From Woundedness to a New Way

Myrrhoilandpieces copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    January 26, 2020

Myrrh and the Magi started it all. I had never really pursued an understanding of that third gift of the visitors from the East, the one we can rattle off after gold and frankincense. But I learned recently that myrrh is a fragrant resin produced when certain small thorny tree species receive wounds that penetrate the bark and go deeper into the wood. The resin then gathers and hardens into crystals, and those crystals can be used for medicinal purposes. So myrrh, I discovered, comes from the wounds of a tree, the brokenness of a living thing, and from those wounds comes a new path towards healing.

We can stand in awe at the healing power of our bodies in the aftermath of wounds or fractures. Something as tiny as a paper cut can marshal blood vessels and platelets to tangle together, form a clot, and seal a wound. We can bow down in wonder at the way a fracture summons new bone growth, knitting together, forming a callus, and sometimes surpassing the unbroken bone itself in its strength. Our bodies intuitively seem to know that wounds and breaks, though in no way desired or sought after, are also not the definitive end of the story. They can be an invitation to unexpected new ways of looking at life and moving forward.

From woundedness to a new creation, from brokenness to agents of healing: that seems to be the invitation myrrh provides. Henri Nouwen offers an unusual perspective on our brokenness, the physical and emotional pain we carry from the multitude of ways in which the human family is capable of hurting one another. He acknowledges the reality of suffering and the reality that not everything can be cured or fixed. And in The Wounded Healer, Nouwen notes that the Christian community is a healing community for this surprising reason: “not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision.”

Nouwen suggests that our suffering in the present moment might in some way be the myrrhtree copyplace, the locus where God intimates a new creation. He believes that the pain we carry right now from the wounds of loss, rejection, failure, shame, and exclusion can open us to fresh ways of seeing and being in this world: perhaps a deeper listening, a more engaged relationship of prayer, a newfound patience, a heightened compassion for the pain of others.

The poet, Jane Hirschfield, further describes some of the avenues of healing and communion available to us in “For What Binds Us”:

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly wherever they’ve been set down–
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong than the simple, untested surface before.

There’s a name for it on horses, when it comes back darker and raised:
proud flesh, as all flesh is proud of its wounds,
wears them as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest –

And when two people have loved each other,
see how it is like a scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend. 


Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Take a tally of any significant emotional or physical scars or calluses you carry in body and spirit.
Has the experience of adjusting to a new reality caused you to look at life in a fresh way?
What learnings have been part of your healing?
Spend time in conversation with the Holy One.
Pay attention to what you hear, and give thanks.

Thank you for remembering in your prayer all who were part of the retreat experience I led for the Board of Directors of the Haiti Solidarity Network of the Northeast this past week.

During the winter, I take one month to break from being on the road and devote myself to writing and creating and planning future retreat experiences. Please note that this year that will happen during February and I’d be grateful if you send your prayerful energies my way for that purpose. Thank you!

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Reframing Walls

diverse world


by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    January 12, 2020

No, not that wall, but an equally divisive one. This past November 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the day in 1989 that the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Built in 1961 to keep disaffected East Germans from fleeing to the West, the Wall divided East and West Germany and became a symbol of oppression and division.

Jennifer Rosenberg, in “The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall,” describes the overnight erection of the Wall and the consequences of living in a separated Berlin:

“Just after midnight on the night of August 12–13, 1961, trucks with soldiers and construction workers rumbled through East Berlin. While most Berliners were sleeping, these crews began tearing up streets that entered into West Berlin. They dug holes to put up concrete posts and strung barbed wire all across the border between East and West Berlin. Telephone wires between East and West Berlin were also cut and railroad lines were blocked.

Berliners were shocked when they woke up that morning. What had once been a very fluid border was now rigid. No longer could East Berliners cross the border for operas, plays, soccer games, or any other activity. No longer could the approximately 60,000 commuters head to West Berlin for well-paying jobs. No longer could families, friends, and lovers cross the border to meet their loved ones. Whichever side of the border one went to sleep on during the night of August 12, they were stuck on that side for decades.”

And so it was. Perhaps the Wall is so etched in my memory because I remember very clearly announcing to friends during those decades of separation that the Wall, that formidable, indestructible symbol of a divided city, would surely never come down in my lifetime.

But on that November night in 1989, I was happily proved wrong. That night, the crashing of sledge hammers was accompanied by jubilant singing, ecstatic dancing, shouts of disbelief, and tears of remembrance.

There are two profound and moving signs of hope I hold on to about the Wall. It never occurred to me at the time to wonder what happened to the thousands of tons of cement that had once formed the solid, impenetrable symbol of division. I learned later that much of the concrete was pulverized, reformulated, and transformed into building material to construct roads for the newly opened city of Berlin and its suburbs. I love this image of reframing, taking something that had once symbolized a torn city and warring ideologies and turning it into an agent of communion, helping people to be reunited and move forward with ease, to travel to new landscapes, to be exposed to fresh ideas and to share common copy

The second sign of hope that touched me was the observance of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2019. Near the Brandenburg Gate, an art installation was set up. Thousands of strips of cloth, colorful fabric streamers named “Visions in Motion” held greetings, wishes, hopes and memories from Germans and from the global community. Now over the footprint of the menacing wall waved a thing of beauty, signaling welcome and spaciousness of heart and communion and hope.

As we’re in the early stages of this new year, the Wall might serve as an invitation to reflect on the promise of Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.” In this passage that we heard during the season of Advent, Isaiah insists that God can and does bring forth new life where none seems possible.

So if the year past has seen the building of personal walls as seemingly immovable as those built of concrete, may we commit to the tough labor of restoring cherished relationships severed by hurts or words spoken impulsively in anger. May we examine whatever exclusionary and unwelcoming walls have gone up in our own souls, in our families, neighborhoods, communities, relationships, nation. May we work, with God’s grace, to collapse those boundaries. May the Wall remind us of what a loving God repeats over and over: that it’s not too late, it’s never too late.

Happy and spacious new year!


Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Might there be any walls of judgment, hurt, or anger residing in your heart at this time?
What inner soul work might it take to break down those barriers?
Ask the Holy One to sit with you and strengthen your hope that new life and new direction are possible.

Vision in Motion

Please hold in your prayer the following events:

January 13-16: A guided retreat I’m offering for the Carmelite Sisters of Baltimore, Maryland.

January 25:  A day of reflection and discernment with the Haiti Solidarity Network of the Northeast (HSNNE) in Caldwell, NJ.

Thank you!

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