The Vibrations Remain

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   October 25, 2020

Just one more time. If we could only see a beloved face or hear a tender and familiar voice calling our name. Just one more time.

Here in the Northeast, as we’re approaching the somber days of November, we see orange, red, and gold leaves abandoning their homes and fluttering to the ground. Colors that remain are muted now. Green and growth give way to a season of decay and death. All around us in the northern hemisphere, the natural world speaks of letting go of the life that once was.

The stage is set to usher us into those quiet days of remembrance, All Saints and All Souls, when we celebrate precious lives but also grieve their disappearance from our view. We’ve most probably all lost someone dear to us. Perhaps we continue to grieve their death in new and sometimes raw ways.  And what we wouldn’t give to hear a loved voice, long silenced, call to us once again.

Jordhan Madec, Unsplash

John Bull and later Annie Reneau both tell a story that speaks to our personal and collective longing for “just one more time.” They note that, in the Underground system in London, there are many announcements a traveler hears, automated instructions and various recordings. Among those announcements is a voice that warns, “Mind the gap.” For decades, that same voice repeated the reminder to be cautious, but it was replaced by a new digital system in 2012.

Weeks later, though, the old voice was back. And it was back because of the kindness of Underground workers. Around Christmas time that year, the staff at Embankment Tube Underground station were approached by a woman who was clearly upset. She kept asking them where the voice had gone, but they had no idea what she was talking about.

“The voice,” she explained. “The man who says, ‘Mind the Gap.’”

The staff noted that all the old Underground messages had been replaced in 2012 by a new digital system featuring different voices with more variety.

Still distressed, the woman blurted out her reason for being upset at the change. “That old voice,” she revealed, “was my husband.”

In the seventies, Dr. Margaret McCollum explained, her husband, Laurence Oswald, had been the man who had recorded all the Northern Line announcements. He had died in 2007.

She was bereft, and only one thing seemed to console her. Every day, on her way to work, she got to hear Laurence’s voice. Sometimes, when her loss was especially raw, she found comfort in just sitting on the platform at Embankment and listening to her husband’s voice cautioning, “Mind the Gap,” over and over. Listening to his voice had been her routine for five years, and now the sound of his voice had been abruptly taken away from her.

The staff at Embankment were apologetic, offering to copy the original recording of her husband’s announcement if it could be found. She thanked them politely but knew that was unlikely.

But one day in the New Year, as Margaret McCollum sat in Embankment Station on her way to work, over the speakers she heard a familiar voice. It was the voice of a man she had loved so much and never thought she’d hear from again.

“Mind the Gap,” said Laurence Oswald.

Because it turned out that many of the staff at Embankment and within London Underground understood firsthand what it meant to lose loved ones. They knew what a consolation it would be if they could hear those beloved voices one more time. So they searched Archives, pored over old schedules, hunted for tapes, restored and digitized them. They held Margaret’s grief as their own. And together they gave her the gift of just one more time. And then some.

Michael Fallon, Unsplash

What about us? What voices do we long to hear? What hands do we yearn to hold again? Which of the holy ones who have walked among us and who now live in glory in risen life would we give anything to see and hear again, even if for just one more time?

As we remember our holy ones on the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, we may grieve, yes. We may weep, yes. We may feel an ache, an emptiness, a void, yes. But let us also give profound thanks that in this life we were loved so extravagantly by these friends of God, not just one time, but for always.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Call to mind and hold in tenderness your deceased loved ones.
Tell them what you are most grateful for in them.
Spend as long as you like holding this graced memory.
Ask them to bless your life going forward.

Featured Image: Lewis Parsons, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please know that I hold in my heart and prayer the memory of your dear ones now living in resurrection light.

I also ask you to hold in your prayer the Grey Nuns of Pembroke, Ottawa, Ontario, with whom I would have been offering a guided retreat October 18-28. With the U.S.-Canada border closed and the pandemic surging on the U.S. side of the border, that retreat was postponed to 2021.

And, of course, please join me in holding in prayer the upcoming U.S. elections.

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Just Don’t Call It Little

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     October 11, 2020

If you, like me, live with an awareness that every act is consequential, read on. If you hold to the tenet that no act of love is ever lost, forgotten, or wasted, read on.

Last week I drove to the Post Office and was approaching the front door when a man who was exiting held the door open for me. As I saw him, I realized I’d forgotten to put my mask on, so I murmured my thanks and said I had to go back to the car to retrieve it. When I returned a few minutes later, the man was still waiting for me and still holding the door open. I thanked him profusely.

