Surprise! It’s the Ordinary Things

Holy Week crosses copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM      April 3, 2020

My choices during these days of social distancing and staying in place have offered some surprises. Besides holding in tender prayer the collective suffering of our world and praying intensely for our first responders, medical and support staff, the newly unemployed, the small business owners, those ill or dying from COVID-19 and those who love them, I’m one of the privileged few who are able to work from home and am using this time for retreat planning and writing assignments. I’ve not yet straightened out my sock drawer, entered into deep cleaning of my apartment, or downsized my expansive files—that, I suspect, will be coming—but I have just completed something I’ve been meaning to do for at least the past five years: planning my own wake service and funeral liturgy.EPSON MFP image

I’m not ill or overtaken by premonition. What I am at this moment is given to gratitude. To sit with and break open anew the riches of songs, poems, and Scripture that have given my life meaning is like writing a spiritual autobiography, a looking back and seeing my life as whole instead of lived piece by piece. My companion during this time is Carrie Newcomer’s question that will not let me go: “How do I find beauty and what is unbroken in a landscape that must always include broken things?”

For me, this time of planning is marked by empathy and a fresh understanding. I’ve sung each song aloud as it filters through my phone and sound system. I’ve savored every word of every poem that has nourished me—oh, they are so many!—feeling the words roll around in my mouth, tasting their sweetness, naming how they have let mystery in, how they have animated, inspired, consoled, and healed me. I’ve felt in my body why Mary Oliver calls these words “fires for the cold, ropes let down for the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” I have been warmed, saved, and fed, and I am so in love, all over again.

The real gift of this time and this reflection has been the re-discovering of something that I already knew: that what I cherish most, what I will most keenly miss from this world that is so very dear to me, are not the big moments of my life, but the sweet and tender things we might describe as ordinary. The wrapping of a loved one’s arms around us. The wordless understanding between friends. The hush of dawn as we hold a steaming cup of coffee or tea and enter into prayerful stillness. The way we are startled, the way we sit up and take notice when music pours over us and shakes our soul. The scent of lavender or honeysuckle or mock orange wafting over us on any summer day. The awe that overcomes and silences us when we stand before a crimson sunset. The lullaby of waves gently breaking on shore. The list is endless.

In so many ways, this time has afforded me the chance to reflect on my own version of Linda Pastan’s poem, “The Almanac of Last Things”:

“From the almanac of last things
I choose the spider lily
for the grace of its brief
blossom, though I myself
fear brevity,

but I choose The Song of Songs
because the flesh
of those pomegranates
has survived
all the frost of dogma.

I choose January with its chill
lessons of patience and despair–and
August, too sun-struck for lessons.
I choose a thimbleful of red wine
to make my heart race,

then another to help me
sleep. From the almanac
of last things I choose you,
as I have done before.
And I choose evening

because the light clinging
to the window
is at its most reflective
just as it is ready
to go out.”

Empty tomb

My almanac of last thing is rich with delight and hope and profound gratefulness. Maybe that’s because, in our shared time of loss and pain and uncertainty, I still have to believe, with Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world this is.

Skip the ad and take a moment to sit with his loving reminder here.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Spend some moments naming some of the “last things” you cherish.
Savor these ordinary things and reflect on why they are precious to you.
Give thanks to the Holy One who has blessed your life with reasons to be grateful.

NOTE:
We continue to hold in tenderness and prayer all those suffering from the impact of COVID-19. As we continue to practice safe social distancing, we may be grieving our inability to celebrate Holy Week and Easter in person, but we can be consoled in knowing that there are no boundaries to our consciousness and our loving prayer. Please join me in breathing our intention to collectively bless our beautiful and broken world. May we all experience the fullness of new life this Easter and in the days to come. 

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Mining for Gold

meditatebeachG copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    March 20, 2020

Sometimes the very element that can inspire, call us to awe, or put into perspective what’s happening around us is the one thing we don’t see because our focus is solely and entirely elsewhere.

I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, but a visit there is on my bucket list. I haven’t yet met anyone who traveled to that natural site and left without feeling something close to humility and awe in the presence of the canyon’s vastness and stunning beauty. But in More Together Than Alone, Mark Nepo relates that in 1540, Captain García López de Cárdenas, with the aid of Hopi guides, led Spanish soldiers down the magnificent rim of what we now call the Grand Canyon. He had been charged with finding the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, which were rumored to be cities of gold.Gold coins

Nepo relates that the soldiers, not finding what they were looking for, “turned their backs on one of the world’s natural wonders and left. They showed no interest in the culture or wisdom of the Hopi nation or the Zuni people who had created the Seven Cities of Cibola. They only had one form of gold in mind.”

