Taking in Soul

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    July 3, 2022

Perhaps when you were a child, you were taught the importance of eye contact, of looking someone in the eye when having a conversation with them. As much as giving a firm and welcoming handshake, that custom was part of the culture in which I was raised. I’ve always wondered if it was grounded in the belief that, “The eyes are the windows of the soul.” That when we truly pay attention to and notice the other, we are in some way, at least briefly, peering into their soul, their essence. Even from a young age, I experienced that connection as holy.

Amber Kipp, Unsplash

I thought of that last Sunday morning when I was driving to Scranton for the installation of our new IHM leadership team. Just as I was moving through a residential area on Sanderson Avenue, a deer that had been hidden by shrubbery jumped into view and sprang into the road directly in front of me. She was not as young as a spotted fawn, but only slightly older. We stopped less than five feet apart. And we both froze.

I can’t speak for the little deer, but I was afraid of misinterpreting her next move and injuring this exquisite animal. So for at least thirty seconds, neither of us advanced. We made eye contact in those thirty seconds and I was held in the unblinking gaze of this beautiful, fragile creature. I felt completely taken into her wild soul.

When she finally jumped back into the shrubbery, my car and I remained still for a few seconds longer. I was immensely relieved that we had avoided an accident, but mostly I was shaken. I had landed in the realm of awe. I had taken in soul. And I could no longer be the same person I was when I first turned onto Sanderson Avenue that Sunday morning.

Without analyzing what actually unfolds in such experiences, can we agree that beauty and relationship alter us? That such moments tap into our deepest longing for  something beyond our limited imagining? No matter that we often find ourselves unable to wrap words around those encounters. No matter that we often can’t fully articulate what has just bumped into our everyday living. It is enough to be stopped in our tracks and shaken to the core. It is enough to be silent and grateful in the presence of Mystery. It is enough to feel summoned to bow down before the holy.

It is enough. In accompanying others as a spiritual guide, I’m often awestruck at stories of profoundly spiritual experiences that are shared, and I wonder: why are we so hesitant to name them as mystical? For that is what I believe they are. Seemingly simple moments like feeling the warm, furry body of a Golden Retriever leaning against us in contentment. The slowly goldening rays of a rising sun. The luminosity of a full moon. The taste of a beefsteak tomato and its juices running down our cheek. The miracle of ripe summer berries and the joy of savoring them.

Ana Tablas, Unsplash

And then those seemingly random moments when we catch the eye of another creature like the little deer. When we recognize the holy in a random stranger on the subway or the market or the waiting room and it takes our breath away. When we finally glimpse understanding in the eyes of a struggling student. When we gaze into the face of a newborn and our hearts expand with reverent amazement as that tiny face gazes back. When someone offers us the look of love in all its vulnerability. Soul meeting soul.

The poet Max Reif knows that look and remembers it well. I leave you with his exquisite piece, “To A Visionary Whose Name I’ll Never Know.”

“This is to you, lady who smiled at me
as I came out of the subway at 14th Street
and walked down 6th Avenue in the winter of ‘74
having just arrived in New York. Gentle feathers
of snow had just begun falling from the black.


I felt myself taken into your eyes, and suddenly
was no longer a confused young man
wondering whether every next step was the right one,
but a light-being, love built into his cells,
leaning forward, poised to give.


Thirty-five years later
I still walk those tunnels of your eyes
down the line of your smile
toward the person you saw in me.”


Takeaway  
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Revisit an experience of beauty or awe (or both!) that moved you.
What were the feelings that surrounded that moment?
Savor those feelings and mine them.
Thank the Holy One for all that this world created and sustained by love offers us.  

NOTE:
I’m publishing this blog a bit earlier than usual because I’ll be traveling July 2 – July 10 to be with the Sisters of Divine Providence in Melbourne, KY for a guided retreat. Please pray for my safe and uneventful air travel and all who will be part of this graced time.  

Please also hold in your prayer all who will be part of another guided retreat I’ll be offering at Villa Pauline, Mendham, NJ, from July 15-21. Many thanks for your gracious remembrance.  

