Where We Begin

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     October 10, 2021

Recently, I reflected on fractures of both the physical and emotional kind. Most probably, we’ve all suffered at least one, perhaps both, types of the wounding of bone and spirit.

So of course I was drawn to a story about Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist. She devoted her early work and writing to expeditions to Samoa and New Guinea and published much of the research and insights she had gleaned from her twenty-four field trips to South Pacific peoples.

As a frequent lecturer, Dr. Mead was once asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about the discovery of early signs of advancement and the development of crude tools, such as fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But Mead’s answer surprised her audience. She commented that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. A broken bone that had had the necessary time and care to recover.

Dr. Mead expanded on her answer by noting that, if this happened in the animal kingdom, an animal would most certainly die. With the excruciating pain of a broken leg, an animal can’t flee from danger, can’t walk to the river for a drink, can’t hunt for food. An injured animal is easy prey for hungry predators. There’s simply not enough time for an animal whose bone has been fractured to heal on its own.

But when a broken femur, the largest bone in the human body, has healed, that healing is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell. Someone has bound up the wound. Someone has carried the person to safety. Someone has tended the person through recovery. That tending is a sign that someone has not only noticed another’s suffering; someone has acted on what they’ve seen.

De. Mead’s observation that civilization begins when someone has helped another through difficulty has echoes of the parable of the Good Samaritan, doesn’t it?

In this powerful parable, others see the wounded one, but that’s all they do. A priest notices the person bleeding and lying in a heap on the other side of the road. The priest remains on his side of the street and keeps going. A Levite also observes the wounded one, but that’s all he does–observe, notice from the security of the familiar place where he stands, and then continues his journey without a second thought of the human suffering he’s just witnessed across the street. Neither of the observers moves from seeing to acting. Neither moves closer. Perhaps they don’t want to get involved. Perhaps they’re fearful of someone who seems unlike themselves and their life experience. Perhaps they’re too busy or don’t want to be delayed. Let’s face it, the neighbor Jesus describes rarely makes an appearance at a convenient time or in a familiar guise. But, as Barbara Brown Taylor notes, the Good Samaritan is the one who crosses the road to the other side where pain and anguish and need are so visible, the person who gets close up to human suffering.

Brett Jordan, Unsplash

And ultimately, it’s in the crossing over to the other side of the road where civilization starts and empathy and compassion are in evidence. Because the neighbor is often on the other side. Outside our comfort zone.  Beyond our familiar life experience. In the invitation to grow in spaciousness of heart. So Dr. Mead’s description of civilization and Jesus’ call for compassion are evidenced and embodied in those who give their lives over to the great act of courage: embracing the other. Bandaging the wounds of hatred and division. Pouring oil and wine and loving presence into the spaces of loneliness and separation and the longing for belonging.

Today and every day, as we approach the other side of the road ahead, may we not only notice but also move our love into action. May we find the courage to be neighbor in the fullest sense of the word.


Sit in stillness with the Holy One. Recall an experience where you noticed the pain or suffering of another.
What was your reaction to this need? Your response?
Ask the Holy One for the grace to recognize the divine in each person you encounter in the days ahead.

Featured Image:  Zac Durant, Unsplash

Please hold in your prayer these upcoming events:

October 12-14:
Travel and a day of renewal for Caregivers (October 13) in the Diocese of Albany, NY. This has been re-scheduled several times since the pandemic began, so I’m especially delighted to be finally spending the day with these compassionate and caring people. Special thanks to Harley McDevitt, Director of Pastoral Care for the Diocese of Albany, NY and to her team for their patience and persistence in bringing this day together.

October 15-24:
Travel and a guided retreat for the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Pembroke, Canada. This is another event that has had its share of re-scheduling. Please pray with me that the border crossings will be uneventful in both directions! My deep thanks to Sisters Anne Taylor and Bonnie Zentner who have been unfailingly helpful and thoughtful with all the ups and downs of both the pandemic restrictions and the requirements for international travel at this time. I’m especially grateful to be spending time with this community related to the Grey Nuns, who at one time offered hospitality and shelter to our IHM foundress, Theresa Maxis, when she was exiled from our community. We have never forgotten that gracious gift!

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Reading the Bones

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   September 26, 2021 

The breaking is only the beginning. If you’ve ever fractured a bone, an index finger, a thumb, an ankle, a rib, a leg, a wrist, a shoulder, or any other bone on your skeleton, you know it takes but the flash of a second for a moment of inattentiveness, haste, or loss of strength to lead to a simple slip, a tripping over a pet or a rug, a fall on an icy driveway. These moments can easily become an occasion for breaking as well as an invitation to enter into a process of mending and healing.  

