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 legacy 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, 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.
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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