Seeing Beyond

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, April 10, 2016

“Why do you weep?” is one of the first questions of the resurrection.

That early Easter morning query came back to me in a fresh and unexpected way this past week.  I was in South Jersey preparing to give a parish mission on mercy, and was staying in a house located within walking distance of the boardwalk.  Being both a New Jersey native and an early morning walker, I was looking forward to strolling along near the ocean each day, breathing in the salt air and moving into a contemplative frame of mind as I listened to the rhythm of the waves.

But as I stepped outside that Sunday morning, I was greeted by strong, howling winds so fierce I could barely stand upright.  I was quickly blown back inside and surrendered my plans for a walk, but not before the gale force winds blew debris into my eye.

No problem, I thought, I’ll flush out whatever grains of sand have stuck to my contact eyewithtearslens.   I quickly removed the lens, but in spite of repeated rinsing with eye solution, the irritant remained fixed.  Tears and mucus built up as my eye tried to expel the foreign object.  With the constant discomfort sometimes escalating to pain, I could think of nothing else but finding relief for my eye and my blurring vision.  Many hours later, I was able to find an eye surgeon who treated the abrasions in my eye and put an end to the flow of tears.

That “eye opening” experience brought me back to some of the questions of the Easter readings and how the eyes figure into those early Sabbath morning conversations.  In John’s account of one of the appearances of the risen Jesus (John 20:11-18), Mary Magdalene stands outside the tomb of Jesus.  She’s in distress, in mourning, numbed by the horror she’s witnessed and by the loss of this person, Jesus, who is beloved to her.  John paints a picture of her at the gravesite, tears running down her face.  One wonders, is it the tears in her eyes that prompt two angels dressed in white to inquire of her, “Woman, why are you crying?”  What do the angels see in her eyes?

A bit later in the story, one also wonders: is it Mary’s face wracked with grief, her anguish and loss expressed in tears, that prompts Jesus—whom she at first doesn’t recognize–to ask with gentle tenderness, “Why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?”  What does Jesus see in her eyes?eye

So this Easter season holds an invitation to ponder:

What do I notice when I look into the eyes of others?
What do my own eyes reveal of God’s tenderness and mercy?
For what, for whom, am I weeping?

Takeaway

In the coming days, reflect on any of these Scripture references to eyes:

Psalm 17:8,  Protect me as you would your very eyes; hide me in the shadow of your wings.
Psalm 121:1-2,   I lift my eyes to the mountains; where will my help come from?  My help will come from God, who made heaven and earth.
Matthew 6:22,    The eyes are like a lamp for the body.
Matthew 7:3-5,    Why, then, do you look at the speck in your brother’s or sister’s eye and not pay attention to the log in your own eye?
Mark 12:11,  This is God’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Luke 10:23,  Blessed are the eyes which see what you see.
Luke 11:34,  Your eyes are like a light for the body.  When your eyes are sound, your whole body is full of light.

My thanks to Father Peter Joyce and the people of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish, Church of the Resurrection, in Marmora, NJ, for your wonderful witness of welcome and living faith during the parish mission on “Widening the Reach of Our Mercy,” April 3-5.  A joy to be among you!
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Waiting in the In-Between

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM – for March 26, 2016

Holy Saturday.  The in-between time.  Still reeling from the events of the Friday we call “Good,” and living with uncertainty: will rising and new life ever come?

It seems to me that not enough attention is paid to Holy Saturday and to the Holy Saturdays of our lives.  The times in-between.  The times when conclusion and completion can’t be imagined.  The times of standstill, of feeling stuck, mired, unmoving.  The times when we struggle not to surrender to despair.  The times of waiting.  And waiting.  And more waiting.

In Hebrew, the word for “wait” means to hope for, to anticipate.  It’s always an active process, where life is never static but evolving, even though it may seem that absolutely nothing is in motion.  Often a profound uncertainty, perhaps anxiety, accompanies waiting.  After all, much of our society demands the tangible and concrete and prefers haste and speed when it comes to results and outcomes.  Our world can be very impatient and unappreciative of what is hidden, what is in process.

Holy Saturday invites us into a profound appreciation of these edges that today we might call liminal places, places that are in-between, unfinished, in the middle.  Places that are neither here nor there, such as the point where the wave meets the shore and where it’s not fully either wave or shore.  Places where night is turning to day and it’s not yet completely either dark or dawn.  Places like bridges, for when we’re crossing a bridge, we’re neither at the beginning nor the end.  We’re somewhere in-between, in that middle space of unknowing.