I suspect most of us are less interested in the splintering of bones than in the healing of them, a process full of mystery and movement and the gathering of quiet, invisible forces. The body responds to inflammation by signaling specialized cells to marshal their energies and begin healing. The Reparative Stage starts within a week of the break by forming a callus near the area of fracture. With the Remodeling Stage, new bone will start to grow and replace the callus. Amazingly, this new bone will be stronger and thicker in the spot of the fracture than any of the surrounding bone.  

What lessons can bones teach us? What stories can they reveal to us? Hidden under our skin, our skeletons are works of wonder, full of discoveries and adventures happening right this moment under layers of flesh. How impressive and inspiring is the body’s ability to heal what has been fractured, to arrive at a new version of wholeness, to offer parallels to the life of the spirit. 

nijwam swagiary, Unsplash

Perhaps at some time in our life we’ve experienced fractures of a different, but equally painful, sort, the type that involve the shattering of dreams or the breaking open of our hearts. The abrupt ending of a cherished relationship that we didn’t choose to terminate. The desire for a deeper level of belonging that isn’t reciprocated. The painful disappointment of not being considered or offered a job that we wanted or needed so badly we could almost taste it. The letting go of a cherished friend or beloved family member to the completion of their life among us. The wondering, in times of intense dryness in prayer, if God has utterly abandoned us. The standing before the wreckage of a home bearing the scars and utter devastation of fire, flood, earthquake. How, we may wonder, can life ever return to anything approaching wholeness after this violent fracturing? 

Rehabbing after a bone fracture can be slow, painful, and inconvenient as muscles and tissue also cry for attention. Rehabbing of the heart is no different. It requires a significant investment of patience and time and rest and reflection and deep inner soul work. I’m told that our bones never forget the crushing, splintering, and bruising that has been visited upon them, and that any fracture will show up on an X-ray for years, revealing a history of our breaks and injuries.  

Why should our heart pain be any different? All that we have suffered, endured, struggled with, anguished over is imprinted on our souls. But like the healing of broken bones, our hearts can also move closer to a new kind of wholeness, accompanied by the Holy One and those who love and support us. We may not ever forget our losses or our heartache, but perhaps with God’s grace, we can integrate them into the fullness of who we are becoming. Yes, it’s possible, as they say, to grow strong at broken places, perhaps even to a level of new life once thought unimaginable. The wonderful Jan Richardson reminds us of the possibilities hidden within and mined from loss in “Blessing for a Broken Vessel”: 


Do not despair. You hold the memory of what it was to be whole. 

It lives deep in your bones. It abides in your heart that has been torn and mended a hundred times. 

It persists in your lungs that know the mystery of what it means to be full, to be empty, to be full again. 

I am not asking you to give up your grip on the shards you clasp so close to you. 

But to wonder what it would be like for those jagged edges to meet each other in some new pattern that you have never imagined, 

that you have never dared to dream. 

(Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace, copyright 2015) 


Sit in stillness with the Holy One. Take an inventory of your fractures, physical or emotional. 

Is there anywhere you might still be in need of healing? 

Ask the Holy One for grace to move forward on the path to the abundant life God dreams for you and for all. 

Featured Image:  Owen Beard, Unsplash 

NOTE: Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of this upcoming event: 

October 4-8:  Guided retreat at the residence for the Congregation of the Infant Jesus, which includes Nursing Sisters, Sisters of St. Joseph (Brentwood, NY), and Cenacle Sisters. Thank you! 

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Baggage Claim

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  September 12, 2021

Perhaps you have been something of a traveler these summer months in the North when sunshine and blue skies have issued an invitation to be on the move. Most of my own travel has been related to my mobile spirituality ministry and has included my first flight since the beginning of the pandemic, from Scranton, Pennsylvania to San Antonio, Texas. Like anything else in our lives, travel can offer learnings, and my trip was a meditation on the things we carry.

When I was scanning the departures sign at the Charlotte airport for my connecting flight, my heart sank  when I saw that I would have to trek from Terminal E to Terminal A. Because my originating flight from Scranton was on a smaller plane, I had had to leave my wheeled laptop bag at home. No problem, I thought, and filled a shoulder bag containing my laptop, a speaker for my music presentation, and all the handouts and materials for the retreat I was about to begin. I set out fairly confidently.

Cynthia del Rio, Unsplash

But as I trekked to my connecting flight’s gate, I felt that laptop strap dig ever more deeply into my shoulder. I began to glance with undisguised envy at every piece of luggage on wheels that zipped past me, their owners blithely unaware and showing no sign of pain or discomfort. That’s when I began to reflect on the things we carry.

