Finding Our Prayer Mat

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    January 16, 2022

In my home, I have a simple ritual center. A cloth from Peru covers a small table. A blue hued painting reveals my IHM community’s founders. A photo of my parents on their wedding day gazes back at me. Memorial cards of community, family, and friends remind me of so many graced companions.

And then there’s the prayer box, filled with slips of paper scrawled with the names of those who have asked for prayer. “Once your name is in the prayer box,” I tell people, “you will be there forever.” The prayer box also holds a tiny plastic bag filled with soil from El Salvador. The nephew of Maura Clarke, a North American churchwoman martyred in El Salvador, placed this soil into my hands from the place where his aunt’s body was discovered after her death. I added soil from my own digging when I prayed at this grave site in 2010. Clearly, there’s nothing on the ritual table without purpose or meaning.

Every morning, I hold a steaming cup of tea and nestle into my easy chair near my sacred spot. I feel myself surrounded, in a primal way, by the palpable energies of love. I can feel love in every thread woven into the colorful Peruvian fabric. Love from my IHM founders captured in oil and canvas. Love from my parents embracing, their young lives spread out before them. Love in the faces stilled, remembered, and printed on holy cards. Love in the dreams or the desperation spelled out on slips of paper and forever finding a home in my prayer box.

Of course, when I’m on the road, as I often am for retreat work, I can’t take all this with me. I have to improvise, to find fresh ways to connect to those energies of love. So I tuck into my suitcase a sachet filled with lavender grown and harvested from my tiny summer garden plot. One whiff, just one whiff, and I am home, grounded in the dirt that yields such beauty and holds such holy connections.

Chris Koellhoffer, summer garden

In The Illuminated Prayer, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen observes that, “For those who have come to know God, the whole world is a prayer mat.” The whole world. So what and where can we name as our prayer mats, those people, living creatures, experiences that deeply connect us to the Holy, that open us to the presence of the divine, that remind us that wherever we are, we are on holy ground?

That holy ground might be a prayer table or a lavender sachet. A photo of a beloved soul mate. A Golden retriever nestled against our legs. A cat softly purring its prayers. An African violet surprising us with blossoms. The chirping of early morning robins. The brilliance of a setting sun. The lapping of waves. A place of stillness. The prayer mat is under our feet, before our eyes, outside our ears, within our hearts. Everywhere and everywhere and everywhere.

May each day in this new year expand and stretch our prayer mats and grow our spaciousness of heart so that we may recognize and welcome the holy that is at every moment all around us.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
You may want to sit near your prayer table, your ritual center, or whatever serves as your prayer mat today.
In what ways does this draw you to the Holy One?
Ask for openness of heart to recognize the many invitations to prayer that will present themselves to you today.

Featured Image:   William Farlow, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer my congregation, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scranton), as we enter into a day of prayer and reflection to prepare for our upcoming Chapter, which will include time to contemplatively tend to the work and mission of the Congregation (in March) and time to elect new leadership (in April). Thank you.

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Don’t Rush the Blooming

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   January 1, 2022

It’s a new year, arriving as one of the rituals of a new year begins: taking down the Christmas decorations. Keeping everything displayed until Epiphany or the Baptism of Jesus may be a more traditional practice, but I need to un-decorate whenever time is available, and so for me, that time is now.

Here’s the thing, though: with all the trimmings packed away, the room looks, well, bare. Gone are the sparkle, the bold red splashes of color, the outward signs of joy and celebration. There’s a longing in me to somehow compensate for that dramatic downturn in scenery.

Enter the season of the amaryllis. Every December, I purchase several bulbs as gifts for friends, and I include myself on that gift list. According to its box, this year’s blossom will have dainty red candy cane-like stripes on it. My affection for the amaryllis grows from the fact that, during winters in the Northeast often marked by dull landscapes and invisible gestation, I feel in my soul the need for frequent reminders that quiet growth is happening, even when I can’t see it.

EtAm Ba, Unsplash

As anyone who has watched an amaryllis sprout from its large bulb knows, its rate of growth is both astounding and eerie. Leave the plant for a few hours, and the light green stem will have propelled itself upwards several inches before your return.

As we observe the amaryllis’ inexorable and seemingly effortless movement upward, we may be hard pressed to find a parallel in the life of the spirit. With our own deep inner soul work, transformation often happens in increments at a glacial pace. Or it can feel as though nothing in us is changing for the good. Or that any tangible progress has halted and arrived at a permanent standstill. Or worse, that we’re tilting towards a backwards slide.

Fortunately, what the Holy One desires of us is our faithfulness, not our rapid and relentless “success.” With God’s grace, we make the big leap of faith that our daily practices of prayer and meditation make a difference. That our efforts to live compassionately and justly make a difference. That our seeking of spiritual guidance to discern where and how God is active in the stuff of our lives makes a difference. Even when, and perhaps especially when, we’re blind to the truth that, seen or unseen, the Holy One is present and grace is at work.  

