Of Wounds Invisible

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, July 31, 2016

Sometimes the most ordinary of things can reveal a fresh way of looking at our world. For me, that ordinariness is a temporary boot.

In a strange way, I’m going to miss my boot. 15 inches tall, crisscrossed by Velcro, it has caused my usual steady, balanced gait to morph into something resembling the lumbering of an ungainly bear. I was dancing when a fracture occurred as I came down on the side of my foot—and wearing a boot was an unintended and unwelcomeboot consequence of that moment. But in the days since, the boot has offered a powerful spiritual practice to me.

Its “can’t miss it” size and shape have opened up constant conversations. “What happened to you?” often leads to stories about mishaps and encumbrances from friends and strangers alike. The attention it has garnered has deepened in me an awareness of a whole universe we simply can’t see: a world of brokenness that’s not visible. The boot has opened up for me a way to pay attention to the world of the unseen.

When I strap my foot in each morning, I pray for the many I will meet that day who carry wounds imperceptible. Among those I’ll encounter, I wonder who will hold hurts and have raw edges that aren’t announced by the outward signs of bandages or casts. I wonder:

Who might be putting on a brave smile and going out to meet the day with a broken heart?Who has been shattered by a cherished relationship abruptly ended, and not by choice? Who is mourning a beloved companion or partner taken by death?
For whom is loneliness so searing that it eclipses all other thoughts and emotions?
Who yearns to change patterns and habits that hold them captive?
Whose ability to experience joy has been threatened by a daunting diagnosis?
Who is imprisoned by regret?
Whose economic reality weighs them down with despair or wears them out with anxiety?Who struggles to climb out from underneath shame?
Who finds it nearly impossible to move forward with hope?
Who longs for the day to end in a movement toward healing and wholeness?

heart hidden hurt copySo my boot, initially an inconvenience and an irritant, has grown into a daily meditation of sorts, a reminder of the invisible brokenness, diminishment, and limitations in my own life and in the lives of the people who come into my circle of awareness each day. St. Paul wrote of desiring to have the same attitude as Jesus, to see as Jesus did, to put on the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). In much the same way, the poet and mystic Rumi urged us to

“Borrow the Beloved’s eyes.
Look through them and you’ll see
The Beloved’s face…”

With or without the visible reminder on my foot that announces something has been broken, I hope to remember to learn to see from this Divine perspective, to slow down, to look below the surface into the hearts of everyone in our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Reflect on a time in the past when you may have carried hurts that no one else could see.

If someone responded to your pain with tenderness, give thanks for that gift of tenderness.

How might you deepen your own compassion for the wounds of others?

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Naming the Gate

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, July 17, 2016

Sometimes coming up with a reflection on a Gospel passage can be quite a challenge, especially around those passages that are far from “warm and fuzzy.”  At the same time, these hard words can also be an invitation to look beneath the text and dig deep.  Really deep.

In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus is doing some of the prophetic work of denouncing.  He’s pointing out to the people around him what can happen when they fail to pay attention and so make the Holy invisible.  He reproaches the cities where most of his miracles had occurred.  Why?  Because, he says, they didn’t repent.  They weren’t doing the deep inner soul work that would have opened them to a change of heart, to a shift in their worldview.  They had been smack in the middle of holiness and miracles and not even noticed.  They couldn’t see what was right in front of them all along.

What had Jesus done that they hadn’t been able to see?  He called them to a deeper life.  He prayed and restored healing to their wounded hearts.  He offered compassion to all that was fragile and broken.  All that in plain sight, and yet they hadn’t been paying attention, noticing, listening.  And so they missed the miraculous, the signs and wonders, all around them.

So what does this have to say to us in our time and place?  Might it be a call to open ears, open eyes, open hearts?  A call to see and hear beyond appearances?

Perhaps Bobbie, a Golden Retriever, can offer us a visual.  My sister’s family lived in the suburbs with this beloved dog.   Every morning, someone would open the back door and let Bobbie out into a yard that was completely enclosed by a wire fence.  And this was Bobbie’s pattern:  he would wander around the yard and survey it for a few minutes.  Then he would amble over to the wire gate, sit down in front of the gate, and wait for someone to open it so he could go out and explore the rest of his doggie world.  This was his ritual for years.

