Star Gazing

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, April 24, 2016

Just what is the real disaster?  Our answer to that question may go all the way back to our childhood, to a worldview that was shaped and formed by what we saw when we first looked up at the heavens.

Recently, I attended an orientation on spiritual care, an aspect of relief efforts deeply needed in the aftermath of disasters of every kind.  Disaster significantly disrupts people’s lives and impacts them on every level.  When dealing with the harsh realities of a world turned upside down, vulnerable, fragile people dealing with catastrophic loss are greatly in need of immediate tending of their urgent physical needs, of course.  They’re also deeply in need of a ministry of presence, of compassionate, caring people who can accompany them as their capacities for hope and resilience are restored.

At the orientation session I attended, someone asked for a broad definition of disaster and received the response, “a natural or man-made situation that causes suffering.”  Reflecting on disaster later that day sent me to the dictionary in search of other words that are the fallout of the tremendous dis-ease that enters people’s lives in frightening and violent ways at times of overwhelming disaster.  Look up “dis” in the dictionary and you’ll see that the list is long and includes dis-placed, dis-possessed, dis-oriented, dis-illusioned, dis-mantled, dis-missed, dis-stressed, dis-turbed, dis-connected.

StarsinskyIn a landscape blanketed in grief and loss, another definition of disaster also applies, and it’s the one I embrace.  Madeleine L’Engle defines “disaster” by its etymology, its root words:  dis and astrum—“separation from the stars”.  So dis-aster is, quite literally, finding oneself distanced from hope, from dreams, weighed down by a worldview devoid of light and promise.

This is the definition of disaster that most resonates with me.  When I was a toddler, my family moved to suburban New Jersey, to a home set on the top of a hill.  My father, transplanted from urban Newark, embraced life in the countryside wholeheartedly.  Sometimes late at night, long after we had fallen asleep, he would shake us awake, wrap us up in blankets, and carry us out to the second floor deck.  There, our sleep-filled eyes would slowly open to a midnight sky ablaze with stars.  The enormity of all that sparkled above us left us hushed with awe and wonder.  I grew up believing that my name was written in those stars, and a hundred astronomers could not have convinced me otherwise.

Perhaps this is the same worldview expressed by the poet Rilke when he prayed:

“Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.”

This is my prayer today and every day for you, for me, for all those we love and carry in our hearts, for our sisters and brothers everywhere in our beautiful, yet wounded world.


What is your earliest memory of looking up at the night sky?

What do you see when you look at the heavens now?

How would you describe dis-aster—separation from the stars?
My thanks to all who participated in “Naming the Deep Breath,” a retreat day I led at the IHM Center in Scranton, PA, on April 23.  It was a grace to pray, reflect, and share your wisdom around our practice of living in the present moment.

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2 thoughts on “Star Gazing”

  1. Beautiful! Thank you Sr. Chris. Your memory of looking up at the star-filled, midnight sky, resonated with me and I was transported–back to simpler times filled with wonder and hope for the future. I, too, pray that we never be separated from the stars…and the promise of light and hope.

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