Mikel Parera, Unsplash

So this year, as the newly planted amaryllis hastens closer to full flowering each day, may we be reminded to activate gratitude for whatever is unfolding in our hearts. To engage in patient and active waiting. To apply Linda Myoki Lehrhaupt’s plant wisdom, soul wisdom, to our spiritual lives. In her book, T’ai Chi as a Path to Wisdom, she includes a chapter entitled, “Shouting at a bud does not make a flower blossom more.” Helpful wisdom to remember in our own lives as we enter 2022, a season of renewed hope and an invitation to fresh growth and grace in the company of the Holy One. May it be so!

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you have a blossoming houseplant or a photo of something about to bloom, place this in your prayer space. Gaze at this image.
What might be longing to unfold in your life as you stand at the edge of this new year?
Ask the Holy One for the grace to commit to whatever soul work is called for and to wait in patient hope.

Featured Image: Mihaly Koles, Unsplash

NOTE:
Happy new year! Thank you for following and commenting on Mining the Now through 2021. May the year ahead be filled with peace and good health for you and for all in our beautiful, yet wounded world.

I send you into 2022 with my prayer and my deep thanks and with the wisdom of Anne Hillman’s poem, “We Look with Uncertainty”:

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
clear-cut answers
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes…
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.

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What the Holy One Loves

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM December 19, 2021

One of my spiritual practices every November includes setting a bit of time aside to reflect on what I want to do, how I hope and desire to be for the coming season of Advent. As part of my pre-Advent reflection, I pray for an image, a phrase, or a quote to draw me in and set the tone and the direction for the next four weeks.

This year what came to me were two words: “The Body.” My immediate response was, “Not again!” As many of you who follow my blog are aware, the past two plus years have made both necessary and urgent the constant giving over of my time, attention, energy, and care to “The Body.” Two years spent on physical therapy and healing practices rather than on other elements of my life—like play, or creativity, or yes, how about some fun for a change?

How about it, indeed? Fortunately, my initial “Oh, no!” reaction was tempered by another of my spiritual practices: mining whatever comes into my life and what I might learn from it. My attitude was also redirected by receiving a beautiful Christmas letter from Eileen of the Andes, which included Ronald Rolheiser’s reminder that, “God in Jesus became what God loves—everything human.”

Brytny.com, Unsplash

That sentence stopped me in my tracks. God in Jesus became what God loves, and that is everything human. Isn’t this at the heart of the Incarnation we celebrate this Christmas season? We bow before the mystery of a God who loved us so completely, so extravagantly, that the Holy One wanted no separation between Jesus and us. Jesus, the son of God who, though also divine, knew what it was to fully inhabit a human body, to become what God loves. Jesus experienced the fullness of our human bodies when he shivered with cold, fell into bed exhausted, savored fresh bread, drank wine at a wedding, as we do. When he laughed with friends, hugged toddlers, wept over rejection, felt the sting of criticism or the loneliness of prophecy, as we do.  

This Christmas, may we take time to celebrate the truth that Emmanuel, God-with-us, gets it. He really gets what it means to inhabit everything human. As he read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue (Luke 4:16-21), he proclaimed that he was anointed to bring good news to humble and fragile bodies; that he was called to heal broken and wounded bodies; that he was sent to announce liberation to captive bodies, just as we are.  

May we, who share the “everything human” that God loves, be tender and gracious with ourselves and others when we notice the limitations that come with being human. Perhaps we’re at a juncture in our lives when we can no longer do what we once did, but can we pause every day to give thanks for the gift of being alive, grateful for what we can do? May we reverence and respect our precious bodies that are the vehicles for our awakening at this time, in this place, this Christmas and always.

Jon Tyson, Unsplash

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Spend time reflecting on the seeming ordinariness of Jesus’ daily life and of how the everyday activities of your human body mirror his.
Offer thanks to the Holy One for inviting you to become the “everything human” that God loves.

Featured Image: Leon Oblak, Unsplash

NOTE:

Christmas blessings! Know how grateful I am for your comments, support, and following of Mining the Now. May you and those you love experience peace and healing in this holy season. I look forward to learning from and being blessed by your good company all through the new year ahead.

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Beyond the Crèche

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    December 5, 2021

One year in early January I happened to be working in Rome. Since it was still considered the Christmas season, a friend invited me to join her for a day of visiting some of the neighborhood churches, still fully and festively decorated. I carried with me memories of setting up our family nativity scene each year as Christmas approached. The central figures of Mary, Joseph, and the Infant Jesus were often joined by shepherds and angels and later, by the Magi. So that’s what I expected to see as we neared the first of the local churches.

