Witnessing by Another Way

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, January 15, 2017

Cast a pebble into a still pond and then linger on the banks.  Watch as the ripples widen and widen in expanding circles as far as the eye can see.  And when the outermost edges of that ripple escape your sight, remember what science tells us: that beyond the range of what we can perceive, movement and motion continue to cast larger circles out into the universe.

The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, might have been describing this phenomenon on a personal level when he wrote,

“I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
but I give myself to it.”

Recently, the image of ripples on a pond re-surfaced when Pope Francis spoke of “a spirituality of influence.”  A life given over to love, compassion, and witness in a rippling effect.  A movement, a direction that’s not dependent on physical or mental ability, on social status, prestige, or wealth.  A circle made continually wider by the largeness of one’s heart and the reach of one’s compassion.

In the announcement of Detective Steven McDonald’s death just this past week, I saw up close such a sphere of spiritual influence: the ongoing ripples that emanated from the ripplesmcdonaldlegacy of a good and holy man.   I was living in New York on July 12, 1986, when Officer McDonald, a young New York City policeman, was shot three times by a teenager whom McDonald had stopped while on patrol.  The shooting left the officer paralyzed from the neck down for the remaining thirty years of his life.

On the surface, it might have seemed that in the aftermath of the shooting, the sphere of Steven’s influence had narrowed dramatically and significantly.  Not so!  The ripples of his spirituality were just beginning to spread out across the city, the nation, the world in witness to God’s grace at work in the human spirit.

Because Steven McDonald didn’t stop giving his life over in love and tenderness.  He didn’t spend a single second in self-pity, anger, or resentment.  He made peace with the cross he would shoulder for the rest of his life, with the fact that, though he might leave the hospital, he would never be able to leave his wheelchair, never be able to play catch with his son, Conor, born a few months after the shooting.  How telling that at his father’s funeral, Conor, now himself a police officer, called his father “superman,” the most tender, caring Dad a child could ever hope to have.

In the face of incalculable limitation and loss, Steven chose to grow his presence, to enlarge his heart, to expand the good he could contribute to the world.  He embraced the countercultural act of forgiving Shavod Jones, the teenager who had changed the course of his life with a bullet, when he stated early on through his loving, supportive wife, Patti Ann: “I forgive him and hope he can find peace and purpose in his life.”

Steven  became a counselor and inspiration to other wounded police officers.  His influence stretched beyond geographic borders as he traveled to Bosnia, Northern Ireland,ripples-copy Israel–areas of intense conflict and deep-seated, decades-long enmities—witnessing to the healing power of reconciliation.  He chose to move forward on a spiritual journey marked by love, compassion, and forgiveness.

At Steven’s funeral liturgy this past week, Police Commissioner James O’Neill noted the ripples that continue to emanate from Steven’s life.  “The cycle of violence that plagues so many lives today can be overcome only by breaking down the walls that separate people,” he observed.  “The best tools for doing this, Steven taught us, are love, respect, and forgiveness.”

Thank you for being an extraordinary teacher, Detective Steven McDonald.  May you rest in peace among the holy ones.  May the witness of your life given over to hope and courage and profound faith continue to ripple out into our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Prayerfully reflect on the phrase, “a spirituality of influence.”
Give thanks for the great cloud of witnesses who make visible the face of God among us.

In whom have you experienced the Holy?
Whose words or actions have shaped your life and reflected the face of God to you?

As you reflect on the days ahead of you this week, where might you be called to be a force for good?  For compassion?  For forgiveness?

 

NOTE:  I’ll be serving as one of the directors for a retreat weekend beginning January 27 at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA.  Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of this prayerful experience.  Many thanks!

To automatically receive a new blog as soon as it’s posted:

Go to the beginning of this current blog.
As you scroll down slowly, you will see a “Follow” button in the lower right hand corner.
Click on “Follow” and a form will appear for you to fill in your email address.
After you do that, you’ll receive an email asking you to verify your address.
Click on this link, and you’ll receive a confirmation that you’re now automatically subscribed.
Please note that if you’re reading the blog on your phone, you may not see the word “Follow.”  Try reading it on a PC and you should have no problem subscribing.

