able.
If you’re so inclined, sing your heartsong aloud as a blessing.

IMAGES:
Vincent Van Zalinge
Gary Bendig
Kyle Szegedi

NOTE:
It’s my custom to take a break from blogging during the month of August so I can savor some time for my own retreat and renewal. 

After that, from August 15-21, I’ll be connected with the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood, for a virtual retreat instead of their in-person retreat at Hampton Bays, NY.  

And I will miss gathering with retreatants at St. Mary by-the-Sea, Cape May Point, NJ, August 27 – September 3. That retreat has been re-scheduled to next year, August 26 – September 2, 2021. 

Please hold all who are or would have been part of these retreat experiences in your prayer and know that we will remember you in ours. Thank you. 

I look forward to returning to Mining the Now in September. Meantime, stay safe and well and have renewing and relaxing summer days whenever you can!

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Living Like a Pollinator

bumblebee in lavender copyresized

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    July 12, 2020

We seem to follow the same start-of-the-day schedule, the bumblebee and I. These days I’m working virtually from home, so in the cool of the early morning, I head down the stairs and out to the patio to water my pots of young mint and basil and lavender. Then on to the large container that is home to Chatty Cathy, a yellow hibiscus who lives up to her name. From there, down the steps to a tiny garden patch bursting with black-eyed Susan, marigold, echinacea, and a single lavender plant that is the lone survivor of a brutal winter. Though the plant is listed as a perennial, this is the first time I’ve ever had lavender return, and it’s celebrating this triumph by sending up purple spikes continuously.

A lone fuzzy bumblebee makes his morning rounds with me. Who can tell if it’s the same bee at the same time each day? I’ve read that bumblebees can actually recognize faces so I like to imagine he gives me a quick sideways glance with his compound eyes,  remembers that I’m a place of both safety and welcome, and then enters into the work of the day as we move side by side. The bumblebee is as much in love with the lavender as I am and seems to spend its entire morning being present to one purple blossom after another. One time, in fact, he embraced a single bud and remained motionless for so long that I thought the bee had died. Not a bad way to go, inhaling beauty, I thought. But it seems the bee was simply intoxicated, made drunk by flowery extravagance, and eventually had his surfeit of bliss and moved on.bee in other lavenderIMG_2015 copy

As I watch my bumblebee neighbor flitting from flower to flower, I’m reminded that we’ve both been put into this world for essentially the same purpose: to be a pollinator. Pollinators are mutually beneficial to other species as well as their own. As a pollinator, I desire to move from relationship to relationship, from person to person, from my own species to other families, all the while leaving a trail of compassion and kindness and care and beauty in my wake. I hope that after any one of these encounters, the person or animal or flower that has just been in my company will exclaim as Mary Oliver did after drinking cold water At Blackwater Pond,

“oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?”

What indeed? I suspect Paulann Petersen, Oregon’s poet laureate, must have been secretly observing the activity in my garden and predicting where the dialogue between the bumblebee and me would inevitably lead. Her poem, “A Sacrament,” paints such a charming picture and calls us to a heightened awareness of our place in this world:

“Become that high priest,
the bee. Drone your way
from one fragrant
temple to another, nosing
into each altar. Drink
what’s divine—
and while you’re there,
let some of the sacred
cling to your limbs.
Wherever you go
leave a small trail
of its golden crumbs.

In your wake
the world unfolds
its rapture, the fruit
of its blooming.
Rooms in your house
fill with that sweetness
your body
both makes and eats.”

bumblebee2 in lavender copyToday, may we drink of what’s divine. And at day’s end, may we notice that some of the sacred is indeed clinging to us, leaving a trail of golden crumbs in all the places our feet or our hearts have taken us.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If your day is just beginning, image yourself as a pollinator leaving traces of the Holy wherever your day takes you.
If you’re near day’s end, reflect on the people and places you’ve encountered. Where and how have you been a pollinator?
Sit with these images and remembrances.
Invite the Holy One to cling to you as you enter the day or prepare for your rest.