“Oh,” he responded. “No need for thanks. It’s such a little thing.”

Not at all! I shared with this stranger that what he had done, an act of kindness in waiting patiently and holding a door open, was in no way a small thing in our world. It had consequences. It sent me into the day feeling noticed and valued. In my understanding of how the Universe is knit together, “little” should never be used by ourselves or another to downplay the force field of love that we can offer one another.

Joshua Earle, Unsplash

I confess, the word “little” is a trigger point for me, and not because I’m 5’2” and petite. I say “Yes” to little when it’s used to describe things that are actually small in size. But “No” to little if it’s being used to diminish or dismiss the worth of any act for good set in motion by the human family. I believe our Universe is bonded and held together by incalculable words and deeds of care and compassion that might seem slight or insignificant but that are the stuff of our lives. They enrich our everyday moments with blessing. And they are not little.

An attentive mother cutting her toddler’s grilled cheese sandwich into fourths because that’s the way she likes it.
An exhausted father reading a favorite bedtime story one more time.
A teacher spending extra time on Zoom to help a struggling student.
A caregiver finding a favorite song to play for an ailing parent.
A teenager bagging groceries with care.
A writer wrestling to bring to birth words that she hopes will inspire.
A housekeeper wiping down touchable surfaces to insure the safety and protection of customers.
An activist living with intention and protesting peacefully for the common good.
Any one of us pausing to pray while viewing the day’s headlines.

Alison Luterman calls much of what we’re about in our everyday lives “the slow invisible work that stitches up the world day and night, the slow unglamorous work of healing.” There’s nothing little about this! Childcare. Cooking meals. Nurturing the growing needs and gifts of a young child. Ferrying children from one sports event or dance practice to another. Creating art. Praying with intention and awareness. Seen or unseen, this invisible work makes the Universe a place of greater beauty and hope. And it is not little.

Last week I led days of retreat for forty-three Sisters from three different religious communities. We began every session with an extended period of breathprayer, holding in love and compassion the needs of our world and breathing peace and acceptance out the windows from our chapel space and into a world longing for welcome and inclusion. Perhaps you felt those energies of love.

William Recinos, Unsplash

I wonder if the poet, Hafiz, had that in mind when he wrote:
“Now is the time for the world to know
that every thought and action is sacred…
Now is the season to know
that everything you do
is sacred.”

Sacred, yes. But little, never.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you are beginning your day, ask for blessing on your thoughts, attitudes and actions that you will carry into the hours ahead.
If you are near day’s end, review the actions that have been part of your day and name the energies of love that you have sent out into the Universe.
Ask the Holy One for a deepening awareness of the power of love and intention.

Featured image: Sai de Silva, Unsplash 

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayers for the October 5-9 guided retreat I offered for the Nursing Sisters, Sisters of St. Joseph, and Cenacle Sisters who reside in Rockville Centre, NY. Special thanks to Joan McCann, CIJ, for her amazing organization and hospitality, and to all the Sisters for their prayerful presence.

Before the limits put in place because of COVID-19 restrictions, I was scheduled to travel at this time to Pembroke, Ontario, to offer two guided retreats for the Grey Nuns, October 18-26. Please hold in your prayer all who would have been part of these days. The retreat has now been re-scheduled to 2021.

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Discovering the Holy Beyond Our Species

Humberto Braojas, Unsplash

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM September 27, 2020

When Basil Pennington wrote, “I am a place where God’s love turns up in this world,” might he also have been thinking of creatures beyond the human family? I like to think so.

Most recently I read about a female humpback whale who had become so entangled in hundreds of pounds of crab traps that she struggled to stay afloat. Her tail, her torso, her mouth were wrapped in ropes and lines. After a fisherman discovered her and radioed for help, a rescue team arrived, assessed her condition, and concluded that the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her. An extremely dangerous attempt, because a simple slap of her tail could easily kill a rescuer.

After hours of cutting and removing lines, the divers successfully freed the whale, who swam off in circles, then came back to each rescuer, one at a time, nudged them and pushed them gently. Some divers said her movement, which felt like exuberant gratitude, was the most touching and profound experience of their lives. Certainly, the man assigned to cut the rope out of her mouth felt himself exposed to her soul. He said that the entire time he was freeing the line from her mouth, the eye of the whale followed his every move intently. He was so haunted by looking into that enormous eye that he says he will never be the same. He was shaken by soul.

