Knowing the Love That Endures

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, October 1, 2017

 

Do we ever become fully accustomed to absence? Or does our grief at the reality of missing someone precious to us, someone loved and lost, simply take on a different shape over time?

We may have an expectation that our parents will predecease us with the passage of time and its shuffling of the family hierarchy. Why is it, then, that we’re often surprised by how much more we seem to miss our loved ones as the years pass, more than or perhaps differently than the markings of that first year of poignant anniversaries—the first birthday, the first Christmas, the first empty place at the table.

In my own family, we anticipated and prepared for my mother’s death within a week after her diagnosis, and it was a gift to have time to say our last good-byes. With our Dad,emptytomb copy we were stunned by his final breath. Even though he was showing the progressive diminishment of long-term dialysis, his strength of spirit duped us into thinking (hoping?) we had more time together. Or perhaps we simply refused to read the final chapter of that beautiful book.

What I’m finding over time as I’ve integrated the reality of my parents’ absence in my life is that I’m experiencing their love and care in new and somewhat mysterious ways. I hear my mother’s voice when I get out the mixing bowl to bake or when I tend to my African violets or when I read a good book and want to share it with her. I sense the echo of my father’s voice when I write reflections, tell stories in presentations, or savor words. I suspect I’m not alone in holding a wistful longing to talk with them, to have a two-sided conversation, to chat about everyday experiences, or to ask the questions that have gone unspoken in their absence. Might we also want to hear their response to “What do you think of my life now? Are you proud of the person I’ve become? Do you know how much I love you?”

Last year I listened to a podcast on This American Life, “One Last Thing Before I Go,” that touched on the changing ways we relate to those who have died. Miki Meek produced Act One, “Really Long Distance,” about an unusual and creative way to continue the conversation after a loved one dies, to say that one last thing. In the town of Otsuchi, Japan, Itaru Sasaki was mourning his recently deceased cousin and longing for a way to air his grief and communicate with him. In his garden, rotaryphoneSasaki set up a telephone booth with a rotary phone that was connected to nothing at all. Sasaki began a ritual of sorts, going into the booth, dialing the phone, and speaking to his cousin about the ordinary and the everyday. He told his cousin about the small and not so small events that had filled the hours of each day. He spoke of how much he missed his cousin’s company.

In 2011, a year after Sasaki installed the phone booth in his garden, a fierce tsunami and earthquake hit Japan, leaving thousands dead and 2,500 missing, 421 of them from  Sasaki’s hometown of Otsuchi. As survivors searched for ways to express their grief over loved ones violently and abruptly wrenched from them, word of the “Wind Telephone” got out. People longing for ways to connect with the dead began showing up unannounced at Sasaki’s home and going into the garden to visit the phone booth so they could call their deceased loved ones.

Five years after the tsunami struck, a Japanese TV crew from NHK Sendai received permission to film people going into the phone booth and record their messages to the deceased. Not surprisingly, the one-sided conversations were mostly expressions ofphonebooth concern for the person who had died as well as assuring the deceased that the caller was doing their best to move forward. There were updates about how children were performing in school, what the weather was like, or their plans to leave or rebuild their homes. Tears and sighs and long pauses.

For us who believe in risen life and in the communion of saints, the knowing that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses both consoles and supports as we pray with them and for them. May we continue to be blessed by the holy ones who have gone before us, those who have companioned and loved us with a tenderness and care that endures long after their passing. May all that is precious to us continue to live and breathe in the heart of God.

Takeaway

Sit in a comfortable silence.
Call to mind a person you cherish who died and whose presence you miss or experience in a new way.
Speak to this person, sharing whatever is in your heart at this moment.
Thank them for their witness of a life given over in love and compassion.
Ask our loving God to continue to bless the bond you have shared.

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayerful support of the retreat day I led for the Daughters of Mercy and their Associates on September 23.

Please now hold in your prayer all who will be part of a Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA, October 6-8.  Thank you.

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Making Room

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, September 17, 2017

We might call it the “Summer of Displacement” for to displace is to move something from its usual or proper place to another, less familiar location.

On the microcosmic scale, I experienced displacement this summer when a fall that fractured my ankle and sternum also displaced a rib, so that every movement I made reminded me that I was no longer comfortable in my body, my home, in the same way  I had once been. And my personal experience seemed a harbinger of the displacement unfolding on a national and global level, and on a previously unimagined scale.