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer two Zoom mini-retreats I’ll be leading: 

July 17, “Discovering Abundance,” Our Lady of Grace Spiritual Center, Manhasset, NY,    https://www.olgretreat.com/programs-retreats or (516) 627-9255 

July 20, “Breathing Our Prayer,” The Church of St. Gregory, Clarks Green, PA 

Please also send good energy my way as I’m in the process of converting my 6-day guided retreats to recorded Zoom presentation formats, a time consuming but necessary effort. Thank you! 

The safety and well-being of the Mining the Now community and our world continue to be in my heart and prayer. Please stay safe and well these days.

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Finding the Lost

crow with bauble copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    June 28, 2020

A decade ago, I lost an earring. Only one, of course, as seems to be the way with earrings, socks, and gloves. The loss of just one of a pair makes their absence more striking and noticeable. My lost earring was costume jewelry, of slight value, but it was a gift from a dear friend and held particular meaning for me.

I suspect in the jostle of my morning walk the earring had loosened, slipped from my ear, and landed on a soft bed of grass. For days afterwards, whenever I took that same path I would scan the ground, expecting to see a glint of silver. When, after weeks of searching, I couldn’t find the earring, I liked to imagine that a crow had discovered it, for crows, like some people, delight in shiny things. I pictured a jubilant crow proudly displaying my earring in its nest and cawing over its sparkling beauty.  As time passed, the earring–whether in the crow’s nest or elsewhere–disappeared from my memory.crows with shiny things copy

Something parallel happens with words. Since language is a living thing, always changing and evolving, some words cease to be part of language when they fall out of common usage. Some words are added to language to reflect new patterns of use. Words disappear from language, from memory. That’s the usual way of evolving, but the loss of certain words is cause for concern.

That concern was the genesis of the exquisite and charming book, The Lost Words. Lost, meaning no longer in our consciousness. Lost to us in the present age and lost to all who will come after us. The Lost Words came into being after a reader of the Oxford Junior Dictionary noticed that some forty common words related to nature were no longer included in the dictionary. The dropped words were left out because children weren’t using them often enough to merit a place in the reference work. Most telling, each of the excluded words  had a connection to the natural world. So good-bye to acorn and bluebell and dandelion and fern and otter and willow and wren, among others. Lost. Disappeared from children’s experience and from their consciousness. Taking their place: attachment and blog and broadband and voicemail and cut-and-paste. The indoor and virtual world was displacing the outdoor and natural one.

The authors of The Lost Words set out to create a spell book of sorts, a book to conjure back some of the disappeared, from acorn to wren, to breathe new life and usage into them. Through text and watercolors, they sought to summon these words out of obscurity and help them to live again in the voices, stories, and dreams of children and adults alike.Butterfly in garden copy

I’m writing this in the early morning hours when I savor a silence punctuated only by birdsong, the chatter of cardinal and wren and crow. It has not been lost on me that one of the gifts of lockdown for some of us has been time to re-discover the natural world, to make or renew our acquaintance with our furry and winged and green and blooming neighbors. To deepen a wider kinship as we stroll through parks or hike local trails or are stunned by the beauty of a crimson sunset. To awaken our consciousness, to feed our souls, to return us to Eden.

As it was in the beginning, when God named all of creation and saw that it was good, may it be so in our language for us and for our children, today, tomorrow, and beyond.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Sit outside or, if that’s not possible, sit indoors by a window that offers a view of the natural world.
Simply gaze at whatever is before you.
Notice what you see, hear, feel.
Give thanks to the Holy one for creating such a wonderful world.

NOTE:
Before the restrictions put in place for COVID-19, I was scheduled to offer a guided retreat for the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM – Immaculata) during this time.

This retreat has been canceled  but I ask you to remember in your prayer the IHM Sisters who would have been part of the retreat and the IHM Spirituality Center which made the difficult but necessary decision to protect and safeguard lives. I’m grateful for their wisdom and thoughtfulness. 

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Messages Within

delawarewatergap copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    June 14, 2020

There’s something mysterious about stones and rocks. When I drive through the Delaware Water Gap or pass through portions of Interstate 81, I’m surrounded by this mystery as I’m bookended by mountains, mountains that have been cut open or dynamited to make way for highways. That expansive surgery exposes horizontal layers of shale and limestone and chalk and flint deposited over thousands of years, layers that are storytellers of sorts. They speak of seasons of geography and shifts in changing climates over centuries.