And so they left. And turned their backs. And failed to notice other kinds of gold right in front of them. Intent on only one thing, they were blinded to both the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and the cultural treasures of the Hope nation and Zuni people.

How might this story speak to us at a time when the attention of the global community is focused on the corona virus, COVID-19? Of course our attention rightly needs to be on following all the measures of vigilant self-protection, of caring for ourselves and for others in ways that prevent the spread of this highly contagious disease. And these practices must continue, along with our prayer for all those whose lives have been upended.

At the same time, we don’t want to miss another reality. Life as we know it has changed dramatically, but if our focus is only and entirely on the virus and nothing else, we risk being blinded to a form of gold right in front of us: acts of heroism and compassion and altruism and beauty unfolding in the midst of this pandemic and in our cherished histories.

How are we meant to be in a time of crisis? The witness of artists and spiritual leaders–and often they are one and the same—offers a response. We’re reminded of Paul Robeson, whose passport to travel into Canada was revoked because of his outspokenness during the civil rights movement. Denied the ability to cross that border, he parked himself at the crossing and sang across the boundaries from the U.S. to Canada. His body remained in the U.S. but his voice knew no restrictions.

We’re reminded of Vedran Smailovic, cellist with the Sarajevo Orchestra, who, on the day after the bombing of a bakery that killed 22 desperate people lined up for a crust of bread for their families, sat himself down in the rubble and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. He did this for 22 days in remembrance of the 22 people killed. The citizens of Sarajevo credit him with helping them to endure the siege of their city, keeping alive the hope that peace and beauty would one day return.

We’re reminded of Yo Yo Ma, seated in the shadow of a Texas border crossing into Mexico, sending the music of Bach to listeners gathered on both sides. He imagined it as a cultural bridge, an experience of beauty uniting both the people of Mexico and the people of the United States during a time of division and separateness.

We’re reminded of a nameless woman who, during an oppressive regime, boldly stepped out of a crowd, smiled, and placed a flower into the barrel of a soldier’s gun as he marched by.

These memorable acts of beauty are also acts of defiance. They are the artists’ way of reminding us that current realities, no matter how seemingly full of hopelessness, are not ultimate, that current realities are not the last word spoken from a bleak landscape. It’s not easy to remain hopeful in times of crisis, but these acts of defiance, these acts of creating the beautiful, are the artists’ emphatic refusal to give in to despair.violet lavender copy

They are a reminder that even in these times, or in any time of crisis, beauty is all around us, if only we can see. We may find it in a Skype or Zoom chat, a phone call, a book, song, film, or video, a walk outside, a budding tree, a blooming house plant, and so much more. So in the midst of our new normal, what will we choose to notice, create, imagine, experience, or pay attention to today?

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
In the quiet, notice your breath.
Begin to intentionally inhale and exhale at a slower pace.
Sit with this slow breathing as you call to mind an experience of beauty.
Savor the memory and breathe with awareness for several minutes.
Place your trust in the Holy One and close with a deep breath.

IMAGES:
english.manoramaonline.com
Chris Koellhoffer

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer all who would have been part of any retreats or presentations I expected to be leading in March and April, as well as the groups or centers hosting those gatherings. For the safety and well-being of participants, those events have been canceled. May we all experience peace, good health, and moments of beauty during the coming days.

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Presuming the Hidden Hurt

heart hidden hurt copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM      March 6, 2020

There are stories that delight us, stories that touch us, and then there are stories that grab our souls and won’t let go. Such stories haunt us. Such stories compel us to enter into deep inner soul work. Such stories challenge us to transform attitudes and behaviors. This is one of those stories. Because of the sensitive, personal nature of what’s being shared, names used in this true story have been changed.