Thanks for signing on and Following!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hunger Names

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, January 1, 2017

No, this title is not a typo. I didn’t misspell the reference to a popular film. I didn’t fall victim to sugar overload or fuzzy thinking from one too many Christmas cookies (although I certainly did indulge). It’s not the result of a late night of ringing in the New Year.

So why The Hunger Names? Because it occurs to me as we stand peering into the year before us that so often the beginning of a new year centers around resolutions focused on what we want to let go of: extra pounds, unhealthy habits, toxic situations, and more. I wonder what might be revealed if instead we chose to spend time discerning what it is that we long to fill ourselves up with. What if we dug a bit deeper and named that for which we truly hunger? What if we spent some time early in this new year mining our deepest desires as well as God’s desire for each one of us?

There is great power in naming. Naming connotes belonging: parents often devote hungerpregnancy-copyconsiderable time to choosing the perfect name for the child of their hopes and dreams. Naming shows connection: new owners may search for just the right title as they bring an adopted pet into their home. Naming witnesses to the intimacy and closeness of relationship: we tend to name what is significant and meaningful in our lives. And naming sometimes offers us a liberation of sorts when we’re able to voice what we hold in our hearts.

Not long ago, I was gifted with Joyce Rupp’s Fragments of Your Ancient Name. The book, subtitled “365 Glimpses of the Divine for Daily Meditation,” highlights names by which God is known around the world. The names are drawn from many faith traditions, rituals, and contemporary writers, and the author explores each name in a brief meditation followed by a simple sentence as a takeaway into one’s day.

Of course, when it comes to naming the Divine, we come face to face with our limited understanding of the One Rabbi Rami Shapiro calls “The Reality Beyond Naming,” the One of whom Dorothee Soelle acknowledges, “There are never enough names and images for what we love.”

Edwina Gately bumped into this human limitation in a hermitage conversation. She recalls, “When I asked my God if I could come and stay with Him for a while, She said: ‘Yes, but don’t bring your God with you.’ Oh, how easy it is to clutter up the path to the Holy Spirit with my images and preconceptions of God! The mystical heart lets go of all images, icons, and expectations of God.”

Gately wasn’t dismissing or discouraging our attempts to name who God is for us. She was hungerheartinhands-copysimply acknowledging the truth that God is so much bigger than we can ask or imagine and that we don’t ever want to close ourselves off from fresh revelations of the Divine. When we pay attention to the names of the Holy which most resonate with us, we can come to a revelation about who God is for us at this time in our lives: Dreamer? Lantern of Love? Mother of the Weary? One Who Weeps? The Opener or Beckoner? Sanctuary? Flute Player? Laughing One? Shelter? Friend of the Poor? Disturber? Lord of the Dance? Other?   (a sampler from Fragments of Your Ancient Name)

Imagine what might happen if we widen the space of our tent and invite in words and images beyond our usual consciousness. Being open to the new in other cultures and faith traditions offers a fresh way to look at what God hopes and dreams for all people on this planet.   Which names make us sit up, pay attention, and notice? Which names grab our soul? Which names shake our complacency? Which names stretch our borders? Which names do we find particularly tender, consoling, exciting, affirming, disturbing? And why?

As we search for words and images to describe the Holy One, our prayerful reflection may reveal something of our deepest desires for this new year and beyond. May it also reveal how God desires to be present in every moment of every day of this year ahead for all of our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Sit in God’s presence and reflect on your images of God.

What names of the Holy speak to you at this time in your life?
Which ones do you imagine might especially amuse or delight God?

For what are you hungering in this new year?
What is the Holy One desiring in you for the life of the world?

 

Happy New Year! Thank you for following or discovering this blog and for praying with me for a new year marked by peace and a deepened sense of the Holy in our world.

To automatically receive a new blog as soon as it’s posted:
Go to the beginning of this current blog.
As you scroll down slowly, you will see a “Follow” button in the lower right hand corner.
Click on “Follow” and a form will appear for you to fill in your email address.
After you do that, you’ll receive an email asking you to verify your address.
Click on this link, and you’ll receive a confirmation that you’re now automatically subscribed.