I pass by these exposed entrails of mountains in awe. Yet what intrigues me even more are the stones that are intact, not cut open, not revealing their secrets. I’ve had the privilege of making the acquaintance of some of these guardians and protectors in my lifetime and am humbled by their solid, silent presence.

EPSON MFP imageOne of these stone formations is Stonehenge, a circle of concentric rings perhaps built by the Druids over 4,000 years ago. No one can fully explain how such enormous structures could have been transported without any modern engineering equipment. When I visited this site on the Salisbury Plain, I had a long list of questions to ask. I wanted to tap into their wisdom accumulated over centuries. What have you learned, I wanted to know, as you looked out into a sea of human faces? What have you witnessed of the longing and the curiosity and the spiritual hopes of the human family over the years? Deep within your stone center, has anything moved, shifted from darkness to light, because of the hopeful, reverent, or wondering gazes looking back at you?

Another stone formation dear to me are the Dolmens, stone tables scattered throughout the Southwest of Ireland. These megalithic monuments dotting the Irish landscape may stand as memorials marking lives once lived in the rugged countryside. Again, I wanted them to give up their secrets. I felt so pulled toward their altar-like formations, so drawn by the primal energy of my ancestors, that I instinctively approached one and raised my hands in a priestly blessing.

EPSON MFP imageFor me, the most intimate and personal of stone formations is the Inukshuk. When I spent a week in Vancouver, British Columbia, fifteen years ago, I explored the majestic beauty of Stanley Park every day on foot. In my hiking, I stumbled upon my first Inukshuk, five stones arranged on top of one another to create something of a human form. Since the XXI Olympic Winter Games held in Vancouver in 2010, this rock formation became the symbol of the area, but at the time of my hikes was a curiosity to me.

I learned the richer story of the Inukshuk, which is more than simply a random formation of stones. In his poem, “Inukshuk,” Rob Jacques begins with a note: “On frozen trails of the far north, Inuit people placed five stones in rough human form as a testament of endurance and as warm encouragement from those who had gone before to those who were coming after.” What a tender, loving awareness of our shared need for affirmation. What a compassionate way of leaving footprints of hope for those who will follow later. What a beautiful gesture, especially in times of uncertainty such as surround us right now. The poet continues in the voice of those who went before and who continue to speak through the Inukshuk:

“We were here. We saw sorrow.
Across our hearts, emptiness and cold
pulled hard, as they do in you now,
and we pressed on as you will do.
We did all that possibility will allow
and expect nothing less of you.
We stand guard over accomplishment
and a strong journey through all this.

See in gray desolation how we made
this five-piece thing and left it here,
a strong creation to bring you certainty
in this dreary, frozen waste, showing
you and we are keepers of a flame
melting chaos. You and we proclaim.”

I wonder, what do you and we proclaim with our lives to all who will come after us?

Takeaway:

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on a person in your life who has been an Inukshuk for you, someone who has experienced challenges yet not only endured but mentored you, cheered you on when you longed for encouragement and a sense of hope for the future.
Hold this person in tender love and gratitude.
Give thanks to the Holy One for their presence in your life.

NOTE:
Before COVID-19 canceled many events, I was scheduled to offer a day of rest and renewal for caregivers in the Diocese of Albany, NY and to lead a guided retreat for Sisters at Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center in West Hartford, Connecticut during this time.

All of these events have been canceled and re-scheduled but I ask you to remember in your prayer the communities and organizations that sponsored them. I applaud their wisdom and thoughtfulness in caring for the common good and ask you to pray for those who would have been part of this spiritual work.  

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Scentsations

trailsheddingtreemine

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    May 31, 2020

I’m starting to write this on Memorial Day while I’m out for a walk. My walking is somewhat painful and lacking in grace these days because of continuing nerve trauma. But I’m walking. And without any assistive devices. That alone borders on the miraculous and puts me in a state of constant gratitude.