Michael and his wife, Cathy, shared every expectant parent’s joy: waiting for the arrival of their first child. Cathy had a pregnancy that seemed perfect and reassuring in every way, but towards the end of nine months, she noticed a subtle change, the kind a mother would immediately recognize: it seemed that her baby was no longer moving. Her worst fear was confirmed by her doctor, and that devastating news was followed by a second shock. Even though this baby—this child of their hopes and dreams—would be stillborn, Cathy would still have to endure labor and delivery. The child of their longing would come into the world lifeless and without breath.heartbrokenstone copy

Michael remained with Cathy all through the hours of pushing and pain until the moment when they could both hold their beautiful little girl. Through tears and self-searching, they wondered how this could happen. They had done everything possible to insure the safety and well-being of their baby. How could she be dead when she looked so perfect and blissfully asleep?  It seemed the only response to their unanswerable questions was mourning and weeping.

That evening, Michael left the hospital, beaten down, emotionally drained, exhausted. He stopped at a supermarket to pick up a few items for Cathy. Lost in grief, he parked his car and threw the door open, accidentally nicking the door of the car parked next to him in the lot. The owner of that car happened to be sitting inside, got out to inspect the small dent, and launched a torrent of accusations at Michael. Threats about carelessness, damage done, and the cost of repairs. Angry words poured over Michael as he stood there, numbed into silence. As the barrage continued, he began to cry, to weep for the enormity of his loss, to grieve for promises shattered, to lament the unfairness of it all. The other man, taken aback, stopped shouting long enough to ask, “Are you okay?” And Michael choked out the only response he could manage, “I just came from the hospital. My baby is dead. My baby is dead.”

What response is possible in the face of such naked truth? What hardened heart could compare the two losses as equal: a barely perceptible nick in a car door and a dead, lifeless baby? Shamed into silence, the angry driver mumbled his condolences, jumped into his car, and departed as quickly as he could.

For some thirty years I have carried that story around with me as a reminder of the fragility of us all. A reminder to approach others, those familiar to us and those we’re just meeting, with great care and tender reverence. A reminder that we are all broken,  wounded, and in some way carrying loss around with us. Our scars may be years old or  terribly new and fresh. They may be wounds barely acknowledged and not easily seen or discovered. But I believe this is one of the few instances when we can and should presume, presume that side by side with experiences of the beautiful sit stories of grief or shame or failure or dismissal in the hearts of those we encounter, in their often untold histories.heartekg copy

May we walk on this holy ground in the company of the Holy One who walks beside and among us. May we be open to and recognize the beautiful yet wounded world we each carry within. May we be compassion.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Call to mind the pain of a person(s) you know and for whom you have concern.
Bless them and ask for healing energy for them.
Ask the Holy One to also bless the many in our world who are struggling with suffering of any kind.
Give thanks to the Holy One for the gift of accompaniment.

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

March 6-8:  It’s my privilege to be one of the guest directors for a Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA. Thank you.

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Kindness Remains

diversity hands design

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   February 23, 2020

The Australia brush fires have left in their wake not only catastrophic and irreplaceable losses in the human, animal, and plant kingdoms, but also enduring acts of kindness offered by those same communities. We’ve witnessed images of firefighters risking their lives to rescue endangered residents running from billowing flames. Border collies shepherding stunned koalas away from the fires. Wombats welcoming other animal species into the safety of their underground burrows. Perhaps we’ve also noticed that, in times of crisis, in the big issues of life, whatever differences we harbor seem to dissolve into expressions of help and support. No matter how long ago we may have been on the receiving end of such goodness, the memory of kindnesses past lingers with us.

Today might be a day to recall the heartswell, the quickening of spirit, the inner gratitude such experiences unleash. Today might also be an invitation to sit with a prayerful remembering of those who have blessed us with such profound kindness.tablechairs

In the late 1990’s, I had moved into an apartment for the first time and was shopping for furniture to supplement the basics that family, friends, and community had given me. I needed two wooden chairs to accompany the small table I already had, so I stopped in to a furniture chain store and immediately experienced sticker shock. Clearly, my meager budget was no match for the displays in the showroom. As I was about to leave, a sales clerk approached to ask if I needed assistance. There were other customers in the store waiting to buy complete bedroom and dining sets, but this man listened with such attentiveness to my minor request that I felt as if I were his only concern of the day.

“Wait here, please,” he said, and disappeared, returning minutes later with two elegant wooden chairs. He confided that I was doing him a favor because, “Everyone else wants only sets of four chairs so these two have been sitting in our storeroom for a long time.” And then, as I held my breath, he quoted a price that comfortably matched the cash I had in my wallet. X-ray vision? Or a heart that took in the hopeful longing on my face?