Please note that if you’re reading the blog on your phone, you may not see the word “Follow.” Try reading it on a PC and you should have no problem subscribing.

Thanks for signing on and Following!

 

 

 

Making Room

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, December 18, 2016

Is it strange that one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the Advent season is space?  Driving to and from New York City, which I do fairly often, I pay close attention to the electronic highway signs warning of accidents, detours, and traffic delays.  I pay particular notice when the word, “heavy,” prefaces any report of what’s ahead and warns me of exactly how I’m going to be spending the next several hours of my life.  At this time of year, however, the electronic message is pretty much the same every day:  “Gridlock Alert.  Take Mass Transit.”  Translation:  Too much going on.  Too many cars.  Too little space.  Not enough room.

I read that as an Advent announcement, a contemporary signs-of-the-times sort of message.  Make room.  Let go of what’s no longer life-giving, but don’t stop there.  Stretch your heart.  Expand your worldview.  Take a close look at what you’ve made room for and what you’ve kept out. roomhearthands-copy

“Enlarge the space of your tent!” Isaiah urges us.  “Spread your tent cloths unsparingly.  Lengthen your ropes and make firm your stakes.”  The Message Bible provides a contemporary translation of Isaiah’s message as, “Clear lots of ground for your tents!  Make your tents large.  Spread out!  Think big!  You’re going to need lots of elbow room for your growing family…You’re going to resettle abandoned cities.”

Isaiah’s message is echoed as we prepare to enter into the Nativity story, holding up for our reflection a young couple desperately seeking space, safe space, space that will welcome not only them but the fragile, newborn life Mary carries within her.

Isaiah’s message is echoed today in the news accounts of desperate refugees seeking safe shelter.  We see people in the besieged city of Aleppo, targeted and shelled and bombed into oblivion.  From a world away, we hear heart-wrenching pleas for help.  We see parents consumed with grief beyond words as they cradle the lifeless bodies of their children.  We read their text and video messages as they ponder what may very well be their last words to our world.  We may weep and wonder: is there no space that will welcome them, hold them to their heart, tell them they can sleep in peace tonight?

Isaiah’s message is also echoed in our everyday lives as we reflect on the choices we’ve made and are making about what to let go of and what to take in.  About how we have made room for more engaged prayer, more thoughtful relationships, more experiences of beauty, more actions for justice.  About how we have accepted the invitation for our worldviews to expand to fuller hospitality toward others who look different, or sound different, or share customs and traditions that are strange to us but cherished by them.

Isaiah’s message is echoed in an invitation recently offered by my IHM community to anroomboxes-copy evening of contemplative dialogue promising a safe, sacred, non-judgmental space for people to gather following the U.S. elections.  It was an experience of practicing Isaiah’s admonition to enlarge the space of our tent.  In this space, we committed to make room for the other, to listen and share with openness and respect around 3 questions:

  • Where is your heart now?  (A question of feeling) 
  • What has your heart heard?  (A question of noticing after a round of sharing and listening) 
  • How does your heart hope to move forward?  (A question of desiring and acting after a second round of sharing and listening)

We are drawing close to the feast of Christmas.  We are nearing the ultimate example of the Holy making space: Emmanuel, God-with-us, fully inhabiting and embracing our human condition with all its hopes and its brokenness. May our desire and our choices to make room be a sign of hope for our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Spend some quiet time in these last days of Advent, gazing with love at our world and reflecting on these 3 questions:

Where is your heart now?
What has your heart heard?Hand held out copy
How does your heart hope to move forward?

Wishing you every blessing of Emmanuel, the Holy One who always makes room, in this Christmas season and always!

 

To automatically receive a new blog as soon as it’s posted:
Go to the beginning of this current blog.
As you scroll down slowly, you will see a “Follow” button in the lower right hand corner.
Click on “Follow” and a form will appear for you to fill in your email address.
After you do that, you’ll receive an email asking you to verify your address.
Click on this link, and you’ll receive a confirmation that you’re now automatically subscribed.
Please note that if you’re reading the blog on your phone, you may not see the word “Follow.”  Try reading it on a PC and you should have no problem subscribing.