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The Portability of Soul

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   June 19, 2022

When you’re on the road a lot, you start to look for travel companions that are easy to transport and that take up the least amount of space. I’ve noticed that over the years my laptop has downsized from 10 to a svelte 3 pounds. The stack of books I used to haul around on every trip has now been compressed into the width of my Kindle. (I still feel there’s nothing quite as satisfying as turning the actual pages of a paperback, but expediency sometimes wins out). My bulky CD player has given way to hundreds of songs stored on my iPhone and paired with a Bose speaker that’s both lightweight and compact. I don’t cart around a 12 ounce bottle of shampoo any more since I know I can squeeze out two weeks’ worth of washing from a travel size bottle. And I’ve improved my clothes rolling skills to the point that I can conserve space and avoid wrinkles at the same time.

So yes, there’s something to be said in praise of portability. At the time of this writing, I’m serving as a presenter for a guided retreat at Holy Family Passionist Retreat House in West Hartford, CT. I look around my lovely suite of rooms and note with pride how I’ve successfully packed a week’s worth of clothing, toiletries, and books into a small suitcase. It seems I’ve mastered that level of portability.

But reading Spirituality & Practice’s “Spiritual Practice of the Day,” I sat up and took notice after reading the quote of the day from Richard J. Foster’s Prayers from the Heart. He wrote,“My whole life, in one sense, has been an experiment in how to be a portable sanctuary, learning to practice the presence of God in the midst of the stresses and strains of contemporary life.” 

That image of a portable sanctuary grabbed my soul and made me sit up in attention. A sanctuary is defined as a place of refuge, safety, shelter, an oasis, retreat, or holy place. We tend to think of that type of sanctuary as fixed or stationary, standing in one specific geographic place. But since all our other travel necessities are portable, why not, above all, do what Foster notes: have a portable sanctuary right in the heart of each one of us? Our very own retreat where we can remain grounded in the Holy while open to the unfolding of life with all its twists and turns around us. An oasis where we can return often for refreshment and renewal and perhaps a fresh sense of direction.

And to take it further: why not widen that sanctuary, stretch the boundaries of that sanctuary, so that it becomes a safe place where others can unburden themselves of worries or concerns? Why not be a refuge where long carried shame or entire decades of woundedness can be unpacked, sorted, and placed in the light of day without fear of judgment or disapproval? Why not become a shelter from the storms of life, offering a haven that is unfailingly gracious and restful and full of hope and deep listening?

Marissa Grootes, Unsplash

I’ll be packing for my trip back home soon and when I arrive there, I’ll be replenishing my supplies for my next bit of traveling to offer another retreat experience. This time, though, I’ll have a deepened consciousness of what I carry within my heart as well as within my luggage. Safe and happy trails to all of us!

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Open the sanctuary of your heart.
Invite into that space whoever is most in need of rest and renewal and welcome.
Welcome them and hold them with love.
Ask the Holy One to continue to throw the doors of your heart wide open.

Featured Image:   Mantas Hesthaven, Unsplash

NOTE:
Happy Father’s Day to all those who give their lives over as parents, guardians, mentors in caring for those entrusted to their care. May you be blessed!

Thank you for your prayers for all the Sisters who were part of the retreat at Holy Family Passionist Retreat House this past week. Special thanks to Father David Cinquegrani and staff for hosting us in such a peaceful, beautiful, and welcoming place.

Please now hold in your prayer my IHM congregation as we prepare to install our newly elected leadership team on Sunday, June 26.

Please remember in your prayer my travel and the next guided retreat I’m leading, July 2-10, for the Sisters of Divine Providence in Cincinnati, OH/Melbourne, KY. Thank you.

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The Many Ways of Good-bye

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  June 5, 2022

There are good-byes that are brief or lengthy, and good-byes that are temporary or permanent. I suspect all of us have known both. Today’s readings (June 1, 2022 – Acts 20:28-38, John 17:11b-19) speak to the meaning of the word, “good-bye.” I love words, and I love to find fresh ways to break open their meaning. So I’d like to add the nuance of language.

In Acts, Paul clearly conveys to the people of Ephesus that this is the last time they’ll see one another.  It’s quite an emotional scene, isn’t it? We read: They were all weeping loudly as they threw their arms around Paul and kissed him…They were deeply distressed that he had said they would never see his face again.” This good-bye is permanent. Perhaps we’ve been in that place.

This is anticipatory grief, because Paul is still standing right in front of the people of Ephesus. Their farewell has the feel of an Italian phrase, “Mi manchi.” I’ve been told that in Italian, there are no words that actually say, “I miss you.” Instead, there’s “Mi manchi,” which translates, you are missing from me. Can we hear the longing that’s underneath those words?

