With What Remains

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, May 7, 2017

A life can be turned upside down with hurricane force or with the subtleness of a gentle breeze.  Social media and the evening news regularly provide visuals of the former:  cherished homes flattened in a few seconds by the raw power of a tornado. Property, mementos, sometimes lives swept away by raging floods. Numbness, shock, disbelief in the wake of tragedies and natural disasters.

The incremental and the less dramatic can also usher in a “new normal”.  A gradual thaw in a relationship, opening the way to more comfortable conversation. A change of perspective that carries fresh thinking. The dawning of a deep knowing that one is loved and being stretched to grow in relationship.

How to embrace change and transition, especially if the new normal is not of our own choosing?  How to integrate it into a life redirected?  How to do that with graciousness, hope, and creativity?

The revered violinist, Itzhak Perlman, once offered his audience an inspiring visual of embracing unexpected change.  Born in Israel, he was crippled by polio at a young age. As a result of his illness, he could walk only with great difficulty and the assistance of crutches, so in all of his concerts, he had to remain seated when he played the violin.

Once when Perlman was just at the beginning of a performance onstage in concert, a string snapped on his violin.  The audience held their collective breath, wondering what he would do.  Would he slowly and painfully limp off the stage and find a substitute violinplayer copyinstrument to play the music as written?  Instead, Perlman chose to continue playing and did the unthinkable: he played with only the three remaining strings of his violin.  When he finished, the audience rose in a standing ovation, awed by both his artistry and his presence of mind in the face of the unexpected.

When the applause finally subsided, Perlman was invited to speak.  He uttered only this single sentence:  “Our job is to make music with what remains.”

Clearly, he was not speaking of only the broken violin string. In a life impacted by illness and its subsequent limitations to his mobility, Perlman chose to reimagine and redesign his life to accommodate a new normal.  He was practiced in choosing to play with what was left, with whatever remained.

In the Easter Gospels, we read stories of the contemporary followers of Jesus who were struggling to embrace a new normal, the reality and the mystery of Jesus now risen, alive, and in their midst.  These disciples are often portrayed in their confusion as living the root meaning of the Old English word, bereft: robbed.  Robbed of the way life used to be, before the dying and rising of Jesus. Robbed of the Jesus they had become risingword copyaccustomed to experiencing.  Robbed in the sense of Mary Magdalene’s grief spoken through tears on Easter morning, “They have taken Jesus away and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”  No wonder the risen Jesus was so seldom recognized in those early resurrection days!  A new normal had taken place, and it invited a huge change of heart, a paradigm shift in how to relate to a Jesus whose face and presence were not so easily known.

In our own lives, we may or may not have already experienced dramatic life changes.  But most certainly at some time now or in the future, we’ll share in the universal experience of our own new normal, the challenge of adjusting or adapting to limitation or loss or diminishment or new patterns of living in the everyday.

In our new normal, we may be companioning a loved one whose life has been forever altered by a diagnosis.  We may be walking with a partner who is slowly moving away from us through dementia.  We may be struggling with the absence of cherished friends whose death demands that we create new rituals and routines apart from their familiar presence.  We may be growing a relationship that challenges us to move beyond our comfort zone.

It took discernment and courage for the disciples of Jesus to give themselves over to the reality of Jesus’ rising and to the changes his resurrection visited on their everyday living.  This same wisdom and largeness of heart is also asked of us in times of change as we enter into the in-betweenness of transition.  May the rising of Jesus in our time and place continue to encourage and sustain us.

Takeaway

In a time of stillness, reflect on a change or transition you’re living through at this moment.

What does this new normal look like, feel like, sound like?
What might be the learnings hidden in it?
Ask the risen Jesus for the grace to embrace this new normal with a patient and gracious heart.

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayerful support of the faculty retreat day at Immaculate Conception School, Annandale, NJ, on May 5.  My deep thanks to principal Cynthia Kitt and the wonderful staff who gathered to pray, reflect, and share wisdom. 

Please now hold in your prayer all who will be part of a Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA, May 19-21.

