Giving Thanks for All That We Carry

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, for November 12, 2017

Whether the hurried departure is caused by an approaching hurricane, a raging fire, or the threatening menace of weapons and violence seems to make little difference. All who are catapulted into a hasty leave-taking face the same challenging questions: What to grab? What to save? What to leave behind?

This year we’ve watched the terrified flight of families driving their cars in panic as they attempted to outrace flames nipping at their tires. We’ve witnessed images of people backpackchildclambering to the roofs of flooded homes as rising waters swirled around them. We’ve seen news feed of people carrying bundles larger than they are as they clumsily ran to escape invading forces.

One thing all of these people hold in common: They’re on the move and faced with urgent, seemingly impossible choices that will impact their futures.

In Rohingya refugees: Choosing what to save and what to leave, the BBC’s Shalu Yadav and Neha Sharma met and spoke with encamped refugees who had to make hasty choices about what they could bring with them and what they had to leave behind as they fled. In some cases, people had two hours to pack and hurry to safety; in some cases, mere minutes.

Asiya, a young girl who seemed sheltered from the reality of imminent danger, said she packed her face powder, makeup, and her bangles. She expressed sadness because she couldn’t take her favorite yellow dress with her. Rehena recalled how her house was set on fire as she managed to grab some rice and some oil for her mother’s headaches. Noor, an elderly man who had difficulty walking, said that he was able to take only what would fit in his pockets, so he stuffed them with cash. What he really wanted to take, he confided sadly, was his herd of cattle that he had raised with love like his own children.

What about us? Perhaps we’re among the many fortunate ones who have the gift of time and leisure to discern and choose. Assuming our loved ones would already be safe, what would we choose to take with us if we were limited to only what we could physically carry? What would we leave behind?

Now suppose we expanded our list to include what we cherish and hold dear beyond the limits of what our arms could hold. In this season when we practice thanks-giving, what would make our Top Ten chart of blessings and experiences that evoke gratitude?

Perhaps our list contains good health or relationships that nurture us or success in our chosen career. Perhaps there’s a particular person who has blessed us with understanding and presence through a painful time. Perhaps we might even consider mixed blessings, you know, the kind that aren’t especially welcome and often challenging and difficult, the kind we wish would go away or be resolved quickly in our favor. Moments of joy existing alongside times of sorrow. Blessings in disguise that we can recognize and name as blessings only in hindsight.

Those are the tricky ones, the mixed blessings. Born out of loss, and grief, and suffering of any kind. Coming from the shadow side of life, like the loss of a job that led to the work we had always longed to do. Or a serious illness  that revealed how deeply loved and cherished we are. Or a letting go that offered us the opportunity to redefine ourselves.backpackrefugees

Can we offer thanks for all that has brought us to where we are in any given moment?

In Thanksgiving: Grateful for Mixed Blessings, Diane Cameron observes: “Of course the ultimate level of this kind of gratitude is saying ‘thank you’ even before the good part comes. When you’ve had experience with mixed blessings you begin to know—even while it’s painful or unpleasant—that there will be meaning in it, and so we say thank you even when we’re getting hit hard.”

As we gather around the table with friends and family this Thanksgiving, as we volunteer at soup kitchens and serve dinner to those in need or those without loved ones nearby to celebrate with, may we cultivate a grateful heart. No matter what is happening in our lives this holiday, may we learn from everyone and everything, most of all to be grateful.

Takeaway

Take some quiet time to review the significant experiences of the past year.
For what is it easy to be grateful?
Where is it challenging to feel gratitude?
For what are you most grateful at this time in your life?
Share all your responses with our loving God, and give thanks.

Images
travelobservers.org
un.org
bbc.com

Wishing you and your loved ones peace and good health through the days ahead. I am so grateful for your encouragement and good company as part of the Mining the Now online community. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Enlarging Our Hearts

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for October 29, 2017

Just how much can one human heart hold? I doubt we’ve heard anyone complain of experiencing an over-abundance of joy, but could the same be said of what happens when we carry overwhelming pain and loss?  Where can one go, what can one do, when weighted down not only by one’s own significant sorrow, but also by the wounds and grief of others?

Many years ago, I viewed the film, “Ordinary People,” with a discussion group. The film presents a family torn apart by tension and tragedy. One son, the golden child, has beenheartinbunchofleaveslovethispiccopy lost to drowning while out on the water in a sailboat with his brother. In the wake of this family tragedy, the surviving son is wracked with grief and bearing the guilt of his own survival. The parents are numb and walking around in a stunned daze.

