Staying a Little Empty

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM,  July 22, 2018

Hopefully, we’re all blessed with the pause that renews. The dictionary describes vacation as “an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling.” Personally, I gravitate more towards the Latin root, “vacare,” to be free and empty, to take rest and freedom from any activity. In that understanding, perhaps the British term, “holiday,” is closer to the original Latin root of what it means to take a vacation.dawn copy

To be on vacation is to vacate in some way: to leave a place that we’ve previously occupied; to give up possession or occupancy of something; to release ourselves, even briefly, from an activity or occupation. At the heart of vacation is a sense of emptying out. Making space for what restores and refreshes. Adding to our diet a daily dose of peace or solitude or whatever feeds our well-being.

Whether our vacation is a week in some exotic setting, time spent experiencing fresh adventures, a few days at home replenishing our energy, or an afternoon sitting on a deck or strolling through a park, we are called to let go in some way. Even if we haven’t physically moved or relocated to a new place, vacation urges us to mentally, attitudinally, and spiritually move. To let go of some everyday routine or habits. To listen and tend to the rhythms of our body and spirit. To enter into a space where we can be refreshed, restored, and renewed. To pause and reflect, as the Creator did, on the work of one’s hands and heart, and to find signs of both goodness and blessing in that holy work.

The reality is that we all need some ceasing, some halting, some pausing, and certainly some emptying out for the deeper meaning of vacation to take hold in our hearts. May we find time and space in the days ahead for a deepening spirit of wholeness and well-being, and when we find that place, may we remain there in some way even as we return to our everyday living.

I’ve often, at the end of a retreat, introduced Steve Garnaas-Holmes’ blog post, “Don’t Come Back Soon,” as a reminder of our call to enter wholeheartedly into whatever renews our spirit—vacation, Sabbath, retreat—and to come out of such experiences moving a little more slowly, pausing a little more regularly, and holding a space of peace as we return to the dailiness of life. Garnaas-Holmes writes:

“Back from a week in cabin on the coast of Maine. I’m all slowed down. The thing now is not to jump back up into fifth gear and start hurrying and fretting and multitasking and plowing all night long. Don’t come back from vacation and fill up with stuff. Stay a little vacant. Keep the empty place. Stay slow. Keep paying attention, keep being deeply present.

The thing as I rise from prayer is to stay in prayer. The purpose of prayer, or vacation, or Sabbath, or sleep is not just to come up for air so you can go back into the fray but also to slow down so that what you go back into isn’t a fray.

Even when things around you are chaotic, you can be at peace. Even when others are panicking and hurrying and demanding or when they aren’t doing anything at all and it’s all falling to you, even when the house is afire and you have to move quickly, you can stay rooted. You can do one thing at a time. Even when you’re not at your prayers, you can still be in prayer.

Go on vacation, or into prayer, or on Sabbath, early and often. Go there now. And don’t come back soon.”armsopenwide

With thanks to Pastor Steve, I’m about to take a summer break myself and follow this wisdom. I hope to hold the empty space and live with renewed intention. Know that I wish that same blessing for each one of you in abundance.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on an experience or practice that restores your soul.
Give thanks for this blessing.
How might you incorporate it more deeply into your everyday living?
Express your desire for the renewal of all creation.

NOTE:
As is my custom, I’ll be taking a break from blogging during the month of August to allow time for my own retreat and self-care. There will be no new blog posts in August, but I’ll look forward to being back with you again in September. 

My deep thanks to the wonderful Sisters of Mercy and Associates of the New England area, with whom I was privileged to spend this past week of retreat at Marie Joseph Spirituality Center in Biddeford, Maine. Thank you to all who held us in your prayer during that time.

May I ask you to also prayerfully remember these days in August: 

August 18-24:             Guided retreat for the Sisters of St. Joseph,  Hampton Bays, NY
August 25:                  Installation of new IHM Leadership Team, Scranton, PA
August 27:                  Retreat for faculty and staff of Waldron Mercy Academy, Merion Station, PA

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Of Bliss and Basking

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM July 8, 2018

What ushers you into a state of bliss and where do you go from there?