In the United States, we wept over the images: weary, frantic faces in Texas, Florida, and the Gulf Coast as thousands faced the flooding of Hurricane Harvey and the lingeringmakingroomworldheart copy 2 fierceness of Hurricane Irma’s hovering. Frightened faces of hundreds in a hurried evacuation, trying to get ahead of and outrun wildfires on the West coast and in the Northwest.

Those images were replicated on the world stage as our neighbors in the Caribbean woke up to as much as 95% of their world flattened and destroyed. In India and Bangladesh, in Nepal and Pakistan, hundreds left dead and thousands homeless.  In Sierra Leone, where mudslides have thousands still missing, Gabriel Fattah Manga, the lone survivor of his entire family who were swept away, spoke for many: “I lost my family. I lost my people. I lost my place.” Streets turned into rivers and forests into piles of ash. Displacement was a universal experience.

It occurs to me that displacement of any kind is accompanied by this subtext: a longing for home, a yearning to return to the familiar and the routine, to find comfort in the seemingly ordinary around which our daily lives once revolved.

In “Sending the Great Blue Heron,” a chapter in Longing for the Endless Immensity, I wrote about the multi-layered loss that comes in the wake of displacement: the shattering of notions of safety and security; the deep knowing that one’s ability to GreatBlueHeronprotect children and family is uncertain; the reality of impermanence; the loss of connection and belonging; the returning to a landscape—both inner and outer–forever altered by wind and water, by fire and fear.

The questions that face all people whose lives have been upended are not unlike those voiced by refugees, by the masses desperately seeking sanctuary from war, regional conflict, natural disasters, and extreme hunger and poverty:

Where to place our hope?
How to be in the face of what has been taken from us?
What to do with the dreams of a future that seems unrecoverable?
How to move forward so that healing can take place? Or can it?
Where to find God in the midst of such profound human pain?

I hold no answers to these questions, which I’ve been mining and revisiting most especially throughout the summer months. Instead, I offer another worldview, one that captivated many of us. Recall how, in the midst of so much suffering, we also witnessed our beautiful, yet wounded world opening its heart in welcome, in acts of profound compassion and courage.  How we also witnessed images of accompaniment, affirming that God is present in human history, even in its most tragic episodes. How we saw:

  • Strangers coming together at great personal risk to form a human chain and pull drowning persons from submerged cars;
  • Neighbors grabbing anything that would float to ferry the most fragile and vulnerable across once passable streets that had turned into raging rapids;
  • Volunteers enfolding exhausted evacuees into a reassuring embrace;makingroommancarrying
  • Refugees shivering and wrapped in blankets and hearing words of welcome and consolation in a language they did not speak but for which they needed no translation;
  • Crowds gathered in formal or spontaneous prayer for both loved ones and for strangers who were in harm’s way.

On the other side of terror and anguish, on the other side of unimaginable loss and inconsolable grief, we saw the kind of tender companioning that can come only from a human spirit cultivating spaciousness of heart. Only from those deeply practiced in making room for the other, just as the Holy One unceasingly does for us.

Takeaway

Sit quietly and revisit images or experiences that moved you recently.
Where were you inspired?
Where was your heart called to a deeper compassion and empathy?
How might these images call you to act in the days ahead?
Spend some time sending your compassion and healing energy out to those most in need of it at this moment.

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayerful support of all who were part of the retreat day for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, September 9, in Scranton, PA. 

Please now remember in prayer an ongoing formation day for the Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy I’ll be leading September 23 in Newfield, NJ. Thank you! 

Images:
generousspace.ca
joystreamhealth – WordPress
Teri De Almeida
roc4life.com

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Staying as We Leave

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, September 3, 2017

So here we are today, about to leave this place of beauty and peace and welcome. And the question at this time is much the same as the questions that face us as we move on from any time of retreat, or vacation, or sabbath time: What now? What next? How do we carry the graces and learnings of these days forward? How are we called to reach out to our neighbor with the new light and insight we now carry after these days away? How are we to leave?