In this story, the place where God’s love turned up in the world was in the skills and the care of the rescue team, certainly. But couldn’t it also be true that God’s love turned up in the jubilant dance of a freed humpback whale and the grateful gestures she offered to her awe-struck rescuers?

God’s love has turned up for me in a Golden Retriever who offered the wordless comfort of laying his head on my lap and nuzzling me at a time when I struggled with a painful dilemma from which I longed to extract myself.  God’s love has looked back at me in the unblinking, inquisitive gaze of a wild pony on Assateague Island. God’s love has appeared off the coast of Vancouver in the witness of a pod of orcas tenderly caring for their calves.

Steve Halama, Unsplash

Hopefully, we’ve all been moved by incredible acts of compassion and care offered by the human family. Might we not also expand our worldview to embrace our animal and plant kin, our relatives who also serve as that sacred place, that mystical reminder, of the presence of the Holy?

Where has God’s love turned up for you recently?

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you have a companion dog or cat or other animal, invite them to sit with you, if they’re so inclined.
If you’re without such a companion, call back the memory of a non-human creature you have loved or cared for.
Offer thanks to these creatures who reveal the face of God to us.
Offer praise to their loving Creator.

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayerful support of all who were part of a directed retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, September 21-27.

Now please hold in your prayer the Nursing Sisters, Sisters of St. Joseph, and Cenacle Sisters who reside in Rockville Centre, NY and who will be part of a guided retreat I’m offering October 5-9. Thank you.

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The Expectations of Beauty

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    September 13, 2020

Let’s hear it for words that open doors, invite exploration, encourage daydreaming. Let’s savor questions that send us down the rabbit hole to be transported into new, unexpected, and transformative ways of knowing. Let’s linger with phrases like “Why?” and “What if?” and “I wonder…” Let’s applaud parents, teachers, mentors, caregivers, friends, and so many others who have liberated our curiosity and imagination by encouraging our use of the question mark.

Goldenrod and New England Aster,
Burton Wetlands State Park

And let’s take in the wisdom of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In an interview with Krista Tippett she relates that when she entered forestry school as a young woman, she offered a question as her main reason for studying botany. Her why: she had long wondered why purple asters and chrome yellow goldenrod, often intermingled in the wild fields where she lived, looked so beautiful together. She was really asking her signature question, “Why is the world so beautiful?” In response, she was told “that that was not science, that if I was interested in beauty, I should go to art school.”

Fortunately for us, Robin Wall Kimmerer moved forward undeterred. She focused her deep attention on the living world of plants, seeking to know not only their names but also their songs. In time, she discovered a biophysical reason for why New England asters and goldenrod often grow together: the complementary colors of purple and gold, being opposites on the color wheel, are so vivid that they actually attract far more pollinators than if those two plants grew somewhere apart from one another. Each plant benefits from combining its beauty with the beauty of the other.

Kimmerer observes that she pays a price of sorts for what she notices in aster and goldenrod, because their beauty requests something of her. “When I am in their presence,” she reveals, “their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.”

Perhaps you, like me, have sensed that expectation of reciprocity your entire life. Perhaps your formative years were grounded in what we now call creation spirituality. Perhaps you were encouraged, even expected, to “waste” time daydreaming. To ask sometimes unanswerable questions. To befriend tulip trees and marigolds and phlox. To ponder the caginess of crows. To wonder what the dog hears beyond our ears. To marvel at the industry of ants. To star watch.

Hopefully, these months of social distancing and showing respect for the human lives  around us have kept us all at a respectful space apart from one another. But happily, the same precautions don’t apply to our neighbors in the plant kingdom. Perhaps we’re among the blessed who have spent hours, maybe even days, inhaling the fragrance of a summer garden, or discovering mystery on a nature trail, or simply sitting and gazing and feeling ourselves welcomed into the plant kingdom.

New England Aster, The Hills magazine

If any of those are true for you as they surely all are for me, then clearly we have taken in an abundance of wild, extravagant artistry and grace these past months. And then Kimmerer’s question arises: What does such beauty ask of us? How are we becoming the complementary color? How are we making something beautiful in response to our immersions in awe, astonishment, wonder?

How are we continuing to embrace the question, “Why is the world so beautiful?” And what, then, does such beauty ask or expect of us?

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If possible, do this in the presence of a living plant, flower, shrub, or tree.
Inhale their gift of healing oxygen.
Listen to and take in any wisdom they offer you.
Speak your profound thanks for their beauty.
Bow to the Creator of this green energy, this irrepressible life force.

