Bearing Witness

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    February 28, 2021

Yes, it has been a year. And what has come of it? How have we been marking time or living with a newfound sense of time?

Once it became clear that COVID-19 was not going to fade away as we had once surmised, a friend of mine with a background in social work shared with me an idea that had been simmering in his thoughts for several months. He said that he had begun putting together a program to help individuals and groups deal with an anticipated landslide of requests for grief counseling. Returning to a pre-pandemic way of life meant also coming to terms with the reality that we had not ever been in control, perhaps merely suffering from the illusion of control.

Peter Steiner, Unsplash

My friend was referring, of course, to the obvious mourning of those who had lost someone to the coronavirus, often unable to be with their loved ones and console them as their breath diminished, and who now faced an aching emptiness in their lives going forward. Just as truly, he was speaking of our collective need to name and to make meaning of the many levels of loss, change, and disruption we’ve all experienced during this past year. He reflected that we’ve all met some form of trauma, loosely described as any unhealed wound, a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, a shock, upheaval, sorrow, or heartache. That we are all in some way grieving lives that have been disordered and turned upside down.

I believe he’s on to something. Perhaps because that imagining was in my consciousness, I was struck recently reading a post by Brené Brown where she noted that, “Grief requires witnessing.”

She shared it as a comment on David Kessler’s observation that “what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.”

During this Lenten season when we reflect on the forces that inexorably led Jesus closer to Calvary, I’ve been sitting with the grief that requires witnessing. Simon of Cyrene watching the unsteady steps of this quiet man and opening his heart to help shoulder the cross. Veronica stepping out from her place in the crowd and offering consolation with a towel. The women of Jerusalem aware that Jesus is some mother’s child and that he has been torn from the shelter of her embrace. Mary, looking into the haunted eyes, at the bruised and bloody body of Jesus, and knowing that her place is not to save her son but to be present to his excruciating suffering. The words exchanged between these onlookers and Jesus on the way to Calvary were few. But the testament to the power of presence is enduring. If we place ourselves in the crowd on that day, we might wonder: What might we ourselves have been impelled to do? How we might have been moved to be?

Henrique Jacob, Unsplash

Grief requires witnessing, now no less than then. Like these holy ones we remember during Lent, where might we now be called to stand with, stay with, and witness to the pain, anguish, and heartbreak of a world that is both beautiful and broken?

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Hold in your heart and prayer a person, place, or situation in our world where suffering is present.
Sit in silence and surround them with your healing compassion.
Bear witness to their grief.
What is it calling you to be or to do?

Featured image:   Jametlene Reskp, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer these upcoming events:

March 6:   Virtual Lenten retreat for members of Women Helping Women and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Single Adults, Forest Hills, NY, two amazing groups of people who gather regularly to make the world a better, more loving place.

March 13:  Retreat day for parishioners of St. Bonaventure – St. Benedict the Moor parish, Jamaica, NY.

Please also remember those who would have been part of a day for Spiritual Directors and a retreat weekend at the Franciscan Center for Spiritual Renewal, Aston, PA. Those events have been canceled.

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Hearts and Ashes

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM      February 14, 2021

Ash Wednesday has long been a favorite of mine, but perhaps not for the reasons you might suspect. Those who know me well are quite aware that I’m not overly fond of fasting and penance. I’ve long harbored a secret wish to reverse the course of the liturgical seasons, increasing Advent to six weeks and reducing Lent to four weeks. This way, I reason, there would be more days of joyful expectation and fewer days of self-denial. Enough said.

So clearly, I’m not at all a penitential soul. But here’s what I love about Ash Wednesday: it’s one of those rare times when longing is laid bare, and laid bare in almost everyone unapologetically and without embarrassment. For a number of years, I was privileged to help with the distribution of ashes at the beginning of Lent. And I immediately observed something different from what I noticed on people’s faces as they came to receive the Eucharist, perhaps because receiving the Eucharist was a more commonplace weekly practice. Ash Wednesday, however, had the distinction of being a once-a-year moment, and it showed.