I suspect those were much the same questions that Ruth noticed in the reading we heard proclaimed today (Ruth 1:1, 3-6, 14b-16, 22). In that passage, there’s a whole lot of leaving going on, isn’t there? First, there’s a famine, there’s food insecurity, so we know that longinghand copypretty much all possibility of nourishment had gone away from the town of Bethlehem. That scarcity of sustenance caused Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons to depart and make their home in Moab. Not long after they settled in, Naomi faced another leave-taking, saying farewell to her husband who had died. For a woman of her time, to be without the protection of a husband was especially dangerous.  It meant she was left with no voice, no income, no support. And some ten years later, Naomi had to once again let go of another precious part of her life: her two sons.

The leavings she experienced are the kind that can make a person feel bereft, without resources, immersed in a terrible loneliness. They echo our own experiences of what it means to be left without. To be left behind. To feel the impermanence of anything we possess, anything we love, including cherished relationships.

But in the person of Ruth, we also hear what it means to be companioned and accompanied. What it means to echo and bear witness to the faithfulness of a God who never abandons. A God who stays with us with tenderness and compassion, no matter what.

Just as God does, Ruth is present to Naomi’s loss. And just as God does, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi in her vulnerability, in her time of need and aloneness. Ruth embodies the Gospel call to love God with our whole heart and to love the our neighbor as our very selves, just as we would hope to be loved and cared for. It’s a theology of accompaniment that emphatically says: God is deeply present to us in our most solitary and lonely moments, even when it feels as if everyone else has left. And this theology of accompaniment is summed up in four words from the Book of Ruth: “Ruth stayed with her.” She stood with Naomi, she remained, just as the Holy One does.

When we leave a retreat, or a vacation, or some quiet time away, we’re not returning to Paradise, to the fullness of justice and wholemaking. We’re not heading back to the world as it could be or the world as we dream it should be.

We’re returning not to Eden, but to some place East of Eden. To the world we live in, the kin-dom still unfolding. East of Eden is the world as it is, marked by both beauty and brokenness. The world where we’re called to work, with God’s grace, to bring about the dream of the Holy for our world that is at the same time both beautiful and wounded.

So how might we stay with the graces of a retreat, even though we’re physically leaving this place?

Steve Garnaas Holmes (Unfolding Light) offers this wisdom to anyone leaving a retreat, a vacation, Sabbath time. In “Don’t Come Back Soon,” he notes, “The thing now is not to jump back uluggagefromretreatp into fifth gear and start hurrying and fretting and multitasking and plowing all night long.  Don’t come back from vacation and fill up with stuff.  Stay a little vacant.  Keep the empty place.  Stay slow.  Keep paying attention, keep being deeply present….”

“The thing as I rise from prayer,” he says, “is to stay in prayer. The purpose of prayer, or vacation, or sabbath, or sleep, is not just to come up for air so you can go back into the fray but also to slow yourself down so what you go back into isn’t a fray…”

“Even when others are panicking and hurrying and demanding, or when they aren’t doing anything at all and it’s all falling to you, even when the house is afire and you have to move quickly, you can stay rooted.  You can do one thing at a time.  Even when you’re not at your prayers, you can still be in prayer.”

He ends by saying, “Go on vacation, or into prayer, or on sabbath, early and often.  Go there now.  And don’t come back soon.”

He’s saying that, even though we’re leaving, we need to stay, to remain with the spirit and grounding of these days. So we continue to hold in our heart and prayer our beautiful, yet wounded world. We renew our intent to be present and attentive to our neighbor by loving the one in front of us, whether that person shares the same space we do or inhabits a space on the other side of the world. This is our hope and our prayer as we leave. May it be so, today and always.

Takeaway
Sit with the graces and blessings of time away, and give thanks for what has come to you.
What might be the challenges that await you as you leave?
Ask the Holy One to help you in staying rooted and centered in peace.

Images:

View from the shore of Hampton Bays, NY
Longing hands
Barnegat Light, Long Beach Island, NJ

NOTE:

This reflection was offered at the close of a guided retreat at St. Joseph’s Villa, Hampton Bays, NY, in August. Thank you for holding in your prayer all who were part of the retreat week.
After taking a break in August for my own time of quiet and healing, I’m back to blogging on Mining the Now this September. Thanks for returning!

Please remember in prayer those who will participate in a retreat day for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Scranton, PA, September 9. Thank you!

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