NOTE:
I’m grateful for your returning to Mining the Now after a pause during August.
I’m grateful also for your prayerful remembrance of all those who were part of two retreats I led during August, a virtual guided retreat for the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood, and a virtual directed retreat.

Please remember in prayer also those who would have been part of a guided retreat, “Many Voices Made of Longing,” that I was scheduled to lead August 27- September 3 at St. Mary by-the-Sea, Cape May Point, NJ. That retreat has been re-scheduled to August 26 – September 2, 2021.

Now may I ask you to hold in prayer all who will be part of these coming events:

September 18: A virtual Zoom Retreat for members of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

September 21-27: An in-person Directed Retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA. I’ll be one of the guest directors this week. Thank you.

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Still Singing

birdsvincent-van-zalinge-ECPZmD3V_cQ-unsplash copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM      July 26, 2020

Perhaps you, like me, need no alarm clock on spring or summer mornings. Whether we’re immersed in the natural world or surrounded by brick and mortar, most probably the barely rising sun is accompanied by birdsong of some sort. The chatter of robins and chickadees and cardinals, maybe the clucking of pigeons or the cooing of mourning doves, is as reliable as that 5:30 AM buzzer for rousing us from sleep. Birdsong is our invitation to enter into a new day.

It was birdsong that lingered in my consciousness as I worked on another writing project and came across this astounding quote from Scott Hoezee in Earth Gospel:

“Some time ago an ornithologist observed a single red-eyed vireo singing its song 22,197 times in a single day! Conservative estimates say that in North America alone there are as many as six billion land birds. So let us be conservative and say that on a given day in the season of spring—the time of year when birds tend to sing the most—each of these birds sings its song ten thousand times. That would be, in North America alone, sixty trillion songs in just one day.”

Besides being amazed by this statistic—a bird singing its song ten thousand times in one day–I get why birds would be singing the most at this time of year. Spring is the season of so many joyous milestones: finding a mate, starting a new life, discovering a purpose together. It’s the season of brooding over eggs, watching in awe as chicks make their way to the light, learning to be a fierce protector. It’s the season of plentiful plump earthworms and returning insects to round out the menu for ever-hungry, ever clamoring little beaks.  It seems birds simply can’t keep themselves from singing at such a happy time.

Summer continues the season of excitement and discovery. Feeling the sun’s warmth, sheltering a growing brood, testing the flap of unsteady but eager young wings as fledglings learn to fly, teaching a master class in foraging for a next meal. Singing and singing and singing.birdsgary-bendig-WPmPsdX2ySw-unsplash copy

But what about the rest of the seasons, I wondered, thinking about our own cycles  where abundance seems to give way to diminishment, where delight is sometimes replaced by pain and loss. Do birds still sing in autumn when greenery begins to enter into the cycle of dying, when food sources give way to decay? What about when some are summoned to follow an internal compass and navigate to foreign lands? What about when the endurance of feathers and wings is tested to the verge of utter exhaustion? Singing and singing and singing.

And then the harshness of winter: snow and wind and ice pelting their feathers; barren shrubs and trees offering no protection from the elements; last year’s nests abandoned as no longer life-giving. Is it even possible to find anything to chirp about in winter?

I’ve learned that our feathered neighbors may sing a bit less in fall and winter, but that they never stop sending out their cries and caws and whistles and songs. Their early morning chatter may become subdued, but never muted. Singing and singing and singing in every season of life.

I thank our winged neighbors for reminding us that, no matter what is unfolding in our lives, no matter what season we may find ourselves in, there is always, always a song lingering in our throats. At times it may be as faint as a whisper or as muffled as a broken cry. But it is there, at the ready, always as near as the Holy One.birdskyle-szegedi-8SV4bmzMqy8-unsplash copy

The poet, Mary Oliver, wrote that she believed in singing “especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed.” I invite you to delight in the following song pouring out from 140 musicians and singers at the height of the pandemic in New York City. Broadway was dark, jobs had vanished, the future was uncertain. And yet, these artists gathered together, summoned their gifts, and opened their hearts to ask the rhetorical question: How can I keep from singing?

How, indeed.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
As you pause, pay attention to whatever song your heart is singing at the moment.
Name that song with tenderness and compassion.
Ask the Holy One to help you to sing it as best as you are able.
If you’re so inclined, sing your heartsong aloud as a blessing.

IMAGES:
Vincent Van Zalinge
Gary Bendig
Kyle Szegedi

NOTE:
It’s my custom to take a break from blogging during the month of August so I can savor some time for my own retreat and renewal. 