What I read on people’s faces as they approached to receive blessed ashes: the absolute ache of pure, unadulterated longing. A desire to return to God with all one’s heart. A yearning to begin again, perhaps for the hundredth time. A hope, no, a certainty, that it just might not be too late to seek forgiveness. A knowing of one’s failings that was swept aside by the deeper knowing of the Holy One’s tender understanding. An intuition that homecoming was not only possible; it was anticipated and welcome.

The intensity of that longing still haunts me. It reminds me of the story of a goatherd who was far from his beloved and yet who could hear, from a thousand miles away, the sound of her comb running through her hair. Yes, that kind of longing. It was all there, in every pair of eyes, in every open face moving towards me up the center aisle of the church. The depths of that yearning seared my soul, melted my heart, caused my eyes to well up with the transparency of it all. As our gazes met, I looked tenderly at each person and saw that every face held a perfect mirror of my own profound desire to return to God with all my heart.

This year the feast of love, Valentine’s Day, stands at the edge of Lent’s beginning. How fitting that a holiday when we proclaim and express our affection for cherished people in our lives should introduce a season when we are overwhelmed by the boundless, unconditional, unaccountably generous love of the Holy One for each of us. This same Holy One who inhabited our human condition and knows so well our limits and incompleteness. This same Holy One who, some spiritual teachers note, is actually the very one who initiates our own longing for the divine. So may we enter into this holiday of love and embrace this season of love in the company of the Holy One, in the company of all lovers of God whose lives have been captured by this insistent, mysterious desire.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Share the deepest longing of your heart.
Pause in silence to listen to the Holy One’s desire for you.
Give thanks for your belovedness.

Featured image: Tim Marshall, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer my preparation for programs, retreats, and spiritual direction that will fill my Lenten calendar. And as always, know that you and your intentions are in my prayers of gratitude in the Lenten season ahead.

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Finding Where We’re Fed

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM January 29, 2021

We are all in some way driven or moved by our hunger. The great herds of zebras and wildebeests thundering across the African plains, braving crocodile-infested waters in search of good grazing. The radiant yellow hibiscus bending across its pot to absorb the nutrients of streaming sunlight. The thoughtful adult planning creative meals to enhance the limits of a tight budget.

One of the consequences of spending so much time at home these days has been a renewed interest in food.  Perhaps we’ve been comforted by the family-size bag of kettle cooked potato chips (guilty!) or similar snacks. Perhaps we’ve had the advantage of unexpected time to actually pay attention to what we eat and when and how we eat. Perhaps we find ourselves living with a greater awareness of food, of those who grew it, packaged it, trucked it, delivered it. Perhaps we’re growing into the Buddhist practice that admonishes us to be there when we eat, to be present to the food before us, not multi-tasking while we gulp down a sandwich but instead giving a meal our full attention and respect, chewing slowly, savoring taste, giving thanks.

Another aspect of living during a pandemic and in the turbulence of a divisive political climate has been the discovery of what else we consume and take in that does not nourish our souls or bodies but instead harms or depletes them. During the chaotic years of the previous presidential administration, I noticed something about my limited consumption of early morning news and then the national news in the evening: most of  it invaded and disturbed my peace of mind. I slowly began to whittle down even that small amount of time. I eliminated from my diet as much as possible the voices of cruelty and exclusion, the messages of bullying and domination.

And then the question became: what is feeding me in their place? What makes my heart leap? My pulse quicken with hope? My senses stand at alert? Because whatever makes my soul come alive, makes my entire body stand in expectant attention, is sustenance of the most profound kind. That’s what nourishes my deep hunger. That’s where I need to linger and pause. That’s the miracle of the loaves and fishes played out anew in this time and place, where there’s more than enough and the enough fills and energizes me and others.

Nine Koepfer, Unsplash

Perhaps it’s wilderness time, communion with the revelations of the natural world. In a tree gloriously draped in snowfall. In a crow perched like a sentinel on a bare tree top. In an encounter with a foraging deer as we both dwell in the other’s gaze. Perhaps it’s stillness and a deep listening to the Holy. Perhaps it’s the muted colors of Monet or Renoir or the summons in every note of classical or pop or rap or jazz music. Perhaps it’s the way the lines of a poem feel in our mouth. Perhaps it’s our sinking into and becoming totally lost in the pages of a novel. Perhaps it’s the quiet inspiration that is the love of a good friend.