There’s a memorable scene where the mother, so brittle she looks as if she might shatter into a thousand splinters of glass, has been holding her grief in a clenched heart. She retreats into aloofness and into creating the perfect place setting on the formal dining room table. Over and over she folds and re-folds the napkins, she straightens the silverware, she seems to ignore her family’s emotional collapse unfolding right in front of her.

When discussing the film in our group, we noted the seeming lack of affect exhibited by the mother in this scene where she tends to the details of the dinner table and seems unaware of the living, breathing husband and son in anguish right in front of her. One of the women in our group responded to that scene by observing, “Perhaps that’s all she can do. And perhaps it’s everything.”

Over time, we all experience personally and in the world around us the strange creature that is grief. How we carry it, sometimes named and sometimes unacknowledged. How we hold it in our bodies. How it can disorient us, cause us to misplace and forget, how it can sneak up on us in unguarded moments. How it can seem so supersized as to make a return to the ordinariness of life and the simple routines we once followed seemingly impossible. How it can transport us to a foreign landscape where nothing resembles the terrain we once knew.

In “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet, recalls her own response to seeing and holding the pain of others:

“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.”

What happens to our heart when we accompany loved ones through many long, lonely hours of the night or on their journey away from us through cognitive losses? What happens to our heart when we assist and comfort people in the worst moments of their lives, the devastation of natural disasters, the abrupt loss of life through violence, the exquisitely painful and unexpected end of a cherished relationship?

At the sight of the brokenness of our world and at the prospect of our own heart’s breaking, the temptation might be to withdraw, to close the door and retreat into isolation. At such times, though, what we may most need is self-care and the affirming company of those who give our hearts a profound hearing. All living creatures benefit from air and water and sunlight and stillness to help them flourish and expand. We are no different, so why not seek out those who offer us these same gifts, those who can own their inability to save and simply be a presence, the face of love and compassion. Those who have felt the collective pain of the world, named it, and entered into the deep, inner soul work that invites their own hearts to become more supple, more open, more gracious, more whole.

heartpinterestcopy

What a grace and a gift it is at such times to discover in our world someone whose heart has been enlarged, someone who embodies David Whyte’s wisdom that, “The task is not to live a life in which we never have our heart broken. The task is to become larger with each heartbreak.”

With faithfulness and persistence, may we keep stretching and growing those tender heart muscles.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness and become aware of what your heart holds at this moment.
Return to Warsan Shire’s words:

“i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?” 

What does the world say to you in answer?
Spend a few minutes sending healing energy to this place of pain, your own or others’.
What one thing might you do today to alleviate the dis-ease of someone else?
Carry this desire with you as you go through this day.
Give thanks to the Holy One who inspires this action in you.

Images:
lovethispic.com
lovethispic.com
pinterest.com

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer now all who will be part of “Praying at the Threshold,” an All Souls’ day program I’m leading at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA on November 2.

Please also remember all who will be part of a day on Gratitude held at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY, on November 4.

And all who will be part of a retreat day for the faculty and staff of Our Lady of Victories School, Sayreville, NJ on November 10. Thank you!

 

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Living Like a Perennial

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM,  October 15, 2017

For those who have lived through the turning seasons over many years, the signs are unmistakable and easily read. We observe trees adopting different hues, some spectacular orange or fiery red, some a subtle gold, some simply making the journey from shades of green to a dull brown. We notice black-eyed Susans spent and releasing their golden petals. We see coneflowers paring themselves down to a bristly center. Even the hardy marigolds, sensing the time of blooming is near an end, have begun to shift their energies inward.

When we live in harmony with the natural world, the season of autumn doesn’t deceive perennialdreamstime.comus. We know that what appears to be a time of dying and diminishment is anything but.  Perennials, all of which have delighted us with their greening and growing over the past six months, now are taking stock, reflecting on the remains of the season, and gathering themselves into a state of readiness for the unknown to come.

It’s the perennials, the lavender, the echinacea, and more, that catch my notice at summer’s end. For these neighbors, the questions in this time of change become: How to move from the abundance of spring and summer into the diminished supply of warmth and light in autumn? How to live in this present moment in ways that will nurture us in the stillness and darkness ahead?  What must we cultivate already now to protect our rootstock from a winter breathing unrelenting cold and harsh winds?