Well, one day, the family decided that the fence was no longer necessary, so my brother-gate with golden copyin-law spent an entire day pulling the wire fence out of the ground.  At the end of the day, only one thing was left standing: the little wire gate.  Everything else was clear and open space, now without borders or boundaries.

The next morning, they opened the back door to let Bobbie out and he followed his usual pattern.  He ambled around for a few minutes.  He surveyed the yard that was now entirely open.  And then what did he do?  He went over and sat down in front of the only part of the fence that was still standing: the small wire gate.  In spite of the family calling out and gesturing to the fence-free yard, Bobbie wouldn’t budge.  He was stuck in his pattern of not noticing.  And so he sat there, refusing to move, until someone finally opened the wire gate.  Only then did he walk out of the yard that had been open to him all along.

Since then I’ve often reflected on what that might say to my life, to our lives.  All around us and within us, God is acting.  God is speaking.  God is continually pouring out love.  But often we don’t notice.  We fail to pay attention.  We’re unaware of the amazing and the miraculous right smack in the middle of our everyday lives.

So in reflection times, we might want to ask:  What is the gate in our lives?  What do we resist?  What is that one thing or things that stands in the way of freedom of spirit?  The one thing that keeps us distant from our searching, hurting world?  The one thing that blocks our path to the fullness of God’s dream for each of us?

May we continue to cultivate the practice of paying attention, noticing, living with awareness.  Because in our beautiful, yet wounded world, God is at work.  Grace does abound.  The miraculous is happening right here, right now, within us and among us and all around us.  Let’s not miss it!

Takeaway

Sit with the image of the closed gate in a totally open, unenclosed yard.

What is the gate in your life?
What do you resist?
What is that one thing or things that stands in the way of freedom of spirit?
What is the one thing that blocks your path to the fullness of God’s dream for you?

Today, every time you notice a gate or a doorway, ask God for openness of heart.

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NOTE:
My thanks for your prayer on behalf of all those who were part of the directed retreat at St. Mary by the Sea, Cape May Point, New Jersey, July 7-16.   Today’s blog is from a reflection I offered as one of the retreat directors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living into the Questions

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, July 3, 2016

Having begun my career as an English teacher, I’m pre-disposed to notice words of all kinds, including words in sentences.  So the types of sentences we learned in elementary English classes–declarative, imperative, interrogative, exclamatory—are embedded in my consciousness.  And when it comes to reflecting on the life of the spirit, I’ve found that the power of the question mark is a good place to start.

Some time ago, I was intrigued by the title of Warren Berger’s book,  A More Beautiful Question.  His thesis is that good questions are powerful.  They can reveal desire, purpose, and commitment.  They can be catalysts and create forward movement.  They can be transforming and life changing.  They can surprise, disturb, excite, inspire, and nudge us.  They can act like flashlights that illuminate where we need to go.

A More Beautiful Question made me pay closer attention to questions popping up everywhere, including in the Scriptures:

Why are you weeping?
How can this be?
Who are you looking for?
Why do you search for the living among the dead?

Just a few days ago we celebrated the birth of John the Baptist.  The same John, languishing in prison, who sent his followers to ask Jesus one of the most poignant questions in all of Scripture:  “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?”  In other words:  “Tell me, please.  Have I been wasting my time preaching, pouring out my life, and pointing to you?  Or are you the real thing?”

In Saints Peter and Paul, whose feast we recently celebrated, we’re reminded of some of questionsclouds copylife’s biggest questions, questions of identity and belonging.  Saul, who became Paul, first hunted Christians and threw them into prison.  Later he’s knocked off his horse by a blinding light, and what happens next?  He hears a question:  “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  And Saul answers the divine question with his own: “Who are you?”  Who are you?  Because he pays attention to these questions, Saul/Paul spends the rest of his life in pursuit of the change of heart this persecuted God invites.

In the Gospel passage for the feast of Peter and Paul, we see that Jesus holds some questions of his own.  It seems there are all kinds of rumors going around, and Jesus wants to know,  “What do people say about who the Chosen One is?”  In other words,  “What’s the word on the street about me?”  The disciples cough up the usual safe responses:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.

