Beginning Again

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for February 28, 2016

One evening last week I went to blow out a red vigil candle I had been burning.  Not sure what happened, but as I bent over to extinguish it, I knocked the candle off the table and onto the rug.  Bright red candle wax splattered in a large puddle all over a pale beige rug.  Not a welcome sight.

I tried several cleaning methods, but there seemed to be an unending supply of red wax absorbed into the rug.  Finally, after a Google search, I put rubbing alcohol on a cloth, held the cloth over the spot, and once again ironed over both.  Very slow work, but after another hour of ironing, there was significant progress.  A visitor might have missed the site of the accident, but I would always know where that spillage had happened.  And so would the rug.


It made me wonder about spills of every kind.  About how some things in life can never go back to how they used to be, can never really be fixed or made whole again in the same way that they were before something spilled or was broken.  And it brought me back to a column I had written, “Claiming the Gift of Beginning Again,” in the Fall 2012 issue of Journey, our IHM publication. I’d like to excerpt some of that here:

In her poem, “Because we spill not only milk,” Nancy Shaffer offers a litany of  objects and experiences in our lives that, like a glass of milk accidentally knocked over, can never be recovered in exactly their original state.  On her list of what can be broken, flawed, or lost, Shaffer names relationships.

She observes that ,
“…we spill whole lives, and only later see in fading light
How much is gone and we hadn’t intended it.”

…The question becomes, after the milk has been spilled, after the harsh word has been unleashed by us or towards us, after the misunderstandings are in place, after the conflict has been named, where do we go?  How do we restore right relationship, which is another name for justice?  We start over, we begin again, and we stay in the struggle, day in and day out.

This gift of starting over requires a particular courage, the courage of right relationship.  In the ordinary and the everyday, it’s often unnoticed but always a sign of God’s reign breaking through into our own lives, into the lives of those who inhabit our corner of the world…

…nurturing and sustaining right relationship takes tremendous courage…all of us are called to the courage of the everyday, the courage to be in right relationship with family, friends, co-workers, all those who are an intimate part of our daily lives.  Do we transform the hurt and wounds that have come to us, or do we transmit them to others in our relationships?

When we look at our world from a person-to-person perspective, we see myriad ways in which the call to right relationship is lived out:  in the adult alienated by old wounds or selfish acts but working to look through the lens of love and forgiveness.  In the husband or wife struggling to move beyond criticism or words thrown in anger to utter the first spoken syllables of a halting, healing conversation.  In families faithfully tending to a rebellious child who lashes out, who slams the door and seems to refuse their love.  In our emphatic choices not to flee the sad and lonely and wounded places of our intimate or familiar relationships, but to stay at the table and remain open to deep listening.  In all the holy ones who pray and work for justice and who reflect on personal brokenness as an invitation to be in deeper communion with a wounded world.

As Schaffer observes:
“Because we are imperfect and love so
Deeply we will never have enough days,
We need the gift of starting over,
Again: just this constant good, this
Saving hope.”

Though we can’t change the fact that milk has been spilled [or red candle wax splattered across a rug], in God’s time it’s never too late to restore the justice of right relationship.  Let’s keep on summoning our courage and starting over, again and again.


Have you ever broken something that was precious to you or another?  Were you able to mend or fix it ?

Reflect on relationships in your life that may have been broken or fractured.  How do you feel when you revisit them?

The word, “Lent,” means springtime, with connotations of freshness and new life.  What would it be like to start over with another person or with God?

Transformed by Relationship

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for February 21, 2016

Recently, our Sisters celebrated 20 years of journeying with the people of Haiti.  Our IHM congregation has a special connection with the Haitian people through our foundress, Theresa Maxis, whose mother was of Haitian descent.  We have deepened that connection over the past 20 years through the Tri IHM Haiti Outreach, in which the three IHM communities (Scranton, Immaculata, and Monroe) have twinned with the Little Sisters of St. Therese, a community of native Haitian Sisters.  That twinning has been mutually transformative.

As we gathered at the IHM Center on February 17 to mark these 20 years of solidarity with the people of Haiti, we prayed the prayer, “Walking in the Light of God’s Mercy” and reflected on the invitation:  “Name one way your heart has been changed by our 20 year relationship with the people of Haiti.”

“Only one?”  I wanted to ask.  I could name hundreds!  For in 1993, 1995, and 2000, I was privileged to represent our IHM Sisters on trips to Haiti.  Each journey was an opening to personal conversion, perhaps none so powerfully as the first.  That first experience also happened to be my first trip outside the United States and came at the invitation of Pax Christi USA to be part of a human rights delegation.

