Sacred Space

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    October 7, 2023

I suspect it’s not by design but by Providence that every guided or directed retreat I was part of from May through October this year was near a salty body of water. The Atlantic Ocean. The Sound off the shores of Connecticut.

Today at a break in a retreat in Madison, Connecticut, I was watching sea birds find respite on the tip of a large boulder. During high tide, the boulder couldn’t be seen from the shore but the way the waves broke against its spot hinted of something large underwater. Now that the tide has gone out, the boulder is exposed and a flock of cormorants has discovered it and perched on the rock. I might have named it a cormorant convention except for the fact that the birds have all gathered in silence. No twittering, no fluttering of wings or shaking of feathers. Meditative, it seems.

I’m reminded of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen who observes, “For those who have come to know God, the whole world is a prayer mat.”  For the cormorants, and certainly for me, the ocean is one of my preferred places of prayer. With my formative years rooted so deeply in New Jersey, I’ve found that nothing more quickly settles me into a prayerful mode than the breaking of waves and the rhythmic lullaby of the ocean. So I’m especially grateful for all the invitations of these past months to minister seaside, to inhale salt air, to catch my breath at the rising sun at daybreak or a pastel sunset over the Atlantic.

My reality the remainder of the year is that I live in land-locked Pennsylvania. Fortunately for me, there are countless other prayer mats where I find myself. I can be immersed in contemplation when I tend to my tiny garden and its inhabitants of echinacea, lavender, marigolds and their visitors, the industrious bumblebee and the graceful butterfly. I can stand on the patio late night and breathe in stardust and a waxing moon. I can crunch leaves underfoot as I stroll along the Heritage Trail. I can savor the aroma of still baking pumpkin bread or lose myself in the haunting notes of “Gabriel’s Oboe.” I can sense the nearness of grace in the insistent way a Golden Retriever happily leans into me. I suspect that for each one of us, the list of what invites us into contemplative space is long and growing longer by the day.

Chris Koellhoffer, Butterfly in Garden

But enough about me. Where do you most easily find the Holy? What gifts of our beautiful yet wounded world take you out of or beyond yourself? What transports you to a place of stillness and reflection?

In “Praying,” the luminous Mary Oliver reminds us not to overthink this, but to live with awareness and to be grateful for what comes.

“It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”


Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Perhaps you may want to find your preferred prayer mat and bless it.
Savor the experience of being with whatever invites you into contemplative space.
Give thanks for the ways it helps you to lean into the Holy.

Featured Image: Job Savelsberg, Unsplash

Thank you for remembering in your prayer all who are part of a directed retreat at Mercy by the Sea in Madison, Connecticut, still going on. I’ve been privileged to be one of the guest directors in this beautiful place.

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3 thoughts on “Sacred Space”

  1. I cannot describe how “full” I feel after reading each of your reflections! Today’s description of the ocean, the silence of the cormorants, the prayer mat, etc. etc. filled me with a new peace. I now reflect upon my own place of prayer and open up to where God will meet me.

  2. How beautiful your water reflection is S. Chris.Kathy and I grew up summering in Breezy Pt. Queens, NY. We were at the ocean every day, rain or shine. That’s where I first saw the magnificence of God – in the giant waves during a storm. And the stillness of the ocean after the storm. God is at work in me as well in the storms of my life, very active right now. Thank you for this new lens to see my God. Anne

  3. Ennio Morricone is second to none in composing beautiful music. A dear friend of mine once shared her CD of YoYoMa playing Morricone’s songs with me It’s a beautiful memory and little bit of heaven.

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