 

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In Flight

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, April 23, 2017

We’ve lived and experienced the Paschal Mystery—the suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus–for as many years as we’ve been alive. Because of that familiarity, we can sometimes dreamwalk through the Gospel stories we’ve read and prayed and heard so often. Yet grace can break through and intensify our awareness, calling us to pay attention and notice with fresh eyes what has been in front of us all along.

That was my experience this past Holy Thursday. On that night, I joined my IHM Sisters at Our Lady of Peace Residence, our retirement facility in Scranton, for the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. In that place of peace, I was lulled by the familiarity of the first reading from Exodus (12:1-8, 11-14), listing all the details that needed to be in place for the Passover meal: the time of the ritual gathering; the specific type of lamb; the blood on the doorposts; the elements of unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

But then came a sentence whose ending leaped out at me:

“This is how you are to eat it:
with your loins girt,
sandals on your feet,flightrefugees
and your staff in hand,
you shall eat like those who are in flight.”

Flight? Flight, meaning the action of fleeing or attempting to escape? What does it mean, I wondered, to eat and to live like those who are in flight?

The 15th century poet Mira, revered by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs as a champion of human rights, offers an insight. In “I Write of That Journey” she notes,

“All actions have evolved
from the taste of flight;
the hope of freedom
moves our cells
and limbs…”

The hope of freedom moves our very cells. The taste of flight lingers with me now as I sit down to a lovely place setting in a peaceful room and invite to the table:
those who are in flight from the bombing of Aleppo;
those seeking refuge from starvation and genocide in South Sudan;
those frantically fleeing terrorist attacks;
those migrating in search of potable water;
those running from religious persecution;
those hiding from the threat of domestic violence.

All are accompanied by a journeying God, a God on the move:
in movement even before his birth as Mary “went with haste” to visit her cousin in need;
carried in his mother’s womb for a census in the town of Bethlehem;
fleeing to Egypt to escape the slaughter of innocents;
living as an itinerant preacher with no place to rest at the end of a day;
walking the last long steps on the way to Calvary.

In the crucified peoples of our world we can so easily name the suffering and dying of Jesus unfolding right here, right now. Yet the Paschal mystery is not only this suffering and dying of Jesus in us; it must also include his rising in a world that is both beautiful and wounded.

In this season of resurrection when we focus on the rising of Jesus and the call to new life, we also underscore another definition of flight: the action or process of movingflighthope through the air; the process by which an object moves through the atmosphere or beyond it; all of the ways Jesus continues to rise in each of us.

This rising, this other type of flight, calls us to remember and give thanks for the many who have lifted us up, encouraged us, affirmed our dreams, supported our visions, loved us and stood by our side when we thought we had not a single redeeming quality. This rising calls us to applaud the poets and artists and dancers and painters who illuminate a vision of a world marked by tenderness and beauty and right relationship. This rising calls us to celebrate those who are bearers of hope and to take up their witness of resistance to the oppression and exclusion of social sin.

May we remember and hold in awareness and in prayer all those who experience any kind of flight this day. May each one of us rise into new life, into unending compassion, into undaunted hope.

Takeaway:

Spend a bit of quiet time reflecting on the suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus today.
Where in our world are you moved by the flight that is taking place?
What might be taking flight in you?

NOTE:
Thank you for your prayers and support for the many retreats and presentations I was privileged to offer during Lent.

Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of a faculty retreat day at Immaculate Conception School, Annandale, NJ, on May 5.

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As If for the First time

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, April 7, 2017

Have you ever heard words coming out of your mouth, words that perhaps you’ve said multiple times, and then suddenly been caught up in a deep knowing that you’re listening to and understanding those same words in a fresh way? Almost like a first, original hearing or an experience of deep mining.

Adults often insist that they’ll never use some of the sayings their parents repeated to them as they were children growing up. Count me among those adults who are one day stunned or startled to hear themselves uttering things like, “Because I say so” or “You’ll thank me later” or some other nugget of generations past. (Here, feel free to fill in the blanks with the utterance that surprised you as it came out of your mouth in an unguarded, spontaneous moment and that echoed an earlier generation who are now appreciated as amazingly wise).