Thanks for signing on and Following!

 

 

 

 

 

Sticking with Love

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, December 4, 2016

For a few weeks before this season of Advent began, we listened to many readings about the signs of the End Times—you know the ones:  nation rising against nation; earthquakes, plagues, and famine; desolation; suffering, persecution, and death.  I confess these have never been my favorite Scripture passages—I’m much more of an Advent kind of spirit.

But this year, in the aftermath of what we’ve seen unfolding in our nation and world, I found that the readings of the End Times felt somehow closer to my spirit than the hopefulness of Advent.  In our world this past year, we’ve witnessed a long and brutal election process, bullying, legitimizing hatred, demonizing immigrants, excluding or acting violently toward Muslims, the LGBT community, people of color, women—anyone who is perceived as different or outside the margins of power.

So many of us—including me—might not be feeling the Advent dream right now: that vision of the peaceable kin-dom with the wolf playing with the lamb.  With a dead stump blossoming into new growth.  With a desert drenched in rain and turning green.  With no more crying or weeping or mourning.  With images of rejoicing and dancing and feasts of fat, juicy food with enough leftovers to feed the entire planet.

handscradlingcandleThese Advent images stand in stark contrast to what many have expressed as their feelings going into this season.  In conversations, in faith sharing, in companioning people in spiritual direction, I’ve heard a litany of the same anguished life questions over and over:  How can this be?  What does this mean for people we love and care for, for people who feel unwanted and unheard?  How are we called to be?  And especially, where is God?  I can resonate with all of these questions.  Perhaps you can as well.

Each time I prepare to act as a spiritual guide with another, I pray to God, “Show me Your face.”  I’m asking to be present to the movement of the Holy One in the other person and in me, in what unfolds within and between and around us.  Lately as I’ve been listening to people share their pain, what they’ve been sharing is not a showing of God’s face but an absence: they feel the face of God is turned away, distant, silent, and invisible, as if God has completely disappeared.

I suspect this is what John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-6) was feeling as he sat in prison and wondered if his life and his witness made any difference.  So at this moment, in this Advent, if we’re not quite ready to move into rejoicing and hopeful expectation, that’s okay.  We may want to first take a contemplative pause.  Be still.  Ground ourselves in Love’s presence as we reflect on the loving way to move forward.

And then perhaps we might sit with John the Baptist in silence and in stillness.  From thejohnhandsonprisonbars-copy dark prison where he’s languishing, John the Baptist asks one of the most poignant questions in all of Scripture:  “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?”  We can imagine the fragile hope, maybe desperation, behind John’s questions.  As if he were really asking, “Tell me, have I been wasting my time?  My life?  Am I pointing in the right direction?  Give me a sign!  Show me your face!”

And we listen to Jesus’ indirect answer:  “Go and tell John what’s happening:  those who couldn’t see are opening their eyes; those whose ears were closed are listening to my voice; those who couldn’t find a way forward are now taking steps towards a more just, inclusive world.”  Do we believe this is possible?

I’ve read that after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, he was criticized because some said his words were naïve, that they presented a rose colored vision of the future, an impossible dream.  I suspect those who said that would also notice echoes of Dr. King’s words in the Advent readings with their dream of a peaceable kin-dom where all are welcome and none are turned away.

A year before he was assassinated, Dr. King took some reflective time away from the demands of the civil rights movement.  He rented a house without a telephone in Jamaica where he could work undisturbed.  He dedicated his time to crafting a vision of America’s future: he imagined better jobs, quality education for all, affordable housing, respect for the dignity of every person, an end to global poverty and suffering.  He not only imagined this; he committed his life to working with God’s grace to bring it about.  He poured out his passion in a speech called “Where Do We Go from Here?”–a question that resonates in 2016.  “Where do we go from here?” His answer in the face of social sin and violence:  “I have decided to stick with love.”

Dorothy Day also decided to stick with love.  She wrote, “Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife which may at any moment become for all of us a time of terror, I think to myself, ‘What else is the world interested in?  What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships?’…Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world…is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship with each other of love.”