But Jesus wants more.  He invites fresh thinking and deep reflection.  He goes right to the personal, to the heart, and asks:  “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Firstborn of the Living God.”  Because he’s been trying to pay attention, to notice, to listen, Peter is able to live into this question at that moment and in the days to come.

What about us today?  We also are asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Who is God for us?  How we identify the Divine, how we live into that question, will impact how we relate to all of our sisters and brothers—the joyful, the broken, the fearful, the doubting, the oppressed, the excluded, the searching.  Our call is to pay attention, to notice, to listen for the Spirit at work within us, among us, around us in the dailiness of our lives.

Questionmarks copyQuestions invite us to a deepened awareness.  As we pray and reflect on the stuff of our lives, we’re also tending to the interrogative, the question marks in our lives:

For what am I most grateful?
What is God grateful for in me?
What draws me or attracts me?  What grabs my soul?  What do I resist?
What is my deepest desire?
What is God’s desire for me?

The writer Jan Philips says that when we look at the brokenness and fragility of our world and the collective hunger and longing of the global community, the questions we listen to and notice are critical.  She says that the question we should be asking is not:

What is wrong with our world and how can we fix it?

The question is:

What does the world we want to live in look like?

Because if we can imagine that world, we can also, with God’s grace, give ourselves over to living out that question with fresh thinking, with creativity, with tenderness and compassion for all who inhabit our planet.  May we continue to contemplate sacred questions, alone and in community.  And may we pursue all this in good company and for the life of our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

What question/questions are you currently holding in your heart?
How might God be inviting you to learn from or grow into these questions?
Take a moment to unite your own searching with the longing and yearning of our world.  Hold all of this in your prayer today.

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My thanks to all who prayed for those on the directed retreat I led at St. Mary by the Sea, Cape May Point, NJ, last week.  Please also hold in your prayer those who will be part of the next directed retreat at St. Mary’s, July 7-16.  Thank you! 

 

 

 

 

The Balancing Act

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, June 19, 2016

Somewhere between the tightly held hand and the fingers opened wide, allowing us to move forward into an unknown future–that’s the undefined space in which we often stand in parenting the young and the fragile.  In celebrating Father’s Day, much will be written, spoken, sung, whispered, shouted in praise of fathers and those who protect, defend, nurture, teach, carry, mentor.

What I’ve been sitting with this weekend is a phrase from my IHM community’s Direction Statement, where “we invite others to join us in bringing about God’s dream for this beautiful, yet wounded world.”  That’s the world we live in, beautiful, and yet wounded.  And those words speak to an enormous challenge for parents, grandparents, guardians, mentors: the challenge of finding balance.  How to hold in one hand an awareness that ours can be a cruel and savage world, sometimes dangerous, often broken by rejection, pain, and injustice, a world where we desire to protect our vulnerable ones from all that is harmful and shield our cherished ones from all that is painful.  And then how to hold in the other hand the trust to let us go into a world that invites us deeper into wonder, feeds our imagination, reveals and affirms our longings, and sees our hopes and dreams unfold and blossom.

My Dad was an insurance executive, so I was raised with an awareness of how tentative life is: even with the most careful foresight, safety, security, and good health were not guaranteed to anyone.  Things could and did go wrong, plans could and might fail.  Buildings collapse.  Fires tear through a house.  Floods sweep away prized possessions.  Cars crumple on impact.  Hearts are broken.  This is fact.

EPSON MFP image
EPSON MFP image

Bringing my sisters and brothers and me into a world fraught with such dangerous and destructive possibility must have been an overwhelming concern for my father.  How, I often wonder, did his ever-present awareness of the uncertainties of life not force him to hold our hands so tightly that we could never live our own lives apart from his side?  Where did he find the confidence to let us make our own mistakes, navigate an uncertain terrain, and discover a world also filled with music, dance, poetry, Nature, and the transformative power of beauty and the arts?

Fathers are charged with shaping the worldview of their children, of imagining the kind of world they want to live in, and then dedicating their love and energies to moving that vision forward.  The other side of a dangerous world is a world where we have the courage to let beauty and wonder have their way as antidotes to fear.