A few years ago I heard news about a father who had just found out his adult daughter had been murdered. A reporter thrust a microphone in his face and asked the question no person can ever answer: “How do you feel?” The father looked at him, wept, and then choked out, “How do I feel? How do I feel? I am incomplete! We are incomplete!” It’s the feeling of “Mi manchi.” You are missing from me. Can we hear the longing that’s underneath those words?

Jesus’ farewell has a different feel to it. Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel is part of several chapters we might call “the long good-bye.” We hear the farewell discourse of Jesus preparing us for his departure. It’s like a parent or a partner summoning every last bit of strength to capture what they want to leave as a legacy for their beloved. There’s a softness, a tenderness in Jesus’ words. He prays for us, he promises to protect and guard us. He tells us that this good-bye is necessary, but temporary. He must go so that the Advocate, the Spirit, may come. He desires us to share in his joy completely.

So Jesus’ good-bye is different from Paul’s. Jesus’ farewell has more the feel of “Auf Wiedersehen.Auf Wiedersehen, in other words, til we see one another again. It has more the feel of the Irish expression, Ta Bron Orm,” which means not “I am sad,” but instead “sadness is on me.” In other words, sadness is on me for a little while, temporarily, but then I can make room for other emotions, like joy, to be on me.

Whatever our experience with the language of good-bye, we’re all called to develop greater fluency in one language, the language of the heart. Noticing, listening deeply, paying attention to the nudges of the Holy One. Everything we’ve been about this week of retreat.

We carried with us into these days the people we love and care for. So this last day of retreat might hold an invitation to remember those in our world who, right now, at this very moment, are experiencing the pain of letting go and leavetaking. The raw wounds of the people of Uvalde, Texas. The ache of relationships that are terminated not by choice. The farewell that is the death of a loved one. The heartbreak of the refugee from Ukraine or Central America, forced to leave behind everything that speaks of home. Perhaps our own diminishment, loss, illness, or the saying good-bye to a way of life we have cherished.

Our time of retreat will be ending soon, but we take with us the experience of deep reflection and rich silence. A deep knowing that all our longing for the Holy One is really an echo of God’s first longing for us, isn’t it?

As we leave, we carry with us and within us a world that is at once hauntingly beautiful and profoundly wounded. Our challenge is to be people of hope who refuse to allow sin and death to have the last word. Our call is to be agents of healing for a world that longs to taste God’s dream for us.

Matthew Henry, Unsplash

All our farewells, past, present, and to come, are held in the heart of the Holy One, and so, from the spaciousness of that loving heart, we offer our thanks for these days and we say “Good-bye.” In other words, “God be with us always and everywhere!”

Vaya con dios. Go with God.

May it be so!

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on any good-byes, past or present, that remain in your heart.
Ask the Holy One for healing for yourself and for those in our world carrying the heartache of farewell.
Spend time in that healing space.

Featured Image: Aziz Archarki, Unsplash

NOTE:
Today’s blog was actually the homily I shared on June 1st, when I was one of the guest directors for a directed retreat at Eastern Point Retreat House, Gloucester, MA, May 26 – June 2. Thank you for your prayer for the wonderful people who were part of that retreat experience. Special thanks to Father William Campbell, director, for his gracious hospitality and the many touches of beauty he added to our time together in that lovely place by the ocean.

June 12-18:
Please now hold in your prayer all who will be part of a guided retreat for Sisters that I’ll be leading at Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center in West Hartford, CT. Thank you.

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I Thirst for…

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   May 22, 2022

In many years of befriending plants, I’ve learned something about thirst. People bring me ivy, African violets, spider plants and more, all seeming to be on life support and beyond resuscitation. I’ve learned not to despair over withered stems or drooping leaves, because as long as there’s even the tiniest bit of green, there is hope. Sometimes all that’s really needed is a long, cool drink, and the result of that action is a dramatic transformation. Within an hour, neglected stems resurrect and stand up straight. It seems that all sentient beings have thirst and need to notice and tend to that thirst.

We’ve learned that we can endure longer without food than we can without water. But here’s the thing: we sometimes don’t recognize spiritual thirst and instead look for other ways to compensate for our feelings of incompletion or emptiness or a general unsettledness, a feeling that there’s something beyond our searching. What is often underneath these feelings is thirst, longing, a desire we’re not fully able to articulate.

