Wisdom from the Margins

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   November 21, 2021

Every person can be a bearer of wisdom.

I met one of those unexpected carriers when I was making my way home from work in New York’s Greenwich Village one evening. There she was: a homeless woman who had set herself up at the side of the stairway leading to the West 4th Street subway station. Strategically placed out of the way of foot traffic, she knelt on the sidewalk next to a neatly placed pile of blankets, the sheets carefully turned down as if she were a guest in a Manhattan hotel. The location was unusual, yes, but that’s not what claimed my attention. What actually rooted my feet to the ground, what halted me in my tracks, was that, seemingly oblivious to the hundreds of commuters passing by, this woman was kneeling outdoors at the side of her makeshift bed, her head bowed in prayer.  

I remember being so captivated that I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t keep my eyes from welling up. The silence was sacred, so I didn’t interrupt her. But clearly, she spoke to me in some profound way, because more than twenty-five years later, this woman is still in front of me, witnessing gratitude as we enter another season of giving thanks.

When I recounted this story shortly after it happened, one listener wondered, “What could that woman possibly be thankful for? I mean, look at what her life was reduced to, sleeping on the sidewalk.” True, on the surface this unnamed woman had an abundance of reasons to complain: the chill of the evening air, the hardness of the concrete on which she knelt, the lack of privacy, the circumstances that had set in motion her place in that scene of homelessness.

I had a different imagining as I gazed at her. I wondered what pleas for safety and protection, what litanies of friends lost to the harshness of street life, what remembrance of kindnesses given and received, what words of gratitude poured from her heart as she engaged in night prayer right there on West 4th Street.

Because the reality is that, if we’re looking for reasons to complain, we’ll have no difficulty finding examples to support our attitude. The list of all the things we wish were different or somehow better in our lives might be pretty lengthy. At the same time, if we’re looking for reasons to be grateful, we will find them just as easily, and that recounting might be endless.

The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen insists we’re called to gratitude no matter what is happening in our lives. He writes that, “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our life–the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections–that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment.”

So what do we choose to pay attention to and emphasize? Can we notice all the seemingly small, subtle, often unexpected moments that make up a human life, and offer a prayer of gratitude to the Holy One?

This Thanksgiving, I’m going to see my sisters and their families in New Jersey. And the woman who knelt in prayer next to the West 4th Street station is coming with me. I hope that she will never stop accompanying all of us and witnessing to us what it means to live with a truly grateful heart.


Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on what has unfolded in your life since you last offered prayers of gratitude.
Include times that felt like a challenge as well as those that seemed a blessing.
Say “Thank you” to the Holy One for everything.

Featured Image: BBC Creative, Unsplash


Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of an Advent weekend guided retreat, “A Heart for Our Time and Place,” at St. Francis Center for Renewal in Bethlehem, PA, December 3-5. For more information or to register: 610-867-8890 or https://www.stfrancisctr.org/upcoming-events

At this Thanksgiving holiday when we especially remember those who have no welcoming table to come to, please remember the hundreds of volunteers and guests who will come together for the 45th annual Thanksgiving Community Program organized by Friends of the Poor, an IHM sponsored ministry, in Scranton, PA. Friends of the Poor brings together in friendship people in need and people who wish to assist in partnership. The Thanksgiving program includes an Interfaith Prayer Service, a Thanksgiving dinner for 3,500 adults and elderly (this year pre-packaged for giveaway because of the pandemic), and a Thanksgiving food basket giveaway. For me personally, these events are a contemporary version of the banquet feast where all are welcome and none are turned away.

I’m especially grateful this year for all of you who so faithfully follow my blog, Mining the Now. May you and all those you love experience many blessings this Thanksgiving and all through the coming season of Advent.

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2 thoughts on “Wisdom from the Margins”

  1. Chris, This is just so beautiful. I am grateful to you for sharing your wisdom and that of the woman on West 4th. Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving. Love, Nan

  2. My personal saint Henri always says the appropriate thing to me – as you also strike a chord each message you send. It goes straight to my heart. Even if I don’t stay awake for the whole Examen I remember the many specific blessings I am truly thankful for. I am especially grateful for the people who come in the guise of angels and reassure me of the path we are on. I thank you for your encouraging words and pray that you have a beautiful Thanksgiving and year ahead. Anne

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