These edges seem to hold the essence of Holy Saturday.  They’re very challenging spaces to live in, especially for any of us who like things to be defined, who like to be in control, who like to know exactly where we’re going.  They’re at the heart of the Paschal Mystery, that process of dying and death, of entombment and silence, of new life rising up.

Often these edges are where we don’t want to be—more questions than answers, more uncertainty than clarity, more middles than conclusions.  The remnants of Good Friday but not any of the astonishment and revelation of Easter morning.  But these edges are spaces and places where God is especially near.  Places of Mystery and becoming.  Places of what is not yet, what is still to come, filled with blessing and potential.  Places where life is unfolding.

What’s called for in the edges is active waiting.  What’s called for in the edges is trust in a God who will not abandon us.  What’s called for in the edges is deep listening and paying attention to this same God.

In “Between Lives,” Brian Andreas of Story People describes the wisdom that’s needed in these edges:

“Today, I’m in the exact place
in between two lives
& you may ask which I will choose,
unless you’ve been in the in-between place before
& then you know to simply sit quietly
until your life chooses you.”

I’ve come to believe there are some lessons that can be learned only when we’re in this waiting time in the edges.  One of those lessons, observes Joe Nangle, OFM, is a profound and heightened sense of solidarity, a waiting in the tomb with our world, “where our hearts nestle among the yearnings of those who wait.  We taste the desire of those who live in deprivation.  We are bruised by the wounds of those who are imprisoned by injustice, fear and oppression.  We grope in the darkness of those overcome with despair.” (Following Jesus on the Way to Calvary, Pax Christi USA Lenten Reflection, 1997).

How will we wait?  On this Holy Saturday and all the Holy Saturdays of our lives, may we remain in solidarity with our beautiful, yet wounded world.  In this place where so much is uncertain and in process, may we be open to all the learnings of this waiting time.  May we be bearers of hope and resurrection for ourselves and others.

Wishing you all the blessings and new life of this Easter season to come!

Takeaway

Wait with Jesus in the tomb.
What does this waiting feel like?  Look like?  Sound like?

For what, for whom, are you waiting at this moment?

Give thanks for what might be rising to new life in your heart, seen or unseen.

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A Lasting Hosanna

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 20, 2016

Cheers and applause have a brief shelf life.  Acclaim and adulation can fade pretty fast.  Certainly, that was the experience of Jesus not long after he rode into Jerusalem, mobbed by an enthusiastic crowd.  In that Palm Sunday moment, with “Hosanna!” resounding from the throats of thousands, it might have seemed that success and fortune, prestige and power were guaranteed.  That from that moment on, Jesus would be carried forward on a wave of unceasing popularity.

Yet as we enter into Holy Week, we know how this story moves forward.  How fickle and temporary the praise of the crowd.  How swiftly “Hosanna!” turns into “Crucify him!”  How easily the crowd dwindles into the few followers, most of them women, whose love impels them to stand, to stay, to accompany Jesus when everyone else flees and deserts the scene.

Today is an invitation to reflect on a theology of remaining and accompaniment.  To sit with the witness of the holy ones who consoled and empowered Jesus on his journey toward the cross, as well as the contemporary holy ones who continue to stand with, stay with, and accompany Jesus in the crucified peoples of our world today.

Who are the people, living or deceased, who have made a difference in your life by standing and staying with you through the years?  Who has believed in you even when you couldn’t believe in your own goodness or beauty or worth?  Who has made a difference by their refusal to abandon you even in, and especially in, times of brokenness, failure, or shame?

“The Charles Schulz Philosophy” often appears online.  It’s attributed to the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, although its author is uncertain.  Its origin is not the point.  The point is this: on Palm Sunday, this quiz provides a telling glimpse into the fleeting nature of fame and praise and the lasting impact of those who love us, care for us, and remain with us.

Try to answer the following questions and see how you do:

1. Name the 5 wealthiest people in the world.
2. Name 5 Heisman trophy winners.
3. Name the last 5 winners of the Miss America pageant.
4. Name 10 people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer prize.

Not surprisingly, few of us remember all the headliners, celebrities, and newsmakers of the past, even though they may have been the best in their fields and seemed unforgettable in their time.  But applause dies down.  Trophies tarnish.  Achievements are soon forgotten.

What we do remember—and much more easily—are the names of people who have made a difference and accompanied us throughout  our lives.

PalmSundayondonkey

Try answering the questions in this next quiz and see how you do:

1. List a few teachers who aided your journey in school.
2. Name 3 friends who helped you through a difficult time.
3. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.