During this year’s very full Lenten schedule of retreats, days of prayer, and presentations, I was often referencing the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus in history. I also spent quite a bit of time reflecting and sharing how that same Mystery of Jesus’ Passion and resurrection is happening right here, right now, inEastercandles our time and place. I kept asking and inviting reflection around the question: “When, where, and in whom does Jesus continue to suffer, die, and rise in our beautiful, yet wounded world today?”

I offer profound thanks to the hundreds of people I met this Lenten season, people in Queens, Long Island, upstate New York and New York’s boroughs, New Jersey, eastern and western Pennsylvania, in cities and towns, in parishes and neighborhoods. You put flesh on the words I was saying. In your presence and your praying and your conversations, you made visible the contemporary Paschal Mystery. I listened intently as you shared your insights, as well as your hopes and your brokenness. Everywhere I went, you presented me with the reality of both crucifixion and resurrection.

Because of you, I experienced over and over an almost mystical state of being in the heart of the Holy. You made it easy to imagine how God—however we name the Divine—must be feeling as Jesus continues to journey to Calvary today, as he continues Easterandholyweekto endure pain and anguish, oppression and exclusion in the crucified peoples of our world. Because of you, I have a palpable sense of how Jesus continues to be entombed and waiting with those who are held captive by fear, imprisoned by doubt, their dreams deferred or buried with seemingly no hope of expression or release. Because of you, I also have an overwhelming sense of how Jesus continues to rise in our world, in you who give your lives over to being agents for authentic change, who work to restore right relationship, who refuse to let sin and death have the final word, who offer yourselves as a healing presence to tend Jesus’ wounds in our fragile neighbors.

Because of you, I have already seen and walked with Jesus through Holy Week. You have lifted up for me Palm Sunday’s delight in receiving praise and affirmation; Holy Thursday’s poignant breaking of bread, tearful good-bye, letting go; Good Friday’s anguish in feeling shamed or abandoned or a failure; the anxious waiting and the hopeful wondering about what’s ahead and what’s possible on Holy Saturday; and the bursting, undaunted, irrepressible hope that is Easter Sunday.

I am so profoundly grateful for what you have revealed to me for my own life. I hold you in my heart and prayer with great care and tenderness. And I pray that we may all continue to walk with Jesus beyond this season. That we may invite the Holy to continue to act in us to bring about God’s dream for our world that continues to suffer, to die, and to rise this day and every day.

Wishing you a happy Easter and all the blessings of new life!

Takeaway

Where in your own life or in our world, do you see or experience Jesus’ suffering and dying today? 

Where do you see signs of hope that point to the rising of Jesus in your family, relationships, neighborhood, country, world? 

What might be needed for you to live the truth that the resurrection of Jesus has truly taken place?

 

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Budding Within

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 24, 2017

So much is in bud, the poet Denise Levertov tells us.  In the Northern hemisphere we might add: even when buried under 2 feet of snow.  Even when assaulted by fierce, unrelenting wind.  Even when held firmly in the grip of unforgiving cold.

Can we hear the whisper, barely audible yet quite emphatic, that is the call of spring?  Have we noticed the lub-dub of the beating heart of our planet?  The irrepressible longing of the Earth moving towards greening?  Have we heard the summons towards newness of life that will not be ignored or denied?

In my part of the world where there are usually marked differences in the seasons, spring is not a time of ripening but a season of possibility and the dreams that are the stuff of longing.  Already, impatient snowdrops and courageous crocus have broken ground.  Thebuddingcrocusinsnow copy forsythia bush is putting out tentative, promising buds.  Indoors, my housemates—a family of African violets and English ivy–peer out at their relatives in the front yard and feel a kinship as they lean towards the light together.

Is it any wonder that, here in the Northern hemisphere, the liturgical season of Lent runs parallel to the natural season of spring?  The word “Lent”, after all, comes from the Old English “lencten” and the German “Lenz”, meaning spring.  And in Old German, related translations of Lent uncover the word, “long,” reflecting the lengthening of days as we journey toward ever increasing daylight.  Or perhaps the root meaning should really be not “long” but “long-ing,” reflecting the desire of all creation for greening and growth.

