Knowing Beyond Sight

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, May 21, 2017

When we love deeply, we recognize, even from a distance, what we’ve cherished and accompanied and brought to life in any way. This noticing is one of the spiritual practices we’re invited to cultivate and deepen in the everyday.

I’ve always suspected that parents, teachers, and guardians were already highly skilled in cultivating this ability to recognize and name.  When my nieces and nephews were young, I sometimes accompanied them and their mothers to a  park or play area. There I would witness an amazing feat: my sisters’ ability to pick out a single, unique, high-pitched cry from among hundreds of children at play, and say knowingly, without needing to look up, “Oh, that’s Kevin” or “Alex sounds like he’s having fun.”  So familiar and intimate was the bond between them and their little ones that sight was almost superfluous.  Without seeing, they could recognize their own flesh and blood, their profound life connections.

In the house where I live, as I’ve come to know my downstairs neighbors more deeply, I’ve simultaneously become a bit more practiced in the skill of recognizing them by voice and sound.  My neighbors on the first floor are residents of a group home sponsored by St. Joseph’s Center, which offers a variety of services including residential programs for adults diagnosed with intellectual disability. Though none of the young adult men downstairs can speak language as most of us know it, they certainly can communicate.  Through cries and other sounds, they talk and express their feelings to one another and to their aides.  Having lived on the second floor of the house for some time, I’ve grown in the intuitive skill that comes from a close journeying together: I can hear and recognize their cries of insistence or delight or attentiveness and name the persons who uttered those sounds, even without seeing them.

At this time of year, when part of the world is bursting with all things green and beautiful-trees-4 copygrowing, we may feel the stirrings of this practice of noticing taken to another level.  In the created world, we experience the embodiment of Rainer Marie Rilke’s comment that, “All things sing him; at times we just hear them more clearly.”

Isn’t all of the creative world singing the presence of the Holy?  We hear it in the plaintive call of a mourning dove and the full-throated cry of a cardinal in search of his mate.  We hear it in the rustle of a breeze caressing the birch and the maple tree. If it’s possible to smell a song, that’s exactly what we do when we bury our nose in the fragrance of honeysuckle on a warm July evening. It’s all of nature chanting, “God is here.  God is here.  God is here.”

Yes, God is here.  Our reality is that sometimes we don’t notice the presence of the Holy right here, right now.  But might we be somewhat consoled by how this intimacy or the absence of it plays out in the post-resurrection accounts?  We read in the Gospels of how at first there was a seeming blindness or deafness that got in the way of opening eyes and ears to the presence of the Risen One.  Certainly, overwhelming grief and loss can do that.  We see a weeping Magdalene mistaking Jesus for the gardener until he utters two familiar syllables: “Mary.”  We witness two broken-hearted disciples so deflated by the death of a dream that they walk an entire journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus oblivious to the presence of Jesus.  Only at the end of that trek do they notice a flicker of familiarity, leading them to insist their companion remain and break bread with them. In that most elemental of gestures, they recognize at last the presence of the risen Jesus.  Just so do we often wait and look and listen and come to know the face of the Holy among us.

Our world is filled with signposts pointing to the presence of God at work in every moment.  In our human condition, we may easily miss those appearances, so let’s try anew each day to enter into and live the words of the song,

“Without seeing you, we love you.  Without seeing you, we believe.”

May it be so!

Takeaway

Where do you most easily recognize and point to the presence of God in your everyday life?

Might there be persons or places or things that challenge you to believe that God is present?

Spend some time in quiet and share your reflection during an Emmaus Walk with Jesus, a conversation about what is unfolding in your life. Listen more than you speak.

NOTE:

My deep thanks for your support of all who were part of the Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA this week.  Special thanks to Brother Chris Derby, SJ and the staff of the Center for creating a spaciousness of silence and spirit that welcomed all of us.

