Singing in the Places of Loss

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM,  March 23, 2019

Loss has been taking center stage in recent news coverage carrying images of natural disasters. Wildfires burning uncontrollably, devouring acres of forests and wiping entire towns off the map. Unrelenting rains triggering massive floods and mud slides. The faces of survivors, numbed by the enormity of what has been destroyed, combing through the ruins for precious mementos. I’m reminded of seeing my own sister many years ago sifting through the ashes of her home for irreplaceable photos of her three young boys. That’s the look of loss that haunts me and that I see repeated over and over in media coverage around the globe.

AleppoWe’ve probably all experienced losing something in our lives: keys, phone, money, glasses, paperwork, and more. My own recent loss of a wallet (with a happy ending), paired with coverage of disasters and areas of conflict, triggered some musing on what it means to lose or be lost.

We refer to the childhood story of the boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41-50) as one of loss, although in typical preteen response he shrugged his shoulders and told his anxious and emotionally drained parents that he was fine the entire time of their frantic searching. In Luke’s Gospel (15:4-32), the adult Jesus tells his version of loss: the sheep, the coin, the child. These might more aptly be named the parables of the lost and found, because in the heart of the Holy One, the search and the hope for safe return never ends, and the desire to welcome home never ceases.

We experience losses of various kinds in addition to material possessions and objects that are part of our everyday lives. We also name as losses illness, injury, and mental and physical diminishment that alter our ability to do what we once did. We may suffer the more subtle loss of a significant relationship that gradually grows distant or is fractured by misunderstanding or hurt. When a reputation is damaged or a trust is shattered, that loss can change the dynamics of how we are with one another. And certainly, death might be called the ultimate loss, resulting in the physical absence of a parent, friend, partner, loved one. We see clearly that part of the human family’s profound yearning is for restoration and repair and return.

This deep longing was visibly present in an episode of Britain’s Got Talent that featured as one of the entrants the Missing People Choir.

The choir is composed of people whose family members, mostly teenagers and young adults, have gone missing. Also in the choir are people who work to find the lost ones and people who support the work of searching for those lost or finding out what happened to them since their disappearance.

The choir was born out of profound grief and came from longing for a way to find meaning in a terrible tragedy, the tragedy of not knowing where their loved ones had gone. In singing, the choir remembers all of the mothers, fathers, partners, guardians, families whose arms ache for homecoming, who grieve for all that has been lost. They echo the consolation and hope of the poignant song, “The Place Where Lost Things Go,”  from Mary Poppins Returns.

The Missing People Choir does not surrender their hope. They refuse to live as if present realities—no matter how full of despair—are ultimate. They console and comfort one another and offer the kind of support only those who carry this kind of grief and heartache can fully understand.

And then they sing. Together. They sing as if the disappeared are held in tender memory and in every note, pause, and vibration. They sing as if death and burial are not the end of the story. They sing as if resurrection has already happened.Missing People Choir copy

Sometimes, you know, singing is all we can do. And sometimes, it is everything.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on a person you love who has become lost to you in some way (e.g., death, separation, distance, differences).
Name what you are missing about this person.
Hold this person in the tender love of God.
Bless this remembering, and give thanks.

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayer supporting all who gathered for a Lenten Evening I led for the National Pastoral Musicians, Scranton Chapter, on March 12. 

Now please hold in your prayer all who will be part of these events: 

March 29-31: Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA. I’ll be one of the directors for the retreat.

April 7:  Presentation for the Rosary Society of St. Mary’s Parish, Manhasset, NY. 

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Present Here and Now

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   March 8, 2019

This is the reality of living in a world both beautiful and broken: that there are some things, perhaps many things, that are far beyond our power to fix and to cure. What are we to do, how are we to be, when the curing and the fixing are not ours to enact, when we’re faced with our inability to save ourselves or others in the ways we desire?

Waitingcouplewithwheelchair copy

As we enter into the season of Lent, a possible response to these questions lies in a simple Lenten prayer:

“Jesus,
by the power of your holy cross,
may we walk with you as you change the world.”

May we walk with you, Jesus. May we accompany you on your final, painful journey. May we companion you in the crucified peoples of our world, near and far. In other words, may we be present as you are today. 

Brother David Steindl-Rast says that “being present means…not only being present to another human being, but present to the water we drink, the flowers we see, to everything that comes our way—every thing, every person, every animal, every plant, every situation in life.”

Perhaps no single thing, he observes, has greater impact on our quality of life than our capacity to be present, moment to moment, as life unfolds. Everything that matters hinges on this capacity that opens the door to meaningful experience. Presence allows us, calls us, to be available to all that life has to offer us.

Recently, one of our Sisters who was on hospice care entered into her final journey, her last days among us on this Earth. She was beautifully accepting and at peace with this reality which none of us had the power to alter. Yet we were not powerless. Every day another of our Sisters would come to visit, sit by the dying one’s bed, and reverently and wordlessly massage her feet. Such a witness before us: holding the grief of the world while at the same time acknowledging the human family’s inability to cure. This was walking with Jesus in his last days. This was embodying the presence of the Holy One. Sometimes the seemingly small gestures are all we can do. And sometimes they are everything.

In Out of Solitude, Henri Nouwen wrote about exactly this kind of tender accompaniment when he observed, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Mary, the mother of Jesus, knew both the exquisite pain and the absolute joy of accompaniment and presence. We can imagine her encountering her son as he stumbled toward crucifixion. How could she look into his haunted eyes, view his bruised and mangled body, and not want to save him? That his rescue was beyond her power was anguish of the most excruciating kind for her tender, loving heart.  And so, she remained. She breathed the energies of compassion toward her beloved son’s wounded body and spirit. She was present to him in the only way possible to her on the Via Dolorosa.

We also know this longing, this collective ache for presence. We see presence embodied when we refuse to be silent and instead cry out as witnesses to the injustice and oppression in our world. When we sit with a family member struggling with dementia and listen with profound attention to the same story we’ve heard ten times already. When we embrace or pray with someone who has just received a diagnosis that turns a world upside down. When we bake a cake or deliver a meal to a grieving family. When it seems there is nothing left to do, there is still everything possible to be: present, faithful, tending to the cries of our world.brokenheartineye

Our call, this Lent and always, is to listen to these voices and accompany them. Not to run from them because they make us uncomfortable. Not to avoid them because we have no solutions to offer. But to remain, to stay with, as the Holy One does.

On this Lenten journey and every day, may we be the gate through which Breath enters into and heals the universe. Today and every day, may we become open to the tender Presence that transforms us and changes the world.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Hold in compassionate awareness your family, friends, co-workers, nation, or world community with clear and loving eyes.
What wounds or brokenness—here at home or around the globe–move your heart and cause you to weep?
In the quiet, be a prayerful presence to the suffering of the Holy One in you and in the crucified peoples of our world today.

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayerful support of the day I led for women and men religious of the Dioceses of Brooklyn, NY and Rockville Centre, NY. Special thanks to Maryann Seton Lopiccolo, SC and Pat Moran, CIJ for the invitation. It was my great delight to be in the good company of both new and familiar faces from the NYC/Long Island area. 

Now please hold in your prayer a Lenten evening of presentations, “Making Music in a Beautiful, Yet Wounded World,” which I’ll be offering for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, Scranton Chapter, on March 12.  

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