After that, from August 15-21, I’ll be connected with the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood, for a virtual retreat instead of their in-person retreat at Hampton Bays, NY.  

And I will miss gathering with retreatants at St. Mary by-the-Sea, Cape May Point, NJ, August 27 – September 3. That retreat has been re-scheduled to next year, August 26 – September 2, 2021. 

Please hold all who are or would have been part of these retreat experiences in your prayer and know that we will remember you in ours. Thank you. 

I look forward to returning to Mining the Now in September. Meantime, stay safe and well and have renewing and relaxing summer days whenever you can!

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Living Like a Pollinator

bumblebee in lavender copyresized

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    July 12, 2020

We seem to follow the same start-of-the-day schedule, the bumblebee and I. These days I’m working virtually from home, so in the cool of the early morning, I head down the stairs and out to the patio to water my pots of young mint and basil and lavender. Then on to the large container that is home to Chatty Cathy, a yellow hibiscus who lives up to her name. From there, down the steps to a tiny garden patch bursting with black-eyed Susan, marigold, echinacea, and a single lavender plant that is the lone survivor of a brutal winter. Though the plant is listed as a perennial, this is the first time I’ve ever had lavender return, and it’s celebrating this triumph by sending up purple spikes continuously.

A lone fuzzy bumblebee makes his morning rounds with me. Who can tell if it’s the same bee at the same time each day? I’ve read that bumblebees can actually recognize faces so I like to imagine he gives me a quick sideways glance with his compound eyes,  remembers that I’m a place of both safety and welcome, and then enters into the work of the day as we move side by side. The bumblebee is as much in love with the lavender as I am and seems to spend its entire morning being present to one purple blossom after another. One time, in fact, he embraced a single bud and remained motionless for so long that I thought the bee had died. Not a bad way to go, inhaling beauty, I thought. But it seems the bee was simply intoxicated, made drunk by flowery extravagance, and eventually had his surfeit of bliss and moved on.bee in other lavenderIMG_2015 copy

As I watch my bumblebee neighbor flitting from flower to flower, I’m reminded that we’ve both been put into this world for essentially the same purpose: to be a pollinator. Pollinators are mutually beneficial to other species as well as their own. As a pollinator, I desire to move from relationship to relationship, from person to person, from my own species to other families, all the while leaving a trail of compassion and kindness and care and beauty in my wake. I hope that after any one of these encounters, the person or animal or flower that has just been in my company will exclaim as Mary Oliver did after drinking cold water At Blackwater Pond,

“oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?”

What indeed? I suspect Paulann Petersen, Oregon’s poet laureate, must have been secretly observing the activity in my garden and predicting where the dialogue between the bumblebee and me would inevitably lead. Her poem, “A Sacrament,” paints such a charming picture and calls us to a heightened awareness of our place in this world:

“Become that high priest,
the bee. Drone your way
from one fragrant
temple to another, nosing
into each altar. Drink
what’s divine—
and while you’re there,
let some of the sacred
cling to your limbs.
Wherever you go
leave a small trail
of its golden crumbs.

In your wake
the world unfolds
its rapture, the fruit
of its blooming.
Rooms in your house
fill with that sweetness
your body
both makes and eats.”

bumblebee2 in lavender copyToday, may we drink of what’s divine. And at day’s end, may we notice that some of the sacred is indeed clinging to us, leaving a trail of golden crumbs in all the places our feet or our hearts have taken us.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If your day is just beginning, image yourself as a pollinator leaving traces of the Holy wherever your day takes you.
If you’re near day’s end, reflect on the people and places you’ve encountered. Where and how have you been a pollinator?
Sit with these images and remembrances.
Invite the Holy One to cling to you as you enter the day or prepare for your rest.

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer two Zoom mini-retreats I’ll be leading: 

July 17, “Discovering Abundance,” Our Lady of Grace Spiritual Center, Manhasset, NY,    https://www.olgretreat.com/programs-retreats or (516) 627-9255 

July 20, “Breathing Our Prayer,” The Church of St. Gregory, Clarks Green, PA 

Please also send good energy my way as I’m in the process of converting my 6-day guided retreats to recorded Zoom presentation formats, a time consuming but necessary effort. Thank you! 

The safety and well-being of the Mining the Now community and our world continue to be in my heart and prayer. Please stay safe and well these days.