Nativity village, Italy

Once inside, I was stunned into silence by the enormity of the scene, for the Italian nativity took place not as an isolated event but in the full context of the world of its time. I gazed at an entire, vast village that surrounded the scene of Jesus’ birth. Reverent worshipers knelt and prayed in the temple. Shopkeepers sold their wares of blankets, pots and pans, water jugs, meat and grain. School teachers and students gathered in small rooms of learning. Farriers trimmed the hooves of patient horses and donkeys. Small children engaged in games of hide and seek. Families sat around steaming kettles, intent on breaking bread and filling hungry bellies. Parents tucked their little ones into bed. Somewhere in the middle of all my eyes took in were the Holy Family, the familiar shepherds and angels, the sheep and cattle, yes. But what was striking is that they didn’t exist alone. They were part of a fully formed, colorfully detailed setting.

The rightness of this imagining was clear, for the Incarnation took place not in isolation but in the midst of a world both beautiful and broken. The Italian nativity offered an emphatic, visual statement: Jesus, the Holy One of God, came for all of us, not just a privileged few. Jesus, the Holy One of God, arrived in a world where people were going about their daily lives, sometimes in unrest or chaos or messiness, sometimes in play or peace or contentment. Today, in our time and place, Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes anew, right into the dailiness and seeming ordinariness of our lives. All of our lives.

We often hear this truth proclaimed as “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14) I’m rather partial to the Message Bible translation of this same passage: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood, the place where we find God in all things. Our neighborhood. Into this neighborhood, this here and now, Jesus comes again today. He enters into our lives in the midst of whatever might be unfolding. Perhaps this Advent we may be nudged into deep inner soul work, tweaking our patterns of thought or behavior. We may be invited into practices of more engaged prayer. We may be among those who have been numbed by despair in the disappearance of our jobs, in the deep-seated divisions in our country, in the now empty places at our tables. We may be carrying burdens of grief or uncertainty or worry. We may be rejoicing in the birth of a new grandchild or a return to family gatherings after the long winter of the pandemic. However we are, wherever we are, and whatever our life experience may be, Jesus comes again, offering his graced presence and accompaniment.

Fotolia

May the neighborhood into which we welcome him today embody a spirit of welcome and spaciousness of heart. May the neighborhood offer a soft space for the healing of wounds—our own and others’. May it empty us of clutter and the rush of activity and open our hearts to deep listening and availability. May our neighborhood make room for the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us, in whatever form the Holy One appears.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Call to mind your neighborhood, the place where you live and love, work and play. Place yourself and Jesus at the center of this scene.
Ask for the grace to both recognize and welcome him in the dailiness of your life.
Bless your neighborhood. All of your neighborhood.

Featured Image:  Pedro Lasta, Unsplash

NOTE:

I’m grateful to Teddy Michel, Director of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC) of Northeastern PA, for the invitation to write this reflection for the IVC December newsletter and for permission to re-post it with some tweaking as a blog for Mining the Now. The Ignatian Volunteer Corps provides mature men and women the opportunity to serve the needs of people who are poor, to work for a more just society, and to grow deeper in Christian faith by reflecting and praying in the Ignatian tradition.   

Thank you for holding in your prayer all who were part of the Thanksgiving dinner and other events prepared by Friends of the Poor in Scranton, PA. Because of the support of hundreds of volunteers and the prayerful support of even more friends, over 3,500 complete Thanksgiving dinners were either picked up by guests or delivered to guests in nursing homes. Every year I am in awe of how this incredible feast comes together, and every year I am profoundly grateful for the outpouring of kindness and generosity. May this spirit of gracious giving continue as we move further along on our Advent journey.

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Wisdom from the Margins

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   November 21, 2021

Every person can be a bearer of wisdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway

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

Featured Image: BBC Creative, Unsplash

NOTE:

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

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

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

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An Underground Perspective

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   November 7, 2021

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

Sandra Grunewald, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MohammadHosein Mohebbi, Unsplash

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

Takeaway

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

Featured image:   Maarten van den Heuvel, Unsplash

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Border Crossings

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   October 25, 2021

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

Hermes Rivera, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johannes Plenio, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Featured image: John Mccann, Unsplash

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

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

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Where We Begin

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     October 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brett Jordan, Unsplash

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

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

Takeaway

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

Featured Image:  Zac Durant, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer these upcoming events:

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

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

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Reading the Bones

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   September 26, 2021 

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

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

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

nijwam swagiary, Unsplash

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

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

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

Fotolia

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

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

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

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

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

that you have never dared to dream. 

(Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace, copyright 2015) 

Takeaway 

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

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

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

Featured Image:  Owen Beard, Unsplash 

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

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

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Enter your email address I the space provided and then click on “Subscribe” and follow any prompts. You’ll then be subscribed to automatically receive any future blog posts from Mining the Now. 

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Baggage Claim

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  September 12, 2021

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

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

Cynthia del Rio, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ke atlas, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway

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

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

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

Featured Image: Caroline Selfors, Unsplash

NOTE:

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

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

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

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

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

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