The things we carry are not only luggage of all shapes and sizes. Scanning the travelers crowding the airport terminal, I saw parents carrying weary toddlers, some in their arms, some riding high on strong shoulders. I saw faces carrying the anguish of tears or the unbearable weight of farewells. I saw welcoming arms embracing the beginning of homecomings. I saw hands clasping the warmth of a beloved’s company or compassionately supporting the frailty of an elder. 

And I began wondering about all the intangible things we sometimes unconsciously carry or take with us. The things we cherish and desire to preserve and protect. The heaviness of emotional burdens triggered by the day’s news or by experiences of loss. How to be, what to do with those things we carry that can overwhelm us or paralyze us or fill us with despair?

Surely, Jesus understood how we can sometimes come to the edge of exhaustion because of the burdens of life and the baggage we carry (Matthew 11:28-30). I’m partial to the translation in The Message Bible, which helps to break open familiar words:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest…Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

During the months leading up to the 2020 national elections in the United States, I discerned that I needed to cut my consumption of news because of the negative impact that intake had on my life. I wasn’t happy with the person I was becoming. I needed to return to a life in balance. I needed to cut back on the things I was carrying that were deadening to my spirit and my emotional and spiritual well-being.

“Learning to live freely and lightly” can sometimes involve a life-saving letting go. We’ve probably heard dramatic stories of mountain climbers or parachutists who have had to let go of the weight of some things they carry in order to preserve something even more precious—their very lives. There’s a scene in Apollo 13 where NASA engineers frantically exhaust every possibility of what they can safely jettison from a damaged spacecraft so that it will be light enough to save the lives of the astronauts on board and to successfully return to Earth using the remaining energy available.

There are elements, of course, that we should hold on to, that we should be carrying. I’m reminded of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Shoulders.”

ke atlas, Unsplash

“A man crosses the street in rain.
Stepping gently, looking two times north and south, because his son is asleep on his shoulders.

No car must splash him. No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo but he’s not marked. Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE, HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ears fill up with breathing. He hears the hum of a boy’s dream deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able to live in this world if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing with one another.

The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling.”

May we take time in the days ahead to reflect on what we literally or figuratively carry on our shoulders. May we engage in the deep, inner soul work of discernment: reflecting on what to hold onto and cherish because it is for our good and for the common good; what to let go of and jettison from our lives because it weighs down our spirit, impedes our spiritual growth, or pushes against God’s dream, which is the fullness of life for all. May we make room for the courage for love, a love that enables us to carry welcome and compassion and reconciliation into our beautiful, yet wounded world.


Sit in stillness with the Holy One. You may want to sit with your hands open, your palms up.

Who or what are you carrying that you desire to continue holding in love? Might there be anything that you discern is weighing you down and burdensome?

Ask the Holy One for light so that you may choose with wisdom and grace.

Featured Image: Caroline Selfors, Unsplash


Thank you for returning to Mining the Now after a hiatus in August.

On this 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, please join me in remembering in prayer those who are carrying terrible burdens of loss, emptiness, or sorrow from that day, as well as all who suffer and live with the effects of violence every day across our world.

Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of this upcoming event:

September 19-26:  Directed retreat with the Sisters of Mercy, Sea Isle City, NJ. I’ll be one of the guest directors for this retreat.

Please also remember those who would have been part of a directed retreat at St. Mary by-the-Sea, Cape May Point, NJ, September 13-19. I would have been a guest director for this retreat. St. Mary’s has permanently closed so we remember with gratitude the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia who so graciously welcomed many of us to this sacred space over the years.

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Play Time

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     July 18, 2021

This far into summer, play is on my mind. My weeks are full of guided and directed retreats, presentations, and spiritual direction. But August is coming, and in August it’s been my custom to limit my ministry commitments and give myself over to restorative play in its various shapes and sizes. I’m fully aware that the freedom  to do this is a privilege denied to many. I’m also aware that wholeness and well-being demand that I find ways to integrate renewal and restoration into my life.

How many of us have ever imagined God at play? Can we picture the Holy One delighting in creating this world we’ve been given, in all the creatures that are winged and finned and four-legged and two-legged and no-legged? I often taste a perfectly ripe strawberry, savor a spectacular sunset, dip my toes into the ocean, and say to God, “Wow! What a great idea this was. I hope you had fun making it!” I confess I draw the line at mosquitoes (What was God thinking?) and some slithering neighbors, but I know they have a place in the economy of creation, so I praise God for them as well.

Gita Krishmamurti, Unsplash

Joyce Rupp echoes my question of God at play by asking, “Can we image a God who sings a happy song over us, a God who dances with shouts of joy? Could our God be the one who laughs and enjoys life? Scripture tells us that God’s playground is creation and the people who dwell in it. God enjoys this beauty, sees that it is good, and takes great delight in all that is.”