As a writer, I never go anywhere without a notepad and pen, so I’m pausing to sit at a picnic table, having completed a stroll along the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail. What’s striking me is that the slower pace of my movement has invited me to notice in detail and in fresh ways how the trail has come alive with wildflowers and shrubs bursting with both blossom and scent. And one phrase keeps coming back to me. “The air is heavy with fragrance.”trailgardenia.net.copy

Suddenly, these scents pull me back to Haiti. It’s the feast of Corpus Christi in 2000, and I’m awakened at dawn not by sound or light but by the perfume of tropical flowers wafting through the window. The air is heavy with fragrance and it pulls me out of bed to take in an amazing sight: children and villagers and the Little Sisters of Saint Therese coming together to spread thousands of petals on the road. With these blossoms, they outline a ciborium, a host, a heart. Later that day, we’ll process with the Blessed Sacrament around their early morning art, strewing showers of petals and drinking in their intoxicating scent as we prayerfully move forward.

The air is heavy with fragrance. Now it pulls me toward the story of the unnamed woman (Mark 14:3-9), she who knows herself harshly judged and unwelcome in a gathering of men only. She trembles before their disdain but keeps her gaze fixed on Jesus. She pours out not only her alabaster flask of perfume but the overflow of her grateful heart. Her gesture is at once tender and extravagant, an emphatic statement of the power of love, an offering that will forever be remembered. And the air is heavy with fragrance.Anointing copy

This morning’s contemplation triggered by scent has left me wondering. What fragrance is my life leaving behind? What is the air around me heavy with? When I leave a room, when I move forward from an encounter, what lingers after I exit? My hope is that it’s an aura of compassion, a feeling of being heard, a sense of loving presence, a gentle peace. I thank all that’s blossoming and scenting the air today for reminding me that wherever I go, the air is heavy with fragrance. And the fragrance remains.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you have a flower, a scented candle, or anything that offers a pleasing fragrance, hold it in your hands.
Slowly inhale its essence.
Savor its scent and notice what moves within you as you do.
Ask the Holy One to infuse your actions today with a fragrance that remains.
Slowly breathe out a blessing.

NOTE:
Before the restrictions put in place for COVID-19, I was scheduled to spend 11 days this month offering retreats for the Grey Nuns in Ottawa, Canada, and to offer a day of restoration and renewal for caregivers in the Albany, NY Diocese in early June.  

All of these events have been canceled and re-scheduled but I ask you to remember in your prayer the communities and organizations that sponsored them. They have made the difficult but necessary decision to cancel gatherings so they can cherish lives and protect and safeguard those who would have been part of this spiritual work. I’m grateful for their wisdom and thoughtfulness. 

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In Praise of Love That Delivers

mailhandsreachingout copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    May 17, 2020

In these days of quarantine and staying at home, it may feel as if the world as we know it is shrinking. I’m not speaking of the thousands of healthcare workers and first responders who are meeting a tsunami of critical human need each day. I’m speaking of those of us staying at home, with our daily lives in some ways bounded by four walls. We are seeing less and less of people’s faces, covered as they are with a professional mask or a makeshift bandana folded over for protection, only eyes and hair exposed. We may venture out for a daily walk regulated by safe social distancing or a necessary but cautious trip to the supermarket. Is the world as we know it shrinking by the day?

Not at all! I think of COVID-19 as the great amplifier. For me, it has turned the volume up on some questions that have always resided in my heart, but which are now so loud that they can’t be ignored:

What do I fear?
What do I cherish that is greater than my fear?
What do I long for with all my heart?
What fills me with gratitude?
What do I miss most?
What have I discovered I no longer need?

I find my world expanding as I live with a new and grateful awareness of what is sometimes the underbelly of our lives: the support service people. Those who truck our goods, those who stock them, package them, disinfect shelves and registers, those who deliver our mail and our packages. I have been seeing some extraordinarily exhausted service people in my occasional trips outside.

I’m living with a fresh and renewed gratitude for Ray, my mail carrier, who is living the Post Office’s unofficial motto of “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their daily rounds.” Not even COVID-19, it seems.mailbox

With the arrival of the corona virus, I started a new spiritual practice. Every week I leave Ray a note of thanks and a remembrance of prayer in my mailbox, accompanied by a small treat—a box of M & Ms, a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer (when those were easier to come by), some homemade cookies. When I do this, I pray for his and his family’s safety and well-being and my world grows larger as I include the thousands of unnamed and unrecognized public servants who provide food and medicine and care and communication for us day in and day out.

