Learning to Fall

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM,  July 29, 2017

There seems to be an almost limitless list of ways to fall in this world. We fall for someone as we fall head over heels in love. We fall ill, we fall flat, we fall back and fall away. We fall down on the job and we fall under another’s influence. There is the falling star Perry Como sang about catching, and the falling upward Richard Rohr references for the second half of life. Water falls. Leaves fall. We even have a season we call “fall.”

Last week I was at a christening for my grandnephew, followed by a barbecue at a local state park. Gathered with three generations of family and friends, I began to reflect on falling while watching my fourteen-month-old grandniece delight in the wide open space of the park and the reality that her little legs could take her anywhere. Now with several months of newly learned walking under her belt, she would run, then trip, then fallingtoddlerwalkingbyherself copyoccasionally fall, all with seemingly equal delight and absent of any caution or fear. At the same time I looked at the two generations of adults gathered and reflected that, for many of us, falling meant something entirely different. Seasoned by the reality that what we have in this moment could disappear in another, tempered by our own experiences of letting go, we regarded falling as an experience that might more often result in injury, limitation, perhaps an unplanned or dreaded change in independence and lifestyle.

But the falling that interests me most at this time in my life is what Philip Simmons writes about in Learning to Fall, the Blessings of an Imperfect Life. I’ve read and savored this book, quoted from it and recommended it many times when leading a retreat or giving a presentation.

Simmons was 35 years old, married and the father of two small children, when he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was given less than five years to live. In the face of his prognosis, he composed, with profound wisdom and without a shred of self-pity, twelve essays that speak to the mystery of life, the joy to be savored, the mud seasons, the lessons that await us at every turn in the road.

Learning to Fall speaks on one level to Simmons’ need to learn how to fall correctly so as not to further injure himself as his balance and mobility decreased. But the title of the book has a larger purpose, one that includes all of us with our own concerns, needs, and sensibilities. We bring all of who we are, Simmons writes, “to the work of learning to live richly in the face of loss—work that I call ‘learning to fall.’”

Learning to fall in this sense is something my little grandniece has not yet experienced, but in the course of her lifetime, she, like the rest of us, will not escape this challenge. The challenge to embrace all of our world, the world as it is and the world as it could be. A world with its madness and mayhem, but also its music. A world both beautiful and broken, at one and the same time full of wonder and marked by wounds.

This learning to fall, learning to live richly in the face of loss, invites us into reflection. How not to run from grief and farewell, limitation and diminishment, loneliness, the painful ending of relationships and the leave-taking of those most precious to us, but falling leaf singleinstead to listen to it, sit with it, sift through and discern its meaning. How to let go, let be, and let grow. How to become practiced and conscious of the art of both living and dying. How to learn from this most unpopular teacher the way to integrate all of our life experiences–the coming to birth and the fading away, the joyful embrace and the painful parting–into the person we continue to become. To mine our losses is to fall into a wholeness, richness, and depth we often can’t envision in our most painful hours.

However our lives unfold, may we all become highly practiced in the art of learning to live richly in the face of loss. May we come to see our flawed and imperfect and profoundly beautiful lives as the blessing they truly are. May the Holy One who never abandons accompany us in our falling.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Call to mind a loss or letting go of the past year.
Reflect on the learnings that have come to you through this experience.
Hold in tenderness and prayer all those in our world whose wounds may be fresher than yours.
Offer a prayer or gesture of gratitude for your learnings.

NOTE:

During the month of August, I’m taking time away for my own retreat, some vacation, and also to continue mining my own learnings from a recent fall that fractured my ankle, sternum, and rib.  EPSON MFP image

I won’t be posting any new blogs during August but will resume posting again in September.  

In the meantime, please hold in your prayer my next guided retreat, “Bearing Witness to the Holy,” that I’ll be offering for the Sisters of St. Joseph (Brentwood, NY) August 19-25 in Hampton Bays, NY.

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offset.com
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Chris Koellhoffer

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A Lifetime Learning

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, July 16, 2017

Have you heard of the school no one ever wants to attend? A school with no fixed geographic location, no waiting list, no prospective students clamoring for admission. And yet it’s a school in which we will most probably find ourselves unexpectedly registered at some time in our lives, usually not by choice.schoolbrokenheart copy

It’s the school of the wounded, the scarred, the broken, and the bruised. The school of loss, and limitation, and diminishment. And it appears that, for all who share our human condition, there are some lessons which can be learned only through attendance here.

I found myself enrolled in this school last week. In the midst of a full summer calendar of offering directed and guided retreats, I fractured my ankle as I grabbed a wooden chair and tried unsuccessfully to save myself from falling. Surprisingly, it’s not so much the broken bone that demands my attention; it’s the soreness and the swelling bruises on my side that cause me to cry out every time I make the slightest unconscious movement. I’m in the school of the temporarily bruised and I’m quickly learning a deepened awareness of my body and its limitations. In this school, I’m also remembering the wisdom of Pema Chodron: “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we needed to know.”

Bones can mend. Bruises can fade. What often takes longer, sometimes a lifetime, to heal are the emotional and psychological wounds, the profound inner brokenness, the shame carried in secret and deeply buried or known only to ourselves.

