by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM April 17, 2020
In these days when it may feel as if the very air we breathe is a potential enemy, when the familiar ground under our feet is unstable and shaky, I’ve been mining some questions: What is my role in the healing of the world? How do I carry the pain and grief of the pandemic without collapsing under the weight of that burden, without surrendering my own wholeness and well-being? How am I to be that will make some difference in our world?
I’m not a healthcare worker, a first responder, an employee in an essential business. Like many, I’m staying at home these days and holding in my heart and prayer all who are suffering due to the effects of COVID-19. But beyond that prayerful and faithful remembrance, I wonder, what does this time of pandemic call from me?
I packed up that question and carried it with me into my daily walk as I took a day off away from my usual work. Light rain was falling so I parked my car in the local high school lot and strolled close by. There was just one other car around, a woman inside staring at her phone. I wondered if this was perhaps her only chance at stillness, sitting in a car by herself in the middle of an empty parking lot. I waved a blessing to her for whatever had brought her to this place.
I started to walk but quickly realized I wouldn’t get far. After a night of rain, earthworms had left the safe haven of the grass and were strewn across the asphalt. Part of my spiritual practice is picking up any struggling living things who find themselves stranded and delivering them to safety. This stooping down and picking up made for very slow going, and my efforts were received with resistance as every earthworm tried to wriggle its body out of my grasp. But I persisted and eventually deposited each worm on a grassy stretch of soil. Now, I thought, at least some of them would be spared a slow death when the moisture on the parking lot dried up later in the day.
I came home to take a load of laundry out of the washing machine. Sleeves and pant legs were inside out. Pants and shirts clung together in a tight embrace. I gently smoothed and separated each of them. I made a few phone calls to fragile or worried friends and family, listening to their stories of fear, anxiety, concerns for the future. I responded with attentiveness to emails inquiring about calendar changes for retreats and presentations. I offered spiritual guidance online. I took a virtual tour of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I chopped a shallot, marveling at its purple veins, then fried it with some leftover baked potato for lunch.
And then I sat down to what I had considered the real work of this day off, writing my blog post. Only now I realized that what had been in front of me all morning was actually a response to the question I carried, a deep knowing that my role in the healing of the world is simply to live with consciousness so I can be the presence of Love. Present to the cries of human pain and loss I had held in my heart and prayer. Present to the stranger sitting alone in her car on a rainy day. Present to the struggle of unruly earthworms. Present to the tangled confusion of my laundry. Present to the faces on the other end of the phone or the other end of cyberspace. Present to the unfolding sacred story of another. Present to the saving beauty of the arts. Present to the generosity of shallots and potatoes giving their lives over in love for me.
I confess that in my younger years I was often puzzled by the spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. How, I wondered, could picking up a pin with love and attentiveness—an act that seemed so insignificant–ever change the world? How grateful I am now, so many decades later, to slowly discover what she intuited in her twenties: That the seemingly small elements of a day are graced invitations when entered into with consciousness and compassion. That it is we ourselves being transformed by paying attention to the Holy One at work in our hearts, in our world. That sometimes breathing the energies of love into universes great and small is all we can do. And sometimes, it is everything.
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Gently review your day so far.
Where have you noticed yourself acting with generosity, care, compassion?
Thank the Holy One for the graces of this day, and ask for even greater spaciousness of heart for tomorrow.
Today, when I was about to post my blog, I came across this glorious, sweet poem from Jane Hirshfield, one of my favorite poets. I think it speaks beautifully to today’s blog post so I’m adding it here as a bonus for all of us:
When I Could Do Nothing
by Jane Hirshfield
Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.
It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.
A morning paper is still an essential service.
I am not an essential service.
I have coffee and books,
silence enough to fill cisterns.
It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.
Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.
Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.
Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?
It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.
Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.
I lifted it, took it outside.
This first day when I could do nothing,
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.
Please join me in setting an intention to prayerfully remember our fragile world and its suffering people during this pandemic. Whoever you are, wherever you are, and however you are at this moment, know yourself held in love and tenderness through the days ahead.
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