Hopefully, many of us experienced an early childhood where play was central, where we could daydream and make up games and stories, where we felt no limits on our creativity. Perhaps now we need to spend a bit of time returning to a child’s frame of reference and watch the little ones for whom the world and all its newness and freshness are experienced through touch and taste and sight and smell, as Terri Mifek wrote of her granddaughter in Living Faith:

“Our two-year-old granddaughter is absolutely captivated by the flowers in our backyard. She doesn’t just look at them; she leans in and twists her neck so she can study their underside. We joke that maybe she will grow up to be a botanist or perhaps a contemplative…Watching her makes me realize how important it is to maintain that childlike attitude toward the mystery we call God.”

“The mystery we call God” can be discovered in daydreaming, in star gazing, in imagining, in sitting with creation, in doing nothing at all. Perhaps these summer days hold an invitation for all of us to pause, lean in, and gaze in awe. Perhaps we’re being led to a deepened awareness that opportunities to encounter the Holy One’s unrestrained joy might be right around the corner. God at play, God dancing, God doing a jig in the embrace of a friend, the comfort of community, the midnight sky, the stillness of prayer, the lines of a cherished poem. All we have to do is show up, be present, and pay attention. Who knows when a God ready to play might be just as near to us as our very own selves? 

Nabil Naidu, Unsplash

This summer, may we find space or may we make space on our calendars. May we show up. And may we play!  


Sit in stillness with the Holy One. If possible, sit or walk in a place surrounded by Nature, or listen to beautiful music.
Simply let your mind wander wherever it desires. When your time of play ends, offer a prayer of thanks for the gift of this leisure.

Featured Image: Senjuti Kundu, Unsplash


This will be my last blog until September. As is my custom, I take time during the month of August for offering one guided retreat, my own personal retreat, writing, and some time to be renewed and restored. I look forward to being in touch with you again in September and I’m grateful for your following of Mining the Now.

Please hold in your prayer the following events:

July 23-24: Annual Assembly of my Congregation, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scranton, PA)

July 31: I’ll be the keynote speaker and will facilitate process for the 175th anniversary celebration of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Immaculata, PA). This was originally planned for 2020 but was re-scheduled because of the pandemic. It will be my great joy to join with my IHM Sisters both in person and virtually for this celebration.

August 14-20: Guided retreat for the Sisters of St. Joseph (Brentwood) in Hampton Bays, NY.

August 26-September 2: Please remember all who would have been part of a guided retreat I was scheduled to lead at St. Mary by-the-Sea, Cape May Point, NJ. Sadly, St. Mary’s has now closed. We hold in tenderness and gratitude the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia who, for so many years, offered this place of beauty and peace to many of us.

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Finding the Place of Safety

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    July 4, 2021

In some way or another, we are all seeking it. It lives and finds expression in our shared longing for the place where we can lay down our burdens, where we can be accepted as our true selves, where we can breathe deeply in safe surroundings. It’s the place we can call home.

This past week, I stayed at the IHM Spirituality Center (Immaculata, PA) to offer a guided retreat. Every morning early in the day, and every evening towards dusk, I walked outside in anticipation. There they were, across the road. A family of deer, cautiously leaving the cover of the woods to feed on grass and alfalfa clippings on the center’s beautiful and welcoming land.

Mike Tinnion, Unsplash

I usually spotted what I presume was the mother–carefully watching every move–and at least seven or eight very young deer grown beyond the spotted fawn stage but romping on still wobbly legs. Occasionally, a young buck would make his appearance, standing still with his head raised in a gesture of guardianship. Always, the adults were alert to any changes in the environment. A sudden noise, an approaching car, a footstep on the pavement across the road would result in a hurried gathering of the family and a swift and graceful departure into the cover of trees and shrub.

It occurred to me during this past week that we are all seeking what the deer were. A place of safety, where our lives are without threat. A place that feeds our bodies and also nourishes our souls. A place that offers us refreshment in the cool of the evening and restful sleep as the sun disappears. A place we might name and nestle into as home.

I’m led during this unseasonably and dangerously hot summer in the Pacific Northwest to call into my prayer those who don’t have the gift of a place to call home, a sheltering space, a place that’s largely free from violence, the forces of hatred, and the harshness of the elements. From my air-conditioned room, I look out my window and can’t imagine anyone remaining outside for more than a few minutes in the scorching sun and brutal heat.

During my week at the IHM Spirituality Center, I saw posted images of IHM Sisters from Immaculata, Scranton, and Monroe who at this very moment are ministering to weary, traumatized people at the California border. I’m moved by my Sisters’ service at the same time that I wonder at both the courage and the desperation that impels people to leave their home and embark on a treacherous trek across unforgiving terrain in the unrelenting heat of this summer.