I’ll never know, but nearly ten years later, I was once again visiting that furniture chain but in a different location. As I browsed the displays, I heard a man talking on the other side of the store and thought his voice sounded familiar. Could it be? I walked over and quietly asked the sales clerk if he had ever worked in the Bayonne store.

“Yes,” he answered, looking puzzled. So I shared my memory of how his kindness had allowed me to keep my dignity at a time when I had very limited means, how his attentiveness left me feeling heard and respected and a bit more at home in a strange new city. As I spoke, he began to weep, and I was concerned that my story had disturbed him.

“Oh, no!” he insisted. And then he proceeded to tell me that this week was his last before beginning his retirement. Although he was looking forward to the future, the transition had also surfaced some troubling questions in his soul. He wondered, had his lifelong job of selling tables and chairs and sofas, this work that supported his family, had a lasting impact? Had his faithfulness to showing up and treating customers with respect and fairness made any difference in his city? Had his efforts to be a listening presence to everyone he encountered brought meaning in some way to the larger world? Yes, yes, and yes, I answered. Because on a seemingly ordinary day in a seemingly ordinary place, the practice of kindness not only stays with us but also blesses and expands and continues out into the universe. Kindness remains.Heartmadeofhearts copy

Kindness, I believe, is one of the litmus tests of how we bear witness to the Holy among us: in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), where compassion is expressed by crossing to the other side of the road to dress wounds; in the challenge of the Last Judgement (Matthew 25:31-40) where our ability to recognize the divine in suffering neighbors is a measuring stick of holiness; in the pouring of water into a basin (John 13:1-5), the washing and drying of the disciples’ feet, the final tender gesture of service by a person who knew his hour had come and who loved to the very end. In the day-to-day embodiment of the words, “You are here. That is good. You are not here. The fragrance remains.”

Long after the wildfires have been extinguished by the collective heroics of others, long after every story of pain or doubt or utter heartache has been listened to with unwavering attention, long after the last customer has purchased the last chair from the last store, we will remember how beautiful a day can be when kindness touches it, how beautiful a life can be when love surrounds it.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Prayerfully reflect on a memory of a kindness shown to you.
How did that kindness look? sound? feel?
Bask in the remembering.
Offer your thanks and bless the person(s) who offered you such a gift.
Ask the Holy One to deepen your practice of kindness in all your encounters today.

NOTE:
As we enter into the season of Lent, know that I’m profoundly grateful for your kindness and support of me and my writing for Mining the Now. You and your intentions are held in my heart and in my prayers of gratitude. Lenten blessings!

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The Body as Spiritual Guide

EPSON MFP imageby Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    February 8, 2020 

I just returned home from an hour spent in the healing presence of my massage therapist. I realize that this privilege is one that few have the time or means for, but for me, gratefully, this privilege is a prescribed practice in the recovery process that follows two major surgeries. Laying myself down on the massage table is also something of a sacrament, an invitation to presence and truthfulness. Someone trained in deep listening to the body, using the gifts of reverent, healing touch, calls forth the wisdom of muscle and nerve and bone and enters into dialogue with their story, which is my story.Prayer 5 copy

Over the years, I’ve developed my own daily practice of what I call bodyprayer, a way of deep listening and attentiveness to what my body is telling me. My mind can sometimes rationalize how I feel, make light of a stiffness that didn’t exist yesterday, dismiss a sorrow that lingers, or ignore a persistent yearning. In my mind, I can tell myself everything is fine. I can insist I’m over that ache of loss or that nudge of longing that simply won’t leave me alone. Sooner or later, though, all of life’s emotions and experiences express themselves in one way or another in my body. And our bodies are always oriented toward honesty.

So bodyprayer brings our whole self into holy dialogue, into a deep knowing that our flesh is God’s creative expression. We might begin with some gentle stretches early in the day. A thoughtful noticing of where there is alignment. A consciousness of what may be tender or sore. A tending to breath that makes itself heard in a prolonged sigh or a yelp of pain. A listening to the voice of faltering energy, weary muscles, or bruised  bones. A noting of the territory where healing is quietly unfolding.

