The Things We Carry

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 4, 2018
Perhaps it’s an arena to which you’ve never given any time or thought. But the recently released official portraits of President Barack and Michelle Obama open the door to this line of imagining and thinking out loud. Suppose you were having an official portrait done. Or suppose your likeness was about to be added to the collection of holy cards that depicts the saints.

What symbol, or image, or object might best sum up your life? What would you be drawn or painted as holding in your hands that would illuminate the core handswithworldcontribution or direction of your life, something for which you were known or remembered, something that would make those intimate with you blink with recognition and say, “Yes, that’s it!” or “Exactly!” or “That’s so you!”

Some years ago, an issue of Outside magazine (April 2011) included an article, “The Things They Carried,” where people close to six daring but departed icons of the sports world told Ryan Krogh their remembrances of elite athletes who didn’t come home alive. Their stories featured the most cherished relics, the signs of the sport they excelled in, the tools or instruments they carried with them. “The Things They Carried” included the hat and ax of a mountain scout; the paddle of a kayaker; pontoon skis; a surfboard. Each thing these lost ones cherished was accompanied by a story to expand on its symbolism.

Slip into many Catholic churches today and you’ll likely see a statue depicting the namesake of that church. Many times, the statues will show the holy ones holding something in their hands that speaks to their life and witness: St. Therese with a bouquet of roses underscoring the blessings she continues to shower on our world; St. Francis of Assisi, surrounded by his relatives in the animal family—a wolf, a dove, a deer; martyrs holding the instruments of their deliverance to death; saints carrying a basket filled with bread as a symbol of their lifelong tending to empty hands and empty bellies.

All of these invite the question: what about us? What are the things we carry? What would best capture the essence of who we are? What might an artist discern and select to memorialize as the best of what we have shared, the most significant of what we have carried into our beautiful, yet wounded world?

Might we be pictured as a person immersed in awareness of the Holy One while at the same time listening and ministering to the needs of family and friends and the cries of our collective wounds? Do we perhaps grace those around us with wisdom mined from our own journey of brokenness to wholeness? Do we embody audacious hope for those whose steps are faltering? Is our spaciousness of heart so large that it can offer welcome even to those who represent the worst aspects of the human condition?

How to image what we hold interiorly in our hearts as being offered to others. Quite challenging, isn’t it? How to symbolize the interior movements of our soul, the stretching toward inclusion, the struggles–both public and unspoken–that have called us to become who we now are. How to illustrate how our lives bless this world.

handsyoungoldAs we take up the call, with God’s grace, to move towards fulfillment whatever is unfinished and incomplete in the lives of our ancestors, might we pause to reflect on how we are also furthering God’s dream for our world in this time and place?  Not an easy practice, but potentially a rich and revealing one.

How about it? What are those things we carry?


Sit in a space of stillness.
Give thanks for all that the Holy One has birthed in your heart and that you have also carried into our world.
Prayerfully gaze at and reflect on your hands.
What have they held, cherished, or shared?
Give thanks and ask that the work of your hands and heart may continue to bless our beautiful, yet wounded world.


Thank you for your prayerful support of my ongoing Lenten offerings. Please hold in your prayer these next gatherings that I’ll be leading and all who will be part of them:

March 5–11: Directed Retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA
March 16:      Lenten retreat day for the faculty and staff of St. Mark’s High School, Wilmington, DE
Thank you!

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2 thoughts on “The Things We Carry”

  1. Chris, I am a new and eager follower. Again, so great to have seen you at our motherhouse in early February. I see now that I can “make a retreat” with you on your blog. Loved this first one that I received via FB. Grateful for the graces!

    1. Beth, welcome aboard! I, too, was delighted to re-connect with you in Dubuque during the retreat, and I look forward to continuing the connection in Cyberspace. Thanks for your kind words.

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