Whatever it may be, may we eat it! Consume it. Chew it. Savor it. Allow it to enter our soul. Take it in, offer thanks, bless it, and know ourselves fed.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on whatever nourishes or quickens or delights your soul.
Name the creators or the inhabitants of this gift, and what it is that draws you.
Give thanks for this food and for the Creator and giver of every good gift.
Then take another bite, and savor it.

NOTE:
Please remember in your prayer:
Directed Prayer Weekend (in-person) at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA, January 29-31. I’ll be one of the guest directors for this weekend. Please pray for all who will be part of these sacred days. Thank you!

Featured image: Motoki Tonn, Unsplash

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Everyday Revelations

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   January 17, 2021

Every year it’s the same. I ache with the expectant longing of the Advent Scriptures. I delight in the Christmas narratives with images of Emmanuel choosing to fully inhabit our human condition and become God-with-us. And then, in January, the Magi arrive.

Although we know few details about these ones we call “wise,” Matthew tells us (Matthew 2:1-12) that they came from “the East” and that they carried gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We assume they had an advanced knowledge of astronomy, since they “saw his star at its rising” and they followed that star “until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.”

But it’s their very appearance in the Christmas narrative that unleashes uneasy anticipation in me, because I’ve heard this story many times and the ending remains the same. After beginning their journey with honest and pure intentions, the Magi entered into their pilgrimage not fully understanding but drawn by a deep, mysterious longing. Directed in a dream not to make a return visit to Herod but instead to depart for their country by another way, these wise ones unintentionally set in motion tragic consequences. Their decision to circumvent Herod was the tipping point for the madness of a crazed despot. Terrified of being dethroned by a toddler, he ordered the snatching of other toddlers out of the arms of their powerless, wailing mothers in a scene of unimaginable slaughter.

Thomas Galler, Unsplash

So every year at the end of the Christmas season, there’s a sense of dissonance as we move from the relative calm and adoration of “Silent Night” to the sounds of Rachel rocking back and forth in utter desolation, keening and refusing to be comforted because her children are no more. The crèche and the bloody cobblestones, back-to-back. Bethlehem and Ramah, back-to-back. How are we to make sense of this contrasting placement, or are we?

We call the story of the Magi the Epiphany, the manifestation. So what might be being revealed here? The mystery of human suffering, certainly, and one beyond our ability to comprehend or explain. The welcome and inclusion God offers to all people, yes.  But could all of these events also be the Holy One’s leading us to an enduring truth: that, no matter what is happening, we are being accompanied at all times by the Divine. The Holy One is with us when we leap in delight, joy, and play, as well as in those moments when we’re brought to our knees crippled by pain, howling in rage, rendered mute by inconsolable loss.

God holding in tender arms the families whose loved ones have been brutally taken away by COVID-19. God rejoicing in the collaborative coming together of the scientific community to create a vaccine. God with us lamenting the violence that destroyed life and property last week at the U.S. Capitol. God with us applauding the swell of citizens gathering courage to voice their vote, to lead with compassion, to form a more perfect union.

In this imperfect world that so longs for wholeness and healing, the Epiphany manifests the simple truth that God is here, that God welcomes and accompanies. May we be blessed in this revealing.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
You may find it helpful to gaze on images of both compassionate care and social sin in our world.
Name how light and shadow are reflected in what you see.
Ask the Holy One to bless your efforts to grow in spaciousness of heart as a person of peace.

Featured image: Inbal Malka, Unsplash

NOTE:
This coming week I was scheduled to be in Ocean City, Maryland, praying and reflecting with a women’s group. That experience has been canceled because of COVID precautions, but I ask you to hold in prayer all who would have participated.

Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of a directed retreat weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA, January 29-31. I will be one of the directors for this retreat. Thank you.

Please join me also in praying for a peaceful transfer of power with the inauguration of President Biden and Vice-President Harris and for the healing of the soul of the United States, as we pray also for a deepening of compassion throughout our beautiful yet wounded world.

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Good Company in Every Year

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     January 1, 2021

The calendar reminds me that ten years have been counted off since I moved into my apartment, this place that I call “the womb” because it offers sacred space, a space that’s generative, contemplative, inspiring for me and hopefully, for our world. One might think that in ten years I’ve observed and learned quite a bit from interacting with my neighbors. Yet it’s taken this past year of living through the pandemic in lockdown, when I’ve largely stayed at home and worked virtually from home, that my neighbors and I really came to know one another.