After this first review, we may sit or stand in silence. We name what we see and feel and where that’s announced in our body. We linger over any part of the landscape where pain or tenderness or tightness expresses itself. Our neck may call attention to our intense immersion in our work and our failure to take a break and stretch. Our shoulders may speak to the reality that we’re carrying the sorrow of another or shouldering the anguish of the world. Our legs, aching or sore, may articulate where we’ve stood in compassion, in commitment, in conviction.

We pray to learn from our body, this container of wisdom, this wonder with all its limitations and its gifts. We utter thanks for the electrical wiring of neurons and the pulsing of blood quietly going about their everyday tasks without a thought from us. We bless the bodies of all those we’ll encounter this day, especially those who carry unrelenting pain, fresh grief, or tender scars. We welcome the body of our Earth with all its beauty and its woundedness. We imagine the sacred expanse of the cosmos and pray to honor our place in it, asking, “What does it mean to fully inhabit our lives? How shall we live so as to hasten the fullness of God’s dream for our world?”

serviceglobeEntering into the day through bodyprayer is one of the ways we can deepen our awareness of Mystery. May we see our bodies as the form designed to carry the presence of the Holy One into our time and place. May this day be one that restores and enlightens and heals both us and all who will enter it.

IMAGES:
Chris Koellhoffer, IHM – I suspect I was engaged in bodyprayer at a very early age but didn’t have a name for it yet!
IHM Communications Office – photo taken on the grounds of the IHM Center, Scranton, PA

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Listen to your body. Just listen.
Where do you hear the voice of fatigue, or sorrow, or pain, or discouragement, or utter joy?
Close with a promise to stay attentive as the day unfolds.
Bow, and give thanks.

NOTE:

Please hold in your prayer a weekend event my IHM Congregation is co-sponsoring  with Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light. Our IHM Center in Scranton, PA is in the heart of what once was the coal mining region of NEPA. So the workshop, “The Long Journey: From Extracting the Past to Cultivating the Future”, is of particular importance to us and to many in our region concerned about climate change and the well-being of Earth, our Common Home. 

Your prayerful support is welcome as is your continuing prayer for this time of my writing and planning future retreat experiences. Thank you. 

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From Woundedness to a New Way

Myrrhoilandpieces copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    January 26, 2020

Myrrh and the Magi started it all. I had never really pursued an understanding of that third gift of the visitors from the East, the one we can rattle off after gold and frankincense. But I learned recently that myrrh is a fragrant resin produced when certain small thorny tree species receive wounds that penetrate the bark and go deeper into the wood. The resin then gathers and hardens into crystals, and those crystals can be used for medicinal purposes. So myrrh, I discovered, comes from the wounds of a tree, the brokenness of a living thing, and from those wounds comes a new path towards healing.

We can stand in awe at the healing power of our bodies in the aftermath of wounds or fractures. Something as tiny as a paper cut can marshal blood vessels and platelets to tangle together, form a clot, and seal a wound. We can bow down in wonder at the way a fracture summons new bone growth, knitting together, forming a callus, and sometimes surpassing the unbroken bone itself in its strength. Our bodies intuitively seem to know that wounds and breaks, though in no way desired or sought after, are also not the definitive end of the story. They can be an invitation to unexpected new ways of looking at life and moving forward.

From woundedness to a new creation, from brokenness to agents of healing: that seems to be the invitation myrrh provides. Henri Nouwen offers an unusual perspective on our brokenness, the physical and emotional pain we carry from the multitude of ways in which the human family is capable of hurting one another. He acknowledges the reality of suffering and the reality that not everything can be cured or fixed. And in The Wounded Healer, Nouwen notes that the Christian community is a healing community for this surprising reason: “not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision.”

Nouwen suggests that our suffering in the present moment might in some way be the myrrhtree copyplace, the locus where God intimates a new creation. He believes that the pain we carry right now from the wounds of loss, rejection, failure, shame, and exclusion can open us to fresh ways of seeing and being in this world: perhaps a deeper listening, a more engaged relationship of prayer, a newfound patience, a heightened compassion for the pain of others.

The poet, Jane Hirschfield, further describes some of the avenues of healing and communion available to us in “For What Binds Us”:

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly wherever they’ve been set down–
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong than the simple, untested surface before.

There’s a name for it on horses, when it comes back darker and raised:
proud flesh, as all flesh is proud of its wounds,
wears them as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest –

And when two people have loved each other,
see how it is like a scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend. 