In 1993, President Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti, had been ousted by a coup, and the country was in a state of chaos and upheaval under the oppression of the Ton Ton Macoute.  Our delegation’s role in going to Haiti during those dangerous, volatile days was to meet with peasants, catechists, priests, religious, activists–peacemakers all–to document their stories of torture, imprisonment, and attempts to silence them, and to bring those stories home with us to share with the rest of the world.  Every person who met with us shared the same stories of suffering and yet the same nonviolent attitude, devoid of any desire for revenge.  “We all have cause to fear,” one of them told us, “but we are about life and hope.”

I recently re-read the journal of my first time with the Haitian people in 1993 and was struck by how it changed my worldview—not a slight shift, more like the tremors of an earthquake.

“For me personally, being part of the delegation to Haiti was a baptism into Third World realities and a journey into deeper conversion,” I wrote.  “On one level, being such a greenhorn was a plus: having never traveled outside the United States, I held no expectations.  And I tried to remain that way, in the stance of one for whom listening is crucial, in the stance of one who has everything to learn.”

Most striking to me was the courage, the joy, and resilience of the Haitian people.  Everywhere we went, we marveled at their inventiveness, their utter resourcefulness.  If anyone could coax blood from a stone, I thought, it would be they.  We saw children who lovingly, carefully crafted crude yo-yo’s from what looked like the remains of old tin cans.  From our perch in the Hospice St. Joseph, we watched the women of Haiti set out their water barrels each night to catch the longed-for rain.  And in the early dawn, we saw these same women carrying huge baskets on their heads as they headed to market.  We saw them scrubbing clothes and laying them out before the intense sun rose to bleach them.

We traveled past a shantytown on the winding road to Cap-Haitien, a slum that was barely an insignificant dot on the map.  Crumbling huts, alleys strewn with garbage, children bearing the unmistakable signs of protein deficiency and malnutrition.  “Welcome to Little Nothing,” our guide announced.  Yet I wondered: was this the identical scene that confronted the hopeful prophet who wrote, “And you, Bethlehem, you are by no means the least…”

These were the last words I wrote in my journal of 1993 and I offer them here as a prayer:

“As we prepare to leave, I thank you, people of Haiti.  Never before have I both longed for and experienced God’s presence more than here among you.  And with you I pray:  ‘Let your coming be here, O God.  Let it be now!’”


Have you traveled to other countries, other cultures than your own?
What did it feel like for you to be away from the place you call home?

What surprised you? Disturbed you?  Resonated with you?

What were the learnings for you?

Name one way your heart has been changed by solidarity with others.


Living as the Beloved

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for February 14, 2016

NOTE:  Please hold in your prayer all those who will be attending a weekend retreat, “Naming the Deep Breath,” that I’ll be leading at the Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston, PA, from Friday, February 26 to Sunday, February 28.   For more information, go to Franciscan Spiritual Center.
Happy Valentine’s Day!  Today, in a special way, I wish you all the blessings of being loved and knowing yourself beloved by God.

Traditionally, on this day people send cards and give flowers, chocolate, and other gifts to express their love and affection.  Little is actually known of St. Valentine, for whom this day is named; however, many legends surround him.  One legend relates that, while he was imprisoned for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods, he healed the jailer’s daughter of her blindness.  According to that legend, on the day Valentine was executed, he left behind a note for the young girl that was signed, “Your Valentine.”

And so, our custom of sending Valentines.  Although the details of Valentine’s life are few, the message beneath the legend points to the primacy of loving others and being loved by God.  We are God’s beloved—what an amazing truth!   St. John writes, “See what love God has lavished on us in letting us be called God’s children.  Yet that in fact is what we are.”  (1 John 3:1-2).  Jesus knew himself as the Beloved at his baptism in the Jordan, when a voice came from  heaven saying, “This is my own, my Beloved, in whom my favor rests.”  (Matthew 3:17).  Henri Nouwen comments that being named as God’s Beloved was the blessing that sustained Jesus his entire life, that no matter what happened in his life—praise or blame—Jesus clung to the knowing of himself as the Beloved of God.

Imagine a world in which everyone acted as the Beloved of God and recognized that same belovedness in others.  On this particular Valentine’s Day, I’m very mindful of one of our IHM Sisters, Sister Adrian Barrett, who embodied this sense of knowing. Born on Valentine’s Day many decades ago, she lived her life as a continual blessing and an outreach to people in need, to people who were poor, or broken, or overlooked and dismissed by society.  30 years ago, Sister Adrian founded a wonderful organization, Friends of the Poor, sponsored by my IHM congregation.  I’d like to share with you what I wrote as a memorial for our Sister Adrian, who died at the age of 86 on October 12, 2015:

“On this 30th anniverary of Friends of the Poor, we celebrate and applaud the tender heart and bold vision of our founder, Sister Adrian Barrett, IHM.  Sister Adrian came into this world on February 14, the great feast of love and a harbinger of the life to follow.  Her rootedness in compassion for our most vulnerable neighbors led her 30 years ago to imagine Friends of the Poor, a ministry sponsored by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in Scranton.

