Life Remembered

by Sister Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for January 31, 2016

We have probably all passed them, the makeshift roadside memorials placed at the side of a road where a fatal traffic accident has occurred.  They stand as a testament to lives lost and to bereft friends and families marking a grief beyond words.   We may have no idea what the accident was that claimed a life, when it took place, or who the person being memorialized was, though there may be a few clues in what stands there: perhaps a stuffed animal, a favorite color, balloons, a jersey once proudly worn.  One thing is certain and universally felt:  someone has died and someone is being remembered.

Some passersby may make the sign of the cross, sigh, or pray a silent prayer as they drive past the memorial.  Some drivers may not even notice.  When I drive by one of the memorials, I always mouth the same words, directed to the person who has died:  “Bless you, and comfort those who love and miss you.”

There’s a roadside remembrance on Route 6 near Archbald, Pennsylvania.  It’s a wooden angel on a post, and there are always flowers attached, sometimes changing with the seasons.  This memorial is beginning to show the wear and tear of several years of enduring the intense cold and heavy snows of January and the blistering heat of August.

I’ve always been curious about who the person is to whom the memorial is dedicated, butRoadside memorial the layout of the highways leaves no room to pull over, get out of the car, and pay a quiet visit.  Every time I drive by, I wonder about the life lost and the people left behind.  I wonder what the person’s final day was like as they moved through the ordinariness of it with no idea it would be their last on earth.  It takes me back to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and the character of Emily Webb, who in the stage play has died and longs to revisit one day in her life, her 12th birthday.  She ends up disappointed and seeing how few people treasure the dailiness of each moment.  Emily cries out, “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you!” and she wonders aloud, “Does anyone truly understand the value of life while they live it?”  “Saints and poets, perhaps,” she’s told.

Saint and poets.  People who cultivate awareness and mindfulness.  People who struggle to live in the present moment.  People who savor the exquisite beauty of this planet and take nothing for granted.  People who enter each day with a grateful heart.
People who remember that every moment is precious and fleeting, that all we really have is the now, and that every now is sacred.

In To Bless the Space Between Us, the late John O’Donohue offers a reflection, “At the End of the Day:  A Mirror of Questions.”  The questions are an examen a sorts, an invitation to look back on the day that’s coming to a close and to reflect on how we’ve been present.  They echo Emily Webb’s question, “Does anyone truly understand the value of life while they live it?”  You may want to use this Mirror of Questions to help you notice, truly notice, how you have been and how the Divine has been at work in your life on any given day.

Takeaway

At the end of your day, reflect on some of the questions offered by John O’Donohue:

What did I learn today?
What new thoughts visited me?
Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I do today for the poor and excluded?
Where did my eyes linger?
Where was I blind?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?

From the evidence—why was I given this day?

The Eighteen Inch Journey

Children holding umbrella over dog in the rain
by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for January 24, 2016

A few weeks ago I was driving up the steep road that leads into the local Walmart parking lot.  Standing by the side of the road was a man holding a sign that read “Hungry and Homeless.”  And standing by his side was a rather sad-looking, scruffy little dog.  Though I wanted to offer the man a few dollars, I wasn’t able to pull over at that point because of the line of traffic behind me.  I decided to park first and then go into Walmart to buy some food for the man and his dog as I checked off the items on my own food shopping list.

When I came outside after about twenty minutes, I couldn’t find the homeless pair anywhere.  I was so disappointed, because I had a sandwich, beverage, cookies, and some other food supplies for the man and several cans of dog food for his companion.  I drove around the parking lot and an adjacent lot for about fifteen minutes and then decided my search was futile because the man must have moved on to another location.

Just as I was about to give up looking, I spotted him and waved to get his attention.  When I handed him the bag of groceries and the bag of dog food for his friend, he stood and stared at me in silence for what seemed a very, very long time.  I began to feel uncomfortable and wondered if I had offended him.  Just then he started to weep, and in between sobs, he told me he was utterly overwhelmed, because “Every person coming out of the store bought me food.  Me, a stranger.  They didn’t even know me.”  Choking back tears, he went on to say that, “Best of all, they bought food for my pup.”

After we finished chatting and I started the drive home, I kept reflecting on that man and his little dog.  I thought about the grace he had offered each of us, and how his presence and the presence of his companion had evoked something similar in an entire group of strangers.  What did each of us see, I wondered, that moved us to action?