Our Dad did this by waking us up in the middle of the night to climb out on the deck and meditate on a sky full of stars.  He told magical bedtime stories of the Lenape tribe who inhabited our woods long before us, who preserved and protected the land because one day, he would whisper, a family of very special children would move onto this same land.  He taught me the name of every rooted, winged, and running creature that shared our space, and then observed that, “They all have names for you, too.”  How could I not grow up full of wonder when I spent so much time in our back yard contemplating what words the tulip tree, the black snake, and the cardinal had chosen to describe me?

I don’t know if my Dad ever read Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,”   but I do know that he lived these words and found solace and encouragement in their truth:

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the space of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.  I come into the presence of still water,
and I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

This Father’s Day and every day, let us give thanks for those who are able to hold the tension of what’s wrong with our world—violence, hatred, indifference—and balance that with a vision of a world suffused by the beautiful unfolding of God’s dream for all of us.  Let us be grateful for all who have the courage and the trust to risk bringing new life onto our planet and then giving their lives over to companioning, nurturing, and offering a vision of how beautiful this might be.

A Happy Father’s Day to all of you who bless us in so many ways!

Takeaway

Today, reflect on the influence of your own father or significant adults in your life.

Who has done the delicate dance of protecting you from danger and also opening you up
to a world that is beautiful?

Spend some time in gratitude for all of these gifts.

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Rooted in Love

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, June 5, 2016
Re-posted and formatted June 11, 2016 

Here’s to the ones who stay, who remain, who refuse–out of conviction or vision or selfless love–to abandon or give up on their commitments.  Stay.  Remain.  Accompany.  These are the words I imagined hearing as I was inspecting and tending my container garden on the porch this morning.

One of the pots in my patio garden is home to spearmint, a sturdy perennial herb.  It survived an early outdoor planting and the challenge of near freezing nightly drops in temperature.   In just two weeks, its leaves have filled the pot and its runner vines have sprouted, indicating a desire to grow beyond its boundaries and break out of its confinement.

I was reminded of a time when I lived on Long Island and enjoyed the scent of mint Mintwithrunnervinesgrowing outside the kitchen door.  One of my community members didn’t share my appreciation of this determined herb.  Over time, she tried every means available to eradicate mint from its coveted spot.  She pulled out its long tentacles of underground root runners, sprayed it, even crushed its leaves underfoot.  Still, knowing mint’s propensity for refusing to give up, I was unconcerned for its survival.  Every time I passed the patch of mint that was under threat of disappearance, it was as if I could hear it saying, “See you around.  I’m here to stay.”  And stay it did.

The fragrance and presence of mint is an invitation to reflect on the qualities of mint that we see in human form:  people who have stood with, remained with, and accompanied us in life.  Recently, I read a series of questions designed to highlight the people we remember most and the reasons why we remember them with affection and in detail.

Among the first set of questions were these:

1.Name the 5 wealthiest people in the world.
2.Name 5 Heisman trophy winners.
3.Name the last 5 winners of the Miss America pageant.

Reflect on those for a few minutes and see how many names you can recall.  Done? Not surprisingly, few of us remember the headliners of years past, even though they are accomplished and perhaps most acclaimed in their fields.  We know that even seemingly significant achievements and accomplishments can fade over time.

Now try these questions:

1.Name a teacher who aided you when you were in school.
2.List a few friends who helped you through a difficult time.
3.Name a person who made you feel special and appreciated.

Not surprisingly, it may have been easier for you to come up with names this time.  Clearly, the people we tend to remember most are the ones who have accompanied us, cared for us, loved us.  People who have refused to give up on us, who will not turn back and abandon us, no matter how difficult this accompaniment becomes.  People who remain, who stay while others go.  People who continue to show up.  People who persist.

Takeaway

Mint is tenacious (some might say stubborn or worse!), faithful, able to adapt to hardship and changing environments.  Its fragrant leaves are often used in teas and lotions to heal, to refresh, to soothe anxiety, to calm troubled hearts.

With what qualities of mint do you resonate?

Reflect on people you know who stand with others and remain with them through their pain, anxiety, and struggles.

What values do these people hold that you might wish to deepen in your own life?

Who or what helps you to persevere and to remain present to others?