This is the question I was holding after observing a bee who visited my tiny garden, now a riot of vibrant pink, deep purple, golden yellow. A bumblebee—you know, the delightfully fat, furry, and friendly species—had hovered over and inspected my entire lavender patch before selecting just the right landing space.bumblebee in lavender copy

In writing for Living Faith recently (June 27, 2018), I described this visit as a bee Examen of sorts, where the bee hovered as if discerning where to pause, where to pay attention, what to give time and energy to, and whether a stop at a particular flower would fulfill its needs for a flourishing life. Bumblebees, unlike honeybees, make only small amounts of honey for their own food. There’s no carrying it off to the hive to produce mass quantities for the colony. So am I too far off base in wondering if, in the case of this particular bumblebee, this visit was not only a practical one to replenish food and take a bit of rest, but also a blissful one? The bumblebee remained unmoving for hours, submerged in what I would have to name as purple ecstasy.

In the butterfly world, there’s a parallel practice to this nurturing pause, but with a different purpose. Butterflies don’t generate enough heat themselves to provide the energy needed to fly, so they engage in what’s called reflectance basking. They use their wings like solar panels, capturing the energy of the sun by exposing the surface area of their wings directly to the sun’s rays. After landing on a leaf or a flower, they often engage in opening their wings fully to achieve maximum exposure to the warm rays of the sun. This enables them to warm themselves, gain energy, and fly. Practical, yes, but if you’ve ever seen a butterfly basking, you may agree with me that there seems to be an element of bliss involved in that stillness.

Bumblebees, butterflies, and us. Perhaps what propels us into bliss is as individual and unique as we are. I have a long list of what takes me out of myself and leaves me wordless and overcome by awe and wonder. My bliss might be a quiet look of love, the hand of a friend in mine, surprising acts of tenderness and peacemaking, the subtle beauty that grabs my soul and saves the world, the unexpected graces that make me sit up and gratefully take notice. When experiencing bliss, I desire to linger and to bask in those transformative moments. And then to return, as I surely must, to the seemingly ordinary and everyday, the routine that Jack Kornfeld and Corita Kent both describe as “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” And oh, what glorious laundry it is!

Like the bumblebee fed by its lingering in lavender, like the butterfly fluttering to new heights after its momentary pause, aren’t you, as James Houghton notes, “closer to glory leaping an abyss than upholstering a rut?” Once you’ve experienced joy and rapture of any kind, how do you remain with that? How do you mine it and let it feed you for the lean times which will certainly enter your life at some future point? Where do you store bliss so that it continues to bless not only you but all who will come into your field of energy and consciousness?
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So, tell me: What ushers you into a state of bliss? Where do you linger and bask? How do you return to the dailiness of life in some way transformed, and then how are you called to share that blessing with the world both near and far?

Takeaway

Bask in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on an experience of beauty, of bliss, that still resonates with you.
What might that experience have offered you of fresh ways to engage in your daily life?
Give thanks to the Holy One for this graced experience.

Images
beautifulflowerspict.blogspot.com
Chris Koellhoffer
Chris Koellhoffer

NOTE:
Please continue to hold in your prayer my IHM community as we enter into our Chapter (governing body of the Congregation) and elections of new leadership this week. 

Please also remember in your prayer writing projects and a retreat I’m leading for the Sisters of Mercy in Biddeford, Maine. Thank you.

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A Fragrance That Remains

 

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, June 24, 2018

Have you ever remembered, seemingly from out of nowhere, a person or place of significance in your life that you might not have thought of in years? Sometimes scent can be the trigger for such dormant remembrances coming to consciousness.