With Ray in mind, I recently discovered a U.S. Post Office inscription different from the “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” version that’s so familiar to many of us. This relatively unknown version is inscribed at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. It was originally called “The Letter” and was written by Dr. Charles W. Eliot, former president of Harvard University. I think it is spot on in describing the heroic work of so many service workers who insure that we can go on living day to day, often at significant personal risk to themselves and their loved ones.

mailglobepackagesPerhaps you’d like to join me in praying Dr. Eliot’s words as a litany of thanks and protection for all those who serve us in so many faithful, hidden ways. I’ve added a response after each of the Smithsonian’s titles for these dedicated service workers:

Messenger of Sympathy and Love… Bless you!
Servant of Parted Friends… Bless you!
Consoler of the Lonely…Bless you!
Bond of the Scattered Family…Bless you!
Enlarger of the Common Life…Bless you!
Carrier of News and Knowledge…Bless you!
Instrument of Trade and Industry…Bless you!
Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men [People] and Nations…Bless you!

For all the ways you bless our lives, may you be blessed, today and always.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Call to mind a person who enriches your life through hidden, often unrecognized  service.
Ask the Holy One to safeguard their protection and safety.
When possible, communicate your deep gratitude to that person.
Thank the Holy One for creating them and placing them in your life.

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The Ones I Can

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   May 2, 2020

umbrellas on a rainy day copy

They came by the hundreds. Their numbers stretched out as far as the eye could see. This was not some bad dream. This was my ongoing challenge in a rainy season that seemed to have no end.

Before you think I’m obsessed with earthworms, let me note that in NEPA the forecast has included rain, light rain, heavy rain, showers, flash floods, and thunderstorms nearly every day and every evening during the month of April. When the downpour happens overnight, the already waterlogged ground becomes so saturated that earthworms are forced to leave the shelter of their homes. And so they appear during daylight scattered across parking lots, sidewalks, asphalt, macadam, places that hold the potential of killing them if the worms don’t move before the available moisture dries up.rainy-day-wallpaper6 copy

Standing on the Heritage Trail lot today, I was overwhelmed by the sight of so many creatures presenting themselves for rescue. The limitations of my not fully healed leg and back prevented me from scooping up all of them and returning the lucky ones to the safety of grass. Indecision paralyzed me. What should I do? What could I do? How could I possibly make any difference to the hundreds scattered before me?

I remembered a line from “The Guardian,” a film about Coast Guard rescue swimmers whose job it is to respond to frantic calls from swimmers or boaters in distress. The Coast Guard swimmers risk their lives daily, often leaping out of helicopters into huge swells during fierce storms in order to save people clinging to life in the waters below. In the film, a novice Coast Guard trainee asks the weathered instructor how he decides who to help when there are multiple cries for his attention. He replies, “I swim as fast as I can and as hard as I can for as long as I can. And I save the ones I can.”

I save the ones I can. That was good enough for me at the moment, so I slowly moved forward, picking up any struggling earthworms that were in my immediate walking path. I needed to be at peace with my inability to save them all.

My interrupted walk gave me a chance to reflect further on the real life situation of our first responders and healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the Coast Guard rescue swimmers, they’re facing a daily tsunami of critically ill patients clamoring for rescue. Wave after unending wave of the faces of the desperately ill looking for a glimmer of hope on the faces looking down at them through layers of protective gear. Every one a mother, father, sister, brother, relative. Someone’s beloved. Someone’s caregiver. Someone’s partner, friend, mentor. Every one of them torn from the embrace of their loved ones to avoid contagion. Every one of them facing the possibility of unaccompanied death. Every one of them fearful and looking for reassurances when there are none that can be given.rainyday copy

No nurse, doctor, paramedic, law enforcement officer should ever be charged with deciding, beyond triage, who lives and who dies in such tragic circumstances. How can these courageous heroes and heroines, whose mission it is to heal and to save, not forever bear the mark of witnessing a last word or a final faltering breath? How can they not find themselves haunted by the memory of all their eyes have seen, their ears have heard, their hearts have held? Where do they go, where can they go, with their pain?