Johnny McClung, Unsplash

“I thirst” (John 19:28) was among the last words Jesus uttered from the cross. I see a parallel as I’m accompanied and as I accompany others in spiritual direction or in retreat ministry. Among the questions I ask myself and others: What is your deepest desire? What is it that you long for? We’re really asking: what do you thirst for? These are questions that are at the heart of each of us, questions that form and influence our choices and our way of acting in this world. Questions which, if courageously explored, reveal our own deep desire and our profound longing.

Recently, a Sister of St. Joseph informed me of the death of Msgr. Peter V. Kain of the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY. I knew him slightly as he was often the priest celebrant during guided retreats I offered at St. Joseph Villa in Hampton Bays, NY during the summer.  Msgr. Kain’s memorial card was enclosed with her note. When I turned the card over, I gasped. This was the quote Msgr. Kain had chosen:

“To come to the living water of Christ,
you need no merit.
All you need is thirst.”

“All you need is thirst.”

Do you hear echoes of Mary Oliver’s wondrous poem, “Wild Geese”?

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”  

“To come to the living water of Christ, you need no merit. All you need is thirst.”

The doors are open. The welcome is waiting. The water is flowing. What a consolation for us–to know that, to approach the Holy One, we don’t have to prove our worth, we don’t have to come prepared with a list of reasons affirming we’re deserving of a place near that loving heart. No, all we need is thirst. Desire. Longing.

mrn photography, Unsplash

So what is your thirst? Could it be a sense that you are on the right path? That your life bring blessing to the Earth? That your prayer become more engaged and inclusive? That your time in this world make a difference for good? That your relationship with the Holy One deepen and grow?

Whatever you’re thirsting for, take a deep breath and enter into the Takeaway right now.

Takeaway
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Place in front of yourself a glass or bowl filled with water.
Take a long, slow sip. Savor the water.
Reflect on what it is that you’re thirsting for.
Tell the Holy One about your thirst.
Offer a prayer of trust that your longing, whatever it is, will be fulfilled.

Featured Image:  Kerem Karaarslan, Unsplash

NOTE:
My weeks of guided and directed retreats are beginning May 26 and will continue through November.

May 26 – June 2:  Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of a directed retreat at Gonzaga/Eastern Point Retreat House, Gloucester, MA. I’ll be one of the guest directors for this retreat. Thank you!

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Seeing Up Close

by  Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   May 8, 2022 

Spring, wherever and whenever she makes an appearance, is a breeding ground for mystics. There’s a palpable invitation to live close to the earth with an ear to the heavens, to see, with heightened clarity, how the Holy is all around us in our everyday lives. As we pull out the rakes and shovels, broadcast the seeds, and dig our hands into the holiness of dirt, the elements of worship converge. How can we not live as mystics during this season when what was once buried is rising to new aliveness?  

I have my own early formative memories of spring as the wonder of sacred soil shaped my life from a tender age. What memories do you hold of yours? If you lived in a city without garden space, did you have access to a park or community garden? What might you have discovered in those common spaces? What learnings came to you from your solitary adventures or those shared with friends?

If you lived in a suburban or rural area, what everyday experiences can you claim as yours? Perhaps the barely contained delight of picking out a few seed packets at the garden store. The careful preparing of the planting, with at least a few earthworms cheering you on. Each morning’s excitement as you anxiously checked rows of seedbeds for signs of brave sprouting. And then, finally, the mystery of earth cracking open, tiny leaves emerging, the wild greening of a patch of soil. Enough to make you fall down in worship. It still is.

In spring, it’s especially easy to affirm Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem that, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” That grandeur is most demonstrative in this season of greening. There’s something deeply connecting about putting our hands into the rich, fertile ground which we and all creation share. Something primordial and ancient as we reflect on our ancestors, on other feet that have walked the same paths, other hands that have cultivated and dreamed about the same dirt. Something profound in knowing ourselves in kinship with a universe far beyond our small corner of the world.

Hopefully, these deep connections have invited us to move beyond a worldview of dominance to one of caretaking and then on to one of kinship with the entire created world. To live into an understanding that Earth and her creatures are not an “it” to be managed by us for our own needs. To knowing in our very bones that the fuzzy bumblebee, the cheery daffodil, the insistent cardinal, all of us created by the same hand of the Holy, are charged with healing and enhancing lives beyond our own.

Julianne Lieberman, Unsplash

In this season of noticing, discovering, listening, the poet Rumi wants to know

“How can you look so needy?
God is growing in fields you own.
He hangs from trees you pass every day.
He is disguised as that peach and pine cone.”