Scent is evocative. What we inhale through our olfactory system has the power to bring strong images or unexpected feelings into our awareness, transporting us to another time, place, or memory. For me, talcum powder, Coty L’Aimant, and Old Spice are emotional triggers. I get a whiff of any of those and suddenly my grandmother, my mother, my father will appear before me.
honeysuckle

Last week I was thinking of all that scent evokes as I strolled the Promenade in Sea Isle City, NJ during a retreat for a group of women religious. Within seconds of stepping onto the walkway on a June morning, I was enveloped by the scent of honeysuckle hanging heavily in the air.

It wasn’t much of a leap to make the connection between that delicate, pervasive scent and the witness of the women praying and reflecting during the retreat. Like the fragrance of honeysuckle, their lives given over in love and service lingered and filled our meeting space. I imagined the prayers of blessing sent out into the universe by all the holy ones. I imagined every life ever given over in love and compassion as a gracious anointing that carried healing and affirmation and tenderness, blessing people on the other side of the globe. That image lingers with me still and invites a deeper mining.

I wonder, what is the fragrance, the holy perfume, for which our beautiful yet wounded world longs? How might the fragrant witness of our lives fill not only this present moment but also envelop and bless an uncertain future? How might our very presence leave behind a familiar and comforting scent? How might we embody the meaning of the words,

“You are here.
That is good.
You are not here.
The fragrance remains.”

The fragrance that remains most certainly could describe the woman who anointed Jesus on the edge of his suffering and death. She is the one remembered not only in the pages of the Gospels but in the memorable scent left behind by her extravagant act. To two of the Gospel writers (Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13), she is nameless. Only John names her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (John 12:1-8). In telling her story, only John adds the phrase, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” Another translation describes the aftermath of her act by noting, “The sweet smell of the perfume filled the whole house.” Clearly, her act of anointing was not only fragrant but extravagant, generous, enduring, memorable.

This woman seems to be the only one of Jesus’ followers who truly heard his prediction of his coming death and was moved to comfort him. Like the rest of us, she discerned the place of need and did what she had the power to do. Perhaps she trembled. Perhaps she knew she would be judged and criticized. Perhaps she suspected her anointing  would be misunderstood. But the voices of love and compassion were louder than the voices of her fear. Love emboldened her. Compassion compelled her. And the sweet smell of her perfume filled the whole house, and lingered there.

rosegarden

What about us? What are we leaving behind? What anointings will be told in our memory? For what extravagant, loving acts will we be remembered?

IMAGES:
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Takeaway

Spend time in stillness before the Holy One.
Reflect on a person whose presence in your life has blessed you and whose memory lingers with you.
Hold that person in love and gratitude today.

NOTE:
Thank you for continuing to pray for all who will be part of the next summer retreat I’m leading: 

June 25 – July 1:     Directed Retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA. I will serve as one of the directors for this retreat. 

Also, I’d be grateful for your prayer as my IHM community enters into our annual Assembly and our Chapter and Elections beginning July 5.

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Practicing the Way Forward

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, June10, 2018

Many of us follow a daily practice of prayer, and there’s a reason we call it a practice. We need to return to it over and over, connecting ever more deeply on a soul level with the Holy One. Whatever the practice, we hope to enter into a contemplative space where we can most clearly notice the Spirit at work in our lives, where we can open ourselves to listen to whatever the day may offer. We may follow a routine including meditation, morning and evening prayer, lectio divina, or pausing during the day to review how the Holy has accompanied us and how we’ve responded to that presence.franklin_trees_01

We may also engage in informal practices that have a contemplative feel to them although we might not name them as contemplative prayer. Does sitting on the beach gazing at the ocean restore your soul and invite you into stillness and wonder? How about breathing in the scent of mock orange, lavender, or freesia? Pulling weeds or broadcasting seeds? Filling the kitchen with the aroma of baking bread? Sitting back and inviting the sounds of a loved piece of music to spill into a room?