I’m talking here not about people but about what we’d most probably name as objects, the seemingly inanimate things around us. These days I’m living with an intuitive knowing that in some primal way, soul remains in these neighbors. Soul, the life force of plants and animals. Soul, the creative energies and spirit of artists, inventors, craftpersons who have contributed to the creation of “things.” The cervical pillow that cradles my neck as I close my eyes at night. The electric blanket that warms and welcomes my ever-cold feet as I push them down to the bottom of the bed. I’m in conversation with the tea kettle that screeches in increasing decibels as I run from my office at one end into the kitchen at the other end where it waits for me. I can’t find words enough to convey my gratitude to the hot water that soothes me in the shower, or the cushions on the easy chair that embrace me, or the aging laptop that still springs into alertness at the push of a button.

Debby Hudson ahDojo, Unsplash

Every day of this pandemic year—and for all of my years, actually–I’ve been surrounded by such thoughtful neighbors. Yet I confess I’ve not always remarked on their faithful presence in my life, I’ve not always paused to thank them for their consideration, their quiet concern, their standing by at the ready.

So when I began to write the reflection today that I expected to be about the new year, these very neighbors intervened. “What about us?” protested the ottoman and the frying pan. “Share our story!” begged the hand mixer, the silverware resting in its drawer, the beloved oven, the busy desk. The clamor was deafening, so I cast aside my original plans and listened to the voices of collective wisdom. Perhaps you can hear them also.

Reading this, you may wonder if living in a pandemic has muddled my brain (it has). But please don’t conclude that my worldview is in any way shrinking. Quite the opposite! I believe that when we grow in awareness of the soul of any thing that has been touched by spirit, our universe expands. When we sense how our surroundings converge to nurture, protect, and support us, the only way forward is fuller gratitude. The only path ahead must be wonder and awe. The only response is living in profound appreciation for the collective soul and the quiet love Pat Schneider describes in “The Patience of Ordinary Things”: 

Ryan Riggins, Unsplash

It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
In whatever space you may be, gaze contemplatively at your surroundings.
Let your eyes linger on any for whom you feel a particular affection.
Thank them, and thank the Holy One for the gift of such neighbors.
Treat these neighbors with thoughtful care today.

Featured image:  John Mark Smith, Unsplash

NOTE:
As we leave 2020 behind, we move forward holding in our hearts and in our prayer the many for whom this year has been marked by loss on many levels: the death of precious loved ones, the termination of employment, the curtailment of movement and interactions, the sense of safety and security. Still, we can be grateful because we move forward also with the memory of heroic care, extravagant kindness, moments of beauty, love in all its many splendid forms.

May the year to come be filled with the blessings of peace, hope, and good health for you and for our beautiful yet wounded world.

Blessings of the New Year, and thank you for following Mining the Now into 2021.

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Becoming the Manger

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM December 20, 2020

 “While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:6-7

Each year as the Advent season approaches, we listen to and enter into the Advent Scriptures and songs from the place where we stand, the place of our consciousness and awareness. Sometimes, we notice the ribbons of exuberant joy and expectation threading through the readings. Depending on what’s unfolding in our lives, we may be moved by the urgings to enter into deep inner soul work and change our patterns of thought or behavior. We may also be among those who have been numbed by despair in the disappearance of our jobs and our ability to provide for our loved ones, in the deep-seated divisions in our country, or in the now empty places at our tables. We may find it challenging to believe that the season of Advent has anything to offer us, anything meaningful to say to us.

At this moment, the daily headlines trumpet an alarming increase in the number of COVID-19 positive test results, the tally of hospitalizations, and the excruciating figure that lists those whose lives have been lost to this pandemic. Doctors, nurses, and infectious disease specialists raise the alarm that we are reaching hospital capacity, that there is no more room to accept the desperately ill.

Each time that very real fear is raised, I keep returning to the Nativity story where, over and over, Mary and Joseph were turned away by that same message, “There is no room.” We have no space. We have no resources. Look elsewhere.