So what are we waiting for? Let’s move to a world opening up outside our windows. Let’s notice and give thanks for this season so revelatory of the Holy.

Featured Image:  Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash

Takeaway:

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you live in the Northern hemisphere and weather permits, choose a spot outside where you can gaze at the unfolding of creation.
If you’re a neighbor to the South, adapt this to your region’s experience.
Notice the sounds, scents, sights that call to you.
Breathe in deeply, and savor every revelation.
Bow and give thanks for the gifts of creation.

NOTE:
Happy Mother’s Day to all who birth new life and faithfully nurture it. Thank you for the giving over of your lives to greening our world with love and compassion.

A note for all of you who have been sending good thoughts and healing energy to the hydrangea that occupied my last blog post. It’s still on life support after enduring a brutal, unseasonal snow storm, but we’ve not given up on each other. And some related but unexpected news: I emailed White Flower Farm, where I had ordered the hydrangea, telling them what had happened and asking if they had any suggestions for care that might lead to resurrection. The next day I received an email response stating that they were sending me the exact same Color Fantasy hydrangea without charge! I’ve been a loyal customer of White Flower Farm for years, always impressed by the quality and care of the plants they offer, and now I’m overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness and generosity as well. Thank you, White Flower Farm!

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The Rising

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    April 24, 2022

What qualifies as resurrection? Fresh from the celebration of the Easter mysteries in the Christian tradition, I’m holding that question.

A week ago, I planted a small, tender hydrangea bush outside, assured it was safe to dig a hole for its new home. In my tiny garden, a dozen narcissus buds were on the verge of opening up. A peony plant was peeking out from the soil. And then, this past week, the Northeast had an unwelcome and unexpected visitor: two inches of heavy, wet snow, ice, fierce winds, and falling temperatures.

nine koepfer, Unsplash

Like a worried parent, I raced outside ahead of the unseasonal storm to place towels around the base of the hydrangea. I uttered prayers of protection over my tiny garden. And then, when the last snowflake had disappeared and the winds had been tamed, I surveyed the damage. I wiped ice off the drooping heads of the narcissus. There’s hope for you, I said. But oh, the hydrangea seemed to have borne the brunt of the storm. Her small leaves were encased in ice and turning black, her fragile stems were bent and close to being sheared off by the relentless winds. Hold on, I pleaded, come back to life. 

How I wish that were true, that the power to resurrect was in my tool kit! But one of the learnings of many years is that we need to own our inability to save others. That’s a hard one, isn’t it? We want to protect the people, pets, plants, all those beings we love, from harm, from heartbreak, from disappointment, from illness, from tragedy. And still, in spite of our best efforts, the floods surge, the fires rage, the diagnosis shatters, the hearts bleed.

“Where is God in all this?” demanded a person I was accompanying in spiritual direction as she grieved a loved one lost to COVID-19. I had no answers to the question of human suffering then or now, but I’m certain now as I was then about the whereabouts of the Holy One. God was gasping for breath in the isolation ward. Weeping with the bereft. Working feverishly to create a lifesaving remedy in the lab. So yes, even in our deepest, most despairing moments, the rising of the Holy One is unfolding all around us. Ilia Delio asks, “Where is this risen Christ? Everywhere and all around us—in you, your neighbor, the dogwood tree outside, the budding grape vine, the ants popping up through the cracks. We are Easter people, and we are called to celebrate the whole earth as the Body of Christ.”

If we intentionally look for signs of resurrection, we will find them in our time and place. In making care for Earth, our Common Home, a priority, as our planet continues to cry out in pain. In battered hydrangeas and drooping narcissus who are not yet ready to be counted out. In ordinary people practicing extraordinary compassion, kindness, and solidarity in their everyday lives.

When we feel our lives surrounded by the powers of death, may we remain open to possibility, hold onto hope, and discover fresh evidence of rising. The spiritual writer Carlo Carretto confirmed the “everywhereness” of resurrection when he listed for us these seemingly ordinary signs of extraordinary doings:

Gaetano Cessati, Unsplash

When you forgive your enemy
when you feed the hungry
when you defend the weak
you believe in the resurrection.

When you have the courage to marry
when you welcome the newly-born child
when you build your home
you believe in the resurrection.

When you wake at peace in the morning
when you sing to the rising sun
when you go to work with joy
you believe in the resurrection.

Blessings of Easter, and Passover, and Ramadan. May each day find us rising into new ways of carrying the Holy into our world.