One of my favorite spiritual practices is walking, walking any time but especially in the early part of the day. In a rural area, that’s the hour when nervous rabbits nibble and curious fawns move on shaky legs, their mothers standing, statue-like and ears erect, nearby. That’s the hour when honeysuckle and phlox are shaking off the night’s rain, when all of creation seems to wake, to come alive, to wait expectantly for what the unfolding day may bring. In a busy city, that’s the hour when the work of renewing the face of the earth is revealed in trash collectors clearing a path on sidewalks, maintenance workers hosing down pavement, delivery persons dropping off bundles of the morning paper, and grocers arranging symmetrical rows of apples, pears, and other produce. While life is bustling all around, that’s the hour when it still feels as if there’s a hush and the fresh promise of something new.

Whether we stroll or saunter, walking—as any spiritual practice that renews our soul—offers us many gifts. Walking mindfully is sometimes described as massaging the Earth. I’ve come to believe that when the body is in motion, the rhythm of walking liberates the mind and engages the unconscious. The steadiness of the pace, the mindfulness of our steps, can open up creative space and offer a pathway to centeredness and peace.  This spiritual practice can jump start our imagination and deepen our awareness of the world around us and our place in it. Whether we walk alone or in the company of others, whether we are in silence or engaged conversation, walking invites us into a space of listening, noticing, paying attention, all elements of a spiritual practice.

Walking was one of the few methods of transportation available to Jesus. He trekked up mountainsides, strolled the seashore, wandered the desert, and walked through the small towns and villages of his time. Sometimes he walked alone enjoying the stillness; other times he trudged the dusty roads of Nazareth and Nain and Bethany surrounded by his disciples or the crowds that were drawn to him.

After the chaos, confusion, and heartbreak of Jesus’ passion and death, and during that period of intense mourning before his rising became known, what were two of his grieving disciples doing? Walking on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Luke tells us that while they were conversing and debating about the horrific events they had just witnessed, Jesus himself drew near, and what did he do? He walked with them. And what a conversation came out of that walk!

In How to Walk, Thich Nhat Hanh shares that the Buddha was also a walker. “During his forty-five years of teaching,” writes Hanh, “he visited and taught in perhaps fourteen or fifteen countries of India and Nepal. That was a lot of walking. Many of his teachings, many of his insights, came from his time of walking everywhere.”  IMG_1967 copy

 So what about us? How and when and where do we pray most easily? What helps to create or support a graced space for our own growth and for a deeper understanding of our place in the universe? What slows us down, pushes our “Pause” button, renews and restores our soul?

While you’re mulling that over, please excuse me. I think I have to shut down my laptop, go outside, and practice. It feels about the right time for a good, long walk.

Takeaway

Sit in a relaxed stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on your own spiritual practices.
What do you currently engage in that nourishes and restores you?
Might there be anything new that seems to be inviting you to deepen your way of praying?
Offer thanks for the practices of renewal that are part of your life at this time.
Now, go out and practice!

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of these events I’ll be leading in the near future: 

June 9 – 16, Guided Retreat, “Bearing Witness to the Holy,” Sisters of Mercy, Sea Isle City, NJ 

June 20, Social Justice Ministry, Christ the King Church, Springfield Gardens, NY

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Showing Up

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, May 27, 2018

Where our feet take us reveals something about us. Where we choose to invest our time and energy underscores both the desires of our heart and the beliefs we cherish. So where have our feet taken us lately?Backpackeronroad

Perhaps to the same place that Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s feet took him in the march in Selma. Remembering that time of joining Martin Luther King as they walked together, he noted, “My feet were praying.” He implied that the act of marching for the sake of a more just, inclusive world was itself a prayer. His feet were showing the world what he valued, how he wanted to invest his time, and where he simply was compelled to be.