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Finding the Lost

crow with bauble copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    June 28, 2020

A decade ago, I lost an earring. Only one, of course, as seems to be the way with earrings, socks, and gloves. The loss of just one of a pair makes their absence more striking and noticeable. My lost earring was costume jewelry, of slight value, but it was a gift from a dear friend and held particular meaning for me.

I suspect in the jostle of my morning walk the earring had loosened, slipped from my ear, and landed on a soft bed of grass. For days afterwards, whenever I took that same path I would scan the ground, expecting to see a glint of silver. When, after weeks of searching, I couldn’t find the earring, I liked to imagine that a crow had discovered it, for crows, like some people, delight in shiny things. I pictured a jubilant crow proudly displaying my earring in its nest and cawing over its sparkling beauty.  As time passed, the earring–whether in the crow’s nest or elsewhere–disappeared from my memory.crows with shiny things copy

Something parallel happens with words. Since language is a living thing, always changing and evolving, some words cease to be part of language when they fall out of common usage. Some words are added to language to reflect new patterns of use. Words disappear from language, from memory. That’s the usual way of evolving, but the loss of certain words is cause for concern.

That concern was the genesis of the exquisite and charming book, The Lost Words. Lost, meaning no longer in our consciousness. Lost to us in the present age and lost to all who will come after us. The Lost Words came into being after a reader of the Oxford Junior Dictionary noticed that some forty common words related to nature were no longer included in the dictionary. The dropped words were left out because children weren’t using them often enough to merit a place in the reference work. Most telling, each of the excluded words  had a connection to the natural world. So good-bye to acorn and bluebell and dandelion and fern and otter and willow and wren, among others. Lost. Disappeared from children’s experience and from their consciousness. Taking their place: attachment and blog and broadband and voicemail and cut-and-paste. The indoor and virtual world was displacing the outdoor and natural one.

The authors of The Lost Words set out to create a spell book of sorts, a book to conjure back some of the disappeared, from acorn to wren, to breathe new life and usage into them. Through text and watercolors, they sought to summon these words out of obscurity and help them to live again in the voices, stories, and dreams of children and adults alike.Butterfly in garden copy

I’m writing this in the early morning hours when I savor a silence punctuated only by birdsong, the chatter of cardinal and wren and crow. It has not been lost on me that one of the gifts of lockdown for some of us has been time to re-discover the natural world, to make or renew our acquaintance with our furry and winged and green and blooming neighbors. To deepen a wider kinship as we stroll through parks or hike local trails or are stunned by the beauty of a crimson sunset. To awaken our consciousness, to feed our souls, to return us to Eden.

As it was in the beginning, when God named all of creation and saw that it was good, may it be so in our language for us and for our children, today, tomorrow, and beyond.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Sit outside or, if that’s not possible, sit indoors by a window that offers a view of the natural world.
Simply gaze at whatever is before you.
Notice what you see, hear, feel.
Give thanks to the Holy one for creating such a wonderful world.

NOTE:
Before the restrictions put in place for COVID-19, I was scheduled to offer a guided retreat for the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM – Immaculata) during this time.

This retreat has been canceled  but I ask you to remember in your prayer the IHM Sisters who would have been part of the retreat and the IHM Spirituality Center which made the difficult but necessary decision to protect and safeguard lives. I’m grateful for their wisdom and thoughtfulness. 

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Messages Within

delawarewatergap copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    June 14, 2020

There’s something mysterious about stones and rocks. When I drive through the Delaware Water Gap or pass through portions of Interstate 81, I’m surrounded by this mystery as I’m bookended by mountains, mountains that have been cut open or dynamited to make way for highways. That expansive surgery exposes horizontal layers of shale and limestone and chalk and flint deposited over thousands of years, layers that are storytellers of sorts. They speak of seasons of geography and shifts in changing climates over centuries.

I pass by these exposed entrails of mountains in awe. Yet what intrigues me even more are the stones that are intact, not cut open, not revealing their secrets. I’ve had the privilege of making the acquaintance of some of these guardians and protectors in my lifetime and am humbled by their solid, silent presence.

EPSON MFP imageOne of these stone formations is Stonehenge, a circle of concentric rings perhaps built by the Druids over 4,000 years ago. No one can fully explain how such enormous structures could have been transported without any modern engineering equipment. When I visited this site on the Salisbury Plain, I had a long list of questions to ask. I wanted to tap into their wisdom accumulated over centuries. What have you learned, I wanted to know, as you looked out into a sea of human faces? What have you witnessed of the longing and the curiosity and the spiritual hopes of the human family over the years? Deep within your stone center, has anything moved, shifted from darkness to light, because of the hopeful, reverent, or wondering gazes looking back at you?