God needs us to stand in a relationship of love with each other.  There is gift in naming and sharing our vulnerability, our unknowing, our uncertainty about what to do and how to be.  God needs us to show the face of the Divine to our world, because none of us can see the face of God except through others and the way we live our lives as people of peace and compassion, as people of justice, of right relationship with God, with others, with all of creation.   When we show the face of the Holy One and when others reflect that face to us, we are giving and receiving the gift of justice.  Only from this place of Love can we truly act with God to move forward God’s dream for our world.

About that world Tennessee Williams wrote, “The world is violent and mercurial—it will have its way with you.  We are saved only by Love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend.  We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

So let us decide to stick with Love.  I can’t think of a better gift we could offer our world and give and receive from each other, this Advent and always.

NOTE:
This reflection was written for an Advent Evening of Prayer at Christ the King parish, Springfield Gardens, NY.  It’s offered here in a slightly modified format. 

My thanks to the many gathering for the Evening of Prayer and to all of you who prayed for us.  Advent blessings to all! 

TAKEAWAY

In discerning how to move forward in challenging times, Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded, “I have decided to stick with love.”
What helps you to be and to sustain a loving presence?

Who has shown the face of the Holy to you?

To whom have you imaged the face of God? 

 

To automatically receive a new blog as soon as it’s posted:
Go to the beginning of this current blog.
As you scroll down slowly, you will see a “Follow” button in the lower right hand corner.
Click on “Follow” and a form will appear for you to fill in your email address.
After you do that, you’ll receive an email asking you to verify your address.
Click on this link, and you’ll receive a confirmation that you’re now automatically subscribed.

Please note that if you’re reading the blog on your phone, you may not see the word “Follow.”  Try reading it on a PC and you should have no problem subscribing.

Thanks for signing on and Following!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upside Down Blessings 

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, November 20, 2016

Many of us cherish the practice of naming our blessings: at the end of the day, around a Thanksgiving table, during a time a prayer, on the heels of an exceptional experience.   This wonderful tradition cultivates a grateful heart and deepens our awareness of the  gifts our lives receive.

Having witnessed many expressions of gratitude for gifts and blessings, I’m especially mindful of one that took a different turn.  Parish members had been invited to name a quality they brought to the life of the parish, something that enriched or inspired both them and others, something that they cherished as a gift.  I listened to the usual litany of admirable qualities:  “I bring the gift of my joyful spirit.”  “I bring the blessing of my prayerfulness.”  “I bring the gift of my peacefulness.”  And so on.  But just as I was getting comfortable with the familiar choices, a voice in the back of the room intoned, “I bring the gift of my brokenness.”  The words made me sit up with attention.

Wounds and flaws and brokenness as a gift?  Vulnerability, setbacks and failures as agratitudeheart-copy blessing?  Go figure.  How, we might ask, is that possible?  Perhaps in the sense that Henri Nouwen describes, “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—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.”

As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, how about giving thanks for something that’s not “the usual”:  something that caused us pain or hurt, something that came from our shadow side, something disappointing that we now, with fresh eyes, see as an upside down blessing.  A blessing in retrospect, something cast in a new light by the passage of time, by grace, and by our own reflection and wisdom.

Sometimes we call them blessings in disguise, although they can seem like anything but: missing an important appointment or message; being delayed or detoured or re-routed from our plans; losing a job; receiving an unwelcome diagnosis; suffering a loss.  These difficult experiences or changes of plans can be annoying, disturbing, frustrating, even devastating, and yet, looking back, we can sometimes classify them as catalysts that turned our lives around, that pointed us in a direction beyond anything we could  have imagined.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, many people shared stories of how they were supposed to be at the World Trade Center that morning and how their plans were unexpectedly changed: a woman’s alarm clock failed to ring, and so she overslept; another person spilled food on her clothes, and so she had to take time to change; one had a child who dawdled over breakfast and didn’t get ready for school at the usual time; one man was wearing a new pair of shoes, developed a blister, and stopped at a drugstore to buy a Band-Aid.  In hindsight, they realized that what they had experienced as an unwelcome wrinkle in their morning–annoying or frustrating or maddening—was actually a moment that had spared their lives from the tragedy experienced by so many others.

