by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM November 8, 2020
Sometimes we scribble it without thought; sometimes, with careful deliberation. Sometimes, from a hesitant hand; sometimes, as a bold, emphatic statement. Though there are many ways we can sign our name, all of them are consequential.
Not long ago, I signed my name to my mail-in ballot, blessed it, and then dropped it off in a ballot collection box. Like so many of us, I was mindful of the significance of that gesture. In the days leading up to national elections in the U.S., I lived with awareness of the implications of voting and sought out many practices to nurture calm and a sense of hope. Breathprayer, a long-time daily practice, became an anchor for my own peace of heart. On Election Day itself, I silenced the TV and social media during the day. I signed on to the company of others who shared my desire for inclusion and welcome: a Prayer Vigil on Zoom offered by Shalem Institute; a prayer service with my IHM Sisters, Associates, and friends who gathered remotely wherever we were at 1:00 pm to enter into an intentional coming together for the common good. Perhaps you were able to join in the wave of prayer with people of good will from across the globe, all of us spending the day leaning into contemplative prayer.
And I did one other thing to sustain my hope. I searched for a story that might speak to the promise of which the human family is capable, even in—and perhaps especially in—times of crisis and division. Justin Turner met my search with a story about Chiune Sugihara, who was new to me. Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania at the time the Nazis began to round up Jews for deportation to death camps. His wife, Yukiko, is credited with suggesting to him a plan that would save the lives of their Jewish neighbors although also placing their own lives at risk.
The plan: to sign and issue travel visas to Jews. After attempting three times to receive permission from the Japanese Foreign Ministry to lawfully grant visas, and after being turned down three times, Sugihara began to grant visas against direct orders. Mindful of the Nazi presence closing in, he hand-signed visas 18 hours a day. According to witnesses, on the very day his consulate closed and he had to evacuate, he was still writing visas and throwing them out the window of the train as it pulled away. It’s estimated that the Sugiharas saved between 6,000 – 10,000 Lithuanian and Polish Jewish people by this single courageous act of resistance: signing unlawful travel visas.
A year before he died in 1985, Sugihara was honored as Righteous Among the Nations and he and his descendants were granted permanent Israeli citizenship. Even with those honors, he died in near obscurity in Japan, leaving his neighbors shocked when people from around the world showed up at the funeral for this quiet, unassuming man.
Years later, in 1998, Sugihara’s widow, Yukiko, traveled to Jerusalem. There she was met over and over by tearful survivors of the Holocaust. Each of the survivors clutched in their hands a paper that held the difference between life and death: a yellowing travel visa bearing the signature of Chiune Sugihara.
Most probably none of us will ever need to sign our name at the risk of our lives as the Sugiharas did. But we are called to sign on to invest our lives in a more loving world:
whenever we parent a child into attitudes of service and kindness;
whenever we sit with a friend weeping heartbreak and disappointment;
whenever we exercise our right to vote in an election;
whenever we listen to a lonely neighbor tell the same story over and over;
whenever we add our signature to petitions supporting the needs of the most vulnerable among us;
whenever we hold a steaming cup of coffee or tea and breathe our morning prayer for the healing of our planet.
We thank you, Yukiko and Chiune, for your bold witness. We thank you in the name of all the neighbors for whom your signature made possible the promise of life and more life.
Remind us, please, to notice this day:
Where are we being invited to sign our name with courage and compassion for a more just and loving world?
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Rest your hands on your lap, gaze at them, and bless them.
Savor the power that is yours to create, with God’s grace, a better future.
Ask the Holy One to grow your awareness of where you need to “sign” your name today.
Featured image: G Jao, Unsplash
On November 8, please hold in your prayer a gathering of my IHM Sisters, Associates and friends. We are hosting a tree planting ritual to commemorate the planting of 175 trees in honor of the 175th anniversary of our founding as Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In this ritual, we’re welcoming our neighbors of the tree and branch and bud families who have joined our Welcoming Space in Scranton during this anniversary year.
Please also remember all who would have been part of a professional day for spiritual directors I was scheduled to lead on November 12 at the Franciscan Spiritual Center, Aston, PA. That day has been re-scheduled to March 12, 2021.
And of course we continue to pray for hope and healing for these United States, as well as for our neighbors throughout our beautiful yet wounded world.
Looking ahead, you may be interested in these two Advent events I’ll be leading:
December 5, 10:00 – 3:00, a virtual retreat day on Zoom, “Entering the Rhythms of Advent” hosted by St. Cyril Spiritual Center, Danville, PA, (570) 275-3581, https://sscm.org/spirituality/spiritual-center-retreats/2020-retreat-and-spiritual-presenters/
December 11-13, Directed Prayer Weekend, Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA. I’ll be one of the guest directors for this weekend. http://www.jesuitcenter.org/
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