 

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Re-membering

by Chris Koellhoffer, May 22, 2016
Recently, life has been filled with far too many good-byes to cherished friends.  Giants who formed and shaped me spiritually, saints who companioned me and witnessed how to live a life passionately in love with the Divine and all creation.  Accompanying beloved ones as they journey into Mystery is surely a graced experience, but oh, at what cost to the heart!
Leave-takings are cumulative.  Like any loss, they build on every previous moment of letting go and bidding farewell that has filled a lifetime.  Perhaps it’s the price we pay for loving wholeheartedly and deeply.  Perhaps it’s a price that’s in some way offset by remembrance: remembering with profound gratitude how we ourselves have been loved and nurtured, embraced and cherished by those we miss.  Could it be that one of the blessings of those seeming endings is in the enduring remembrance of all the joyful, intimate moments that preceded them?
goodbyetreewithbirdsThose of us who have had to eulogize a loved one know, in a particular way, the challenge of re-membering.  When we re-member, we revisit and extract meaning from the lives of those who have died.  We ask: what might we highlight, underscore, lift up for our listeners to reveal the essence of those who have graced our life?  How do we pay tribute, how do we distill a lifetime of stories and memories into a collage of tender, humorous, or moving images?  How do we honor and re-member a life?
Some years ago, I offered a reflection on Jesus’ leave-taking.  On that Holy Thursday, I invited those present to enter into the experience of the Passover meal from the perspective of Jesus.  How did Jesus wish to burn that evening into memory, to be forever in communion with his beloved friends?  I reflected:

“This night is a testament to what matters.  Filled with love and profound compassion, it is a tender, final moment…It is Jesus’ legacy of witness and unending presence…

What words can he possibly utter that will endure through time and space?  On this night, every smallest word and gesture is laden with significance.  And so, he does what any person who loves would do: the towel is tied, the basin is filled, the feet are washed with care, bread is broken, and love is passed all around the table.  May we remember, and remember, and remember the gestures of a tender God among us.”

Like Jesus, the holy ones among us live with a keen awareness that every smallest wordrememberweremember and gesture is laden with significance.  As we celebrate the individual anniversaries that mark the passing of our beloved who now deepen into risen life, and as we come together for collective remembrances–Memorial Day, All Souls day, the feast of All Saints–may we re-member the life of Jesus and the great cloud of witnesses.  May we become more aware of their light all around us.  May we embody in our own lives their choices for compassion and justice that have left such a profound impact on our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Reflect on those who have shown you the face of God.
Imagine their love and care surrounding you.
Offer thanks for their continuing presence in your life.
Ask them to accompany you in re-membering their witness.
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Learning to Listen Like a Robin

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, May 8, 2016

It’s that time of year here in the Northeast where no alarm clock is needed.  Count me among the music lovers who are serenaded at 5:00 each morning by a choir of wrens, cardinals, blue jays, and their assorted cousins.  Our winged neighbors are talented warblers and singers; I learned only recently that they’re also exceptional listeners.

A friend pointed out these avian listening skills when we were taking an early morning walk at the end of a week marked by constant and sometimes torrential rain, rain so steady and penetrating that the water-soaked mud bubbled up into puddles and routed dozens of earthworms from their cozy homes below.

“There!” my friend exclaimed, pointing to a red-breasted bird.  “You can see the robin listening.”

And so I could.  Listening made visible in both the stillness and the movement of that plump little bird.  Listening with absolute focus on every element around him.  Listening beyond the patter of raindrops and the splash of passing cars.  Like a contemplative immersed in prayer, the robin stood, head cocked back, then head low to the earth for several seconds.  Suddenly, a quick peck at the ground, and a wriggling worm was pulled from under the lawn.

Over and over, the same pattern.  A robin in the posture of deep listening, the swift dive of the head to the ground, the jubilant lifting of a startled earthworm caught in the robin’s beak, and finally, the feast of being fed by what the robin had so intently listened for.  What could that small bird hear that escaped our ears?

This meditation moment reminded me of what might be considered the central mantra for the Jewish people, based on Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”  The Message Bible translates it as, “Attention, Israel!  God our God!”

Shema Yisrael or Sh’ma Yisrael are the first two words of the Torah that is the central prayer in the Jewish prayerbook, frequently the first section of Scripture that a Jewish child learns.  These words are often recited in the morning and the evening, as a bedtime prayer for children, and as the last words breathed as one leaves this life.

Hear!  Listen!  Pay attention!  The mandate for all of us.  For effective communication tolistenwithhandbw occur, listening must be present. This is true not only in developing relationships with one another, but in our relationship with God as well.