 

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With What Remains

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, May 7, 2017

A life can be turned upside down with hurricane force or with the subtleness of a gentle breeze.  Social media and the evening news regularly provide visuals of the former:  cherished homes flattened in a few seconds by the raw power of a tornado. Property, mementos, sometimes lives swept away by raging floods. Numbness, shock, disbelief in the wake of tragedies and natural disasters.

The incremental and the less dramatic can also usher in a “new normal”.  A gradual thaw in a relationship, opening the way to more comfortable conversation. A change of perspective that carries fresh thinking. The dawning of a deep knowing that one is loved and being stretched to grow in relationship.

How to embrace change and transition, especially if the new normal is not of our own choosing?  How to integrate it into a life redirected?  How to do that with graciousness, hope, and creativity?

The revered violinist, Itzhak Perlman, once offered his audience an inspiring visual of embracing unexpected change.  Born in Israel, he was crippled by polio at a young age. As a result of his illness, he could walk only with great difficulty and the assistance of crutches, so in all of his concerts, he had to remain seated when he played the violin.

Once when Perlman was just at the beginning of a performance onstage in concert, a string snapped on his violin.  The audience held their collective breath, wondering what he would do.  Would he slowly and painfully limp off the stage and find a substitute violinplayer copyinstrument to play the music as written?  Instead, Perlman chose to continue playing and did the unthinkable: he played with only the three remaining strings of his violin.  When he finished, the audience rose in a standing ovation, awed by both his artistry and his presence of mind in the face of the unexpected.

When the applause finally subsided, Perlman was invited to speak.  He uttered only this single sentence:  “Our job is to make music with what remains.”

Clearly, he was not speaking of only the broken violin string. In a life impacted by illness and its subsequent limitations to his mobility, Perlman chose to reimagine and redesign his life to accommodate a new normal.  He was practiced in choosing to play with what was left, with whatever remained.

In the Easter Gospels, we read stories of the contemporary followers of Jesus who were struggling to embrace a new normal, the reality and the mystery of Jesus now risen, alive, and in their midst.  These disciples are often portrayed in their confusion as living the root meaning of the Old English word, bereft: robbed.  Robbed of the way life used to be, before the dying and rising of Jesus. Robbed of the Jesus they had become risingword copyaccustomed to experiencing.  Robbed in the sense of Mary Magdalene’s grief spoken through tears on Easter morning, “They have taken Jesus away and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”  No wonder the risen Jesus was so seldom recognized in those early resurrection days!  A new normal had taken place, and it invited a huge change of heart, a paradigm shift in how to relate to a Jesus whose face and presence were not so easily known.

In our own lives, we may or may not have already experienced dramatic life changes.  But most certainly at some time now or in the future, we’ll share in the universal experience of our own new normal, the challenge of adjusting or adapting to limitation or loss or diminishment or new patterns of living in the everyday.

In our new normal, we may be companioning a loved one whose life has been forever altered by a diagnosis.  We may be walking with a partner who is slowly moving away from us through dementia.  We may be struggling with the absence of cherished friends whose death demands that we create new rituals and routines apart from their familiar presence.  We may be growing a relationship that challenges us to move beyond our comfort zone.

It took discernment and courage for the disciples of Jesus to give themselves over to the reality of Jesus’ rising and to the changes his resurrection visited on their everyday living.  This same wisdom and largeness of heart is also asked of us in times of change as we enter into the in-betweenness of transition.  May the rising of Jesus in our time and place continue to encourage and sustain us.

Takeaway

In a time of stillness, reflect on a change or transition you’re living through at this moment.

What does this new normal look like, feel like, sound like?
What might be the learnings hidden in it?
Ask the risen Jesus for the grace to embrace this new normal with a patient and gracious heart.

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayerful support of the faculty retreat day at Immaculate Conception School, Annandale, NJ, on May 5.  My deep thanks to principal Cynthia Kitt and the wonderful staff who gathered to pray, reflect, and share wisdom. 

Please now hold in your prayer all who will be part of a Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA, May 19-21.

 

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