Greyson Joralemon, Unsplash

Perhaps this Advent, the invitation before us is the creative response born of desperate circumstances that Mary and Joseph took: they laid Jesus in a manger. Let’s entertain no illusions. That manger had no porcelain figurines set up inside a warm, cozy home. That manger was a trough or open box designed to hold fodder for livestock. It was prickly with hay. It smelled. It was messy and cold. But it was there, and it was available and open.

Could the invitation of this Advent be all about something as earthy and simple as becoming the manger? Embodying a spirit of welcome and spaciousness of heart. Offering a soft space for the healing of wounds—our own and others’. Emptying ourselves of clutter and the rush of activity, so that we’re fully available. Making room for the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us, in whatever form the Holy One appears.

Dieter K, Unsplash

This season and always, may we witness to the root of the word, manger: Old French, mangier, to eat; Latin, mandere, to chew. May all who come to the manger of our hearts find nourishment and refreshment. May they be fed by our compassion, our hospitality, our presence. May Jesus, the Holy One of God born into our human condition, be welcomed into whatever manger we find ourselves able to offer this season.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Imagine your heart as a welcoming space.
Pray that it may be so for Emmanuel, now incarnate and sharing our human condition.
Pray that this welcoming space may open to all people who come into your consciousness.
Bless and give thanks for the manger you continue to become.

NOTE:
This reflection, “Becoming the Manger,” was originally written for my IHM Congregation’s December newsletter, and it also informed several Advent virtual retreats I offered this month. I hope it continues to have something to say for followers of my blog.

Thank you for your prayer for all who were part of a virtual Advent Evening of Prayer for the Cornerstone Women’s Group of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Ridgewood, NJ. Over 50 women participated! Special thanks to Nan Charters, Rose Sullivan, and Kristin Halvey who organized the evening and provided the Zoom wizardry that made our time together flow so smoothly. What a joy it was for me personally to once again have the grace of praying and reflecting and sharing the wisdom of this amazing gathering of cherished friends. You are all in my heart and prayer!

Unfortunately, the Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA was canceled out of an abundance of caution. Please remember all who would have been present for these days.

May you and all those you love experience peace and continued good health as you celebrate Christmas and the New Year. I’m ever grateful to be going into 2021 in the graced company of those who follow Mining the Now. Merry Christmas!

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Outsiders Welcome

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     December 6, 2020

Even after all these years, I’m still enchanted by Nativity scenes. When I was a child, my family had one, probably a standard set from a religious articles store. I cherished the ritual of setting it up and then playing with the figures for days afterwards. I remember the elaborate setting of the almost life-sized Nativity in our parish church, how the Infant was reverently carried up the center aisle to find his place in the manger at Midnight Mass. I gazed at those silent figures both at home, in church, and in outside scenes in our neighborhood many times, wondering what they were thinking. There was something comforting and reassuring in gazing at faces that looked as if they could have been my relatives.

Only many years later did I realize that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph most probably didn’t have my German/Scots Irish features. That the Holy Family might not quite have fit in in my suburban neighborhood. That God is not limited to a certain appearance, language, or skin tone. That the Holy One is so much bigger than my childhood imagination–and my limited adult imagination. That God wears many faces in our world and that our call is to recognize and welcome every one of them.

My Nativity set from Mexico

And that Christmas shows that the ways of God are often the opposite of what we might predict, that they seem inside out according to the measuring stick our culture uses as a standard of importance. In writing of the Nativity scene in “Inside Out?”, Peter Trow notes that the shepherds come from outside the city, spending their nights vulnerable with their flocks. Mary and Joseph come, Galilean outsiders with no reservations, and they’re refused room–because they’re poor? because they speak with strange accents? Jesus comes, born an outsider, living with outsiders, teaching and healing outsiders, even dying as an outsider outside the city.

And then I come, perhaps carrying my own experiences of being an outsider, of not always finding room in the heart of another or of struggling to hide my limitations for fear I might be less welcomed and accepted. And then we come, born into a world that is beautiful, yes, but also a world wounded, a world fragmented by division and longing for wholeness.

The Nativity scene will be set up for several more weeks. Long before it’s packed away for the next Christmas, Howard Thurman calls us to do the deep inner soul work of this season:

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.”