The questions of autumn speak to us as well. What does it mean to be perennial, to live through the years mindful of and mining the present moment? To stand at the edge of an unknown season, not knowing with any certainty what lies ahead or how many summers turning to fall we will witness again. To enter both the seasons of greening and the seasons of scarcity with audacious hope. To love extravagantly, broadcasting seeds of tenderness and compassion without calculation or assurance of return. To see beyond present and seemingly hopeless realities, affirming the potential and promise of what has been sown and trusting in the slow work of God.

At this time of harvest when we’re surrounded by the remains of flourishing lives, what do we need to lean into more deeply? Perhaps John Soos’ lovely poem, “To Be of the Earth,” might offer an entry point for our contemplative reflection year-round:

perennialburpee.com“To be of the Earth is to know
the restlessness of being a seed
the darkness of being planted
the struggle toward the light
the pain of growth into the light
the joy of bursting and bearing fruit
the love of being food for someone
the scattering of your seeds
the decay of the seasons
the mystery of death and
the miracle of birth.”

May it be so, through all the years of our lives!

Takeaway

Center yourself in stillness.
If you live in a place where the changes of autumn are visible, spend some time outdoors contemplating the signs before you.
If you live in a place where seasonal changes don’t occur, look at photos or artwork that depict shifts in the natural world.

What do you notice?
What moves within you as you gaze?

Share this with our loving God whose presence and care abide and endure through every season.

IMAGES:
HighCountry.com
dreamstime.com
burpee.com

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayerful support of the Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA October 6-8. 

Please hold in your prayer at this time a day of retreat, October 21, that I’ll be co-leading. The day is offered for Red Cross volunteers who have been deployed in a ministry of presence, caring for the needs of others in recent and ongoing disasters in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, California, and beyond. 

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Knowing the Love That Endures

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, October 1, 2017

 

Do we ever become fully accustomed to absence? Or does our grief at the reality of missing someone precious to us, someone loved and lost, simply take on a different shape over time?

We may have an expectation that our parents will predecease us with the passage of time and its shuffling of the family hierarchy. Why is it, then, that we’re often surprised by how much more we seem to miss our loved ones as the years pass, more than or perhaps differently than the markings of that first year of poignant anniversaries—the first birthday, the first Christmas, the first empty place at the table.

In my own family, we anticipated and prepared for my mother’s death within a week after her diagnosis, and it was a gift to have time to say our last good-byes. With our Dad,emptytomb copy we were stunned by his final breath. Even though he was showing the progressive diminishment of long-term dialysis, his strength of spirit duped us into thinking (hoping?) we had more time together. Or perhaps we simply refused to read the final chapter of that beautiful book.

What I’m finding over time as I’ve integrated the reality of my parents’ absence in my life is that I’m experiencing their love and care in new and somewhat mysterious ways. I hear my mother’s voice when I get out the mixing bowl to bake or when I tend to my African violets or when I read a good book and want to share it with her. I sense the echo of my father’s voice when I write reflections, tell stories in presentations, or savor words. I suspect I’m not alone in holding a wistful longing to talk with them, to have a two-sided conversation, to chat about everyday experiences, or to ask the questions that have gone unspoken in their absence. Might we also want to hear their response to “What do you think of my life now? Are you proud of the person I’ve become? Do you know how much I love you?”

Last year I listened to a podcast on This American Life, “One Last Thing Before I Go,” that touched on the changing ways we relate to those who have died. Miki Meek produced Act One, “Really Long Distance,” about an unusual and creative way to continue the conversation after a loved one dies, to say that one last thing. In the town of Otsuchi, Japan, Itaru Sasaki was mourning his recently deceased cousin and longing for a way to air his grief and communicate with him. In his garden, rotaryphoneSasaki set up a telephone booth with a rotary phone that was connected to nothing at all. Sasaki began a ritual of sorts, going into the booth, dialing the phone, and speaking to his cousin about the ordinary and the everyday. He told his cousin about the small and not so small events that had filled the hours of each day. He spoke of how much he missed his cousin’s company.

In 2011, a year after Sasaki installed the phone booth in his garden, a fierce tsunami and earthquake hit Japan, leaving thousands dead and 2,500 missing, 421 of them from  Sasaki’s hometown of Otsuchi. As survivors searched for ways to express their grief over loved ones violently and abruptly wrenched from them, word of the “Wind Telephone” got out. People longing for ways to connect with the dead began showing up unannounced at Sasaki’s home and going into the garden to visit the phone booth so they could call their deceased loved ones.

