Upside Down Blessings 

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, November 20, 2016

Many of us cherish the practice of naming our blessings: at the end of the day, around a Thanksgiving table, during a time a prayer, on the heels of an exceptional experience.   This wonderful tradition cultivates a grateful heart and deepens our awareness of the  gifts our lives receive.

Having witnessed many expressions of gratitude for gifts and blessings, I’m especially mindful of one that took a different turn.  Parish members had been invited to name a quality they brought to the life of the parish, something that enriched or inspired both them and others, something that they cherished as a gift.  I listened to the usual litany of admirable qualities:  “I bring the gift of my joyful spirit.”  “I bring the blessing of my prayerfulness.”  “I bring the gift of my peacefulness.”  And so on.  But just as I was getting comfortable with the familiar choices, a voice in the back of the room intoned, “I bring the gift of my brokenness.”  The words made me sit up with attention.

Wounds and flaws and brokenness as a gift?  Vulnerability, setbacks and failures as agratitudeheart-copy blessing?  Go figure.  How, we might ask, is that possible?  Perhaps in the sense that Henri Nouwen describes, “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—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.”

As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, how about giving thanks for something that’s not “the usual”:  something that caused us pain or hurt, something that came from our shadow side, something disappointing that we now, with fresh eyes, see as an upside down blessing.  A blessing in retrospect, something cast in a new light by the passage of time, by grace, and by our own reflection and wisdom.

Sometimes we call them blessings in disguise, although they can seem like anything but: missing an important appointment or message; being delayed or detoured or re-routed from our plans; losing a job; receiving an unwelcome diagnosis; suffering a loss.  These difficult experiences or changes of plans can be annoying, disturbing, frustrating, even devastating, and yet, looking back, we can sometimes classify them as catalysts that turned our lives around, that pointed us in a direction beyond anything we could  have imagined.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, many people shared stories of how they were supposed to be at the World Trade Center that morning and how their plans were unexpectedly changed: a woman’s alarm clock failed to ring, and so she overslept; another person spilled food on her clothes, and so she had to take time to change; one had a child who dawdled over breakfast and didn’t get ready for school at the usual time; one man was wearing a new pair of shoes, developed a blister, and stopped at a drugstore to buy a Band-Aid.  In hindsight, they realized that what they had experienced as an unwelcome wrinkle in their morning–annoying or frustrating or maddening—was actually a moment that had spared their lives from the tragedy experienced by so many others.

Being grateful at all times doesn’t minimize the very real cost that entering the mystery ofgratitudefor suffering exacts–the terrible anguish, the intense physical or emotional pain, the feelings of rejection or loss or bewilderment or failure that sometimes accompany our human condition.  But when we live from a grateful heart, we acknowledge that, in spite of appearances in those moments, God is present to us, God accompanies us, God continues to pour out unconditional love for us, and that is cause for profound gratitude.  In our darkest hour, notes R. Wayne Willis, we can still use our pain and our loss to bless someone else whose wounds are fresher than ours.

Today and every day, may we move forward with a heart that is aware and profoundly grateful.

Takeaway

Reflect on one thing from your past experience that placed you in a space where you felt vulnerable, crushed, or uncertain.

What learnings or wisdom might you have received through this?

What blessing do you most desire for yourself?  For our beautiful, yet wounded world?

Pause at some point in your day to offer thanks for blessings of every kind.

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayer for the evening on “Claiming Our Lives as Blessed and Blessing” with the Rosary Society of St. Aidan’s Church, Williston Park, NY.  You can hear echoes of my time with these prayerful, reflective women in today’s blog post. 

Please hold in your prayer all those who will be part of several Advent evenings and days of reflection in December.  Thank you!

Wishing you and those you love all the blessings of this Thanksgiving holiday!

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Choosing with the Light of the Moment

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, November 6, 2016

Every choice we make has an impact beyond what we can see at the moment of choosing.

With prayer, spiritual direction, discernment, conversation with people whose wisdom and values we admire, we hope to make significant choices rightly and in ways that will bring blessing and peace both for ourselves and for those affected by what we choose: a life partner; a home for our family; a new and promising job; a friendship; a vocation or lifestyle that holds meaning and promise beyond ourselves.  In ways both large and small, we are constantly choosing, deciding, discerning, and all of these choices, even the most routine, have consequences.