Listening, whether it’s listening to another person, to all of creation, or to God, involves presence and awareness.  It’s much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is stepping out of our own world and paying full attention to the other.

In our relationship with God, how deeply and truly do we listen?  Robert Wicks might have been wondering that when he observed,  “When we pray, how often do we say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening?’ More often, I think, we say, ‘Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking!’”

When we were nearing the new millennium, the year 2000, Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon collected inspiration for the coming century.  They invited leaders and visionaries around the world to offer blessings and expressions of hope for the next one hundred years, and published them in Prayers for a Thousand Years.

One of the many profound messages in this book is Jay McDaniels’ hope for the next thousand years.  May we pray it as a prayer to deepen our capacity to listen, truly listen, to the Divine and to all of creation:

“In this century and in any century,
Our deepest hope, our most tender prayer,
is that we learn to listen.
May we listen to one another in openness and mercy
May we listen to plants and animals in wonder and respect.
May we listen to our own hearts in love and forgiveness.
May we listen to God in quietness and awe.
and in this listening
which is boundless in its beauty,
may we find the wisdom to cooperate
with a healing spirit, a divine spirit,
who beckons us into peace and community and creativity
We do not ask for a perfect world
but we do ask for a better world.
We ask for deep listening.”

Takeaway

As you pay attention and listen to the Spirit working in and through you today and in the days ahead:

What touches you?  Surprises you?  Sparks something within you?  Challenges you?
Frightens you?  Makes you sad or angry?  Resonates with you?

What might God be speaking to you today in silence?  In those you meet?

What keeps you from listening to the voice of the Holy One?

 

NOTE:
Wishing all who nurture, support, create, and bring to life a blessed Mother’s Day!

 
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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.

Takeaway

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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Seeing Beyond

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, April 10, 2016

“Why do you weep?” is one of the first questions of the resurrection.

That early Easter morning query came back to me in a fresh and unexpected way this past week.  I was in South Jersey preparing to give a parish mission on mercy, and was staying in a house located within walking distance of the boardwalk.  Being both a New Jersey native and an early morning walker, I was looking forward to strolling along near the ocean each day, breathing in the salt air and moving into a contemplative frame of mind as I listened to the rhythm of the waves.

But as I stepped outside that Sunday morning, I was greeted by strong, howling winds so fierce I could barely stand upright.  I was quickly blown back inside and surrendered my plans for a walk, but not before the gale force winds blew debris into my eye.

No problem, I thought, I’ll flush out whatever grains of sand have stuck to my contact eyewithtearslens.   I quickly removed the lens, but in spite of repeated rinsing with eye solution, the irritant remained fixed.  Tears and mucus built up as my eye tried to expel the foreign object.  With the constant discomfort sometimes escalating to pain, I could think of nothing else but finding relief for my eye and my blurring vision.  Many hours later, I was able to find an eye surgeon who treated the abrasions in my eye and put an end to the flow of tears.

That “eye opening” experience brought me back to some of the questions of the Easter readings and how the eyes figure into those early Sabbath morning conversations.  In John’s account of one of the appearances of the risen Jesus (John 20:11-18), Mary Magdalene stands outside the tomb of Jesus.  She’s in distress, in mourning, numbed by the horror she’s witnessed and by the loss of this person, Jesus, who is beloved to her.  John paints a picture of her at the gravesite, tears running down her face.  One wonders, is it the tears in her eyes that prompt two angels dressed in white to inquire of her, “Woman, why are you crying?”  What do the angels see in her eyes?

A bit later in the story, one also wonders: is it Mary’s face wracked with grief, her anguish and loss expressed in tears, that prompts Jesus—whom she at first doesn’t recognize–to ask with gentle tenderness, “Why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?”  What does Jesus see in her eyes?eye

So this Easter season holds an invitation to ponder:

What do I notice when I look into the eyes of others?
What do my own eyes reveal of God’s tenderness and mercy?
For what, for whom, am I weeping?