As we observe, in the United States, the founding dream of this nation, I wonder how many of us here and in other countries will be giving thanks for the freedoms and the choices available to us in whatever place we call home. May we widen the space of our hearts in compassion and welcome for those who journey on blistered and bloody feet, who face angry and swelling waves, who risk everything on the promise of arriving at a safe and sheltering home.

Adres Latif, Reuters

Today and in the days to come, may we  open ourselves to the experience described in this excerpt of “Home” by Warsan Shire:

“no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.
you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well, your neighbours running faster than you.

no one leaves home unless home chases you, fire under feet, hot blood in your belly…it’s not something you ever thought of doing until the blade burnt threats into your neck…

you have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land, no one burns their palms under trains beneath carriages, no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck, feeding on newspaper, unless the miles traveled mean something more than journey. no one crawls under fences, no one wants to be beaten, pitied…

i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark, home is the barrel of a gun, and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore, unless home told you to quicken your legs, leave your clothes behind, crawl through the desert, wade through the oceans, drown, save, be hunger, beg, forget pride, your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear, saying, leave, run away from me now, i don’t know what i’ve become, but I know that anywhere is safer than here.”


Sit in stillness with the Holy One. You may want to have before you an image of a refugee.

Hold in your heart and prayer our neighbors who at this very moment are risking their lives in the search for a safe space for themselves and their families.

Ask the Holy One to widen the spaciousness of your heart, and breathe a prayer of welcome.

Featured Image: Einar Storsul, Unsplash


Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of a directed retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA. I’ll be one of the guest directors for the July 12-18 retreat. It will be a bittersweet experience for me, as it will be my last time at the Jesuit Center, which is closing August 15. So many members of the Society of Jesus, as well as thousands of people seeking a deepening of their spiritual lives, have passed through that holy place. Please remember them all.

Please also pray for my IHM Congregation on July 9-11 as we celebrate the 175th anniversary of our founding. This is actually the 176th year, since we were unable to celebrate our anniversary fully in 2020. I’m both proud and grateful to carry forward the dream of our founders, Theresa Maxis and Louis Gillet, into our shared future. Thank you for your prayer.

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A Time for Every Season

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   June 20, 2021

Timing may not be everything, but it is certainly something. That’s what my teacher, the garden, keeps gently reminding me. So far, my grade in the school of flower wisdom may be barely hovering above a C, but I’m open, and I’m paying attention, and I’m learning, and that surely counts for something, doesn’t it?

Last spring, as soon as the last petal of tulips had fallen to the ground, I cut back the leaves and the stem. Too early, it turned out, because this spring the tulips that emerged were stunted and deformed. I learned—too late for last season—that after the flower is finished blooming, the leaves should be allowed to grow and soak up the sunshine to help nourish the bulbs underground. Lesson learned.

This spring, perhaps overcompensating, I declined to cut back my first ever peony until her flowers had shriveled completely and gone to seed. Too late, I learned, for the seed pods that grew in place of the blossoms took nourishment away from any new growth. Lesson learned once again.

After a week of temperatures in the 80’s this spring, I presumed warm weather was here to stay, and in my eagerness for greening, I planted in the yard a young bush I had been harboring inside. When the temperature dipped to the 30’s the following week, the leaves turned transparent white in protest and dropped one by one like a character in O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf.” I imagined the bush looking at me every time I walked by, totally baffled by my planting ignorance. I’m consoled that my near fatal bad timing has been redeemed by the tender new leaves reappearing at a painfully slow pace.

The list goes on and so do the learnings. A not-yet-blooming black-eyed Susan I had transplanted and carefully nurtured was mowed down yesterday by a landscaper who, I’m quite sure, thought he was clearing an out of the way patch of weeds. Nature is at the mercy of our actions, and thankfully, Nature can be both forgiving and resilient.

I’m led to muse about how this translates to the life of the spirit. Certainly, we can be impatient with the slow work of transformation and try with all our might to hasten deep, inner soul work. We learn the process can’t be speeded up. Or we can be aware of the need to change a behavior or move away from a critical attitude, and yet drag our spiritual feet in moving forward. We can confuse our desire for genuine spiritual wholeness with the reality that we first need to cultivate the soil of readiness that makes possible the fullness of blossoming later.

As we tend to the garden of the Holy One’s wisdom, may we learn to forgive ourselves for decisions made in haste or words sincerely offered but shared at a moment that is less than optimal. May we learn to cultivate patience and attentiveness at every stage of spiritual development. And may we add one more lesson to the school of flower wisdom: Mary Oliver’s deep knowing that, for some things, there are no wrong seasons.

