by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM December 29, 2018
We’ve only recently celebrated Christmas, a time when we reflect on how the Holy One took on our human condition in Jesus. Our flesh. Our human body with all its beauty and glory. Our flesh with its limitations and restrictions. Our flesh beloved of God. Our flesh susceptible to weakness, fatigue, illness, heartache, disappointment even as we are the beloved of God and made in the image of the Holy.
The Christmas season is full of such contrasts. Just as we’re experiencing the coming of Emmanuel, entering the spirit of rejoicing and hope and promise, we’re thrown into the horror of the unimaginable: the slaughter of fragile and cherished little ones at the command of a tyrannical king. So soon after we’ve settled in to the peace of the Nativity scene, we’re jarred into a return to the reality that this world we humans inhabit is at one and the same time both beautiful and broken. The Magi’s choice to follow the star, to share with Herod the exact time the star had appeared, and then to bypass Herod on their way home set in motion the butchering of every male toddler in the city of Bethlehem. We don’t know if the Magi ever learned that their action had catastrophic consequences. But it did, as Kate Compston writes in Bread of Tomorrow,
in following their star, the star
that was to lead them to
engagement of the soul (their own),
they blundered mightily and set in train
the massacre of many innocents.”
I see this reality in my ministry as a spiritual guide. I often sit with and accompany people who are haunted by or anxious about choices made many years ago, choices whose unintended consequences become more visible with the passage of time. These may be choices made in anger or fear or haste, but they may also be choices made with every effort of discernment, prayerfully, thoughtfully, from a space of deep listening.
Embedded in our human DNA, it seems, is a longing to be certain that we’re choosing rightly and wisely. We hear echoes of this concern in the plaintive cry of John the Baptist as he was languishing in prison and sent a message to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?” Perhaps we’ve heard that same desperate cry in our own decision-making: “How should I choose? Am I on the right path? Has my life so far been spent in moving in the direction God desires for me?”
The reality is that, sometimes, in spite of our most sincere and good intentions, our choices don’t always play out in the way we hoped. A life partner may turn out to be abusive. A job that promised to offer us meaningful work may be stifling and demoralizing. An occasion when we’ve gathered up our courage to respectfully broach a difficult topic with a co-worker, friend, or family member may blow up in our face. I might suggest that, after these unexpected outcomes, we first enter into prayerful reflection and then eliminate and outlaw from our vocabulary three phrases: “I coulda, I shoulda, I woulda.” These words contribute nothing to our healing but instead send us into a spiral of berating ourselves, propel us into a revolving door of regret or shame or a sense of failure. We may forget that, no matter what choices we have made, in God’s time there is always hope of redemption and forgiveness and renewal and turning one’s life around.
We make our choices with only the light available to us at the time. Years later, through experience and reflection, we may often see with a new wisdom, a new clarity, a new insight and perspective. Can we accept ourselves for being limited and flawed and imperfect? The Holy One certainly does. Can we intuit that what our culture deems mistakes and failures can be a school of profound learning? Can we embrace our humanness in all its aspects?
Though we can’t change the past, we can, with God’s grace, change our response or attitude towards the past and view it through the compassionate eyes of the Holy One. There must be no room in our spiritual imagination for a God who insists we stay mired in the mud of self-loathing and self-recrimination.
Our celebration of the Incarnation takes place just a week before we turn the calendar page and enter into a New Year. May this New Year represent for all of us a fresh start, a chance to begin anew, an opportunity for a deeper awareness of just what being human and made in the image of the Holy One means. May it be so!
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Name one blessing for which you’re especially grateful.
If you carry regret or shame or brokenness as you enter this New Year, name it and share it with a loving God.
Ask for the grace to look at your life with the compassionate eyes of the Holy.
Close by breathing the energies of compassion and healing out into the universe.
May you and all in our world experience every blessing of peace and wholeness in the New Year to come.
Please continue to keep my mobile spiritual ministry in your prayer. I deliberately hold the first few weeks of January as a time of stillness for reflecting, writing, and creating retreats and presentations for the year ahead. Your prayerful support will help me to enter into a deep listening to the Holy One at work during this time. Thank you.
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