Five years after the tsunami struck, a Japanese TV crew from NHK Sendai received permission to film people going into the phone booth and record their messages to the deceased. Not surprisingly, the one-sided conversations were mostly expressions ofphonebooth concern for the person who had died as well as assuring the deceased that the caller was doing their best to move forward. There were updates about how children were performing in school, what the weather was like, or their plans to leave or rebuild their homes. Tears and sighs and long pauses.

For us who believe in risen life and in the communion of saints, the knowing that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses both consoles and supports as we pray with them and for them. May we continue to be blessed by the holy ones who have gone before us, those who have companioned and loved us with a tenderness and care that endures long after their passing. May all that is precious to us continue to live and breathe in the heart of God.

Takeaway

Sit in a comfortable silence.
Call to mind a person you cherish who died and whose presence you miss or experience in a new way.
Speak to this person, sharing whatever is in your heart at this moment.
Thank them for their witness of a life given over in love and compassion.
Ask our loving God to continue to bless the bond you have shared.

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayerful support of the retreat day I led for the Daughters of Mercy and their Associates on September 23.

Please now hold in your prayer all who will be part of a Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA, October 6-8.  Thank you.

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Making Room

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, September 17, 2017

We might call it the “Summer of Displacement” for to displace is to move something from its usual or proper place to another, less familiar location.

On the microcosmic scale, I experienced displacement this summer when a fall that fractured my ankle and sternum also displaced a rib, so that every movement I made reminded me that I was no longer comfortable in my body, my home, in the same way  I had once been. And my personal experience seemed a harbinger of the displacement unfolding on a national and global level, and on a previously unimagined scale.

In the United States, we wept over the images: weary, frantic faces in Texas, Florida, and the Gulf Coast as thousands faced the flooding of Hurricane Harvey and the lingeringmakingroomworldheart copy 2 fierceness of Hurricane Irma’s hovering. Frightened faces of hundreds in a hurried evacuation, trying to get ahead of and outrun wildfires on the West coast and in the Northwest.

Those images were replicated on the world stage as our neighbors in the Caribbean woke up to as much as 95% of their world flattened and destroyed. In India and Bangladesh, in Nepal and Pakistan, hundreds left dead and thousands homeless.  In Sierra Leone, where mudslides have thousands still missing, Gabriel Fattah Manga, the lone survivor of his entire family who were swept away, spoke for many: “I lost my family. I lost my people. I lost my place.” Streets turned into rivers and forests into piles of ash. Displacement was a universal experience.

It occurs to me that displacement of any kind is accompanied by this subtext: a longing for home, a yearning to return to the familiar and the routine, to find comfort in the seemingly ordinary around which our daily lives once revolved.

In “Sending the Great Blue Heron,” a chapter in Longing for the Endless Immensity, I wrote about the multi-layered loss that comes in the wake of displacement: the shattering of notions of safety and security; the deep knowing that one’s ability to GreatBlueHeronprotect children and family is uncertain; the reality of impermanence; the loss of connection and belonging; the returning to a landscape—both inner and outer–forever altered by wind and water, by fire and fear.

The questions that face all people whose lives have been upended are not unlike those voiced by refugees, by the masses desperately seeking sanctuary from war, regional conflict, natural disasters, and extreme hunger and poverty:

Where to place our hope?
How to be in the face of what has been taken from us?
What to do with the dreams of a future that seems unrecoverable?
How to move forward so that healing can take place? Or can it?
Where to find God in the midst of such profound human pain?

I hold no answers to these questions, which I’ve been mining and revisiting most especially throughout the summer months. Instead, I offer another worldview, one that captivated many of us. Recall how, in the midst of so much suffering, we also witnessed our beautiful, yet wounded world opening its heart in welcome, in acts of profound compassion and courage.  How we also witnessed images of accompaniment, affirming that God is present in human history, even in its most tragic episodes. How we saw:

  • Strangers coming together at great personal risk to form a human chain and pull drowning persons from submerged cars;
  • Neighbors grabbing anything that would float to ferry the most fragile and vulnerable across once passable streets that had turned into raging rapids;
  • Volunteers enfolding exhausted evacuees into a reassuring embrace;makingroommancarrying
  • Refugees shivering and wrapped in blankets and hearing words of welcome and consolation in a language they did not speak but for which they needed no translation;
  • Crowds gathered in formal or spontaneous prayer for both loved ones and for strangers who were in harm’s way.