What are we to do and how are we to be when, even though we’ve been attentive and reflective, we look back on a choice that we’ve made and see that the way it’s unfolded over time is disappointing, limiting, or no longer life-giving?  Marriages can deteriorate; jobs can disappear; relationships can dissolve; a path we thought would lead to our enduring happiness and peace of mind can fall apart and collapse.  What are we then to do?  How are to be in the light of what we come to know or see years later?

I recently listened to a StoryCorps podcast that spoke to this.  In Could Have Been Anybody, (#482, September 9, 2016), StoryCorps invited Vaughn Allex to share a painful secret he had been carrying for years since September 11, 2001.  On that day, Vaughn was working at the American Airlines ticket counter at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.  He was just completing the check-in for Flight 77 when two men who were running late approached his counter.

Vaughn did everything that a ticket agent was supposed to do in that pre-9/11 era: he checked their IDs, asked them the standard security questions, and also flagged the men so that their bags would be held.  Following the 1988 Pan Am Flight 102 crash over Lockerbie Scotland—the result of a bomb on board–security worries at that time were focused on luggage that might contain bombs, not on the people themselves.  It turned out that the two men Vaughn checked in on September 11 were among the hijackers who brought Flight 77 crashing down into the Pentagon.  The hijackers killed not only themselves, but all 189 people on board that flight.

Vaughn, with a reputation as a thorough, responsible employee, was devastated.  He was haunted by the reality that his actions were tied to the loss of so many innocent lives.  Even though, in those pre-9/11 days of airline travel, he had taken all the steps required of him for check-in, he carried a tremendous burden of guilt and kept his role secret.  He tried to join a support group for those affected by the losses of that terrible day, but as he listened to the stories of people wracked with grief over loved ones killed, he felt there was no place for him, the person who had “allowed” such a tragedy to move forward.

He began to think that everything that had happened on 9/11 was somehow his fault.  When a woman who had no idea of the burden of shame he was carrying around shared that her husband had died on 9/11, what Vaughn heard was, “You killed my husband that day.”

It was only years later, in a new job with the Department of Homeland Security, that he edited an internal newsletter and decided, for the September issue, to invite people to share their stories of 9/11.  He also decided it was time to include his own.  What a release he experienced after the newsletter was published and he received message after message of comfort and understanding and affirmation.  Not one negative word.

So often in spiritual direction, people share their regret over actions or attitudes of thediscernment-roads-copy past, even over actions taken in good faith and after careful discernment.  This is true especially when the words spoken or the choices made did not result in a positive outcome.  There are often expressions of “I should have…” or “If I knew then what I know now.”  There is sometimes self-loathing or guilt or hidden shame.  So how, then, are we to be when, like Vaughn Allex, our best efforts seem linked to a negative result?

The reality is that we cannot change the past; what we can change is the way we remember it, the way we respond to it, the way we integrate it into where we are now.    We can accept the truth that, as flawed human beings, we did the best we could with the information we had at the moment.  We can name our pain and let it go.  We can refuse to beat ourselves up with those deadly and futile words, “I coulda, I shoulda, I woulda.”  We can use our anguish, our grief, our shame to bless someone else whose wounds are even fresher than ours.  We can continue to trust that our all-knowing God sees the desires of our heart, knows the motives of our soul, hears our deep longing for healing and wholeness, and continues to call us “beloved.”

Takeaway

Reflect on a choice you made in the past that had unintended consequences.
Revisit how you felt when things didn’t turn out as expected.
If you’re carrying guilt or shame over the result, take some time to sit with God and ask for the grace to forgive and be compassionate with yourself.

Reflect on a choice you wrestled with that has proven life-giving beyond your imagination.
Take time to sit with God and give thanks.

Reflect on a person you know who is currently struggling to make wise choices.  Hold that person in prayer and offer them your understanding and support.

 

Please hold in your prayer two upcoming days of retreat and reflection in November: one for St. Aidan’s Rosary Society on “Claiming Our Lives as Blessed and Blessing” and one on “My Work Is Loving the World,” at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY.

Many thanks for your support!

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