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Take a tally of any significant emotional or physical scars or calluses you carry in body and spirit.
Has the experience of adjusting to a new reality caused you to look at life in a fresh way?
What learnings have been part of your healing?
Spend time in conversation with the Holy One.
Pay attention to what you hear, and give thanks.

NOTE:
Thank you for remembering in your prayer all who were part of the retreat experience I led for the Board of Directors of the Haiti Solidarity Network of the Northeast this past week.

During the winter, I take one month to break from being on the road and devote myself to writing and creating and planning future retreat experiences. Please note that this year that will happen during February and I’d be grateful if you send your prayerful energies my way for that purpose. Thank you!

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Reframing Walls

diverse world

 

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    January 12, 2020

No, not that wall, but an equally divisive one. This past November 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the day in 1989 that the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Built in 1961 to keep disaffected East Germans from fleeing to the West, the Wall divided East and West Germany and became a symbol of oppression and division.

Jennifer Rosenberg, in “The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall,” describes the overnight erection of the Wall and the consequences of living in a separated Berlin:

“Just after midnight on the night of August 12–13, 1961, trucks with soldiers and construction workers rumbled through East Berlin. While most Berliners were sleeping, these crews began tearing up streets that entered into West Berlin. They dug holes to put up concrete posts and strung barbed wire all across the border between East and West Berlin. Telephone wires between East and West Berlin were also cut and railroad lines were blocked.

Berliners were shocked when they woke up that morning. What had once been a very fluid border was now rigid. No longer could East Berliners cross the border for operas, plays, soccer games, or any other activity. No longer could the approximately 60,000 commuters head to West Berlin for well-paying jobs. No longer could families, friends, and lovers cross the border to meet their loved ones. Whichever side of the border one went to sleep on during the night of August 12, they were stuck on that side for decades.”

And so it was. Perhaps the Wall is so etched in my memory because I remember very clearly announcing to friends during those decades of separation that the Wall, that formidable, indestructible symbol of a divided city, would surely never come down in my lifetime.

But on that November night in 1989, I was happily proved wrong. That night, the crashing of sledge hammers was accompanied by jubilant singing, ecstatic dancing, shouts of disbelief, and tears of remembrance.

There are two profound and moving signs of hope I hold on to about the Wall. It never occurred to me at the time to wonder what happened to the thousands of tons of cement that had once formed the solid, impenetrable symbol of division. I learned later that much of the concrete was pulverized, reformulated, and transformed into building material to construct roads for the newly opened city of Berlin and its suburbs. I love this image of reframing, taking something that had once symbolized a torn city and warring ideologies and turning it into an agent of communion, helping people to be reunited and move forward with ease, to travel to new landscapes, to be exposed to fresh ideas and to share common hopes.berlin-wall-anniversary-120000-ribbons-5-5dce81c4d9fc7__700 copy

The second sign of hope that touched me was the observance of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2019. Near the Brandenburg Gate, an art installation was set up. Thousands of strips of cloth, colorful fabric streamers named “Visions in Motion” held greetings, wishes, hopes and memories from Germans and from the global community. Now over the footprint of the menacing wall waved a thing of beauty, signaling welcome and spaciousness of heart and communion and hope.

As we’re in the early stages of this new year, the Wall might serve as an invitation to reflect on the promise of Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.” In this passage that we heard during the season of Advent, Isaiah insists that God can and does bring forth new life where none seems possible.

So if the year past has seen the building of personal walls as seemingly immovable as those built of concrete, may we commit to the tough labor of restoring cherished relationships severed by hurts or words spoken impulsively in anger. May we examine whatever exclusionary and unwelcoming walls have gone up in our own souls, in our families, neighborhoods, communities, relationships, nation. May we work, with God’s grace, to collapse those boundaries. May the Wall remind us of what a loving God repeats over and over: that it’s not too late, it’s never too late.

Happy and spacious new year!

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Might there be any walls of judgment, hurt, or anger residing in your heart at this time?
What inner soul work might it take to break down those barriers?
Ask the Holy One to sit with you and strengthen your hope that new life and new direction are possible.

PHOTOS:
Fotolia
Vision in Motion

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer the following events:

January 13-16: A guided retreat I’m offering for the Carmelite Sisters of Baltimore, Maryland.