Bringing together ‘those who have the desire to give with those in need of assistance,’ Friends of the Poor lovingly cares for the immediate physical needs of thousands in our area and also tends to their hunger for beauty, for welcome, for a sense of belonging.  Named ‘The Mother Teresa of Scranton’ by actor Martin Sheen, [who narrated a documentary on her life], Sister Adrian lived her life as a clear, uncompromising voice and a champion of those who are often forgotten, dismissed, or marginalized in our world today.

We are profoundly grateful for her holy and extravagant heart and we offer our ‘Hurrah!’ for all the ways she was a true Friend of the Poor these 30 years.”

Happy 1st Birthday in heaven, Sister Adrian, and thank you for all the ways you lived your belovedness and claimed it for so many of your dear friends.


What does being beloved by God feel like?  Look like?

Recall a time when you felt God’s care and tenderness in your life.

Name one way you can act toward others that will communicate that they also are so loved by God.

Salting Our Lives for the Life of the World

by Sister Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  for February 7, 2016

NOTE:  Special thanks to all who participated in our Spiritual Spa Day held at the IHM Center in Scranton, PA on January 30.  This week’s blog offers a sense of that experience.

Please join us on April 23 for another day, “Naming the Deep Breath,” where we will cultivate mindfulness as a life practice, engage in forms of breathprayer, and explore the grace of deep listening in the ordinary moments of everyday living.
Spiritual Spa Day Reflection

We have heard, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Yet how do we truly love ourselves?  How do we nurture our own soul and body as we also tend to our responsibilities of caring for our world through work, family, and relationships?

Since we cannot nurture others from a dry well, this day afforded us Sabbath time, a chance to assess our energy and spirit, restore balance, and move us towards wholeness and well-being through quiet, prayer, reflection, and practice.

A Spiritual Spa Day is a day for greening our lives, for nurturing ourselves as we also tend to our responsibilities of caring for our world through work, family, and relationships.  It’s a day to experience Sabbath time, a chance to assess our energy and spirit, restore balance, and move us towards wholeness and well-being through stillness, prayer, reflection, and self care.

As we began the day, we named our own weariness, brokenness, and desire for wholeness that had brought us to the day.  We held in our prayer the suffering and desire for wholeness of the many people we carried in our hearts.  We remembered our Mother Earth, herself in need of healing, rest, and renewal.  And we prayed for our sisters and brothers throughout the world for whom there would be no rest, no respite, no relief from the critical struggle to survive another day.  We sent our compassion and prayers for healing to everyone in our beautiful, yet wounded world.

We reflected on the message of an excerpt of Robert Bly’s poem, “Things to Think”:

“Think in ways you’ve never thought before
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats…
When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.”
How true, and yet how challenging sometimes to put into practice in a world so focused on productivity, speed, and busyness.

So we focused this day on self-care, on salting our lives for the life of the world; on nurturing our own body and spirit so that we could be refreshed and renewed to continue our ministries of caring compassionately for others.

Our sister, Salt, had much to teach us about the spirituality of self-care.

In many cultures, salt is a symbol of healing and wellness.  The Armenians salt their newborn babies.  In the Catholic tradition, the minister of Baptism places salt in an infant’s mouth.  At the time of the prophets, the Jewish people washed a baby in water, salted him or her, and wrapped the baby in cloths.  Today, the custom is still followed of dipping bread in salt on Friday nights to symbolize God’s covenant with Israel, to symbolize preserving the contract between God and God’s people.

Salt is the only rock we eat.  The human body needs salt for digestion and for the transporting of nutrients and oxygen throughout the body.  Clearly, a certain amount of salt is necessary for our well-being and our enjoyment of life.

So for our Takeaway today, I invite you to reflect on how you are salting your own life and the life of the world.


Salt is a preservative.
In parts of our world where there’s no refrigeration, salt is sprinkled on food to keep it from perishing.  So salt invites us to reflect:
What do we cherish?  What is worth keeping and holding on to?

Salt is an enhancer.
It brings out flavors we might otherwise miss.  So salt invites us to reflect:
What is already part of our lives that we may want to highlight and emphasize?

Salt is an agent of healing.
If you’ve ever had a cut and gone swimming in the ocean, you know how that stings and yet how the wound heals much faster after being exposed to salt water.  So salt invites us to ask:
What wounds, what hurts, am I in need of healing?  What are the wounds to which I’m called to minister?

Salt is a flavor.
We know that it can lose its potency over time.  So salt invites us to ask:
What is needed in my life to avoid losing flavor, to remain continuously salty, and to flavor my life and the life of others?

Salt is a symbol of wisdom.
So salt invites us to ask:
What can I learn from the salty ones, the wisdom figures, those who have endured and who continue to be salt for themselves and for the life of the world?