Recently, the collective feet of sisters in my IHM community led us to show up in ways far beyond our usual patterns of living. We experienced the death of one of our sisters and a dear friend and co-worker through an act of domestic violence by a relative, who also died. As we prayed for healing from our own raw wounds and the ache of our inability to locate our sister’s remains, there was no question where our feet had to take us. As IHM Sisters we proclaim an unshaken belief in the unconditional love of God, a God who insists we are each better than our own worst act. How could we not be open to praying for both victims and perpetrator? How could we not reverence the remains of all who were part of this tragic story? How could we not witness to the never-ending mercy of the Holy One and follow where our feet led us: offering comfort, receiving condolences, weeping with our neighbors, attending every wake service and funeral, and praying for all that is broken and wounded in ourselves and in our world?

This, for us, was an extraordinary experience of witness and of what it means to show up when it counts most. Yet all around our beautiful yet wounded world, in the seemingly ordinary and everyday, we hear the footsteps of holy feet showing up to advocate, to demonstrate, to pray, to forgive, to empower, to speak truth, to console, to celebrate, to accompany.

Our own feet are leading us in the dailiness of life, leading parents and guardians and teachers and siblings to show up in support, to remain through the ongoing cycles of sports events, recitals, academic programs. All this so that we can be the face of love our children and students will glimpse as they scan the crowd and find, in that sea of faces, one that belongs to them.

Casting a look back at the past week, where else have our feet taken us to tend to the needs of others or to tend to our own self care? Perhaps we’ve been tutoring or helping with homework. Perhaps we’ve written a letter, made a phone call, carried a sign on behalf of an immigrant or a farm worker or a Dreamer. Perhaps we’ve stood at the bedside of a loved one or been the sole visitor for a lonely stranger in a hospital or nursing home.Jesus feet copy

May our feet lead us to navigate this world with care, with attention, with tenderness. May our feet lead us to show up, prayerfully and lovingly. May Isaiah’s words be spoken of us: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring the good news of peace.” (Isaiah 52:7)

Takeaway

Sit in silence with the Holy One.
As you review the past week, reflect on where your feet have led you as you “stood in” as a messenger of peace.
Into what acts of compassion or beauty or accompaniment have your feet taken you?
What did you learn from the places you stood?
Whether you are in good health or have limited mobility, show some extra care for your holy feet in the days ahead.
Bless them and the Holy One who fashioned them with love.

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When Words Are Not Enough

 

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  May 13, 2018

A brilliant sunset. A newborn’s first emphatic cry of arrival. The seemingly sudden budding of an orchid we had given up on. Sitting in front of the ocean’s vastness. Hearing a dreaded diagnosis. Losing our beloved.questionsclouds copy

Wonder and awe can leave us speechless. Tragedy, grief, the enormity of life can also render us mute. As a writer, I can feed on almost anything, yet I’m quick to admit that there are times when words are inadequate, when words are not enough, when there simply are no words. We’ve probably witnessed the well-intentioned offerings made at wake services or in the face of profound tragedy or loss—the softly mumbled condolences, the awkward searching for a meaningful phrase. We want to believe our words make a difference, that they can somehow salve the fresh wounds of loss and profound heartache. I suspect that, more than the words we utter at those times is our statement of witness: that we are here, that we have chosen to show up, that we desire to offer the only gift that is ours to give at these moments: the gift of being present to another even as we own our inability to save them from the heartache that summoned us to gather.

What to do, how to be, in the aftermath of the stunned silence that comes happily in the wake of profound beauty yet also sadly in the wake of profound loss? Our faith assures us that, just as the Holy One holds us in tenderness always, so we are called to a faithful presence. This may play out in real time as sitting by the bedside of a loved one as their breath becomes more labored on their final journey. Or deep listening to a friend whose pain spills out in torrents and underscores our inadequacy to reduce their suffering and loss. Or entering the stillness and allowing ourselves to feel our smallness before a mountain ridge, a midnight sky heavy with stars, a moon hung so low and large on the horizon that we just might believe we can touch its roundness.   The challenge is not to run away from Mystery but to remain, to accompany, to open ourselves to new learnings.

When words are not enough, I bake. Others cook and drop off casseroles, or babysit, or make phone calls or arrangements, or sit with in silence, or hug, or companion in a multitude of ways. These are all expressions of the presence Henri Nouwen describes in Out of Solitude.

