Cultivating a Crossroads Heart

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, January 29, 2017

This past weekend, in our chapel at the IHM Center in Scranton, those gathered witnessed the incorporation of a Sister from another community into the fullness of life of our IHM congregation.  This tender, beautiful ceremony formally welcomed our Sister Elvia to transfer her perpetual vows from the community she had originally entered and into our IHM community, as a Sister, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scranton, PA).

The ceremony was also a celebration of what it means to cultivate a crossroads heart, to pay attention to Holy Mystery, to live in a state of readiness for whatever unfolds in the ordinary and the everyday.  I’m still holding close to my heart the emotional impact of witnessing Elvia’s leap of faith and trust.  And her incorporation has invited me to reflect on similar journeys in my life, times that called for thoughtful and sometimes challenging discernment.  I invite you also to enter into today’s reflection and find the parallels to your own efforts of sorting out and responding to God’s path for you. 

One of the most profound graces of my life came about many years ago when I was applying to study to become a spiritual director.  As a requirement for acceptance into the program, I was asked to write a spiritual autobiography.  There were guidelines and a suggestion of what we might want to include, so it seemed that for a writer like me, this would be an easy assignment.  Not so!  I struggled with it for days right up until the deadline.  When I sat down to read what I had put to paper,  I was stunned at the map of my soul’s landscape that spread out in front of me.

That map revealed that very little in my life had moved forward in a straight, unwavering line.  There were seeming detours and interruptions, roads taken and not taken.  As in any life, times of both heartache and delight, emotional pain and loss, as well as blessings too numerous to count.  What stood out in my map reading was the outline of God’s presence in my life, the traces of the Holy that marked each step.  There was discernment large and small, the messiness of decision-making, the struggling with ambiguity and the longing for absolute certainty.  There were times of paralysis.  There were periods of desperately waiting for a burning bush or a blinding light to knock me off my imaginary horse.

Or an eyebrow.  Once, when I was companioned by a spiritual director in a long discernment process about a major life change, I kept coming to the edge of a final cheyebrow-copyoice—and then I’d back away, frozen in immobility.  The retreating had nothing to do with logic and everything to do with fear.  The path I was already on was comfortable and familiar, but not life-giving for me, yet it was the one I knew.  The possible path ahead appeared to hold the abundant life God dreams for each of us, but it was unknown.  So back and forth I went.  Observing this back-and-forth dance over and over, my director finally asked, “Chris, what is it that you really want?”  I heard myself say, “I want an eyebrow!”  I explained that I wanted to see on my director’s face some indication of the path I should embrace and choose.  I wanted her eyebrow to go up or down, revealing what she thought was the better choice for me.

As a now long-time spiritual director, I know it’s not the role of a spiritual guide to provide an eyebrow or a quick and easy answer, but to listen with and companion another with attention and intention.  In Discernment, a Path to Spiritual Awakening, Rose Mary Dougherty notes that, “The habit of discernment fine-tunes the ear of the heart so that we hear more clearly the invitations to love intrinsic to every moment of life.  In the habit of discernment, our choices are again and again refined by the invitations to love.  Gradually we come to know what is consonant with love, what we need to do or need not to do, and, with grace, we are free to respond.”

What is consonant with love: that’s the question  Deuteronomy (30:19-20) poses to us:

“I call heaven and earth to witness the choice you make.
Choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”

In discernments large and small, may we choose what is consonant with love.  May wechoicesoldnew discern wisely and well, gathering the best information and wisdom we can and summoning, with God’s grace, the courage we need to move into the unknown.  May we listen with openness to the present moment and so cultivate a heart always ready for the crossroads ahead.

Takeaway

Reflect on a time when you were faced with a significant choice in your life.
What factors were involved?
Who or what helped you to choose?
How did prayer figure into your decision-making?
What were the consequences of your choice?

Spend some quiet time in prayers of gratitude for God’s presence and the accompaniment and support of others at that time of decision-making.

NOTE:  Thank you to all of you who held in your prayer the directed retreat weekend at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville.  Special thanks to Brother Chris Derby, SJ, Susan Bowers-Baker, all of the Center staff, directors, and retreatants who contributed to making the weekend a graced experience in that holy place.

 

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Witnessing by Another Way

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, January 15, 2017

Cast a pebble into a still pond and then linger on the banks.  Watch as the ripples widen and widen in expanding circles as far as the eye can see.  And when the outermost edges of that ripple escape your sight, remember what science tells us: that beyond the range of what we can perceive, movement and motion continue to cast larger circles out into the universe.

The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, might have been describing this phenomenon on a personal level when he wrote,

“I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
but I give myself to it.”

Recently, the image of ripples on a pond re-surfaced when Pope Francis spoke of “a spirituality of influence.”  A life given over to love, compassion, and witness in a rippling effect.  A movement, a direction that’s not dependent on physical or mental ability, on social status, prestige, or wealth.  A circle made continually wider by the largeness of one’s heart and the reach of one’s compassion.

In the announcement of Detective Steven McDonald’s death just this past week, I saw up close such a sphere of spiritual influence: the ongoing ripples that emanated from the ripplesmcdonaldlegacy of a good and holy man.   I was living in New York on July 12, 1986, when Officer McDonald, a young New York City policeman, was shot three times by a teenager whom McDonald had stopped while on patrol.  The shooting left the officer paralyzed from the neck down for the remaining thirty years of his life.

On the surface, it might have seemed that in the aftermath of the shooting, the sphere of Steven’s influence had narrowed dramatically and significantly.  Not so!  The ripples of his spirituality were just beginning to spread out across the city, the nation, the world in witness to God’s grace at work in the human spirit.

