by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM November 3, 2023
As someone who often drives distances of three or more hours at a stretch, I’m delighted to be living in the age of podcasts. I’m grateful for their company at any time, but especially on monotonous highways that might offer little by way of breathtaking scenery or diversity of landscape. Besides, there’s something intimate about being the only person in a car and having one or more of those sonorous podcast voices speak directly to me on a long trip or a lonely road.
Recently, I chose to take Route 206 in New Jersey. It was one of several options for my destination, and it was the longest one, but the fall foliage was at its peak and 206 would take me on roads promising autumn’s brilliant colors on full display.
Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, the NPR news quiz, was streaming, and it featured an interview with writer James Patterson. As the prolific author of over sixty books on the New York Times bestseller list, Patterson was asked what motivated him. He said that early on in his career, he heard a quote that reminded him his time was limited, and because of that, he should ask himself, “So what can I do most beautifully?” For Patterson, that clarified what became his life’s calling: telling stories.
As I heard Patterson ask the question, I was passing under archways of trees shining crimson and gold and orange above me. I sat up straight, always an indication that I’m meant to pay attention. I reflected on my conscious choice to take the longer way to my destination, simply so that I could experience beauty and thank the trees for sharing with me.
The question Patterson noted took me in another direction, towards the importance of bringing beauty into our lives. As much as we possibly can. Whenever and wherever we can. Seeking the beautiful with intentionality is soul work that can lead to our own transformation over time and can enable us to share the beautiful with others.
On the day I chose Route 206 because I knew it would bring an experience of awe and gratitude into my day, I was doing just that kind of intentional soul work. That leaning explains why I cultivate a tiny garden and welcome fuzzy bumblebees, the scent of lavender, the wildness of black eyed Susans. That’s why I don’t use headphones on my walk, so that I can better hear birdsong and the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot as well as the movements of my own heart. That’s why every day, yes, every single day, I read a poem aloud as part of my practice of prayer. That’s why I delight in relationships with others who appreciate my love affair with words, my need for whimsy, for the arts, for story telling, for compassion, and of course, for chocolate.
What I can do most beautifully is also related to how I can be most beautifully. It invites reflection on and a closer look into what we are taking into our lives. If our entire diet consists of a twenty-four hour news cycle that blares stories of humankind’s inhumanity to others through war, conflict, racism, and cruelty, we can become numb to and perhaps worst of all, indifferent to the suffering of others. But beauty can be an antidote to violence. To live beautifully, we need a nutritional supplement of wonder and awe, of music and poetry and dance and painting. We need to take in whatever makes us more alive and hopeful, whatever moves us further away from apathy or callousness, whatever moves us closer to the wholemaking the Holy One desires for all of us.
So let’s ask of ourselves today: What can I do most beautifully? How can I be most beautifully? And what will help me to consume the beauty all around me and in some meaningful way share it with a world that longs for more?
Some of you who have followed my blog for a while know of my practice of picking up earthworms from the pavement after a rainstorm and carrying them over to a patch of moist earth or grass so that they don’t die when the afternoon sun dries up the pavement. Well, imagine my delight this morning when I turned the page and the next poem to read aloud and savor in my morning prayer was this sweet one from Lynn Ungar. I suspect it’s no coincidence that it speaks of what we take into our lives.
Imagine. The only thing that
God requires of them
is a persistent, wriggling, moving forward,
passing the earth through
the crinkled tube of their bodies
in a motion less like chewing
than like song.
Everything they encounter
goes through them,
as if sunsets, drug store clerks,
diesel fumes and sidewalks
were to move through our very centers
and emerge subtly different
for having fed us—looser somehow,
more open to the possibility of life.
They say the job of angels
is to sing to God in serried choirs.
Perhaps. But most jobs
aren’t so glamorous.
Mostly the world depends upon
the silent chanting underneath our feet.
To every grain that enters: “Welcome.”
To every parting mote: “Be blessed.”
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
You may want to place before you a photo, image, or object that speaks of beauty to you.
What do you notice about your choice?
What moves within your heart as you gaze at it?
How might it draw you into wonder or awe?
Spend some time in reflection, then bow and give thanks.
Featured Image: Annie Nyle, Unsplash
Please remember in your prayer my Congregation, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), as we celebrate Founders’ Day on November 10. We were founded on November 10, 1845 in Monroe, Michigan by Theresa Maxis Duchemin, IHM and Louis Florent Gillet, CSsR.
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