Years ago I had heard that the average distance between a person’s head and a person’s heart is eighteen inches.  Not a very long stretch of space, is it?  But there are times when that distance might as well be the number of miles from Pennsylvania to China because what we see and think about doesn’t always make the move from our head to our heart.  It’s possible and in fact, it’s quite easy, to simply take in a scene and let it end there.  But we can also move beyond simply witnessing human need and enter into compassion, acting into the root meaning of that word—com, with, and passio, suffering—so that we enter into another’s experience and suffer along with them, feel their pain and accompany them.

In the jumble of musings on my drive home, I thought about the writer Henry James saying that there are but four rules in life—“Be kind, be kind, be kind, be kind.”  I thought about Pope Francis insisting that what is needed in our world today is a revolution of tenderness.  And I thought of Robert Carr asking, “Could it be that my aching for the anguish of the world is the feeling of my own heart being enlarged?”

That homeless man and his homeless dog are in my heart still, and I thank them for stretching my heart and expanding my worldview.  I thank them for challenging me to be open to the promptings of compassion and for inviting me and so many others to make that journey of eighteen inches.

Takeaway:

What enlarges your heart?

Reflect on an experience you’ve had when what you saw or heard called you to make the journey from your head to your heart.

How have you been moved to action on behalf of someone in need?

Contemplation for the Kitchen — and for All of Life

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM on January 17, 2016

The spoons and cups are ready for measuring.  The flour and sugar canisters are filled and standing by.  The butter sits on the kitchen counter, softening.  All these are signs that the time of baking has arrived, and my heart and hands are ready.

For me, baking is a delight.  The kitchen is a holy place, a place where I can actually see transformation taking place—the contents of the mixing bowl mysteriously growing from salt and yeast and a bit of grain into a new, life-giving shape.  I always feel as if I don’t really go into the kitchen to bake; instead, I go into the kitchen to have a conversation, to talk with the ingredients, to welcome them, to be a gracious hostess to all who have made this moment possible.  For me, baking is a contemplative way of praying.

In the kitchen, it’s easy to reflect on how far the ingredients have traveled to come to us.  Flour from the wheat fields of Kansas.  Sugar from the Southern groves.  Butter from the dairy farms of the Midwest.  We invite and welcome them into our homes and feel ourselves surrounded by the unknown tillers of soil, the farmers, the drivers of cultivators and tractors and trucks, the factory workers who sort and package, the supermarket clerks who arrange and ring up the purchases.  In a very real way, they are all with us whenever we are in the kitchen.

Perhaps because much of the work I engage in is spiritual-related, I have a great need to  ground myself in the earthiness of baking.  It’s a sort of balancing therapy for someone like me who does so much “head” work, planning and outlining and creating, and who needs to even out that side of myself with things that are earthy and immediate and tactile.

Baking invites me, invites all of us, to pay attention to the Now.  We can’t be careless or daydreaming when we measure, sift, mix, cream, scoop, or shape.  We need to be fully present and tend to the whirring of the mixer, the consistency of the dough, how the butter is merging with the sugar.  We need to be gentle and attentive as the sour cream is folded delicately into the batter.  We need to be mindful at every step as we pour our love and care into the mixing bowl and then scrape it into the baking pans.

Gunilla Norris, in Becoming Bread, writes that “We go to the kitchen to be nourished and revealed.  It is a holy place.” She describes the kitchen as alchemical.  A place where we go to cook, actually and spiritually.  A center where we are one, linked by actual hunger and spiritual hunger.

We don’t read in the Scriptures that Jesus ever baked, but in John 21:9-13, we find Jesus on the shore standing by a charcoal fire and grilling fish.  We also remember the times that Jesus gave thanks, blessed bread, broke it, shared it, consumed it.  He imagined the kingdom of heaven as a banquet, a great feast of love and hospitality with particular welcome for those who were poor, vulnerable, outsiders.  He accepted invitations to dine with and enjoy the company of his followers.  He celebrated with friends at the wedding in Cana.  He was attentive to the wheat in the field, the figs maturing on the tree, the grapes ripening on the vine as well as all the laborers who brought the harvest to others.  He didn’t need to own a kitchen or spend hours in one to know the importance of feeding one’s body and spirit.

Often when we prepare for a holiday gathering of any kind, the food we’re planning to cook, bake, serve, and eat is a major consideration.  We may be feeling creative and try out a new festive recipe.  We may stick with family favorites and cherished traditions.  Whatever we’re baking or cooking, may love be at the center of our preparing.  May it be stirred into every pot, sprinkled liberally into every pan.  May love sit down to the table with us and grace us with a blessing.

Takeaway

What family customs or traditions do you practice around food?
Have you any special recipes that you look forward to on a holiday?
In what creative ways do you express your love and care for others?
For what are you hungering in your life?