Nick Fewings, Unsplash


It didn’t behave
like anything you had
ever imagined. The wind
tore at the trees, the rain
fell for days slant and hard.
The back of the hand
to everything. I watched
the trees bow and their leaves fall
and crawl back into the earth.
As though, that was that.
This was one hurricane
I lived through, the other one
was of a different sort, and
lasted longer. Then
I felt my own leaves giving up and
falling. The back of the hand to
. But listen now to what happened
to the actual trees;
toward the end of that summer they
pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs.
It was the wrong season, yes,
but they couldn’t stop. They
looked like telephone poles and didn’t
care. And after the leaves came
blossoms. For some things
there are no wrong seasons.
Which is what I dream of for me.

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on any lesson the natural world has shared with you.
How did you, or how might you integrate that learning into your life?
Give thanks for the blessings of creation all around you and to the Creator who has formed and shaped our beautiful world.

Featured Image:   Mike Erskine, Unsplash

June 23-30:  Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of a guided retreat I’m offering at the IHM Spirituality Center in Malvern, PA.
The Sisters of IHM (Immaculata) have a rich connection and shared heritage with my Congregation, the Sisters of IHM (Scranton), so I’m especially delighted to spend the week of retreat in their good company.

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What If?

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM June 6, 2021

It’s in my DNA.

I can trace it back to my great grandmother, whom I never met. She and her family survived Ireland’s Great Famine of the mid-1800’s, a time of starvation and disease, the deaths of a million people and the exodus of a million more. She left County Mayo and emigrated to the United States, taking her heritage and the memory of those bleak times with her.

Her daughter, my grandmother, never knew that terrible hunger and poverty but she often heard stories about it around the kitchen table in Pennsylvania. So even though my grandmother had never personally experienced the same terrible want of the previous generation, she carried the collective memory of those brutal days. She carried the deep knowing, passed down through her relatives, that the ground under her feet was not as solid as some said, that a happy and comfortable life could be upended in a second. She carried worry and anxiety. And she passed it on to me and my family through our blood and bone, through our ancestral DNA, as the Smith/Koellhoffer Worry Gene, or the “What If?” syndrome.

Will my family’s health concerns improve? Will my community flourish in the future? Will I make my connecting flight? Will the Internet connection hold during my Zoom retreat? Will our beautiful planet survive? What if our country continues to be divided? What if my worst fears are realized? What if the choice I’m making today doesn’t turn out as I hoped? What if I fail? What if my dreams don’t come true?

Are you noticing a pattern here? All of these worries are about things largely beyond our control and largely in the future. We can work and plan and think of every eventuality—and many of us are pretty good at that—but ultimately, these efforts can take us only so far. Life is in flux and there are so many variables to consider.

So what to do? We might voice our concerns to a counselor, therapist, or supportive friend or family. We might follow a practice of allowing ourselves a specific, limited time, say twenty minutes a day, to do all our worrying—with no worrying allowed for the remaining twenty three hours and forty minutes of that day. We might enter into a practice of breathprayer as a way to center ourselves and steady our breathing. We might engage in Shinrin Yoku, the practice of tree bathing, taking slow walks in a forest and breathing in the gift of oxygen and tranquility.

We might repeat a mantra to remind ourselves that the Holy One is with us, accompanies us in our anxiety, and never abandons us.
Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the mountains. Where does my strength come from? My strength comes from God, who made heaven and earth.”
Isaiah 49:15-16: “Can a mother forget the infant at her breast or walk away from the baby she bore? But even if a mother forgets, I will never forget you. I’ve written your name on the palm of my hands.”  
Psalm 16:1:  “Keep me safe, O God. You are my hope.”

On an intellectual level, we know that nothing will be changed by our worrying and, in fact, much energy can be given over to the “What ifs” for which there is no satisfactory answer. May we reflect on the wisdom of Mary Oliver, who sounds as if she might have carried a similar worry gene in her own DNA, but who learned to sing it away:

Chris Koellhoffer

I Worried
Mary Oliver

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?
Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Bring to God whatever worry or anxiety or concern weighs most heavily on your heart at this moment.
Make an act of trust that the Holy One is with you in your anxiety, that the Holy One accompanies you in this moment and beyond.
Offer your thanks for the gift of God’s presence.

Featured Image: Noah Buscher, Unsplash

Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of this upcoming event:

June 6-13:  Guided retreat for the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and of Mary Immaculate, San Antonio, Texas

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Of Juiciness and Justice

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     May 22, 2021

We’re on the edge of June, the time of my birth month and the month that ushers in so much that offers delight and pleasure in the Northern hemisphere: warm days and cool nights, explosions of blossoming all around, leisure time, and the summer fruits that I so enjoy. At the top of that list: strawberries. Whenever I bite into their juicy deliciousness, I pay the Holy One a compliment and say, “Wow, you really knew what you were doing when you dreamt the idea for this!”