Yet even that unwelcome suffering can be a teacher, according to Rabbi Rami Shapiro. In Connection, the Newsletter of Spiritual Directors International, he writes:  “It is when we are most broken that we become the most loving. When we are stripped of all we pretend to know; when our masks are torn from our faces; when our stories are ripped from our grasp; when the self we imagine ourselves to be is shattered; and when we are left with nothing to hold on to and nothing to hide behind; then we find the searing love of the Divine burning through us, melting the wax of ego, consuming the wick of self, and using the hope and horror of our lives to illumine the world.”

In the Gospels we find a parade of characters human and flawed who graduated from this school and who illumine the way forward: Matthew, the tax collector, with his unsavory reputation; Peter caught in his denial of Jesus by a maid; the disciples abandoning their crucified friend; and on and on. Their limitations can embolden us to bring our bruised hearts to Jesus and know ourselves welcome in his presence. After all, we might reason, if people like this could sit in the company of Jesus, there must surely be a place at the table for us as well.

What if the very limitations we struggle with, coupled with our efforts to follow Jesus, offer that same hope to us? What if, instead of hiding our wounds, we put them at the service of others? What if we refused to be dismayed by our own personal brokenness and the collective fragmentation of our world? What if we lived in the school of the human condition reflecting Nisha Moodley’s assertion that,

“I am no longer interested in becoming unbreakable.
I am interested in shattering with grace and courage,
and making art of all the broken pieces.”

Takeaway

For what scars or bruises of your body do you seek healing?
What are the wounds of our world you’re most drawn to tend and mend?
What art do you hope to make of all the broken pieces?
Spend some time seeking healing in the heart of the Holy One.

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayerful support of all who were part of the guided retreat for Sisters, “Our Work Is Loving the World,” at St. Francis Center for Renewal, Bethlehem, PA, last week. 

Please hold in your prayer now those who are participating in the directed retreat at St. Mary by-the-Sea, Cape May Point, NJ, which begins tomorrow. Many thanks! 

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Making a Mark

 

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, July 2, 2017

One of the deep desires of the human heart is to live a life that matters, that makes a difference. The prophet John the Baptist came into this world with all the signs and portents pointing to a life of that kind of significance. He was called from birth from his mother’s womb. He was a messenger. An announcer. A shining light.

And then in Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:57-66, 80), there’s the mysterious choice of a name for this baby. Not named after any of his ancestors, or after his father, Zechariah, as was the custom. Without talking to each other, both of his parents were mysteriously inspired to choose the name, John.

There’s also the question which parents everywhere must wonder at the birth of a baby: “What will this child turn out to be?”

diverse worldIt occurs to me that, although the circumstances of birth are different, the call of John the Baptist is not so far from our own. John spent his life announcing and pointing the way to Jesus. Isn’t that exactly what our lives are meant to do? To bear witness to the Holy One?

John the Baptist was a witness. We also are witnesses. We might reflect on our own lives in light of Webster’s definition of the word, “witness”:

As a noun, witness: A person who has seen or was present at an event and so has direct knowledge of it. A person who gives evidence.

As a verb, to witness: To see and be present at. To sign one’s name to attest that something is genuine.

Perhaps you, like me, have had the experience of entering a search word or phrase in Google and discovering much more than just the original search. Perhaps, like me, you sometimes take a detour and end up following a trail apart from your original quest. So when I Googled “witness” I also discovered the term, “Witness Mark,” and I wondered what that could be.

It turns out a Witness Mark is a line or small notch left during machine or hand work. Think of the signs of attention or work done on an antique clock when it’s serviced or clockface copycleaned. The person doing that work leaves a mark on the surface of the clock to indicate that he/she has been there, that he or she’s done work and left a body of evidence. The witness mark makes it possible for one craftsperson to follow after another, to see the path they’ve taken, and to continue and carry on their work.

So on the birthday of John the Baptist, we might ask: what about us? What is our witness mark? What is the mark we wish to leave on our beautiful, yet wounded world? The mark we wish to make as evidence of a life pointing to Jesus and given over in love and tenderness?

Pope Francis wasn’t writing specifically about a witness mark but he might have been when he observed, “One cannot proclaim the Gospel of Jesus without the tangible witness of one’s life.” A life that has left a mark for all that come after. A life that gives evidence, that shows the way forward by revealing the graced story of the past.

To bear witness is to point by one’s very existence to the presence of the Holy among us. Today, John the Baptist asks us: How do we put on the mind of Christ? How do we acquire his consciousness? How do we see through his eyes? Feel through his heart? How do we respond to the world with his wholeness and healing love?

Bearing witness is underscored in every reference to John the Baptist. Bearing witness is also our call. Like John, may our hearts grow in graciousness and openness. May all that we’re about today and in the days ahead bear witness to the tender Presence that transforms us and changes our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

How do you make a difference in your family, neighborhood, community, world?

Where and in what ways do you desire to leave a witness mark?

Ask our loving God to bring that desire to fulfillment in you for the life of the world.

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayerful support of the directed retreat at St. Mary by-the-Sea in Cape May Point, NJ, where this reflection was offered on the feast of the nativity of  John the Baptist. Deep gratitude to Joan Dollinger and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia for welcoming all of us into this sacred space.

Please now hold in your prayer all who will be part of a guided retreat, “Our Work Is Loving the World,” which I’ll be offering for Women Religious at the Franciscan Renewal Center, Bethlehem, PA, July 2-7. Many thanks!

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