Kira auf der heide, Unsplash

May we embody this work of Christmas. May we prepare a place of welcome, a home for Emmanuel, God-with-us, the one who brings outsiders in and names them as welcome guests. And may this holy work begin right here, right now, in our place and time. Advent blessings!

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you have a Nativity scene set up, gaze at it.
Reflect on the outsider status of the Nativity characters
and on what is lost, broken, imprisoned or in need of music in our hearts and in our world today.
Ask the Holy One to grow your spaciousness of heart.

Featured image: Jon Tyson, Unsplash

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayer for all who were part of the virtual day-long Advent retreat I led through St. Cyril Spiritual Center, Danville, on December 5. Special thanks to Sisters Jean Marie Holup, Michael Ann Orlik, and Susan Pontz for giving graciously of their time and gifts to bring the day together.

Now may I ask you to hold in prayer all who will be part of 2 upcoming events:

December 9, Virtual Advent Evening for the Cornerstone Women’s Group, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Ridgewood, NJ

December 11-13, Directed Retreat Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA (in person). I’ll be one of the guest directors for this retreat. Thank you.

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Standing Our Thanks

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    November 22, 2020

It’s not only a difference in the verb–saying, praying, giving, or offering our thanks—but a difference of purpose. This Thanksgiving my family, like so many others, will be standing our thanks. Though our hearts are longing to gather at the site that became my parents’ home in their final years, this year my sisters, brothers, relatives, friends and I will all be standing apart, staying in our respective houses, condos, or apartments for the holiday.

We may attempt to replicate the recipe for Mom’s spoonbread or Grandma’s sausage stuffing wherever we are. We may decorate our own tables, trying to rival the inspiration and artistry my sister always brought to that task. We may try to carve a turkey with the expertise and sure hand of my brother-in-law. We may compose a personal, creative Grace before Meals like the one I usually offered as we gathered. But the day will not be the same. And that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?

Priscilla DuPreez, Unsplash

As we look around our tables wherever we are, we’ll be missing the usual physical closeness to familiar beloved faces. We’ll be standing our thanks, standing in our gratitude miles away—for some of us, states away–from family and friends. And that will be the profound act of love we offer one another this Thanksgiving holiday.

We range in age from twelve months to wisdom years. We have our share of elders, though I still can’t believe I’m considered one of them. We count among our relatives precious loved ones with compromised health issues. So for us, the decision was straightforward: we simply have chosen not to take the chance that COVID-19 might be an invisible, uninvited guest at the table.

I ache every time I realize that I haven’t seen any of these beloved ones since Christmas 2019. Christmas! And I miss them, miss them more and more as I try to hold them tightly while the calendar turns.

As we deliberately keep our distance from one another, we’ll be saying, in effect,
I love you, I care for you, I long to sit down beside you at the Thanksgiving table.
I long to hear your stories or laugh over the latest exploits of the little ones.
I long to enjoy those once-a-year side dishes rich with tradition and full of memories.
I long to catch your eye and see you smile across the table.
Read my absence as a sign that I hope to be sitting beside you for many Thanksgivings to come.

Pro Church Media, Unsplash

Wherever and however we may celebrate the holiday in 2020, may we be safe, may we and our loved ones stay well, may our list of reasons to give thanks grow longer and deeper.

Know that you are ever in my grateful heart as you follow Mining the Now.
Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Spend time holding in your heart your own personal litany of gratitude.
Savor and name the gifts for which you’re most grateful.
Tell the Holy One why you especially cherish these.
Offer a profound bow of reverence and gratitude.

Featured Image: Christo Doulou, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please hold in your prayer those who will be part of an all-day virtual retreat, “Entering the Advent Rhythms,” I’ll be offering through St. Cyril Spiritual Center, Danville, PA, on December 5. Thank you.

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Signing On to a More Loving World

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    November 8, 2020

Sometimes we scribble it without thought; sometimes, with careful deliberation. Sometimes, from a hesitant hand; sometimes, as a bold, emphatic statement. Though there are many ways we can sign our name, all of them are consequential.