Notice the difference?  The people who have been our “Hosanna Squad,” who have encouraged, and supported, and stood with us through both the peaks of praise and the valleys of failure or brokenness or shame, these are the ones we remember.  Those who remain, who stand with, stay with, and accompany us, make all the difference each day of our lives:  whether it’s Palm Sunday, the journey into Holy Week, or the Easter season of rising into newness.

Takeaway

Pray a prayer of gratitude to God whose love for you endures and never changes.

Then reflect on the people who have accompanied you, supported you, assisted you at significant times in your life.

When have you been that kind of person for others?
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Those Who Come After

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 13, 2016

Have you ever been on the receiving end of an act of kindness so unexpected, so profound, that it makes you want to weep for the sheer joy of being washed in that river of tenderness?

I discovered such a moment at the local car wash last week. In the middle of a stretch of warm pre-spring days, I decided to take my car to the self-service station in town.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one so inspired because the lines were long and the lot full.  I pulled into what I hoped was one of the faster-moving lines and waited.  After 10 minutes, there was just one car, tended by an elderly man, ahead of me, and it looked as if his only intention was to rinse off the dirt on his car.  No suds, no waxing.  “Good,” I thought, “it will be my turn in no time.”

4 minutes passed, the maximum time allotted before the automated machine cried out for more change.  When it did, the man paid for a second session.  “What’s going on?”  I wondered.  “He was only hosing it down.”

Then I noticed something strange, for the man was no longer rinsing off his car.  He had turned his attention to the floor of the car wash bay, spraying water on it front to back, side to side, very carefully and meticulously.   And as he rinsed, he smiled and waved at me.  What was that about?

After he finally put the hose back in place, the man walked toward me, still grinning and waving.  I rolled down my window as he leaned in.

“How are you today?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.  Before I could respond, he added, “I hope you don’t mind that I took a bit of extra time in there.”

“What was that about?”

“Well,” he answered, “a lot of dirt gets left on the floor of the bay after each washing, and no one ever cleans it up.  It just doesn’t seem right for the next driver to pull their car in and have to stand in all that mess.  So after I wash my car, I try to give some attention to the floor and make sure it’s welcoming for the next person.”  “And today,” he grinned, “that person is you.”

Startled, I could barely mouth an astonished “Thank you” before he hopped back into his car, beeped the horn as good-bye, and drove off, waving.

Still mulling over that experience, I pulled into the car wash bay and, for the first time, studied the concrete floor.  In that moment, fresh off the blessing I had been given, I noticed that the floor was spotless. Was it my imagination, or did it seem like holy ground?  Who knows, but after I soaped up my car and rinsed it clean, guess what?  I hosed off the floor as well.

I had witnessed a seemingly small and simple act.  A loving, thoughtful gift from a stranger in a life probably overflowing with such acts.  A consciousness of how his choices and his deeds might affect the lives of all who followed his footprints in life.

The tenderness of that moment is with me still.  Car Wash Kindness: Pass it on today.

Takeaway

Imagine a world populated by the “Car Wash Stranger.”  What would this world look like?  Feel like?  Sound like?

When have you experienced the action of a stranger that has surprised, delighted, comforted or encouraged you?

When have you provided a similar thoughtful gesture to someone you didn’t know?

Hold in your heart and prayer today all those who have graced your life with kindness and compassion.

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Looking for Hyacinths

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 6, 2016

What is the place of beauty in our everyday living?  How do we invite beauty into our homes, our places of work, our neighborhoods?  What effect does beauty or its absence have on the life of our spirit and our experience of the Divine?

Recently, I was leading a retreat weekend which included times of stillness and personal reflection.  During those periods of solitude, participants would often walk the hallways inside the building and linger before statues, paintings, framed poetry, gazing at all the elements that someone had arranged with obvious care and forethought.   Others strolled the lovingly tended grounds, appreciating the trees coming to bud and the early spring flowers poking their heads up through the still cold earth.  A few hardy souls sat in winter’s morning light and communed with birds, squirrels, rabbits, and deer, all welcomed and at home on the land.  Clearly, we were surrounded by beauty of many kinds, created by human hands and hearts and the hand of the Divine.  We were taking it in, and we were all in some way touched by the beautiful.

In traveling to many retreat houses, meeting spaces, and conference centers, I experience very quickly the impact of beautiful settings and artistic arrangements.  What’s become clear to me is just how much even the smallest touches of art and poetry and music contribute to the sense of welcome and hospitality in public places as well as in personal space.  What’s also evident is how the lack of the beautiful can signal an entirely different, although perhaps unintended, message.

In Longing for the Endless Immensity, Reflection and Prayer for Living a Life That Matters, I recall a story told by Robert Sardello, author of Facing the World with Soul.  Sardello remembers a time when he was invited to speak to a group of city managers about architecture.  Their intent was to look at the ways in which architecture might enhance and improve the quality of city life.