Takeaway:
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on what you’ve been about this past week.
How have you been a resurrection person, someone who brings life wherever you go?
Give thanks, and carry the blessing of your presence into this new week.

Featured image:  Fumiaki Hayashi, Unsplash

NOTE:
Thank you for holding my IHM Congregation’s elections in your prayer. We now have a new leadership team and we ask you to bless the generous women who will lead us into the days ahead.

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Present to the Drama

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     April 10, 2022

These days are rich with scenes lived large before us. In the Christian tradition, we’re on the edge of Holy Week and entering through the doorway of Palm Sunday. We may hold a fistful of palm branches and shout or sing our praise for the Holy One who appears to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-40). And then, only a few breaths later, we may take on the role of the crowd, thirsting for the spectacle of capital punishment, demanding blood of that same Holy One (Luke 22:14-23:56). In the space of a few minutes, we may move from being joyful, prayerful celebrators to being people swept up in a mob mentality, mindlessly calling for an excruciating death. From the best of human nature to the shadow side of it, it all seems to come down to where we choose to stand and what we choose to voice.

These days we’re seeing the consequences of choice writ large in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Images that show the consequence of one person’s choices for cruelty, domination, and brutality are excruciating to watch. At the same time, as we view choices for courage, for compassion, for spaciousness of heart from Ukraine and the global community, we are offered hope and a tender perspective. We may squirm and want to turn away from watching the broadcast images of savagery because the difficult truth is this: as humbling as it is to acknowledge, the potential to live and act from our shadow side also exists within us. On the hopeful side, the potential to be a person of peace, of justice, of generosity exists in us at the same time.

Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week invite us to reflect: Which path forward shall we choose? How shall we bear witness and be present to the crucifixion and the resurrection, both on display right now in our time and place? 

Bruno van der kraan, Unsplash

The Holy One chooses to be present, not only during this week we call “holy,” but always. May we choose as the Holy One, the Suffering Servant, the one who empties himself in extravagant love, does. I leave you with this prayer, “Palm and Passion,” from Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light:

           “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of God!”
                           —Luke 19.38

           “Crucify him!”
                           —Luke 23.21

He knows.
And chooses so anyway.
He knows how fickle our love,
how fleeting our kindness.
We reject what we most deeply desire,
condemn what we most deeply need.
Our glory and our ruin both clamor.

Into that very wound he rides,
into the deepest divide of our souls.
On the Scorned Way—
into the scorn itself—he rides.
Into the choice between love and the way of the world,
and into our failure to choose well, he rides,
having chosen.

To prevail in the battle between good and evil,
between love and fear,
one must embrace them both
and enter the cleft
and still choose.

Worship the One
who embraces our beauty and our woundedness,
who forgives the failure of our worship.
Come with him on the Foolish Way,
the Way of Love,
…and fail… and be forgiven… and come again.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
You may want to place before you an image of the suffering of the human family or the pain or diminishment of any part of creation.
Simply hold that image in your consciousness.
Sit, breathe, and listen.
Then send your healing energy into the place of your attention.

Featured Image: Grant Whitty, Unsplash

NOTE:
As you hold in prayer our world that is both beautiful and broken, know that you are in my prayers of gratitude for the countless ways in which you breathe beauty and peace and compassion into this global space we share. May the blessings of Passover and Easter surround and sustain you in every choice you make.

Please remember in prayer my IHM Congregation, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scranton), as we hold our Chapter of Elections for new leadership April 21-23. Thank you.

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Praying Our Song

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     March 27, 2022

Sometimes the warmup begins even before the first streaks of morning light. Chirp, whistle, trill, caw, cheep, twitter, warble, cluck, tweet. Repeat. Yes, it’s that lovely season here in the Northeast when the shrillness of an alarm clock gives way to the gentle but insistent melody of birdsong. A sound so familiar that we may be inclined to linger in bed listening to the choir warm up. A sound so reassuring that we may feel especially grateful to be awakened these spring mornings by a chorus of lilting notes rather than the scream of an air raid siren or the growing din of mortar shelling.

I learned long ago how birds survive a storm. Most birds stay where they are and strategically seek shelter. They may cling to the side of a sturdy tree, hide inside a hole, or find a protected spot in a dense thicket or grove. A few who don’t have nests with helpless young are free to escape and fly ahead of a darkening sky.