Takeaway

In the coming days, reflect on any of these Scripture references to eyes:

Psalm 17:8,  Protect me as you would your very eyes; hide me in the shadow of your wings.
Psalm 121:1-2,   I lift my eyes to the mountains; where will my help come from?  My help will come from God, who made heaven and earth.
Matthew 6:22,    The eyes are like a lamp for the body.
Matthew 7:3-5,    Why, then, do you look at the speck in your brother’s or sister’s eye and not pay attention to the log in your own eye?
Mark 12:11,  This is God’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Luke 10:23,  Blessed are the eyes which see what you see.
Luke 11:34,  Your eyes are like a light for the body.  When your eyes are sound, your whole body is full of light.

My thanks to Father Peter Joyce and the people of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish, Church of the Resurrection, in Marmora, NJ, for your wonderful witness of welcome and living faith during the parish mission on “Widening the Reach of Our Mercy,” April 3-5.  A joy to be among you!
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Waiting in the In-Between

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM – for March 26, 2016

Holy Saturday.  The in-between time.  Still reeling from the events of the Friday we call “Good,” and living with uncertainty: will rising and new life ever come?

It seems to me that not enough attention is paid to Holy Saturday and to the Holy Saturdays of our lives.  The times in-between.  The times when conclusion and completion can’t be imagined.  The times of standstill, of feeling stuck, mired, unmoving.  The times when we struggle not to surrender to despair.  The times of waiting.  And waiting.  And more waiting.

In Hebrew, the word for “wait” means to hope for, to anticipate.  It’s always an active process, where life is never static but evolving, even though it may seem that absolutely nothing is in motion.  Often a profound uncertainty, perhaps anxiety, accompanies waiting.  After all, much of our society demands the tangible and concrete and prefers haste and speed when it comes to results and outcomes.  Our world can be very impatient and unappreciative of what is hidden, what is in process.

Holy Saturday invites us into a profound appreciation of these edges that today we might call liminal places, places that are in-between, unfinished, in the middle.  Places that are neither here nor there, such as the point where the wave meets the shore and where it’s not fully either wave or shore.  Places where night is turning to day and it’s not yet completely either dark or dawn.  Places like bridges, for when we’re crossing a bridge, we’re neither at the beginning nor the end.  We’re somewhere in-between, in that middle space of unknowing.

These edges seem to hold the essence of Holy Saturday.  They’re very challenging spaces to live in, especially for any of us who like things to be defined, who like to be in control, who like to know exactly where we’re going.  They’re at the heart of the Paschal Mystery, that process of dying and death, of entombment and silence, of new life rising up.

Often these edges are where we don’t want to be—more questions than answers, more uncertainty than clarity, more middles than conclusions.  The remnants of Good Friday but not any of the astonishment and revelation of Easter morning.  But these edges are spaces and places where God is especially near.  Places of Mystery and becoming.  Places of what is not yet, what is still to come, filled with blessing and potential.  Places where life is unfolding.

What’s called for in the edges is active waiting.  What’s called for in the edges is trust in a God who will not abandon us.  What’s called for in the edges is deep listening and paying attention to this same God.

In “Between Lives,” Brian Andreas of Story People describes the wisdom that’s needed in these edges:

“Today, I’m in the exact place
in between two lives
& you may ask which I will choose,
unless you’ve been in the in-between place before
& then you know to simply sit quietly
until your life chooses you.”

I’ve come to believe there are some lessons that can be learned only when we’re in this waiting time in the edges.  One of those lessons, observes Joe Nangle, OFM, is a profound and heightened sense of solidarity, a waiting in the tomb with our world, “where our hearts nestle among the yearnings of those who wait.  We taste the desire of those who live in deprivation.  We are bruised by the wounds of those who are imprisoned by injustice, fear and oppression.  We grope in the darkness of those overcome with despair.” (Following Jesus on the Way to Calvary, Pax Christi USA Lenten Reflection, 1997).

How will we wait?  On this Holy Saturday and all the Holy Saturdays of our lives, may we remain in solidarity with our beautiful, yet wounded world.  In this place where so much is uncertain and in process, may we be open to all the learnings of this waiting time.  May we be bearers of hope and resurrection for ourselves and others.

Wishing you all the blessings and new life of this Easter season to come!

Takeaway

Wait with Jesus in the tomb.
What does this waiting feel like?  Look like?  Sound like?

For what, for whom, are you waiting at this moment?

Give thanks for what might be rising to new life in your heart, seen or unseen.

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This blog will now be posted twice a month.