January 25:  A day of reflection and discernment with the Haiti Solidarity Network of the Northeast (HSNNE) in Caldwell, NJ.

Thank you!

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Bearing Gifts into a New Year

gifts empty box copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   December 29, 2019

Perhaps you’re among the families who spent some time over the holidays moved and entertained by the utter excitement and squeals of delight bubbling up in children around you. Their absolute joy and the way they often show more interest in the box or wrapping a gift arrived in call us back to simpler days, to our own times of wonder and amazement.

In my own family, as a new generation of little ones is being welcomed into the tribe, I often gaze into their faces and remember the words of Rabindranath Tagore:

“Every time a child is born into this world, it comes bearing a message of joy. And this is the message: God is not discouraged!”gifts in hands copy

I don’t know that I ever thought of the possibility of God being discouraged, and yet, in the life of Jesus, we can point to a number of instances when he was. When Jesus prophesied his death (Luke 18:31-34), “the disciples did not understand any of these things.” When he tried to find words to describe the love that exists in the Trinity and the truth that the beauty of that divine relationship resided in him as well (John 14:1-11), Philip’s utterance of “Show us the Father and it is enough for us” summoned this frustrated response from Jesus: “Have I been with you for so long, Philip, and you still do not know me?” And then there’s the scene in the Garden (Mark 14:32-42) where three times Jesus asks his disciples to stay awake and watch with him. We can easily imagine both Jesus’ frustration and his disappointment when those closest to him simply did not get it.

Could this be why Jesus especially enjoyed gathering babies and little children around him (Luke 18:15-17) even as his followers tried to shoo them away? Could it be because in birth, in new life, in the efforts of beginnings, the Holy One, like us, finds great encouragement?

I have to believe that every time we work to enlarge our spaciousness of heart, this is the message: God is not discouraged. Every time we move through our day breathing compassion and kindness that may never be acknowledged or honored, God is not discouraged. Every time we ourselves bear those messages of joy–“wasting” a day in acts of justice or imagination, forgiving or extending a hand in welcome, practicing outrageous love or audacious hope, God is not discouraged.gifts two copy

As we stand at the edge of a new year, may we continue to bear these messages of joy, even in and perhaps especially in the midst of pain and loss and heartache. May we continue to know and to experience that the God who walks beside us is a God who is not discouraged.  Blessings of the New Year to you!

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on the signs of hope that you see around you.
Invite the Holy One to be with you as you name these encouraging moments, events, or people.
Give thanks, and hold in your prayer all those who at this moment are experiencing discouragement of any kind. 

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer some upcoming events and all who will be part of them: 

December 30:
A planning meeting for the observance of the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Congregation of which I’m a member, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scranton, PA). I’ll be offering the keynote for the August 1st celebration of this anniversary for the Sisters of IHM (Immaculata, PA)  

January 12-15:
A guided retreat, “Many Voices Made of Longing,” that I’ll be offering for the Carmelite Sisters of Baltimore, MD. 

Thank you!

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A God Who Savors

www.myfreetextures.com

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     December 15, 2019

Once in a while, a misreading or misdirection can become an invitation to explore. While praying the intercessions that are included in the daily Scripture reflections I use, I misread one addressed as “Saving God, in your light we see light” and read it instead as “Savoring God…” I caught the difference almost immediately but remained enchanted by the image of a God who not only saves, but savors.

So much of our human savoring involves the senses: drinking in the rose-gold of a candyforchildren copyspectacular sunset; being stunned into silence by the soaring notes of a string quartet; appreciating the softness of newly laundered sheets or relishing the last few bites of (here name your favorite dish). We savor emotionally as well: the lingering embrace of a loved one; the encouraging hand on our shoulder; the words genuinely spoken in praise or affirmation or the uninhibited hug and kiss of a grandchild.

We know how savoring figures in our lives, but just how does the Holy One savor? For that answer, we can point to Jesus, the Word made flesh, the one who fully inhabited our human form, the one who makes visible what a savoring God might look like. This God relishes dinner with friends like Martha and Mary, with outsiders like Zaccheus, and with his followers in one last poignant Passover meal. This God is moved by a woman whose compassion impels her to enter the confines of a male-only gathering and touch his loneliness, wash his feet, anoint his head. This God appreciates fields of lilies and swallows flying overhead.  This God relishes fish cooked over a charcoal fire and bread shared in his disciples’ company.