“Still, when we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.”

That is our call when words are not enough. We pray, we sit, we listen, we accompany. We show up in our powerlessness. We remain even as we feel our inadequacy and own our inability to save.

When words are not enough, we are present. It is sometimes all we can do, and it is everything.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness in the presence of the Holy One who remains with you always.
Invite into the stillness someone for whom you desire to be more fully present.
Surround this person with a field of compassion and affirmation.
Entrust him or her to the tenderness of the Holy One.

NOTE:
I’m writing this blog post while sitting in a lanai on Sanibel Island for a few restorative days. You have been present to me in my sitting and I send you blessings from this place of beauty and peace. 

Please hold in your prayer these upcoming events I’ll be leading: 

May 17:           Evening of Reflection for Women and Men Religious, Diocese of Scranton, PA
May 19:           Spiritual Spa Day, Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY
May 23:           Social Justice Ministry, Christ the King Church, Springfield Gardens, NY

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Living with Unfinishedness

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM – April 29, 2018

Period. Over. Complete. The End. Nothing more to say. Nothing else to do. It seems that very little about the human condition lends itself to the emphatic conclusion of a declarative sentence, the final chapter of a novel, or the last frame of a film.

Stary clear night sky. Mixed media

I was reminded of this when reflecting with a group on the humanness of Jesus and the reality that, though he was divine, he also fully embraced and inhabited our human condition. The reflection became personal when we turned and looked at our own humanness and sat with the question, “What are some of the things we like most/like least about being human?”

Our shared responses were sometimes humorous, sometimes profound. Eating, hugging, spending time with friends, and being able to love topped many lists of the qualities or activities the group was thankful for and appreciated about our human state. On the list of what we liked least about being human were aging, suffering, loss,  heartache. And then there were the limitations—of time, energy, resources, the reality that not everything can be resolved or successfully and finally brought to conclusion.

In my experience of working with the life of the spirit, a final resolution where all details are tidily in place remains in the realm of mystery. Being unfinished is an integral part of a life where we are at every moment in process. Hopefully, we see progress and movement toward growth and are able to hold the tension of incompleteness with a peaceful heart.

We’re not the same person at dusk that we were when we climbed out of bed at dawn. We experience the evolving and the incomplete: relationships begging for our time or our mending. Questions that remain unanswerable. Heartache, grieving, brokenness that yearns for healing. Our own deep inner soul work that accompanies us at every moment. The hunger for God that is as continual as our heartbeat. On some level, all of these experiences of unfinishedness can be echoes of our longing for the Holy.

Perhaps that’s why during the Easter season we may notice with fresh eyes the rather abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel. Scholars debate whether Mark 16:8 was the actual conclusion, for clearly not everything is resolved, tidied up, squared away. In fact, it appears as if Mark has simply left the room and his writing and handed it over to us in its incomplete, unfinished state. Perhaps the message is that we’re to take up the story of Jesus and continue it in our own lives.

James Harnish, in Easter Earthquake appears to echo that sense when he asks,

“What if Mark’s incomplete story serves as an invitation to every one of us to complete the Resurrection story with our own story? What if he purposely planned for every follower of the risen Christ to add his or her own chapter to the never-ending story of God’s work of salvation in a sin-broken world? What if Mark’s nonending is the call for us to get in on the action and become part of a story that never ends?”unfinishedpraying

What if being unfinished is an invitation to cooperate wholeheartedly with grace? To live in hope, in trust, in possibility? To move whatever is incomplete in the lives of our ancestors closer to fulfillment in ours? To see in our lives the unfolding and evolving of a universe in bud? To trust that spring and blossoming are all part of the slow work of God?

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on your own human condition and some of the things you like most/like least about being human.
What images come to mind when you reflect on what is incomplete or unfinished in your own life or in the world around you?
What possibilities do you see in what is unfinished or still unfolding?
Give thanks to the Holy One whose love completes you always. 

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