On the other side of terror and anguish, on the other side of unimaginable loss and inconsolable grief, we saw the kind of tender companioning that can come only from a human spirit cultivating spaciousness of heart. Only from those deeply practiced in making room for the other, just as the Holy One unceasingly does for us.

Takeaway

Sit quietly and revisit images or experiences that moved you recently.
Where were you inspired?
Where was your heart called to a deeper compassion and empathy?
How might these images call you to act in the days ahead?
Spend some time sending your compassion and healing energy out to those most in need of it at this moment.

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayerful support of all who were part of the retreat day for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, September 9, in Scranton, PA. 

Please now remember in prayer an ongoing formation day for the Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy I’ll be leading September 23 in Newfield, NJ. Thank you! 

Images:
generousspace.ca
joystreamhealth – WordPress
Teri De Almeida
roc4life.com

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Staying as We Leave

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, September 3, 2017

So here we are today, about to leave this place of beauty and peace and welcome. And the question at this time is much the same as the questions that face us as we move on from any time of retreat, or vacation, or sabbath time: What now? What next? How do we carry the graces and learnings of these days forward? How are we called to reach out to our neighbor with the new light and insight we now carry after these days away? How are we to leave?

I suspect those were much the same questions that Ruth noticed in the reading we heard proclaimed today (Ruth 1:1, 3-6, 14b-16, 22). In that passage, there’s a whole lot of leaving going on, isn’t there? First, there’s a famine, there’s food insecurity, so we know that longinghand copypretty much all possibility of nourishment had gone away from the town of Bethlehem. That scarcity of sustenance caused Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons to depart and make their home in Moab. Not long after they settled in, Naomi faced another leave-taking, saying farewell to her husband who had died. For a woman of her time, to be without the protection of a husband was especially dangerous.  It meant she was left with no voice, no income, no support. And some ten years later, Naomi had to once again let go of another precious part of her life: her two sons.

The leavings she experienced are the kind that can make a person feel bereft, without resources, immersed in a terrible loneliness. They echo our own experiences of what it means to be left without. To be left behind. To feel the impermanence of anything we possess, anything we love, including cherished relationships.

But in the person of Ruth, we also hear what it means to be companioned and accompanied. What it means to echo and bear witness to the faithfulness of a God who never abandons. A God who stays with us with tenderness and compassion, no matter what.

Just as God does, Ruth is present to Naomi’s loss. And just as God does, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi in her vulnerability, in her time of need and aloneness. Ruth embodies the Gospel call to love God with our whole heart and to love the our neighbor as our very selves, just as we would hope to be loved and cared for. It’s a theology of accompaniment that emphatically says: God is deeply present to us in our most solitary and lonely moments, even when it feels as if everyone else has left. And this theology of accompaniment is summed up in four words from the Book of Ruth: “Ruth stayed with her.” She stood with Naomi, she remained, just as the Holy One does.

When we leave a retreat, or a vacation, or some quiet time away, we’re not returning to Paradise, to the fullness of justice and wholemaking. We’re not heading back to the world as it could be or the world as we dream it should be.

We’re returning not to Eden, but to some place East of Eden. To the world we live in, the kin-dom still unfolding. East of Eden is the world as it is, marked by both beauty and brokenness. The world where we’re called to work, with God’s grace, to bring about the dream of the Holy for our world that is at the same time both beautiful and wounded.

So how might we stay with the graces of a retreat, even though we’re physically leaving this place?

Steve Garnaas Holmes (Unfolding Light) offers this wisdom to anyone leaving a retreat, a vacation, Sabbath time. In “Don’t Come Back Soon,” he notes, “The thing now is not to jump back uluggagefromretreatp 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,” he says, “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 yourself down so what you go back into isn’t a fray…”

“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.”

He ends by saying, “Go on vacation, or into prayer, or on sabbath, early and often.  Go there now.  And don’t come back soon.”

He’s saying that, even though we’re leaving, we need to stay, to remain with the spirit and grounding of these days. So we continue to hold in our heart and prayer our beautiful, yet wounded world. We renew our intent to be present and attentive to our neighbor by loving the one in front of us, whether that person shares the same space we do or inhabits a space on the other side of the world. This is our hope and our prayer as we leave. May it be so, today and always.

Takeaway
Sit with the graces and blessings of time away, and give thanks for what has come to you.
What might be the challenges that await you as you leave?
Ask the Holy One to help you in staying rooted and centered in peace.