Being grateful at all times doesn’t minimize the very real cost that entering the mystery ofgratitudefor suffering exacts–the terrible anguish, the intense physical or emotional pain, the feelings of rejection or loss or bewilderment or failure that sometimes accompany our human condition.  But when we live from a grateful heart, we acknowledge that, in spite of appearances in those moments, God is present to us, God accompanies us, God continues to pour out unconditional love for us, and that is cause for profound gratitude.  In our darkest hour, notes R. Wayne Willis, we can still use our pain and our loss to bless someone else whose wounds are fresher than ours.

Today and every day, may we move forward with a heart that is aware and profoundly grateful.

Takeaway

Reflect on one thing from your past experience that placed you in a space where you felt vulnerable, crushed, or uncertain.

What learnings or wisdom might you have received through this?

What blessing do you most desire for yourself?  For our beautiful, yet wounded world?

Pause at some point in your day to offer thanks for blessings of every kind.

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayer for the evening on “Claiming Our Lives as Blessed and Blessing” with the Rosary Society of St. Aidan’s Church, Williston Park, NY.  You can hear echoes of my time with these prayerful, reflective women in today’s blog post. 

Please hold in your prayer all those who will be part of several Advent evenings and days of reflection in December.  Thank you!

Wishing you and those you love all the blessings of this Thanksgiving holiday!

To automatically receive a new blog as soon as it’s posted:

Go to the beginning of this current blog.
As you scroll down slowly, you will see a “Follow” button in the lower right hand corner.
Click on “Follow” and a form will appear for you to fill in your email address.
After you do that, you’ll receive an email asking you to verify your address.
Click on this link, and you’ll receive a confirmation that you’re now automatically subscribed.
Please note that if you’re reading the blog on your phone, you may not see the word “Follow.”  Try reading it on a PC and you should have no problem subscribing.

Thanks for signing on and Following!

 

 

 

Choosing with the Light of the Moment

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, November 6, 2016

Every choice we make has an impact beyond what we can see at the moment of choosing.

With prayer, spiritual direction, discernment, conversation with people whose wisdom and values we admire, we hope to make significant choices rightly and in ways that will bring blessing and peace both for ourselves and for those affected by what we choose: a life partner; a home for our family; a new and promising job; a friendship; a vocation or lifestyle that holds meaning and promise beyond ourselves.  In ways both large and small, we are constantly choosing, deciding, discerning, and all of these choices, even the most routine, have consequences.

What are we to do and how are we to be when, even though we’ve been attentive and reflective, we look back on a choice that we’ve made and see that the way it’s unfolded over time is disappointing, limiting, or no longer life-giving?  Marriages can deteriorate; jobs can disappear; relationships can dissolve; a path we thought would lead to our enduring happiness and peace of mind can fall apart and collapse.  What are we then to do?  How are to be in the light of what we come to know or see years later?

I recently listened to a StoryCorps podcast that spoke to this.  In Could Have Been Anybody, (#482, September 9, 2016), StoryCorps invited Vaughn Allex to share a painful secret he had been carrying for years since September 11, 2001.  On that day, Vaughn was working at the American Airlines ticket counter at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.  He was just completing the check-in for Flight 77 when two men who were running late approached his counter.

Vaughn did everything that a ticket agent was supposed to do in that pre-9/11 era: he checked their IDs, asked them the standard security questions, and also flagged the men so that their bags would be held.  Following the 1988 Pan Am Flight 102 crash over Lockerbie Scotland—the result of a bomb on board–security worries at that time were focused on luggage that might contain bombs, not on the people themselves.  It turned out that the two men Vaughn checked in on September 11 were among the hijackers who brought Flight 77 crashing down into the Pentagon.  The hijackers killed not only themselves, but all 189 people on board that flight.

Vaughn, with a reputation as a thorough, responsible employee, was devastated.  He was haunted by the reality that his actions were tied to the loss of so many innocent lives.  Even though, in those pre-9/11 days of airline travel, he had taken all the steps required of him for check-in, he carried a tremendous burden of guilt and kept his role secret.  He tried to join a support group for those affected by the losses of that terrible day, but as he listened to the stories of people wracked with grief over loved ones killed, he felt there was no place for him, the person who had “allowed” such a tragedy to move forward.