Not long ago, I signed my name to my mail-in ballot, blessed it, and then dropped it off in a ballot collection box. Like so many of us, I was mindful of the significance of that gesture. In the days leading up to national elections in the U.S., I lived with awareness of the implications of voting and sought out many practices to nurture calm and a sense of hope. Breathprayer, a long-time daily practice, became an anchor for my own peace of heart. On Election Day itself, I silenced the TV and social media during the day. I signed on to the company of others who shared my desire for inclusion and welcome: a Prayer Vigil on Zoom offered by Shalem Institute; a prayer service with my IHM Sisters, Associates, and friends who gathered remotely wherever we were at 1:00 pm to enter into an intentional coming together for the common good. Perhaps you were able to join in the wave of prayer with people of good will from across the globe, all of us spending the day leaning into contemplative prayer.

And I did one other thing to sustain my hope. I searched for a story that might speak to the promise of which the human family is capable, even in—and perhaps especially in—times of crisis and division. Justin Turner met my search with a story about Chiune Sugihara, who was new to me. Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania at the time the Nazis began to round up Jews for deportation to death camps. His wife, Yukiko, is credited with suggesting to him a plan that would save the lives of their Jewish neighbors although also placing their own lives at risk.

The plan: to sign and issue travel visas to Jews. After attempting three times to receive permission from the Japanese Foreign Ministry to lawfully grant visas, and after being turned down three times, Sugihara began to grant visas against direct orders. Mindful of the Nazi presence closing in, he hand-signed visas 18 hours a day. According to witnesses, on the very day his consulate closed and he had to evacuate, he was still writing visas and throwing them out the window of the train as it pulled away. It’s estimated that the Sugiharas saved between 6,000 – 10,000 Lithuanian and Polish Jewish people by this single courageous act of resistance: signing unlawful travel visas.

The power of a signature

A year before he died in 1985, Sugihara was honored as Righteous Among the Nations and he and his descendants were granted permanent Israeli citizenship. Even with those honors, he died in near obscurity in Japan, leaving his neighbors shocked when people from around the world showed up at the funeral for this quiet, unassuming man.

Years later, in 1998, Sugihara’s widow, Yukiko, traveled to Jerusalem. There she was met over and over by tearful survivors of the Holocaust. Each of the survivors clutched in their hands a paper that held the difference between life and death: a yellowing travel visa bearing the signature of Chiune Sugihara.

Most probably none of us will ever need to sign our name at the risk of our lives as the Sugiharas did. But we are called to sign on to invest our lives in a more loving world:
whenever we parent a child into attitudes of service and kindness;
whenever we sit with a friend weeping heartbreak and disappointment;
whenever we exercise our right to vote in an election;
whenever we listen to a lonely neighbor tell the same story over and over;
whenever we add our signature to petitions supporting the needs of the most vulnerable among us;
whenever we hold a steaming cup of coffee or tea and breathe our morning prayer for the healing of our planet.

We thank you, Yukiko and Chiune, for your bold witness. We thank you in the name of all the neighbors for whom your signature made possible the promise of life and more life.

Remind us, please, to notice this day: 
Where are we being invited to sign our name with courage and compassion for a more just and loving world?

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Rest your hands on your lap, gaze at them, and bless them.
Savor the power that is yours to create, with God’s grace, a better future.
Ask the Holy One to grow your awareness of where you need to “sign” your name today.

Featured image: G Jao, Unsplash

NOTE:
On November 8, please hold in your prayer a gathering of my IHM Sisters, Associates and friends. We are hosting a tree planting ritual to commemorate the planting of 175 trees in honor of the 175th anniversary of our founding as Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In this ritual, we’re welcoming our neighbors of the tree and branch and bud families who have joined our Welcoming Space in Scranton during this anniversary year.

Please also remember all who would have been part of a professional day for spiritual directors I was scheduled to lead on November 12 at the Franciscan Spiritual Center, Aston, PA. That day has been re-scheduled to March 12, 2021.

And of course we continue to pray for hope and healing for these United States, as well as for our neighbors throughout our beautiful yet wounded world.

Looking ahead, you may be interested in these two Advent events I’ll be leading:

December 5, 10:00 – 3:00, a virtual retreat day on Zoom, “Entering the Rhythms of Advent” hosted by St. Cyril Spiritual Center, Danville, PA,  (570) 275-3581, https://sscm.org/spirituality/spiritual-center-retreats/2020-retreat-and-spiritual-presenters/

December 11-13, Directed Prayer Weekend, Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA. I’ll be one of the guest directors for this weekend. http://www.jesuitcenter.org/

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The Vibrations Remain

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   October 25, 2020

Just one more time. If we could only see a beloved face or hear a tender and familiar voice calling our name. Just one more time.