There’s simply no way strawberries could be prepared that’s not cause for my gratitude: purchased fresh from a farm stand, rinsed and eaten out of a supermarket package, sprinkled with sugar and swimming in cream, married to a crepe, crowning a shortcake.

Jez Timms, Unsplash

Whenever I shop at a supermarket, I’ve developed the habit of reading the labels affixed to fruit and vegetables, and I’m amazed at the distance they have traveled to reach my corner of the world. Though I try to buy locally as much as possible, I’ve also welcomed Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Costa Rica and, closer to where I live, California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and more into my home. Imagine what these peaches and limes and watermelon and berries have witnessed since their picking!

I’ve also grown into a consciousness of the callouses of hands, the sweat of brows, the aching of backs, the weariness of long haul truckers, the sore shoulders of those who lift and unpack crates—all to bring me nourishment and pleasure.

When I was awakened to social justice issues many years ago through an invitation to advocate for sweatshop workers in New York City and beyond, I learned these workers were mostly women laboring long hours under unsanitary and often dangerous conditions for meager pay. Since then, I read the labels on any clothing I buy, I offer gratitude for the people who labor, and I pray for the safety and well-being of anyone who has had a hand in bringing a shirt or pants to me.

The same awareness applies to summer fruit but especially to my favorite, strawberries. Someone I never met must have had a similar experience of sudden, deep knowing. Alison Luterman describes this coming into the light of understanding in Bread, Body, Spirit, Finding the Sacred in Food:

“Strawberries are too delicate to be picked by machine. The perfectly ripe ones even bruise at too heavy a human touch. It hit her then that every strawberry she had ever eaten—every piece of fruit—had been picked by calloused human hands. Every piece of toast with jelly represented someone’s knees, someone’s aching back and hips, someone with a bandana on her wrist to wipe away the sweat. Why had no one ever told her this before?”  

Why, indeed? But here’s the thing about discovering and knowing: we can never go back to whatever state we were in before our worldview was broken wide open and expanded, before we grew in awareness of both the local and the global price others have paid for our pleasure and enjoyment. So may we keep on enjoying the ripe, juicy gifts of summer, and each time we do, may we give thanks for the givers of those sweet and succulent gifts.

Kelly Neil, Unsplash

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you have a piece of ripe fruit available, you may want to set it some place where you can gaze at it.
Reflect on the abundance of this season and the miracle and mystery that is God’s giving.
Hold in tenderness and prayer all those who have had a part in bringing this fruit to your table.
Eat the fruit slowly, taking into your own body the life and labor of a neighbor across the world.

Featured Image: Louis Hansel, Unsplash

Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of these upcoming events:

May 21 -23:   Directed Retreat Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA. I’ll be one of the guest directors for the weekend.

June 6-13: A guided retreat I’ll be leading for the Sisters of the Holy Spirit in San Antonio, Texas.  Thank you!

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Ready for Blossoming

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   May 9, 2021

Listen! The chant of a hundred jonquils opening their orange centers to sun and rain. The song of a peony heavy with ants intent on sipping nectar from the base of its green sepals. The lyric of abundance that surrounds us in spring whenever she makes her debut. Nature insists: blossoming is possible.

This surge of springtime life that St. Hildegard of Bingen calls viriditas is the greening power of God pulsing through every cell. That same movement, from single cell to bud to full flowering, is also taking place in us, with one significant difference. We have the choice to refuse growth and avoid change, or to do deep, inner soul work and cooperate with grace.

Salsabeel Ehsan, Unsplash

If we’ve ever kept close watch on a bud, we know that the journey from infant bud to mature flower is one very slow movement. Some mornings seem to be frozen in time. Some afternoons appear to be nothing but pause or standstill. Some days we may observe no growth whatsoever and then, if we turn our back for just a moment, there it is–the splendor of opening petals.

In the natural world, so many elements can stunt growth or prevent blossoming: an unseasonal frost, a lasting drought, the harshness of brutal hail or excessive heat. In the life of the spirit, some elements—such as a dearth of encouragement, a constant barrage of criticism, experiences of exclusion or attitudes of unwelcome–effect a similar outcome.

Spring invites us to cultivate a particular tenderness for those who long for full flowering but who live in fear or despair that blossoming might forever elude them–all those whose lives are silenced or ignored, who are pressed down by the weight of social sins like racism, exploitation, oppression. May our intention to live as the presence of love offer an optimal convergence of sun and soil and warmth and nourishment for the life of the world.  May the fragile buds in us blossom into the abundant life that is the Holy One’s dream for everyone.