Robert Eklund, Unsplash

But I’m led to wonder about birdsong in a time of war. With the shelling of Ukraine, the pulverizing of her towns, and the merciless killing of her people, I’ve been wondering if the birds have gone silent these days. Each morning as I’m graced with a free concert outside my window, I’m reminded of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In that groundbreaking book, Carson underscored DDT’s power to alter the reproductive capacities of birds, causing entire species to become extinct and silence the singing of birds. I wonder, could war also have the potential to still Earth’s birdsong? To permanently leave us with an unbearable and totally silent spring?

As I watch in horror the violence inflicted on the people and landscape of Ukraine, I wonder if there is any birdsong left to be heard. I wonder if that war-torn country is suffering a contemporary version of “Silent Spring,” the kind noted by the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis, “incomprehensible…like birdsong in a time of war.”

But then I wonder also, might it be possible that there are other ways to sing, to keep the welcome music of spring alive these days? I’m imagining birdsong as the “Bridge of Toys” connecting Ukraine and Romania. The city of Sighetu Marmateiei filled the length of that bridge with dolls, stuffed animals, and other toys so that every refugee child leaving the familiar behind could choose a toy to cuddle for comfort. I’m imagining birdsong as the Polish train station where weary and desperate refugee mothers found baby strollers left by compassionate and knowing Polish mothers. I’m imagining birdsong as seven-year-old Amelia Anisovych singing Frozen’s “Let It Go” in a bomb shelter in Ukraine, her pure, innocent voice lifting hearts and spirits with every note. And I’m imagining birdsong as seventeen-year-old Russian Olga Misik, a small, lone figure sitting in the square in Moscow, reading aloud over and over again the section of Russia’s constitution which affirms the right to peaceful protest. The officers surrounding her listen to that music and are frozen in place, not knowing how to respond.

Joshua J. Cotten, Unsplash

As witnesses these days to both the horror of war and the incredible bravery of the human spirit, might we be summoned now to find new and creative ways to keep the music of protest and solidarity alive? I ask myself, I ask all of us in our beautiful yet wounded world, how can we keep from singing?

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One. You may want to enter into one of these practices as you begin:

  • View one of the many YouTube clips of the song, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables, connecting us to a similar struggle for freedom.
  • If you live on an area where there is birdsong, open your window and listen to the music.
  • Play a recording of birds singing.

Let the music sink into your soul. What does it awaken in you? To what are you being called?

Sit with this as you hold in your heart the suffering people of Ukraine and all the crucified peoples of our world.

Featured Image:  Will Bolding, Unsplash

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayer for my IHM Congregation’s Chapter of Affairs, which concludes March 26. We are most grateful and will lean into your prayer again next month when we hold our Chapter of Elections for a new leadership team.

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The Weight of Safe Harbor

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM      March 13, 2022

What is the value of safe harbor unless we share it? That’s what I was wondering as I worked in my apartment office. This space also functions as a sun room, its five spacious windows flooded by sunshine from dawn to dusk. But the real magic unfolds in the afternoon. When the sun shifts and blankets with warmth my plant neighbors who share this room, I can almost see photosynthesis springing into action. I can almost hear sighs of comfort and thanks breathed by this sentient tribe of cyclamen, violets, succulents, pothos, infant basil, and narcissus bulbs. A riot of purple, fuschsia, and deep red blossoms tilt their heads in response to the sun’s kiss. A profusion of green and emerald leaves signals contentment.

What is the value of safe harbor unless we share it? That’s the question I’ve been carrying around since the first excruciating images of human anguish and Earth’s devastation were beamed into my living room from suffering Ukraine. That’s the question that haunted me when I went into Lowe’s a few days later. There, in a center aisle, stood a rack littered with half dead, dried out, post-Christmas plants, 90% off. Many were beyond saving. Some clutched a green leaf or two. I did what I could, rescued a crippled amaryllis and a few shriveled aloe vera, carried them tenderly home, performed triage on their wounds, and welcomed them into my tribe.