Can we imagine our Lenten hearts erupting in the Song of Songs (2:10-11)?
“Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come!
For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth…”

May we move into this springtime of the liturgical year with what John Soos names as

“the restlessness of being a seed
the darkness of being planted
the struggle toward the light
the pain of growth into the light
the joy of bursting and bearing fruit
the love of being food for someone…”   (To Be of the Earth)

May we begin this springtime of the heart seeking wholeness and a stillness which is generative.
May we tend to our profound hunger for the Holy and the deep longing of the Holy for each one of us.
May we lean towards the light and live lives of meaning beyond ourselves.

May we, in the prayer of the Chinook Psalter,
“be touched by grace, fascinated and moved by this your creation,budsprouting copy
energized by the power of new growth at work in your world…
May our bodies, our minds, our spirits learn a new rhythm paced by the rhythmic pulse of the whole created order.
May spring come to us, be in us, and recreate life in us.”

Blessings on these remaining days of Lent!

Takeaway

What seeds do you hope to plant and nurture in your life today?

What might God be longing to green and grow in you?

NOTE:

My thanks for your prayerful support of days of retreat and reflection in the past two weeks in Sullivan County, NY; Port Washington, NY; and Springfield Gardens, NY. 

Please continue to hold in your prayer these upcoming events:
March 25-29:  “Walking the Lenten Journey with Jesus,”  Parish Lenten mission, St. Susanna Church, Penn Hills, PA 

April 8:  Lenten retreat day for parishioners of Christ the King Church, Springfield Gardens, NY at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY

 

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Becoming the Field

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 12, 2017

Right now, at this very moment, everything in the Universe is moving, vibrating, giving off energy in some form.  This astounding reality is one of many insights quantum physics and the new cosmology have broken open in recent years.  If you have any difficulty fully embracing this, observe how children and animals often intuitively sense a place of safety and goodness in a person they’re encountering for the very first time, and how they’re drawn to this positive energy.  Consider how the vibrational pulse of people in a room can change dramatically when one person with negative energy joins the conversation.  Or recall a time when, even if you couldn’t summon words to articulate or describe it, you knew yourself in the presence of peace and compassion through the energy field of another.

heartekg copyThis past week of offering a guided retreat for Maryknoll Sisters, I experienced a palpable sense of energy, a resonance with the mission of love and service these women have given over to the Universe: lives open to what Vatican II called “the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties” of the people of this world; lives transformed by relationship to the other, to welcoming the other’s wisdom and insight and sense of the Holy.

Each morning and each afternoon of the retreat, we engaged in breathprayer, remembering how the Spirit of God hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation, breathing out breath that was generative, that summoned life.  In inhaling and exhaling, we sent our prayer and compassion and intention beyond the chapel.  Just like the singing bowl rung at the close of our breathprayer, we rang our love out into the Universe without knowing our reach or impact.  We simply trusted in the breathing and the sending.

At Maryknoll, a place made sacred by the lives of hundreds of missionaries, the theme of resonance kept returning to me long after the sounds of the singing bowl had diminished and disappeared.  All around the building were vibrations of images, photos and artwork from countries and cultures around the globe, each one speaking of energies invested and given over in love and sacrifice.

In our shared struggle to contribute to a world of tenderness and peace, Teilhard de Chardin might have been speaking of these vibrations when he wrote, “Our role is not only to ease suffering, bind up wounds, and feed the hungry, but through every form of effort to raise the powers of Love upward to the next stage of consciousness.”

To raise the powers of Love upward to the next consciousness.  To do this from wherever we may happen to live.  Isn’t this what Judy Cannato references in her beautiful IMG_1879 (2)work,  Field of Compassion?  She speaks of British biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphogenic fields, in which “…the human person is a field of energy and information rooted in the body but extending out from the body, interacting with the energy and information of others.”  We humans, she asserts, have the ability to be aware of and to transform our energy fields by the choices we make.  We can, with God’s grace, alter the kinds of energy we pass on to the world around us.  Our call is to make enlightened and compassionate choices that resonate for the good of all.