Because Steven McDonald didn’t stop giving his life over in love and tenderness.  He didn’t spend a single second in self-pity, anger, or resentment.  He made peace with the cross he would shoulder for the rest of his life, with the fact that, though he might leave the hospital, he would never be able to leave his wheelchair, never be able to play catch with his son, Conor, born a few months after the shooting.  How telling that at his father’s funeral, Conor, now himself a police officer, called his father “superman,” the most tender, caring Dad a child could ever hope to have.

In the face of incalculable limitation and loss, Steven chose to grow his presence, to enlarge his heart, to expand the good he could contribute to the world.  He embraced the countercultural act of forgiving Shavod Jones, the teenager who had changed the course of his life with a bullet, when he stated early on through his loving, supportive wife, Patti Ann: “I forgive him and hope he can find peace and purpose in his life.”

Steven  became a counselor and inspiration to other wounded police officers.  His influence stretched beyond geographic borders as he traveled to Bosnia, Northern Ireland,ripples-copy Israel–areas of intense conflict and deep-seated, decades-long enmities—witnessing to the healing power of reconciliation.  He chose to move forward on a spiritual journey marked by love, compassion, and forgiveness.

At Steven’s funeral liturgy this past week, Police Commissioner James O’Neill noted the ripples that continue to emanate from Steven’s life.  “The cycle of violence that plagues so many lives today can be overcome only by breaking down the walls that separate people,” he observed.  “The best tools for doing this, Steven taught us, are love, respect, and forgiveness.”

Thank you for being an extraordinary teacher, Detective Steven McDonald.  May you rest in peace among the holy ones.  May the witness of your life given over to hope and courage and profound faith continue to ripple out into our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Prayerfully reflect on the phrase, “a spirituality of influence.”
Give thanks for the great cloud of witnesses who make visible the face of God among us.

In whom have you experienced the Holy?
Whose words or actions have shaped your life and reflected the face of God to you?

As you reflect on the days ahead of you this week, where might you be called to be a force for good?  For compassion?  For forgiveness?

 

NOTE:  I’ll be serving as one of the directors for a retreat weekend beginning January 27 at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA.  Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of this prayerful experience.  Many thanks!

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The Hunger Names

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, January 1, 2017

No, this title is not a typo. I didn’t misspell the reference to a popular film. I didn’t fall victim to sugar overload or fuzzy thinking from one too many Christmas cookies (although I certainly did indulge). It’s not the result of a late night of ringing in the New Year.

So why The Hunger Names? Because it occurs to me as we stand peering into the year before us that so often the beginning of a new year centers around resolutions focused on what we want to let go of: extra pounds, unhealthy habits, toxic situations, and more. I wonder what might be revealed if instead we chose to spend time discerning what it is that we long to fill ourselves up with. What if we dug a bit deeper and named that for which we truly hunger? What if we spent some time early in this new year mining our deepest desires as well as God’s desire for each one of us?

There is great power in naming. Naming connotes belonging: parents often devote hungerpregnancy-copyconsiderable time to choosing the perfect name for the child of their hopes and dreams. Naming shows connection: new owners may search for just the right title as they bring an adopted pet into their home. Naming witnesses to the intimacy and closeness of relationship: we tend to name what is significant and meaningful in our lives. And naming sometimes offers us a liberation of sorts when we’re able to voice what we hold in our hearts.

Not long ago, I was gifted with Joyce Rupp’s Fragments of Your Ancient Name. The book, subtitled “365 Glimpses of the Divine for Daily Meditation,” highlights names by which God is known around the world. The names are drawn from many faith traditions, rituals, and contemporary writers, and the author explores each name in a brief meditation followed by a simple sentence as a takeaway into one’s day.

Of course, when it comes to naming the Divine, we come face to face with our limited understanding of the One Rabbi Rami Shapiro calls “The Reality Beyond Naming,” the One of whom Dorothee Soelle acknowledges, “There are never enough names and images for what we love.”

Edwina Gately bumped into this human limitation in a hermitage conversation. She recalls, “When I asked my God if I could come and stay with Him for a while, She said: ‘Yes, but don’t bring your God with you.’ Oh, how easy it is to clutter up the path to the Holy Spirit with my images and preconceptions of God! The mystical heart lets go of all images, icons, and expectations of God.”

Gately wasn’t dismissing or discouraging our attempts to name who God is for us. She was hungerheartinhands-copysimply acknowledging the truth that God is so much bigger than we can ask or imagine and that we don’t ever want to close ourselves off from fresh revelations of the Divine. When we pay attention to the names of the Holy which most resonate with us, we can come to a revelation about who God is for us at this time in our lives: Dreamer? Lantern of Love? Mother of the Weary? One Who Weeps? The Opener or Beckoner? Sanctuary? Flute Player? Laughing One? Shelter? Friend of the Poor? Disturber? Lord of the Dance? Other?   (a sampler from Fragments of Your Ancient Name)

Imagine what might happen if we widen the space of our tent and invite in words and images beyond our usual consciousness. Being open to the new in other cultures and faith traditions offers a fresh way to look at what God hopes and dreams for all people on this planet.   Which names make us sit up, pay attention, and notice? Which names grab our soul? Which names shake our complacency? Which names stretch our borders? Which names do we find particularly tender, consoling, exciting, affirming, disturbing? And why?

As we search for words and images to describe the Holy One, our prayerful reflection may reveal something of our deepest desires for this new year and beyond. May it also reveal how God desires to be present in every moment of every day of this year ahead for all of our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Sit in God’s presence and reflect on your images of God.

What names of the Holy speak to you at this time in your life?
Which ones do you imagine might especially amuse or delight God?

For what are you hungering in this new year?
What is the Holy One desiring in you for the life of the world?

 

Happy New Year! Thank you for following or discovering this blog and for praying with me for a new year marked by peace and a deepened sense of the Holy in our world.

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