He began to think that everything that had happened on 9/11 was somehow his fault.  When a woman who had no idea of the burden of shame he was carrying around shared that her husband had died on 9/11, what Vaughn heard was, “You killed my husband that day.”

It was only years later, in a new job with the Department of Homeland Security, that he edited an internal newsletter and decided, for the September issue, to invite people to share their stories of 9/11.  He also decided it was time to include his own.  What a release he experienced after the newsletter was published and he received message after message of comfort and understanding and affirmation.  Not one negative word.

So often in spiritual direction, people share their regret over actions or attitudes of thediscernment-roads-copy past, even over actions taken in good faith and after careful discernment.  This is true especially when the words spoken or the choices made did not result in a positive outcome.  There are often expressions of “I should have…” or “If I knew then what I know now.”  There is sometimes self-loathing or guilt or hidden shame.  So how, then, are we to be when, like Vaughn Allex, our best efforts seem linked to a negative result?

The reality is that we cannot change the past; what we can change is the way we remember it, the way we respond to it, the way we integrate it into where we are now.    We can accept the truth that, as flawed human beings, we did the best we could with the information we had at the moment.  We can name our pain and let it go.  We can refuse to beat ourselves up with those deadly and futile words, “I coulda, I shoulda, I woulda.”  We can use our anguish, our grief, our shame to bless someone else whose wounds are even fresher than ours.  We can continue to trust that our all-knowing God sees the desires of our heart, knows the motives of our soul, hears our deep longing for healing and wholeness, and continues to call us “beloved.”

Takeaway

Reflect on a choice you made in the past that had unintended consequences.
Revisit how you felt when things didn’t turn out as expected.
If you’re carrying guilt or shame over the result, take some time to sit with God and ask for the grace to forgive and be compassionate with yourself.

Reflect on a choice you wrestled with that has proven life-giving beyond your imagination.
Take time to sit with God and give thanks.

Reflect on a person you know who is currently struggling to make wise choices.  Hold that person in prayer and offer them your understanding and support.

 

Please hold in your prayer two upcoming days of retreat and reflection in November: one for St. Aidan’s Rosary Society on “Claiming Our Lives as Blessed and Blessing” and one on “My Work Is Loving the World,” at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY.

Many thanks for your support!

NOTE: 

To automatically receive a new blog as soon as it’s posted:
Go to the beginning of this current blog.
As you scroll down slowly, you will see a “Follow” button in the lower right hand corner.
Click on “Follow” and a form will appear for you to fill in your email address.
After you do that, you’ll receive an email asking you to verify your address.
Click on this link, and you’ll receive a confirmation that you’re now automatically subscribed.

Please note that if you’re reading the blog on your phone, you may not see the word “Follow.”  Try reading it on a PC and you should have no problem subscribing.

Thanks for signing on and Following!

 

 

 

 

 

Practicing the Righting Reflex

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, October 23, 2016

Notice our choice of words in the English language: to keep our balance or to lose our balance.  This implies that balance is something we can find and then also something we might easily lose control of or misplace.  Much as we may try to always remain upright and in harmony with our surroundings, the reality is that we will, at some time, lose our footing and tumble to the ground.  Clearly, we’re not always in control of standing upright, but we know that returning to a state of balance is important at any age.

If falling is ultimately going to come into our lives, soon or eventually, might it be of some importance to learn how to fall correctly and then return to a state of balance?  Athletes, actors, stuntmen and stuntwomen, dancers, ice skaters, gymnasts, people with mobility issues, all learn the proper way to fall so they can avoid preventable injuries, spare themselves further damage, and return to a sense of wholeness and well-being.