Cannato asks a series of “What ifs” about these energy fields, this raising upward of the powers of Love:

“What if we experiment with the notion that what Jesus was about was the creation of…a morphogenic field, one that resonates with love and draws others like a magnet?

What if we could intentionally contribute to the fashioning of a field in which attitudes and speech and action flow out of the very best human beings can be?

What if we with great intentionality take up the challenge to love God and neighbor with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength?

What kind of morphic resonance would that create?
How would we change?
How would the world change?”

Takeaway

Imagine your life displayed as a collage of photos and artwork and words and images, an intimate glimpse into the fields of energy you have shared and are sharing with our world.

What do you see?  Hear?  Feel?

What kind of energy field are you giving out to the Universe?

How are you the presence of Love that invites others to see their beauty and worth?

Spend some time in silence giving thanks for the energies of Love within you and around you.

 

NOTE:  My deep thanks to the many who enriched and contributed to the retreat experiences offered during the past two weeks in Scranton, PA; Watchung, NJ;  Ossining, NY; and Sullivan County, NY, and to all of you who supported in prayer these sacred moments.

May I ask you to again surround the next round of retreat experiences with your prayer:

March 18:                   “Standing, Staying, Accompanying,”  St. Peter of Alcantara IHM  Center, Port Washington, NY
March 22:                   Social Justice Ministry, Christ the King parish, Springfield Gardens, NY
March 25-29:              “Walking with Jesus on the Lenten Journey,” parish mission at St. Susanna Church, Penn Hills, PA

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Longing Laid Bare

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, February 26, 2017

At some time or another, we may have had this startling experience: an accidental, unexpected glimpse into the eyes of another, a discovery that reveals the hidden depths of a person’s heart, that exposes their raw, unfiltered desire or longing.

It’s what I saw in the eyes of junior high school students, oblivious to the world unfolding around them and dreamily gazing at their first crush. “Even the back of her head is beautiful,” mumbled one of them when I interrupted his meditation on the girl who sat in front of him in class.

It’s what I saw in the eyes of my mother in unguarded moments when she thought no one was looking at her. After 43 years of marriage, she had outlived my Dad by ten years, and in those ten years without him, her face was sometimes suffused with a wistful longing tinged with sadness.

And it’s what I see every Ash Wednesday when I look into the faces of those lining up for the distribution of ashes. When I served in pastoral ministry at a parish in Southeast ash-wednesdaygetting-ashes-copyQueens, one of my favorite days was Ash Wednesday. Favorite, because I always noticed something different in the faces of people coming forward to receive ashes on this day. I saw hope and desire that was transparent, direct, immediate, and insistent.

On Ash Wednesday, I welcomed many unfamiliar faces, and although I didn’t know their names or their stories, I recognized, in an intuitive way, the longing that looked back at me. Longing for a change of heart. For more engaged prayer. For right relationship. For forgiveness. For a second chance. For God by whatever name one might call the Holy.

Perhaps we connect with Lent as a season of penance and fasting, a letting go of whatever might stand in the way of our largeness of heart and a greater capacity for tenderness and welcome. Perhaps we connect with Lent as an invitation to feasting, to being nourished by prayer and by God’s own desire for us. Lent is all of these elements, certainly, but for me, Lent is most of all forever married to desire and intention, a season when our deepest longings are laid bare.

I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it’s finding ourselves in the Scriptural desert this season imagines. A desert where there’s no place to hide. A desert where the glare of the noonday sun exposes our illusions and distractions for what they are. A desert where we can’t carry allash-wednesday-ashes-copy the baggage we pack for other journeys and so we’re led to re-define what’s really necessary and important, what lives and makes a home in the heart of us.

What I suspect is that on Ash Wednesday, I’ll once again be looking into the eyes. What I know with a certainty is that I’ll be finding there a profound reflection of the deep desire God has for each one of us.

Wishing you every blessing on these Lenten days!

Takeaway

Spend some time in quiet reflection.