It is their anguish I’m carrying this morning as I cross the pavement, stoop down, and save the ones I can.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Listen to your body.
Name how you feel today: worried, content, happy, fearful, angry, weary, etc.
Share your emotions with the Holy One who is listening.
Ask for the grace you need for this day.
When you finish your reflection, share your feelings with a friend, neighbor, or family member, as you wish.

IMAGES:
Pinterest.com
livewallpaper.info
taborsyard.blogspot.com

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer a stay-at-home project I’m working on with others for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. It’s a series of recorded presentations to be offered as part of live Zoom sessions, “God’s Deepening Life in Me.” Thank you.  

On a personal note, I’m so grateful for all of the prayer offerings that have been created in this time of social distancing. May we all continue to be safe and well these days. 

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From Here, with Love

franklin_trees_01 copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM       April 17, 2020

In these days when it may feel as if the very air we breathe is a potential enemy, when  the familiar ground under our feet is unstable and shaky, I’ve been mining some questions: What is my role in the healing of the world? How do I carry the pain and grief of the pandemic without collapsing under the weight of that burden, without surrendering my own wholeness and well-being? How am I to be that will make some difference in our world?

I’m not a healthcare worker, a first responder, an employee in an essential business. Like many, I’m staying at home these days and holding in my heart and prayer all who are suffering due to the effects of COVID-19. But beyond that prayerful and faithful remembrance, I wonder, what does this time of pandemic call from me?

I packed up that question and carried it with me into my daily walk as I took a day off away from my usual work. Light rain was falling so I parked my car in the local high school lot and strolled close by. There was just one other car around, a woman inside staring at her phone. I wondered if this was perhaps her only chance at stillness, sitting in a car by herself in the middle of an empty parking lot. I waved a blessing to her for whatever had brought her to this place.

I started to walk but quickly realized I wouldn’t get far. After a night of rain, earthworms had left the safe haven of the grass and were strewn across the asphalt. Part of my spiritual practice is picking up any struggling living things who find themselves stranded and delivering them to safety. This stooping down and picking up made for very slow going, and my efforts were received with resistance as every earthworm tried to wriggle its body out of my grasp. But I persisted and eventually deposited each worm on a grassy stretch of soil. Now, I thought, at least some of them would be spared a slow death when the moisture on the parking lot dried up later in the day.

I came home to take a load of laundry out of the washing machine. Sleeves and pant legs were inside out. Pants and shirts clung together in a tight embrace. I gently smoothed and separated each of them. I made a few phone calls to fragile or worried friends and family, listening to their stories of fear, anxiety, concerns for the future. I responded with attentiveness to emails inquiring about calendar changes for retreats and presentations. I offered spiritual guidance online. I took a virtual tour of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I chopped a shallot, marveling at its purple veins, then fried it with some leftover baked potato for lunch.spiritualcleaningbucketflowers copy

And then I sat down to what I had considered the real work of this day off, writing my blog post. Only now I realized that what had been in front of me all morning was actually a response to the question I carried, a deep knowing that my role in the healing of the world is simply to live with consciousness so I can be the presence of Love. Present to the cries of human pain and loss I had held in my heart and prayer. Present to the stranger sitting alone in her car on a rainy day. Present to the struggle of unruly earthworms. Present to the tangled confusion of my laundry. Present to the faces on the other end of the phone or the other end of cyberspace. Present to the unfolding sacred story of another. Present to the saving beauty of the arts. Present to the generosity of shallots and potatoes giving their lives over in love for me.

I confess that in my younger years I was often puzzled by the spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. How, I wondered, could picking up a pin with love and attentiveness—an act that seemed so insignificant–ever change the world? How grateful I am now, so many decades later, to slowly discover what she intuited in her twenties: That the seemingly small elements of a day are graced invitations when entered into with consciousness and compassion. That it is we ourselves being transformed by paying attention to the Holy One at work in our hearts, in our world. That sometimes breathing the energies of love into universes great and small is all we can do. And sometimes, it is everything.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Gently review your day so far.
Where have you noticed yourself acting with generosity, care, compassion?
Thank the Holy One for the graces of this day, and ask for even greater spaciousness of heart for tomorrow.