Here in the Northeast, as we’re approaching the somber days of November, we see orange, red, and gold leaves abandoning their homes and fluttering to the ground. Colors that remain are muted now. Green and growth give way to a season of decay and death. All around us in the northern hemisphere, the natural world speaks of letting go of the life that once was.

The stage is set to usher us into those quiet days of remembrance, All Saints and All Souls, when we celebrate precious lives but also grieve their disappearance from our view. We’ve most probably all lost someone dear to us. Perhaps we continue to grieve their death in new and sometimes raw ways.  And what we wouldn’t give to hear a loved voice, long silenced, call to us once again.

Jordhan Madec, Unsplash

John Bull and later Annie Reneau both tell a story that speaks to our personal and collective longing for “just one more time.” They note that, in the Underground system in London, there are many announcements a traveler hears, automated instructions and various recordings. Among those announcements is a voice that warns, “Mind the gap.” For decades, that same voice repeated the reminder to be cautious, but it was replaced by a new digital system in 2012.

Weeks later, though, the old voice was back. And it was back because of the kindness of Underground workers. Around Christmas time that year, the staff at Embankment Tube Underground station were approached by a woman who was clearly upset. She kept asking them where the voice had gone, but they had no idea what she was talking about.

“The voice,” she explained. “The man who says, ‘Mind the Gap.’”

The staff noted that all the old Underground messages had been replaced in 2012 by a new digital system featuring different voices with more variety.

Still distressed, the woman blurted out her reason for being upset at the change. “That old voice,” she revealed, “was my husband.”

In the seventies, Dr. Margaret McCollum explained, her husband, Laurence Oswald, had been the man who had recorded all the Northern Line announcements. He had died in 2007.

She was bereft, and only one thing seemed to console her. Every day, on her way to work, she got to hear Laurence’s voice. Sometimes, when her loss was especially raw, she found comfort in just sitting on the platform at Embankment and listening to her husband’s voice cautioning, “Mind the Gap,” over and over. Listening to his voice had been her routine for five years, and now the sound of his voice had been abruptly taken away from her.

The staff at Embankment were apologetic, offering to copy the original recording of her husband’s announcement if it could be found. She thanked them politely but knew that was unlikely.

But one day in the New Year, as Margaret McCollum sat in Embankment Station on her way to work, over the speakers she heard a familiar voice. It was the voice of a man she had loved so much and never thought she’d hear from again.

“Mind the Gap,” said Laurence Oswald.

Because it turned out that many of the staff at Embankment and within London Underground understood firsthand what it meant to lose loved ones. They knew what a consolation it would be if they could hear those beloved voices one more time. So they searched Archives, pored over old schedules, hunted for tapes, restored and digitized them. They held Margaret’s grief as their own. And together they gave her the gift of just one more time. And then some.

Michael Fallon, Unsplash

What about us? What voices do we long to hear? What hands do we yearn to hold again? Which of the holy ones who have walked among us and who now live in glory in risen life would we give anything to see and hear again, even if for just one more time?

As we remember our holy ones on the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, we may grieve, yes. We may weep, yes. We may feel an ache, an emptiness, a void, yes. But let us also give profound thanks that in this life we were loved so extravagantly by these friends of God, not just one time, but for always.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Call to mind and hold in tenderness your deceased loved ones.
Tell them what you are most grateful for in them.
Spend as long as you like holding this graced memory.
Ask them to bless your life going forward.

Featured Image: Lewis Parsons, Unsplash

NOTE:
Please know that I hold in my heart and prayer the memory of your dear ones now living in resurrection light.

I also ask you to hold in your prayer the Grey Nuns of Pembroke, Ottawa, Ontario, with whom I would have been offering a guided retreat October 18-28. With the U.S.-Canada border closed and the pandemic surging on the U.S. side of the border, that retreat was postponed to 2021.

And, of course, please join me in holding in prayer the upcoming U.S. elections.

To automatically subscribe to receive new posts of Mining the Now:
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