Longing Laid Bare

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, February 26, 2017

At some time or another, we may have had this startling experience: an accidental, unexpected glimpse into the eyes of another, a discovery that reveals the hidden depths of a person’s heart, that exposes their raw, unfiltered desire or longing.

It’s what I saw in the eyes of junior high school students, oblivious to the world unfolding around them and dreamily gazing at their first crush. “Even the back of her head is beautiful,” mumbled one of them when I interrupted his meditation on the girl who sat in front of him in class.

It’s what I saw in the eyes of my mother in unguarded moments when she thought no one was looking at her. After 43 years of marriage, she had outlived my Dad by ten years, and in those ten years without him, her face was sometimes suffused with a wistful longing tinged with sadness.

And it’s what I see every Ash Wednesday when I look into the faces of those lining up for the distribution of ashes. When I served in pastoral ministry at a parish in Southeast ash-wednesdaygetting-ashes-copyQueens, one of my favorite days was Ash Wednesday. Favorite, because I always noticed something different in the faces of people coming forward to receive ashes on this day. I saw hope and desire that was transparent, direct, immediate, and insistent.

On Ash Wednesday, I welcomed many unfamiliar faces, and although I didn’t know their names or their stories, I recognized, in an intuitive way, the longing that looked back at me. Longing for a change of heart. For more engaged prayer. For right relationship. For forgiveness. For a second chance. For God by whatever name one might call the Holy.

Perhaps we connect with Lent as a season of penance and fasting, a letting go of whatever might stand in the way of our largeness of heart and a greater capacity for tenderness and welcome. Perhaps we connect with Lent as an invitation to feasting, to being nourished by prayer and by God’s own desire for us. Lent is all of these elements, certainly, but for me, Lent is most of all forever married to desire and intention, a season when our deepest longings are laid bare.

I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it’s finding ourselves in the Scriptural desert this season imagines. A desert where there’s no place to hide. A desert where the glare of the noonday sun exposes our illusions and distractions for what they are. A desert where we can’t carry allash-wednesday-ashes-copy the baggage we pack for other journeys and so we’re led to re-define what’s really necessary and important, what lives and makes a home in the heart of us.

What I suspect is that on Ash Wednesday, I’ll once again be looking into the eyes. What I know with a certainty is that I’ll be finding there a profound reflection of the deep desire God has for each one of us.

Wishing you every blessing on these Lenten days!

Takeaway

Spend some time in quiet reflection.

Name the longings of your heart.
Who or what has been nudging you, drawing you, and inviting you to pay closer attention?
What is God’s deep desire for you?

NOTE:

In the beginning days of this Lenten season, please hold in your prayer all who will be part of these retreats and days of prayer I’ll be leading: 

March 1, Ash Wednesday retreat day,  Diocese of Scranton, PA
March 4, Mount St. Mary House of Prayer, Watchung, NJ
March 5-10, Maryknoll Sisters, Ossining, NY
March 12, The Catholic Churches of Sullivan County, NY

Photo credits:  Pinterest; St. Clement Parish; Catholic Online

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Changing the Menu

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, February 12, 2017

A new year often brings resolutions designed to promote our well-being and good health. Perhaps more exercise. More regular sleep. More attentiveness to our diet, with changes reflecting healthy eating patterns. We may plunge into January with enthusiasm and resolve, and then sometimes notice a lessening of commitment as the days move forward.

At least, that’s what I observed about my own diet recently, although in a somewhat different way. After weeks of companioning and listening to so many people who, saturated by world news, shared their anguish, their fear, their anger, their dismay at deepening attitudes of exclusion towards the most vulnerable and fragile people in our world, I began to experience an indigestion of sorts, an agita that was both physical andmenuearth-copy spiritual. How did I not realize that I had been eating a woefully unbalanced diet, heavy on cynicism and despair and light on all the things that animate and inspire?

One Saturday afternoon, I had the television on while a figure skating program played out in the background. I wasn’t really watching it because I was focused on working on a project, but my attention abruptly changed when an ethereal piece of music began to play. I stopped what I was doing and looked up immediately. The beauty I heard invited my full attention. It was a Shawshank moment.

In one of my favorite films, “The Shawshank Redemption,” Andy Dufresne, a cultured man of refined tastes, is wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in Shawshank prison. For a man of his background, the experience of brutality, violence, and absolute lack of the beautiful makes prison life excruciatingly painful. Day after day, year after year, the same deadly routine, the same dull shade of despair.

One day, after months of requesting funds to update the prison library, Andy receives a donation, boxes of books and music. He immediately takes out a record, leans back in a chair, and plays “Duettino – Sull ‘Aria” from The Marriage of Figaro. Then, in quiet defiance of the prison authorities, he locks the office door and turns on the public address system so the music pours out into the entire prison. The soaring, operatic voices penetrate every cell, float out over the prison yard and into the infirmary. Longtime inmates stop in their tracks and let the music wash over them. Hardened faces become soft and tender. Not a muscle moves, not a word is spoken as the music saturates each inmate.   For a moment, Shawshank prison and everyone in it is transformed.

menu-copyMy Shawshank moment came at a time when hauntingly beautiful music grabbed my soul and transported me beyond the figure skating program on TV. The music invited me into an epiphany of sorts, for, like Andy Dufresne, I was also being held captive. I was imprisoned by a daily diet of news that trumpeted fear mongering and enemy-making, by feelings of helplessness, by an overwhelming sense of our collective paralysis to change direction. I needed to break out of this prison and feed myself with other sources of nourishment. I needed a change of diet. More engaged prayer. More thoughtful tending to my longing and hunger for the Holy. Upping my dose of connection to those who work for justice and embody peace. Increasing my daily intake of the arts, of music and dance and poetry and painting, food that offers a more hope-filled response to the wounds of our world.

So with God’s grace, I’m adjusting my daily diet. I’m eating more beauty and hope and tenderness and welcome. Care to try this menu with me?

Takeaway

Create a meal of the beautiful. Arrange a bouquet of flowers. Play a piece of instrumental music. Read some inspiring words of poetry out loud. Gaze at a work of art. Walk under a canopy of trees. Savor stillness.

After a period of absorbing and digesting what’s before you and around you, take some time to reflect:

Give thanks for all that is beautiful in your life.
How has the experience of beauty changed you and set you free?
Hold in your prayer those whose worldview is limited by despair or fear of change and of fresh thinking.

NOTE:  Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of a retreat day, “Taking Heart,” that I’ll be facilitating at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY, February 18. Many thanks!

 

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