The Body as Spiritual Guide

EPSON MFP imageby Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    February 8, 2020 

I just returned home from an hour spent in the healing presence of my massage therapist. I realize that this privilege is one that few have the time or means for, but for me, gratefully, this privilege is a prescribed practice in the recovery process that follows two major surgeries. Laying myself down on the massage table is also something of a sacrament, an invitation to presence and truthfulness. Someone trained in deep listening to the body, using the gifts of reverent, healing touch, calls forth the wisdom of muscle and nerve and bone and enters into dialogue with their story, which is my story.Prayer 5 copy

Over the years, I’ve developed my own daily practice of what I call bodyprayer, a way of deep listening and attentiveness to what my body is telling me. My mind can sometimes rationalize how I feel, make light of a stiffness that didn’t exist yesterday, dismiss a sorrow that lingers, or ignore a persistent yearning. In my mind, I can tell myself everything is fine. I can insist I’m over that ache of loss or that nudge of longing that simply won’t leave me alone. Sooner or later, though, all of life’s emotions and experiences express themselves in one way or another in my body. And our bodies are always oriented toward honesty.

So bodyprayer brings our whole self into holy dialogue, into a deep knowing that our flesh is God’s creative expression. We might begin with some gentle stretches early in the day. A thoughtful noticing of where there is alignment. A consciousness of what may be tender or sore. A tending to breath that makes itself heard in a prolonged sigh or a yelp of pain. A listening to the voice of faltering energy, weary muscles, or bruised  bones. A noting of the territory where healing is quietly unfolding.

After this first review, we may sit or stand in silence. We name what we see and feel and where that’s announced in our body. We linger over any part of the landscape where pain or tenderness or tightness expresses itself. Our neck may call attention to our intense immersion in our work and our failure to take a break and stretch. Our shoulders may speak to the reality that we’re carrying the sorrow of another or shouldering the anguish of the world. Our legs, aching or sore, may articulate where we’ve stood in compassion, in commitment, in conviction.

We pray to learn from our body, this container of wisdom, this wonder with all its limitations and its gifts. We utter thanks for the electrical wiring of neurons and the pulsing of blood quietly going about their everyday tasks without a thought from us. We bless the bodies of all those we’ll encounter this day, especially those who carry unrelenting pain, fresh grief, or tender scars. We welcome the body of our Earth with all its beauty and its woundedness. We imagine the sacred expanse of the cosmos and pray to honor our place in it, asking, “What does it mean to fully inhabit our lives? How shall we live so as to hasten the fullness of God’s dream for our world?”

serviceglobeEntering into the day through bodyprayer is one of the ways we can deepen our awareness of Mystery. May we see our bodies as the form designed to carry the presence of the Holy One into our time and place. May this day be one that restores and enlightens and heals both us and all who will enter it.

IMAGES:
Chris Koellhoffer, IHM – I suspect I was engaged in bodyprayer at a very early age but didn’t have a name for it yet!
IHM Communications Office – photo taken on the grounds of the IHM Center, Scranton, PA

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Listen to your body. Just listen.
Where do you hear the voice of fatigue, or sorrow, or pain, or discouragement, or utter joy?
Close with a promise to stay attentive as the day unfolds.
Bow, and give thanks.

NOTE:

Please hold in your prayer a weekend event my IHM Congregation is co-sponsoring  with Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light. Our IHM Center in Scranton, PA is in the heart of what once was the coal mining region of NEPA. So the workshop, “The Long Journey: From Extracting the Past to Cultivating the Future”, is of particular importance to us and to many in our region concerned about climate change and the well-being of Earth, our Common Home. 

Your prayerful support is welcome as is your continuing prayer for this time of my writing and planning future retreat experiences. Thank you. 

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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. 

Takeaway

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.

NOTE:
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 hopes.berlin-wall-anniversary-120000-ribbons-5-5dce81c4d9fc7__700 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!

Takeaway

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.

PHOTOS:
Fotolia
Vision in Motion

NOTE:
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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