You may enjoy this 5 minute meditation calling to a deeper mindfulness for the day: Mindfulness Bell

Ready and Waiting

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM on January 10, 2016

Happy New Year!  My prayer for you is that this year unfolding before us will hold every blessing of peace and good health for you and those you love.

And in this new year, you are most welcome to my new blog, “Mining the Now.”  This first post was written and ready for sharing during Advent 2015 but was delayed in posting until now as we worked through some technical details.  However, the theme of “Ready and Waiting” speaks to us at any time of the year, so I’d like to share it with you now midway through the first month of 2016.

In 1993, I went to Haiti on a human rights delegation.  We were charged with collecting the stories of people who had suffered human rights atrocities during a brutal regime and bringing those stories home to share with the rest of the world.  One day, our entire delegation was crammed into an old van driving very slowly and carefully up the steep hills to Cap-Haitien.  Let me tell you that you haven’t seen a pothole until you’ve seen one in Haiti, large enough to swallow our entire van with room left over.  The road we were navigating was so narrow that no car could pass in the opposite direction.  Thank God, our driver was going very slowly and was an expert in maneuvering around the potholes.

Suddenly a band of ten-year-old boys holding shovels leaped in front of our van.  They shouted to our driver to stop, and then began to excitedly explain their mission.  All day they had been waiting, they said, for a car to come along.  They were hoping to earn a few dollars for their family, and so they made us an offer: if we hired them as a group, they would walk ahead of us, they would accompany us on the road to Cap-Haitien, and they would fill in the potholes ahead of us.

It was such an incredulous proposal that my initial response was to laugh at their imaginative plan.  And then, I began to think:  Was it possible?

In Isaiah 40 we read:

“Every valley shall be filled in.
Every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The uneven ground shall become level
and the rough places, smooth.
The glory of God shall be revealed
and all people shall see it together.”

What do we feel when we listen to those words of the prophet Isaiah and place them alongside what we see and hear in the news of our country and our world?  Isaiah envisions a world where warfare has ended, where what is crooked has been made straight, where what is unjust has been smoothed into kindness and where what is  unequal has been re-distributed.  Valleys filled in.  Mountains lowered.  All people at home and at peace in the world Isaiah imagines.

At the heart of Isaiah’s words and my story from Haiti are hints of how we might stand rooted in hope not only during Advent, but all year long.  Even though the potholes on that mountain in Haiti were impossibly large and would have taken days to fill in, the boys weren’t discouraged.  They were ready and waiting.  They had a vision.  They stood together.  And they were willing to accompany and be present to us on our journey for as long as it took.

Their situation of filling the impossible potholes sounds like something else we hear from the prophet Isaiah: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.”  The wonderful prophet of the imagination, Walter Brueggemann, says that the stump is any closed-off possibility, any place that may have failed or collapsed or ended in despair.  We should not be fooled by the look of this stump, he says, because its outward appearance—what we see—is not all there is.  Isaiah imagines that God can and does raise up new life where none seems possible.

“Every valley shall be filled in.”  Really?  It’s a challenge to our faith and our hope, because much as we want to fix everything that’s broken or wounded in our world, we can’t.  We’re called instead to accompany and be present to others in their time of suffering, to stay with them in their pain and anxiety even when, and especially when, we can’t change their situation.

Accompaniment, staying power, is the shoot that shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.  It’s a gift we can offer for the healing of our world: to remain, to stay, to accompany one another just as Emmanuel, God-with-us, accompanies us.

Henri Nouwen writes of the vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature.  It’s Isaiah’s description of God’s dream for our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Instead of being an escapist dream, Nouwen notes, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we pray, forgive, offer care to animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations, we are making the vision come true.

Of all the possible names that could have been bestowed on the Son of God, one of the most beautiful and consoling is Emmanuel, God-with-us.  This is a God who will not run away.  This is a God who does not abandon.  This is a God who remains and walks with us, even when, and especially when, the world seems to be in the End Times.

So here we are, called to do the hard and hopeful work that those Haitian boys were ready to do for the potholes on the mountainside.

Today and every day, may we examine our lives for the valleys that are in need of filling in with greater compassion, with more mindful prayer, with acts of justice.

Today and every day, may our shovels be ready, and may we and our world be blessed.

Takeaway:

For what, for whom, are you waiting?
For what, for whom, is our world waiting?

Isaiah insists that God can and does bring forth life where none seems possible.
Are there places in your life where new directions or hopeful beginnings seem an impossible dream?

We are called to have our shovels ready to put to any parts of our lives that are in need of God’s loving repair and re-imagining.   Where or what in your life might you begin to “dig” and fill in?