Images:

View from the shore of Hampton Bays, NY
Longing hands
Barnegat Light, Long Beach Island, NJ

NOTE:

This reflection was offered at the close of a guided retreat at St. Joseph’s Villa, Hampton Bays, NY, in August. Thank you for holding in your prayer all who were part of the retreat week.
After taking a break in August for my own time of quiet and healing, I’m back to blogging on Mining the Now this September. Thanks for returning!

Please remember in prayer those who will participate in a retreat day for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Scranton, PA, September 9. Thank you!

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Learning to Fall

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM,  July 29, 2017

There seems to be an almost limitless list of ways to fall in this world. We fall for someone as we fall head over heels in love. We fall ill, we fall flat, we fall back and fall away. We fall down on the job and we fall under another’s influence. There is the falling star Perry Como sang about catching, and the falling upward Richard Rohr references for the second half of life. Water falls. Leaves fall. We even have a season we call “fall.”

Last week I was at a christening for my grandnephew, followed by a barbecue at a local state park. Gathered with three generations of family and friends, I began to reflect on falling while watching my fourteen-month-old grandniece delight in the wide open space of the park and the reality that her little legs could take her anywhere. Now with several months of newly learned walking under her belt, she would run, then trip, then fallingtoddlerwalkingbyherself copyoccasionally fall, all with seemingly equal delight and absent of any caution or fear. At the same time I looked at the two generations of adults gathered and reflected that, for many of us, falling meant something entirely different. Seasoned by the reality that what we have in this moment could disappear in another, tempered by our own experiences of letting go, we regarded falling as an experience that might more often result in injury, limitation, perhaps an unplanned or dreaded change in independence and lifestyle.

But the falling that interests me most at this time in my life is what Philip Simmons writes about in Learning to Fall, the Blessings of an Imperfect Life. I’ve read and savored this book, quoted from it and recommended it many times when leading a retreat or giving a presentation.

Simmons was 35 years old, married and the father of two small children, when he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was given less than five years to live. In the face of his prognosis, he composed, with profound wisdom and without a shred of self-pity, twelve essays that speak to the mystery of life, the joy to be savored, the mud seasons, the lessons that await us at every turn in the road.

Learning to Fall speaks on one level to Simmons’ need to learn how to fall correctly so as not to further injure himself as his balance and mobility decreased. But the title of the book has a larger purpose, one that includes all of us with our own concerns, needs, and sensibilities. We bring all of who we are, Simmons writes, “to the work of learning to live richly in the face of loss—work that I call ‘learning to fall.’”

Learning to fall in this sense is something my little grandniece has not yet experienced, but in the course of her lifetime, she, like the rest of us, will not escape this challenge. The challenge to embrace all of our world, the world as it is and the world as it could be. A world with its madness and mayhem, but also its music. A world both beautiful and broken, at one and the same time full of wonder and marked by wounds.

This learning to fall, learning to live richly in the face of loss, invites us into reflection. How not to run from grief and farewell, limitation and diminishment, loneliness, the painful ending of relationships and the leave-taking of those most precious to us, but falling leaf singleinstead to listen to it, sit with it, sift through and discern its meaning. How to let go, let be, and let grow. How to become practiced and conscious of the art of both living and dying. How to learn from this most unpopular teacher the way to integrate all of our life experiences–the coming to birth and the fading away, the joyful embrace and the painful parting–into the person we continue to become. To mine our losses is to fall into a wholeness, richness, and depth we often can’t envision in our most painful hours.

However our lives unfold, may we all become highly practiced in the art of learning to live richly in the face of loss. May we come to see our flawed and imperfect and profoundly beautiful lives as the blessing they truly are. May the Holy One who never abandons accompany us in our falling.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Call to mind a loss or letting go of the past year.
Reflect on the learnings that have come to you through this experience.
Hold in tenderness and prayer all those in our world whose wounds may be fresher than yours.
Offer a prayer or gesture of gratitude for your learnings.

NOTE:

During the month of August, I’m taking time away for my own retreat, some vacation, and also to continue mining my own learnings from a recent fall that fractured my ankle, sternum, and rib.  EPSON MFP image

I won’t be posting any new blogs during August but will resume posting again in September.  

In the meantime, please hold in your prayer my next guided retreat, “Bearing Witness to the Holy,” that I’ll be offering for the Sisters of St. Joseph (Brentwood, NY) August 19-25 in Hampton Bays, NY.

Images:
eskipaper.com
offset.com
lifetime.org
Chris Koellhoffer

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