All the while, I was mindful of train stations jammed with fathers hugging their families good-bye; mothers wiping tears from exhausted faces; toddlers clutching stuffed animals alongside buildings bombed into ruin. I was mindful of the safe harbor in which I live, and wondering what more I could do besides offer safety and shelter to a few neglected and abandoned plants. True, every act of human kindness, no matter how seemingly small, extends the field of loving presence out into the Universe. But with the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, I’m feeling so deeply my inability to save others. It seems that Elie Wiesel, himself a survivor of another atrocity, the Holocaust, understands that inability when he writes, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Chris Koellhoffer, my rescued Amaryllis – See what love can do

Now is the time to protest, to choose the way of peace and the works of justice. To do what we can, committing acts of defiant hope in the face of monstrous cruelty. To accompany the Holy One as the Holy One suffers in the crucified people of Ukraine. To pause throughout the day, breathing the energies of compassion, creating a protective shield around the mass of terrified, weary, but courageous refugees making their way out of their beloved homeland. To donate to collections of funds for food and supplies. To arm ourselves with letters and phone calls to protest every egregious violation of human rights. To further the inspiration of the global community as it opens wide in welcome both borders and hugs for refugees. To engage in radical acts of beauty and of hope. To come together to light a virtual candle for peace, setting an intention, sharing a dedication, collectively illuminating the darkness.

Max Kukurudziak, Unsplash

It’s true, Elie Wiesel tells us, that sometimes we may be powerless to prevent injustice. But always, he insists, we must not fail to protest. I wonder, what form might my protest, your protest, take today? What safe harbor will we share from our corner of the world?

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One. Open your heart to the suffering people of our world. Listen to what they are asking of you. When you have finished listening, open your arms in a gesture of welcome, and bow in reverence.

Featured image:  Di Maitland, Unsplash

NOTE:

Please hold in your prayer my congregation, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scranton), as we come together March 22-27 for our Chapter (a governance gathering held every four years). We will be praying for you and the needs of our world as you remember us. Thank you!

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Moving through Time and Space

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    February 27, 2022

Have you ever noticed how our surroundings can alter the speed with which we move?

During some of the years I lived in Jersey City, NJ, I worked in Manhattan. Every morning I would walk to the Grove Street station on the New Jersey side to take the PATH train to the Ninth Street station on the New York side. As soon as I disembarked at Ninth Street, I would be swept up in a crowd of hundreds of commuters, all moving rapidly and as one body before breaking away to their destinations. The movement reminded me of a human murmuration, with the click and squeak of heels and soles replacing the humming of starlings. Even during those years when I could walk easily and without limitations, I found the pace challenging. No dawdling, no idling, no browsing. Move, or be carried along by the crowd.

Quite the opposite experience when I returned home and began to walk along Manila Avenue. The Downtown section where I lived was marked by neighborhoods—Puerto Rican, Dominican, Filipino, Polish, African, Irish–the kind of living space where people might not know your name but they know your face and see you as a welcome resident. Here there was a whole lot of greeting, ambling, strolling, taking one’s time, and yes, sauntering. My kind of walking.

Nicolas Cool, Unsplash

From Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruhl, I learned the origin of the word, sauntering. “At a certain point in time,” they write, “medieval Europeans developed the custom of ‘sainting’ things…The cross was sainted (Santa Cruz) and even the earth was sainted. This became St. Terre, from which we gained the phrase, ‘to saunter,’ that is, to walk on the earth with reverence for its holiness.”

It seems that sauntering might describe not only a slower-paced stroll but also an attitude, a soul practice of graciously encountering and moving through the world. When so much of our lives feel hurried, pressured, or stressed with our responsibilities and to-do lists, we are in profound need of what I like to call “the power of the Pause.” Earth, our Common Home, invites us into such pauses every day. Even in a pandemic, we can stop and safely breathe in Earth’s breath. Or stand in awe before a sunset. Or make friends of forest neighbors. Or discover the secret code of crows. Or lose ourselves in garden prayer. Or bow before the dome of heaven illuminated by moon and stars. But to do this, we need the attitude of one who saunters, one who walks on our Earth with reverence and respect for her holiness. We need the practice of one who pauses and offers thanks to the Holy One who, I believe, is sauntering alongside us at this very moment in our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Linda Roberts, Unsplash

Takeaway

For this reflection, you may wish to sit in stillness near a window if that is most comfortable for you, or saunter outdoors.

Whichever movement you choose, be sure to pause and invite the Holy One to accompany you.

Gaze at whatever gifts Earth offers you. Notice where your eyes linger. Offer a prayer from your slowed down, grateful heart.

Featured image: Craig McLachlan, Unsplash

NOTE:

As we stand at the threshold of the season of Lent, may we deepen the practice of sauntering through these 40+ days.

On Ash Wednesday, may we all come together to respond to Pope Francis’ call for prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine, peace for all the crucified peoples of our world. Blessings of peace this season.

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