Name the longings of your heart.
Who or what has been nudging you, drawing you, and inviting you to pay closer attention?
What is God’s deep desire for you?

NOTE:

In the beginning days of this Lenten season, please hold in your prayer all who will be part of these retreats and days of prayer I’ll be leading: 

March 1, Ash Wednesday retreat day,  Diocese of Scranton, PA
March 4, Mount St. Mary House of Prayer, Watchung, NJ
March 5-10, Maryknoll Sisters, Ossining, NY
March 12, The Catholic Churches of Sullivan County, NY

Photo credits:  Pinterest; St. Clement Parish; Catholic Online

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Changing the Menu

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, February 12, 2017

A new year often brings resolutions designed to promote our well-being and good health. Perhaps more exercise. More regular sleep. More attentiveness to our diet, with changes reflecting healthy eating patterns. We may plunge into January with enthusiasm and resolve, and then sometimes notice a lessening of commitment as the days move forward.

At least, that’s what I observed about my own diet recently, although in a somewhat different way. After weeks of companioning and listening to so many people who, saturated by world news, shared their anguish, their fear, their anger, their dismay at deepening attitudes of exclusion towards the most vulnerable and fragile people in our world, I began to experience an indigestion of sorts, an agita that was both physical andmenuearth-copy spiritual. How did I not realize that I had been eating a woefully unbalanced diet, heavy on cynicism and despair and light on all the things that animate and inspire?

One Saturday afternoon, I had the television on while a figure skating program played out in the background. I wasn’t really watching it because I was focused on working on a project, but my attention abruptly changed when an ethereal piece of music began to play. I stopped what I was doing and looked up immediately. The beauty I heard invited my full attention. It was a Shawshank moment.

In one of my favorite films, “The Shawshank Redemption,” Andy Dufresne, a cultured man of refined tastes, is wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in Shawshank prison. For a man of his background, the experience of brutality, violence, and absolute lack of the beautiful makes prison life excruciatingly painful. Day after day, year after year, the same deadly routine, the same dull shade of despair.

One day, after months of requesting funds to update the prison library, Andy receives a donation, boxes of books and music. He immediately takes out a record, leans back in a chair, and plays “Duettino – Sull ‘Aria” from The Marriage of Figaro. Then, in quiet defiance of the prison authorities, he locks the office door and turns on the public address system so the music pours out into the entire prison. The soaring, operatic voices penetrate every cell, float out over the prison yard and into the infirmary. Longtime inmates stop in their tracks and let the music wash over them. Hardened faces become soft and tender. Not a muscle moves, not a word is spoken as the music saturates each inmate.   For a moment, Shawshank prison and everyone in it is transformed.

menu-copyMy Shawshank moment came at a time when hauntingly beautiful music grabbed my soul and transported me beyond the figure skating program on TV. The music invited me into an epiphany of sorts, for, like Andy Dufresne, I was also being held captive. I was imprisoned by a daily diet of news that trumpeted fear mongering and enemy-making, by feelings of helplessness, by an overwhelming sense of our collective paralysis to change direction. I needed to break out of this prison and feed myself with other sources of nourishment. I needed a change of diet. More engaged prayer. More thoughtful tending to my longing and hunger for the Holy. Upping my dose of connection to those who work for justice and embody peace. Increasing my daily intake of the arts, of music and dance and poetry and painting, food that offers a more hope-filled response to the wounds of our world.

So with God’s grace, I’m adjusting my daily diet. I’m eating more beauty and hope and tenderness and welcome. Care to try this menu with me?

Takeaway

Create a meal of the beautiful. Arrange a bouquet of flowers. Play a piece of instrumental music. Read some inspiring words of poetry out loud. Gaze at a work of art. Walk under a canopy of trees. Savor stillness.

After a period of absorbing and digesting what’s before you and around you, take some time to reflect:

Give thanks for all that is beautiful in your life.
How has the experience of beauty changed you and set you free?
Hold in your prayer those whose worldview is limited by despair or fear of change and of fresh thinking.

NOTE:  Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of a retreat day, “Taking Heart,” that I’ll be facilitating at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY, February 18. Many thanks!

 

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