P.S.
Today, when I was about to post my blog, I came across this glorious, sweet poem from Jane Hirshfield, one of my favorite poets. I think it speaks beautifully to today’s blog post so I’m adding it here as a bonus for all of us:

blackant copy

When I Could Do Nothing
by Jane Hirshfield

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.
It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.
A morning paper is still an essential service.
I am not an essential service.
I have coffee and books,
time,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.
It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.
Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.
Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.
Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?
It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.
Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.
I lifted it, took it outside.
This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.

NOTE:
Please join me in setting an intention to prayerfully remember our fragile world and its suffering people during this pandemic. Whoever you are, wherever you are, and however you are at this moment, know yourself held in love and tenderness through the days ahead. 

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Surprise! It’s the Ordinary Things

Holy Week crosses copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM      April 3, 2020

My choices during these days of social distancing and staying in place have offered some surprises. Besides holding in tender prayer the collective suffering of our world and praying intensely for our first responders, medical and support staff, the newly unemployed, the small business owners, those ill or dying from COVID-19 and those who love them, I’m one of the privileged few who are able to work from home and am using this time for retreat planning and writing assignments. I’ve not yet straightened out my sock drawer, entered into deep cleaning of my apartment, or downsized my expansive files—that, I suspect, will be coming—but I have just completed something I’ve been meaning to do for at least the past five years: planning my own wake service and funeral liturgy.EPSON MFP image

I’m not ill or overtaken by premonition. What I am at this moment is given to gratitude. To sit with and break open anew the riches of songs, poems, and Scripture that have given my life meaning is like writing a spiritual autobiography, a looking back and seeing my life as whole instead of lived piece by piece. My companion during this time is Carrie Newcomer’s question that will not let me go: “How do I find beauty and what is unbroken in a landscape that must always include broken things?”

For me, this time of planning is marked by empathy and a fresh understanding. I’ve sung each song aloud as it filters through my phone and sound system. I’ve savored every word of every poem that has nourished me—oh, they are so many!—feeling the words roll around in my mouth, tasting their sweetness, naming how they have let mystery in, how they have animated, inspired, consoled, and healed me. I’ve felt in my body why Mary Oliver calls these words “fires for the cold, ropes let down for the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” I have been warmed, saved, and fed, and I am so in love, all over again.

The real gift of this time and this reflection has been the re-discovering of something that I already knew: that what I cherish most, what I will most keenly miss from this world that is so very dear to me, are not the big moments of my life, but the sweet and tender things we might describe as ordinary. The wrapping of a loved one’s arms around us. The wordless understanding between friends. The hush of dawn as we hold a steaming cup of coffee or tea and enter into prayerful stillness. The way we are startled, the way we sit up and take notice when music pours over us and shakes our soul. The scent of lavender or honeysuckle or mock orange wafting over us on any summer day. The awe that overcomes and silences us when we stand before a crimson sunset. The lullaby of waves gently breaking on shore. The list is endless.

In so many ways, this time has afforded me the chance to reflect on my own version of Linda Pastan’s poem, “The Almanac of Last Things”:

“From the almanac of last things
I choose the spider lily
for the grace of its brief
blossom, though I myself
fear brevity,

but I choose The Song of Songs
because the flesh
of those pomegranates
has survived
all the frost of dogma.

I choose January with its chill
lessons of patience and despair–and
August, too sun-struck for lessons.
I choose a thimbleful of red wine
to make my heart race,

then another to help me
sleep. From the almanac
of last things I choose you,
as I have done before.
And I choose evening

because the light clinging
to the window
is at its most reflective
just as it is ready
to go out.”

Empty tomb

My almanac of last thing is rich with delight and hope and profound gratefulness. Maybe that’s because, in our shared time of loss and pain and uncertainty, I still have to believe, with Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world this is.

Skip the ad and take a moment to sit with his loving reminder here.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Spend some moments naming some of the “last things” you cherish.
Savor these ordinary things and reflect on why they are precious to you.
Give thanks to the Holy One who has blessed your life with reasons to be grateful.

NOTE:
We continue to hold in tenderness and prayer all those suffering from the impact of COVID-19. As we continue to practice safe social distancing, we may be grieving our inability to celebrate Holy Week and Easter in person, but we can be consoled in knowing that there are no boundaries to our consciousness and our loving prayer. Please join me in breathing our intention to collectively bless our beautiful and broken world. May we all experience the fullness of new life this Easter and in the days to come. 

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