The animal kingdom may have something to teach us about righting ourselves after a fall.  Ever notice a squirrel scampering effortlessly across a thin telephone wire?  We’re not fooled by the squirrel’s seeming inattention to its perilous path; there is focus in every step.  How about a cat’s amazing ability to land on its feet after a fall from the heights?  Like cats, some other small animals possess what’s called the “righting reflex,” an amazing, innate ability to orient themselves as they fall in order to land on their feet.  What’s important to note here is that cats are not immune to falling.  Like all of us, they fall.  What they’re exceptional at is orienting themselves, being fully aware of their surroundings in the present moment, and quickly returning to a state of equilibrium after they fall.

falling-leaf-singleSo what might we learn about falling well that we can transfer and apply to the life of the spirit?  Perhaps, flawed and limited as we are, it’s accepting the inevitability of falling and losing our balance.  And then, with God’s grace, getting up and working and praying our way back to a place of being centered.

Here are a few helps for maintaining a steady grounding and also for restoring balance and wholeness once we’ve slipped in some way.

Go barefoot.
Take off your shoes, literally or figuratively, and spend time in the created world.  Take this “barefoot time” outside, if possible, for a closer look.  Notice how your sisters and brothers of the natural world maintain a spirit of harmony and balance and observe what they do to restore and heal themselves.  Take in with gratitude the beauty of the world around you.

Learn how to roll.
A safety roll allows gymnasts and other athletes to roll in the direction of their fall instead of trying to immediately stop their momentum, which could cause more severe injuries.  Accept the reality of your imperfect, human condition.  Grow in your awareness of where you are and how you are as you enter each moment or situation.

Breathe.
At every moment of your life, you’re inhaling and exhaling.  When you’re anxious and concerned, your breath may be shallow and rapid.  When you’re bone-tired or shouldering a heavy burden, your breath may appear as a long, drawn-out sigh.  When you’re in a space of peace and contentment, your breath may be calm, slow, and even.

Why not make your breathing a practice of attending to the present moment, connecting with where you’re aware of God’s presence, and paying attention?  Practice breathprayer by silently praying with each inhale and exhale, or by praying with simple words, e.g., Breathing in: I breathe in Your peace.  Breathing out: I breathe peace to our world.

Pause.
In the monastic tradition, there’s a practice called statio.  It’s often connected to the tradition of prayer throughout the hours of any given day. It’s a moment of quiet, a brief standing still.  Statio is the pause you take between ending one activity and moving on to the next.  You end one phone conversation and pause before dialing the next number.  You complete one piece of work and pause before taking up the next.  You pass through the doorway of one room and embrace what lies in the next.  Statio is a practice of contemplative consciousness that acknowledges the sacredness of what you’ve just finished and the sacredness of what you’re about to do next.

Dwell in Mystery.
In the aptly titled, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, Philip Simmons, a 35-fallingleaveslargeheartyear-old husband and father of two small children, was diagnosed with ALS and given, at best, a few years to live.  He chose to learn to live richly in the face of loss, the work that he called “learning to fall.”  He wrote of falling as a figure of speech: we fall on our faces, we fall for a joke, we fall for someone, we fall in love.  We fall away from ego and our carefully constructed identities, our reputations, our ambition.  And we fall into compassion, into oneness with forces larger than ourselves, into oneness with others who are likewise falling.  “We fall, at last, into the presence of the sacred,” he wrote, “into godliness, into mystery, into our better, diviner natures.”

No matter what is happening in our lives, may we continue to learn how to fall into the faithful, loving heart of God.

Takeaway

Reflect on a memory of falling in your life.  What learnings might you take from that experience?

How did you heal after that fall?

What restores you to wholeness?

My deep thanks for your prayer for last week’s retreat with the Sisters of St. Dominic at St. Catherine’s Health Care Center, Caldwell, NJ.  It was a delight and a grace to spend time praying and reflecting with those holy women.

NOTE: 

To automatically receive a new blog as soon as it’s posted:
Go to the beginning of this current blog.
As you scroll down slowly, you will see a “Follow” button in the lower right hand corner.
Click on “Follow” and a form will appear for you to fill in your email address.
After you do that, you’ll receive an email asking you to verify your address.
Click on this link, and you’ll receive a confirmation that you’re now automatically subscribed.
Please note that if you’re reading the blog on your phone, you may not see the word “Follow.”  Try reading it on a PC and you should have no problem subscribing.

Thanks for signing on and Following!