I imagine Jesus, fully human like us, also savoring acts of spaciousness of heart and generosity and profound trust: a leper whose gratitude impelled him to turn back and voice his thanks; a widow dropping her last precious coins into the temple treasury; a criminal gathering his final painful breath and confidently asking to be remembered.

And what of us in our time and place? I simply can’t imagine or believe in a God who is beyond savoring our courage when we speak up for someone being ridiculed or bullied, or a God who doesn’t delight when a parent puts fatigue aside to sit with a weeping child. This God rejoices over our struggle to forgive and our efforts to find a few minutes of stillness to sit with the Divine.

We’re about to celebrate once again the blessed convergence of the human and the divine in the birth and life of Jesus. May we learn from this savoring God to notice and offer thanks for Presence and presence and presents. Christmas blessings!

candleglow

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Call to mind one thing you appreciate about being human.
Savor this blessing and tell the Holy One why you delight in it.
Give thanks and welcome Jesus who comes once again into the human family this Christmas.

NOTE:
So many of you have shared with me the ways you appreciate my blog posts through Mining the Now. Know how very grateful I am for your support and encouragement. May you and all those you love experience every blessing of this Christmas season.  

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A Season of Holding Space

Advent candles copy

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    December 1, 2019

Would it be safe to say we have diverse understandings of just what constitutes closeness or distance, based on our family culture and formative years? If you’ve never thought about your sense of personal space, notice how you feel on a flight when the passengers in front of you recline their seats to the furthest position, cutting off what little space is available to you. And then there’s the minivan, which I’ve always suspected was invented largely to put an end to children’s quarrels about who got to sit in the coveted space next to a window.

I was delighted recently to listen to an On Being podcast, “Your Life Is a Poem,” where Krista Tippett interviewed Naomi Shihab Nye and enlarged my sense of space through their conversation. The poet related that when she was working in a school in Yokohama, a student shared with her the Japanese concept of yutori, another kind of space, a sense of living with spaciousness. The student offered examples of yutori as budgeting your time so that you leave early enough to get to your destination and then have some moments to pause and look around. And another element of yutori: “After you read a poem, just knowing you can hold it—you can be in the space of the poem, and it can hold you in its space, and you don’t have to explain it. You don’t have to paraphrase it. You just hold it, and it allows you to see differently.”

How contemplative and how profoundly respectful, to allow for the pause after the period or the paragraph or the poem. To allow the thought of another to sit in our heart and seep into our consciousness. To not immediately or quickly move on to another word or idea, but to honor and to savor the richness or the mystery of what has just been read or heard or spoken.IMG_2061 copy

I often think of Advent as a season of space and spaciousness. Making space for the holy child whose family was turned away and told there was no room for them in the inn. Making space for the holy child who arrives at our borders or our parishes or our neighborhoods today in the homeless stranger or the desperate migrant looking for a restful pause and a safe and welcoming space.

As the consumer world is whirling around us, announcing sales and the dwindling number of days before Christmas and gift-giving, we can be challenged to find even a brief bit of space and stillness in which to ponder the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us. Perhaps this season is a time when we especially need the heart space where love lives and thrives, as Richard Rohr notes.

So what if we used the elements that are already part of our day-to-day lives and practiced yutori, a sense of living with spaciousness? Holding space when family members share the joys or challenges of their day and we stop multi-tasking to pause and truly take it all in. Holding space as we read or listen to national or international news and pause to allow what we hear to inform our prayer and action for justice. Holding space when we listen to the Scripture readings or the songs of this holy season and invite them to breathe in us. Holding space to listen to our own inner voice and the nudges of the Holy One calling us to rest or to reflect or to pause or to pay attention as we move through our day.IMG_2052 copy

As we enter into the season of Advent, may we be about exactly that: holding space for the Other and the other. May we practice yutori, enter into the pauses, and grow our spaciousness of heart. Advent blessings!

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Pause for several minutes and breathe slowly.
Savor a thought, a moment, an experience of your day.
Ask the Holy One to enter into, sit with, and bless this time of pausing with you.

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer the Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Cenacle Sisters who will be part of an Advent retreat I’ll be offering at Villa St. Joseph, Rockville Centre, NY, this weekend. 

During this Advent season, I’ll be holding space for all of you who continue to bless and support my writing for Mining the Now. Thank you!

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