Another stone formation dear to me are the Dolmens, stone tables scattered throughout the Southwest of Ireland. These megalithic monuments dotting the Irish landscape may stand as memorials marking lives once lived in the rugged countryside. Again, I wanted them to give up their secrets. I felt so pulled toward their altar-like formations, so drawn by the primal energy of my ancestors, that I instinctively approached one and raised my hands in a priestly blessing.

EPSON MFP imageFor me, the most intimate and personal of stone formations is the Inukshuk. When I spent a week in Vancouver, British Columbia, fifteen years ago, I explored the majestic beauty of Stanley Park every day on foot. In my hiking, I stumbled upon my first Inukshuk, five stones arranged on top of one another to create something of a human form. Since the XXI Olympic Winter Games held in Vancouver in 2010, this rock formation became the symbol of the area, but at the time of my hikes was a curiosity to me.

I learned the richer story of the Inukshuk, which is more than simply a random formation of stones. In his poem, “Inukshuk,” Rob Jacques begins with a note: “On frozen trails of the far north, Inuit people placed five stones in rough human form as a testament of endurance and as warm encouragement from those who had gone before to those who were coming after.” What a tender, loving awareness of our shared need for affirmation. What a compassionate way of leaving footprints of hope for those who will follow later. What a beautiful gesture, especially in times of uncertainty such as surround us right now. The poet continues in the voice of those who went before and who continue to speak through the Inukshuk:

“We were here. We saw sorrow.
Across our hearts, emptiness and cold
pulled hard, as they do in you now,
and we pressed on as you will do.
We did all that possibility will allow
and expect nothing less of you.
We stand guard over accomplishment
and a strong journey through all this.

See in gray desolation how we made
this five-piece thing and left it here,
a strong creation to bring you certainty
in this dreary, frozen waste, showing
you and we are keepers of a flame
melting chaos. You and we proclaim.”

I wonder, what do you and we proclaim with our lives to all who will come after us?

Takeaway:

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on a person in your life who has been an Inukshuk for you, someone who has experienced challenges yet not only endured but mentored you, cheered you on when you longed for encouragement and a sense of hope for the future.
Hold this person in tender love and gratitude.
Give thanks to the Holy One for their presence in your life.

NOTE:
Before COVID-19 canceled many events, I was scheduled to offer a day of rest and renewal for caregivers in the Diocese of Albany, NY and to lead a guided retreat for Sisters at Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center in West Hartford, Connecticut during this time.

All of these events have been canceled and re-scheduled but I ask you to remember in your prayer the communities and organizations that sponsored them. I applaud their wisdom and thoughtfulness in caring for the common good and ask you to pray for those who would have been part of this spiritual work.  

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Scentsations

trailsheddingtreemine

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    May 31, 2020

I’m starting to write this on Memorial Day while I’m out for a walk. My walking is somewhat painful and lacking in grace these days because of continuing nerve trauma. But I’m walking. And without any assistive devices. That alone borders on the miraculous and puts me in a state of constant gratitude.

As a writer, I never go anywhere without a notepad and pen, so I’m pausing to sit at a picnic table, having completed a stroll along the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail. What’s striking me is that the slower pace of my movement has invited me to notice in detail and in fresh ways how the trail has come alive with wildflowers and shrubs bursting with both blossom and scent. And one phrase keeps coming back to me. “The air is heavy with fragrance.”trailgardenia.net.copy

Suddenly, these scents pull me back to Haiti. It’s the feast of Corpus Christi in 2000, and I’m awakened at dawn not by sound or light but by the perfume of tropical flowers wafting through the window. The air is heavy with fragrance and it pulls me out of bed to take in an amazing sight: children and villagers and the Little Sisters of Saint Therese coming together to spread thousands of petals on the road. With these blossoms, they outline a ciborium, a host, a heart. Later that day, we’ll process with the Blessed Sacrament around their early morning art, strewing showers of petals and drinking in their intoxicating scent as we prayerfully move forward.

