Enlarging Our Hearts

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for October 29, 2017

Just how much can one human heart hold? I doubt we’ve heard anyone complain of experiencing an over-abundance of joy, but could the same be said of what happens when we carry overwhelming pain and loss?  Where can one go, what can one do, when weighted down not only by one’s own significant sorrow, but also by the wounds and grief of others?

Many years ago, I viewed the film, “Ordinary People,” with a discussion group. The film presents a family torn apart by tension and tragedy. One son, the golden child, has beenheartinbunchofleaveslovethispiccopy lost to drowning while out on the water in a sailboat with his brother. In the wake of this family tragedy, the surviving son is wracked with grief and bearing the guilt of his own survival. The parents are numb and walking around in a stunned daze.

There’s a memorable scene where the mother, so brittle she looks as if she might shatter into a thousand splinters of glass, has been holding her grief in a clenched heart. She retreats into aloofness and into creating the perfect place setting on the formal dining room table. Over and over she folds and re-folds the napkins, she straightens the silverware, she seems to ignore her family’s emotional collapse unfolding right in front of her.

When discussing the film in our group, we noted the seeming lack of affect exhibited by the mother in this scene where she tends to the details of the dinner table and seems unaware of the living, breathing husband and son in anguish right in front of her. One of the women in our group responded to that scene by observing, “Perhaps that’s all she can do. And perhaps it’s everything.”

Over time, we all experience personally and in the world around us the strange creature that is grief. How we carry it, sometimes named and sometimes unacknowledged. How we hold it in our bodies. How it can disorient us, cause us to misplace and forget, how it can sneak up on us in unguarded moments. How it can seem so supersized as to make a return to the ordinariness of life and the simple routines we once followed seemingly impossible. How it can transport us to a foreign landscape where nothing resembles the terrain we once knew.

In “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet, recalls her own response to seeing and holding the pain of others:

“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.”

What happens to our heart when we accompany loved ones through many long, lonely hours of the night or on their journey away from us through cognitive losses? What happens to our heart when we assist and comfort people in the worst moments of their lives, the devastation of natural disasters, the abrupt loss of life through violence, the exquisitely painful and unexpected end of a cherished relationship?

At the sight of the brokenness of our world and at the prospect of our own heart’s breaking, the temptation might be to withdraw, to close the door and retreat into isolation. At such times, though, what we may most need is self-care and the affirming company of those who give our hearts a profound hearing. All living creatures benefit from air and water and sunlight and stillness to help them flourish and expand. We are no different, so why not seek out those who offer us these same gifts, those who can own their inability to save and simply be a presence, the face of love and compassion. Those who have felt the collective pain of the world, named it, and entered into the deep, inner soul work that invites their own hearts to become more supple, more open, more gracious, more whole.

heartpinterestcopy

What a grace and a gift it is at such times to discover in our world someone whose heart has been enlarged, someone who embodies David Whyte’s wisdom that, “The task is not to live a life in which we never have our heart broken. The task is to become larger with each heartbreak.”

With faithfulness and persistence, may we keep stretching and growing those tender heart muscles.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness and become aware of what your heart holds at this moment.
Return to Warsan Shire’s words:

“i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?” 

What does the world say to you in answer?
Spend a few minutes sending healing energy to this place of pain, your own or others’.
What one thing might you do today to alleviate the dis-ease of someone else?
Carry this desire with you as you go through this day.
Give thanks to the Holy One who inspires this action in you.

Images:
lovethispic.com
lovethispic.com
pinterest.com

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer now all who will be part of “Praying at the Threshold,” an All Souls’ day program I’m leading at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA on November 2.

Please also remember all who will be part of a day on Gratitude held at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY, on November 4.

And all who will be part of a retreat day for the faculty and staff of Our Lady of Victories School, Sayreville, NJ on November 10. Thank you!

 

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Living Like a Perennial

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM,  October 15, 2017

For those who have lived through the turning seasons over many years, the signs are unmistakable and easily read. We observe trees adopting different hues, some spectacular orange or fiery red, some a subtle gold, some simply making the journey from shades of green to a dull brown. We notice black-eyed Susans spent and releasing their golden petals. We see coneflowers paring themselves down to a bristly center. Even the hardy marigolds, sensing the time of blooming is near an end, have begun to shift their energies inward.

When we live in harmony with the natural world, the season of autumn doesn’t deceive perennialdreamstime.comus. We know that what appears to be a time of dying and diminishment is anything but.  Perennials, all of which have delighted us with their greening and growing over the past six months, now are taking stock, reflecting on the remains of the season, and gathering themselves into a state of readiness for the unknown to come.

It’s the perennials, the lavender, the echinacea, and more, that catch my notice at summer’s end. For these neighbors, the questions in this time of change become: How to move from the abundance of spring and summer into the diminished supply of warmth and light in autumn? How to live in this present moment in ways that will nurture us in the stillness and darkness ahead?  What must we cultivate already now to protect our rootstock from a winter breathing unrelenting cold and harsh winds?

The questions of autumn speak to us as well. What does it mean to be perennial, to live through the years mindful of and mining the present moment? To stand at the edge of an unknown season, not knowing with any certainty what lies ahead or how many summers turning to fall we will witness again. To enter both the seasons of greening and the seasons of scarcity with audacious hope. To love extravagantly, broadcasting seeds of tenderness and compassion without calculation or assurance of return. To see beyond present and seemingly hopeless realities, affirming the potential and promise of what has been sown and trusting in the slow work of God.

At this time of harvest when we’re surrounded by the remains of flourishing lives, what do we need to lean into more deeply? Perhaps John Soos’ lovely poem, “To Be of the Earth,” might offer an entry point for our contemplative reflection year-round:

perennialburpee.com“To be of the Earth is to know
the restlessness of being a seed
the darkness of being planted
the struggle toward the light
the pain of growth into the light
the joy of bursting and bearing fruit
the love of being food for someone
the scattering of your seeds
the decay of the seasons
the mystery of death and
the miracle of birth.”

May it be so, through all the years of our lives!

Takeaway

Center yourself in stillness.
If you live in a place where the changes of autumn are visible, spend some time outdoors contemplating the signs before you.
If you live in a place where seasonal changes don’t occur, look at photos or artwork that depict shifts in the natural world.

What do you notice?
What moves within you as you gaze?

Share this with our loving God whose presence and care abide and endure through every season.

IMAGES:
HighCountry.com
dreamstime.com
burpee.com

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayerful support of the Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA October 6-8. 

Please hold in your prayer at this time a day of retreat, October 21, that I’ll be co-leading. The day is offered for Red Cross volunteers who have been deployed in a ministry of presence, caring for the needs of others in recent and ongoing disasters in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, California, and beyond. 

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