Peering into the Heart

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   February 26, 2023

Anyone who knows me would never list “penitential spirit” as one of my striking attributes. Why, then, does Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season, evoke such eagerness in me?

The answer is straightforward: because Ash Wednesdays past hold a particular place in my treasured memories. For quite a few years on this very day, I helped to distribute ashes at a parish in Southeast Queens. The first time I did this, I was not prepared for what would happen. Each subsequent Ash Wednesday, I lived in hope that it would be repeated. And I was never disappointed.

Because, you see, on Ash Wednesday I got to peer into the faces of every person who came forward to receive blessed ashes. Whether I recognized the individual or not was of no consequence. On that day, I didn’t need to know names or stories to discover on every upturned face a raw, unfiltered longing laid bare. Faces lined with sorrow, or marked by weariness, or timid or hesitant or hopeful of a new beginning. They all carried that singular emotion: a longing so pure that I wanted to whisper, “How did you come to be this beautiful person?” A longing so unmistakable that I wanted to weep and fall down in worship at the same time.

Because, you see, while I was blessing with ashes whoever stood before me, all the persons in the approaching line were blessing me by their transparent yearning for the Holy. They were offering me a food I hungered for without recognizing the insistent pangs. Something to remember during all the months my prayer felt like nothing but silence and dry dust. Something to nudge me when my shadow resisted being coaxed into the light. Something to cling to and lift me up when discouragement wrapped itself around me like a winter cloak. Something to bolster my insistence that dreams of a more just and tender world were indeed possible.

Ash Wednesday is past, but I invite you to stand with me now and see what I see. Peer into the faces of those Ash Wednesday strangers.

Ana Tablas, Unsplash

Better yet, stand in front of a mirror and gaze at the image that gazes back at you. Can you find there the face of one who came from dust, stardust, and was dreamed of since the beginning of time? Can you reverence this body imagined as a unique gift to the universe? Can you recognize the face of a creation who is beloved of the Holy One, every second of today and forever? Can you name the deepest desires of your heart?


Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
You may wish to place before you a mirror or a photo of yourself.
Take a long, loving look at the image which gazes back at you.
Allow your longing to surface. Savor it.
Give thanks to the Holy One who longs in you.

Featured Image: KTMD Entertainment, Unsplash

Blessings of this season to you.

May I ask you to hold in your prayer this Lenten event:

March 3-4: Travel and a retreat day I’ll be leading at the Sisters of St. Joseph Spirituality Center in Ocean Grove, NJ. Please remember all who will be part of this day as we remember you and your intentions. Thank you.

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6 thoughts on “Peering into the Heart”

  1. Another incredibly beautiful and thought provoking entry Sr. Chris. Our WCS just lost a beautiful soul – she passed last evening at midnight. She was a woman with no family, but she had an immense Cornerstone family of sisters – some who prayed with her on the evening of her passing, and another who stayed by her side as she left her earthly home. She loved being an EM and Lector, and I am sure she gazed at many hopeful faces as she distributed ashes in days past. Ellin was indeed a unique gift to the Universe. Thank you for lifting our spirits as we mourn her loss, but delight in her final resting place, joining her beloved husband, and her loving God.
    A Blessed Lent to you!

  2. What beautiful sentiments. They touched my heart Sister Chris. We are currently in Florida and I couldn’t believe the great numbers of families who came to the five Masses that were offered on Ash Wednesday. I also marveled at the great faith and expectations of these faith-filled people. What a great God we share. Thank you.

  3. Your words brought me back to years ago when I ministered in a small rural parish and also received the gift of administering this sacramental…we who do are truly the ones who are privileged to look into the eyes of God’s wonderful people!

  4. How did you come to be such a beautiful person? I love this quote from Mining today-but as I copied it I thought of asking you the same question Chris???

  5. One of our Grey Sisters when she was Principal of an elementary school made a bulletin board with the caption “Lent is for Love” and pictures of a child helping an old person across the street or another possible loving action.

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