The air is heavy with fragrance. Now it pulls me toward the story of the unnamed woman (Mark 14:3-9), she who knows herself harshly judged and unwelcome in a gathering of men only. She trembles before their disdain but keeps her gaze fixed on Jesus. She pours out not only her alabaster flask of perfume but the overflow of her grateful heart. Her gesture is at once tender and extravagant, an emphatic statement of the power of love, an offering that will forever be remembered. And the air is heavy with fragrance.Anointing copy

This morning’s contemplation triggered by scent has left me wondering. What fragrance is my life leaving behind? What is the air around me heavy with? When I leave a room, when I move forward from an encounter, what lingers after I exit? My hope is that it’s an aura of compassion, a feeling of being heard, a sense of loving presence, a gentle peace. I thank all that’s blossoming and scenting the air today for reminding me that wherever I go, the air is heavy with fragrance. And the fragrance remains.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you have a flower, a scented candle, or anything that offers a pleasing fragrance, hold it in your hands.
Slowly inhale its essence.
Savor its scent and notice what moves within you as you do.
Ask the Holy One to infuse your actions today with a fragrance that remains.
Slowly breathe out a blessing.

NOTE:
Before the restrictions put in place for COVID-19, I was scheduled to spend 11 days this month offering retreats for the Grey Nuns in Ottawa, Canada, and to offer a day of restoration and renewal for caregivers in the Albany, NY Diocese in early June.  

All of these events have been canceled and re-scheduled but I ask you to remember in your prayer the communities and organizations that sponsored them. They have made the difficult but necessary decision to cancel gatherings so they can cherish lives and protect and safeguard those who would have been part of this spiritual work. I’m grateful for their wisdom and thoughtfulness. 

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In Praise of Love That Delivers

mailhandsreachingout copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    May 17, 2020

In these days of quarantine and staying at home, it may feel as if the world as we know it is shrinking. I’m not speaking of the thousands of healthcare workers and first responders who are meeting a tsunami of critical human need each day. I’m speaking of those of us staying at home, with our daily lives in some ways bounded by four walls. We are seeing less and less of people’s faces, covered as they are with a professional mask or a makeshift bandana folded over for protection, only eyes and hair exposed. We may venture out for a daily walk regulated by safe social distancing or a necessary but cautious trip to the supermarket. Is the world as we know it shrinking by the day?

Not at all! I think of COVID-19 as the great amplifier. For me, it has turned the volume up on some questions that have always resided in my heart, but which are now so loud that they can’t be ignored:

What do I fear?
What do I cherish that is greater than my fear?
What do I long for with all my heart?
What fills me with gratitude?
What do I miss most?
What have I discovered I no longer need?

I find my world expanding as I live with a new and grateful awareness of what is sometimes the underbelly of our lives: the support service people. Those who truck our goods, those who stock them, package them, disinfect shelves and registers, those who deliver our mail and our packages. I have been seeing some extraordinarily exhausted service people in my occasional trips outside.

I’m living with a fresh and renewed gratitude for Ray, my mail carrier, who is living the Post Office’s unofficial motto of “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their daily rounds.” Not even COVID-19, it seems.mailbox

With the arrival of the corona virus, I started a new spiritual practice. Every week I leave Ray a note of thanks and a remembrance of prayer in my mailbox, accompanied by a small treat—a box of M & Ms, a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer (when those were easier to come by), some homemade cookies. When I do this, I pray for his and his family’s safety and well-being and my world grows larger as I include the thousands of unnamed and unrecognized public servants who provide food and medicine and care and communication for us day in and day out.

With Ray in mind, I recently discovered a U.S. Post Office inscription different from the “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” version that’s so familiar to many of us. This relatively unknown version is inscribed at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. It was originally called “The Letter” and was written by Dr. Charles W. Eliot, former president of Harvard University. I think it is spot on in describing the heroic work of so many service workers who insure that we can go on living day to day, often at significant personal risk to themselves and their loved ones.

mailglobepackagesPerhaps you’d like to join me in praying Dr. Eliot’s words as a litany of thanks and protection for all those who serve us in so many faithful, hidden ways. I’ve added a response after each of the Smithsonian’s titles for these dedicated service workers:

Messenger of Sympathy and Love… Bless you!
Servant of Parted Friends… Bless you!
Consoler of the Lonely…Bless you!
Bond of the Scattered Family…Bless you!
Enlarger of the Common Life…Bless you!
Carrier of News and Knowledge…Bless you!
Instrument of Trade and Industry…Bless you!
Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men [People] and Nations…Bless you!

For all the ways you bless our lives, may you be blessed, today and always.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Call to mind a person who enriches your life through hidden, often unrecognized  service.
Ask the Holy One to safeguard their protection and safety.
When possible, communicate your deep gratitude to that person.
Thank the Holy One for creating them and placing them in your life.

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