That is our prayer and, I suspect, a current underneath Maya Spector’s delightful poem, “Jailbreak Time”:

Katya Leo, Unsplash

It’s time to break out—
Jailbreak time.
Time to punch our way out of
the dark winter prison.
Lilacs are doing it
in sudden explosions of soft purple,
and the jasmine vines,
and ranunculus, too.
There is no jailer powerful enough
to hold Spring contained.
Let that be a lesson.
Stop holding back the blossoming!
Quit shutting eyes and gritting teeth,
curling fingers into fists, hunching shoulders.
Lose your determination to remain unchanged.
All the forces of nature
want you to open,
Their gentle nudge carries behind it
the force of a flash flood.
Why make a cell your home
when the door is unlocked
and the garden is waiting for you?

Sit in stillness with the Holy One,
or, if you prefer, go outdoors and pay attention to the Holy One present in viriditas,
the greening power of the Divine.
Notice what hopes and dreams are stirring within you or within creation around you.
Might anything be holding back the blossoming?
What might be needed for “jailbreak time” to happen?
Ask the Holy One to help you move closer to full flowering.

Featured image:   Marina Lakotka, Unsplash

For the next few days, I’ll be taking some time away for my own blossoming. Grateful!

Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of a Directed Retreat Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA, May 23-25. I’ll be a guest director for the weekend. Thank you.

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The Sparkle Effect

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   April 25, 2021

Some time ago, I was part of a reflection process where we explored how the quality of our presence impacts fields of energy wherever we go. We were invited to share a story of a time when our intention to live as the presence of love softened the relational field around us.

I was immediately taken back to the years when I visited a New York detention center where refugees were held while awaiting deportation or asylum hearings. After receiving clearance to visit an inmate (no name given, simply an identifying number), I met Greg and learned that he had fled his African homeland at the height of a brutal civil war. With no papers or documents, he was picked up at Kennedy airport and brought to the detention center.

Siviwe Kapteyn, Unsplash

I was stunned to see the conditions under which these traumatized, fragile, desperate people lived and waited. The converted former warehouse was windowless, offering no chance to glimpse sky or trees, no chance to feel the sun’s warmth, no chance to connect to a world beyond the walls, which were painted a dark, drab olive. A single TV blared loudly for twenty-four hours a day. The atmosphere was so depressing that I almost expected to see Dante’s inscription on the gate to hell—“Abandon hope, all you who enter here”—posted over a door.

Greg was deeply spiritual, so when I asked him what I might bring to relieve his suffering, he replied, “A Bible.” No problem, I naively thought. So as I was leaving, I told the guard that next time I visited I would bring a Bible for Greg.

“No, it’s not allowed,” replied the guard. “You could smuggle drugs in that.”
“How about a rosary then?”
“No, he might take out the metal links and injure someone.”
I went through a list of possible items that might bring comfort to Greg.
“No.” “No.” “No.”

Exasperated, I exclaimed, “Well, what am I allowed to bring in here?”

“Just yourself. That’s it. Only yourself.”

I left, deeply distressed. On the long ride home, I put myself in the place of the detainees and thought that, if I were confined where they were, the total absence of beauty would be terribly deadly for my spirit. And then I hatched a plan.

The next time I visited Greg and every time afterwards, I was a kaleidoscope of color. My most sparkly, glittering earrings. Blouses that were lime green or canary yellow or bright fuchsia. Socks of such fluorescent hues they almost glowed in the dark. Was it my imagination, or did the gruff guard on desk duty show the faintest smile as I checked in? Did the eyes of other inmates light up suddenly as they glimpsed me entering the visiting area? Greg confirmed my intuition with his broad grin and his comment, “Ah, color.  I’ve been missing it so much.”

Helena Lopes, Unsplash

Anne Frank, whose diary written during her time in hiding from the Nazis continues to inspire us today, once wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” There’s no excuse for standing around expecting to be tapped on the shoulder for some heroic act or lifesaving measure that will make a difference. Opportunities of that dimension are rare.

But we can be faithful to the seemingly small gesture, what I like to name “The Sparkle Effect.” We can carry comfort or beauty or kindness or presence or a smile into the everyday.  We can leave affirmation and encouragement and restored hope in our wake. And yes, we can set our intention to vibrate as the presence of love, to soften the relational field of energy around us. It is from just such faithful ripples that the currents of love expand and reach out to heal the Universe.

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Hold in your heart a being who may be most in need of compassion and deep listening. (Since this is Earth month, you may want to remember Earth, our Common Home, or some part of the created world).
Spend several minutes with your intention to be an agent of healing presence today.
Ask the Holy One to bless your intention.

Featured image:  Sharon McCutcheon, Unsplash

Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of a virtual evening of prayer sponsored by Villa Pauline Retreat Center that I’ll be leading April 27. Thank you.

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