But Sardello was distracted by looking at the actual space in which they were meeting that day.  He remembers that, “The room itself was sick…  It had no windows, and the drab acoustic ceiling pressed in from above, sandwiching the room with oppression.  The door was without a handle…Painted institutional gray, its floor covered with rough carpet, the space was filled with ugly brown folding chairs.”

It was as if the room were crying out in pain, and the city managers were so focused on their task for the future that none of them seemed to notice their present surroundings.  Sardello questioned whether a work so important as the reshaping of a city should be entrusted to people who couldn’t recognize the absence of the beautiful in the very space where they were gathered to take on such a critical question.

In a verse credited to Moslih Eddin Saadi, a medieval Persian poet, the writer makes a case for holding on to bits and moments of beauty even when, and perhaps especially when, we are scraping the bottom of our bank of our resources:

“If you of fortune be bereft
and in your store
there be but left
two loaves,
Sell one.
And with the dole,
buy hyacinths to feed your soul.”

In some of the most abandoned and forgotten neighborhoods, we can see glimpses of the poet’s command:  a simple roadside shrine; sunflowers reigning over a garbage dump; a meager supply of seeds set out to attract and share with native birds; a colorful chalk mural gracing the walls of a crumbling building; a tattered magazine photograph taped to a mirror.  Hyacinths, one and all.

And what of us?  Could this be an invitation to take a look at the space of our own lives and do an inventory of the beautiful?

Takeaway

Return to today’s opening questions:

What is the place of beauty in your everyday living?

How do you/how might you invite beauty into your home, your place of work, your neighborhood?

How does the presence of beauty affect your prayer and your experience of the Divine?

 

NOTE:  Thank you for your prayerful support of 2 recent retreats: “Naming the Deep Breath,” a weekend at the Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston, PA, February 26-28; and “Widening the Reach of Our Mercy,” a day for Holy Cross-St. Patrick’s parish in Callicoon, NY, March 5.

Beginning Again

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for February 28, 2016

One evening last week I went to blow out a red vigil candle I had been burning.  Not sure what happened, but as I bent over to extinguish it, I knocked the candle off the table and onto the rug.  Bright red candle wax splattered in a large puddle all over a pale beige rug.  Not a welcome sight.

I tried several cleaning methods, but there seemed to be an unending supply of red wax absorbed into the rug.  Finally, after a Google search, I put rubbing alcohol on a cloth, held the cloth over the spot, and once again ironed over both.  Very slow work, but after another hour of ironing, there was significant progress.  A visitor might have missed the site of the accident, but I would always know where that spillage had happened.  And so would the rug.

.redcandlespilledonrug

It made me wonder about spills of every kind.  About how some things in life can never go back to how they used to be, can never really be fixed or made whole again in the same way that they were before something spilled or was broken.  And it brought me back to a column I had written, “Claiming the Gift of Beginning Again,” in the Fall 2012 issue of Journey, our IHM publication. I’d like to excerpt some of that here:

In her poem, “Because we spill not only milk,” Nancy Shaffer offers a litany of  objects and experiences in our lives that, like a glass of milk accidentally knocked over, can never be recovered in exactly their original state.  On her list of what can be broken, flawed, or lost, Shaffer names relationships.

She observes that ,
“…we spill whole lives, and only later see in fading light
How much is gone and we hadn’t intended it.”

…The question becomes, after the milk has been spilled, after the harsh word has been unleashed by us or towards us, after the misunderstandings are in place, after the conflict has been named, where do we go?  How do we restore right relationship, which is another name for justice?  We start over, we begin again, and we stay in the struggle, day in and day out.

This gift of starting over requires a particular courage, the courage of right relationship.  In the ordinary and the everyday, it’s often unnoticed but always a sign of God’s reign breaking through into our own lives, into the lives of those who inhabit our corner of the world…

…nurturing and sustaining right relationship takes tremendous courage…all of us are called to the courage of the everyday, the courage to be in right relationship with family, friends, co-workers, all those who are an intimate part of our daily lives.  Do we transform the hurt and wounds that have come to us, or do we transmit them to others in our relationships?

When we look at our world from a person-to-person perspective, we see myriad ways in which the call to right relationship is lived out:  in the adult alienated by old wounds or selfish acts but working to look through the lens of love and forgiveness.  In the husband or wife struggling to move beyond criticism or words thrown in anger to utter the first spoken syllables of a halting, healing conversation.  In families faithfully tending to a rebellious child who lashes out, who slams the door and seems to refuse their love.  In our emphatic choices not to flee the sad and lonely and wounded places of our intimate or familiar relationships, but to stay at the table and remain open to deep listening.  In all the holy ones who pray and work for justice and who reflect on personal brokenness as an invitation to be in deeper communion with a wounded world.

As Schaffer observes:
“Because we are imperfect and love so
Deeply we will never have enough days,
We need the gift of starting over,
Beginning
Again: just this constant good, this
Saving hope.”

Though we can’t change the fact that milk has been spilled [or red candle wax splattered across a rug], in God’s time it’s never too late to restore the justice of right relationship.  Let’s keep on summoning our courage and starting over, again and again.

Takeaway

Have you ever broken something that was precious to you or another?  Were you able to mend or fix it ?

Reflect on relationships in your life that may have been broken or fractured.  How do you feel when you revisit them?

The word, “Lent,” means springtime, with connotations of freshness and new life.  What would it be like to start over with another person or with God?

Transformed by Relationship

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for February 21, 2016

Recently, our Sisters celebrated 20 years of journeying with the people of Haiti.  Our IHM congregation has a special connection with the Haitian people through our foundress, Theresa Maxis, whose mother was of Haitian descent.  We have deepened that connection over the past 20 years through the Tri IHM Haiti Outreach, in which the three IHM communities (Scranton, Immaculata, and Monroe) have twinned with the Little Sisters of St. Therese, a community of native Haitian Sisters.  That twinning has been mutually transformative.

As we gathered at the IHM Center on February 17 to mark these 20 years of solidarity with the people of Haiti, we prayed the prayer, “Walking in the Light of God’s Mercy” and reflected on the invitation:  “Name one way your heart has been changed by our 20 year relationship with the people of Haiti.”

“Only one?”  I wanted to ask.  I could name hundreds!  For in 1993, 1995, and 2000, I was privileged to represent our IHM Sisters on trips to Haiti.  Each journey was an opening to personal conversion, perhaps none so powerfully as the first.  That first experience also happened to be my first trip outside the United States and came at the invitation of Pax Christi USA to be part of a human rights delegation.

In 1993, President Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti, had been ousted by a coup, and the country was in a state of chaos and upheaval under the oppression of the Ton Ton Macoute.  Our delegation’s role in going to Haiti during those dangerous, volatile days was to meet with peasants, catechists, priests, religious, activists–peacemakers all–to document their stories of torture, imprisonment, and attempts to silence them, and to bring those stories home with us to share with the rest of the world.  Every person who met with us shared the same stories of suffering and yet the same nonviolent attitude, devoid of any desire for revenge.  “We all have cause to fear,” one of them told us, “but we are about life and hope.”

I recently re-read the journal of my first time with the Haitian people in 1993 and was struck by how it changed my worldview—not a slight shift, more like the tremors of an earthquake.

“For me personally, being part of the delegation to Haiti was a baptism into Third World realities and a journey into deeper conversion,” I wrote.  “On one level, being such a greenhorn was a plus: having never traveled outside the United States, I held no expectations.  And I tried to remain that way, in the stance of one for whom listening is crucial, in the stance of one who has everything to learn.”

Most striking to me was the courage, the joy, and resilience of the Haitian people.  Everywhere we went, we marveled at their inventiveness, their utter resourcefulness.  If anyone could coax blood from a stone, I thought, it would be they.  We saw children who lovingly, carefully crafted crude yo-yo’s from what looked like the remains of old tin cans.  From our perch in the Hospice St. Joseph, we watched the women of Haiti set out their water barrels each night to catch the longed-for rain.  And in the early dawn, we saw these same women carrying huge baskets on their heads as they headed to market.  We saw them scrubbing clothes and laying them out before the intense sun rose to bleach them.

We traveled past a shantytown on the winding road to Cap-Haitien, a slum that was barely an insignificant dot on the map.  Crumbling huts, alleys strewn with garbage, children bearing the unmistakable signs of protein deficiency and malnutrition.  “Welcome to Little Nothing,” our guide announced.  Yet I wondered: was this the identical scene that confronted the hopeful prophet who wrote, “And you, Bethlehem, you are by no means the least…”

These were the last words I wrote in my journal of 1993 and I offer them here as a prayer:

“As we prepare to leave, I thank you, people of Haiti.  Never before have I both longed for and experienced God’s presence more than here among you.  And with you I pray:  ‘Let your coming be here, O God.  Let it be now!’”

Takeaway

Have you traveled to other countries, other cultures than your own?
What did it feel like for you to be away from the place you call home?

What surprised you? Disturbed you?  Resonated with you?

What were the learnings for you?

Name one way your heart has been changed by solidarity with others.