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.

 

Living as the Beloved

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for February 14, 2016

NOTE:  Please hold in your prayer all those who will be attending a weekend retreat, “Naming the Deep Breath,” that I’ll be leading at the Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston, PA, from Friday, February 26 to Sunday, February 28.   For more information, go to Franciscan Spiritual Center.
Happy Valentine’s Day!  Today, in a special way, I wish you all the blessings of being loved and knowing yourself beloved by God.

Traditionally, on this day people send cards and give flowers, chocolate, and other gifts to express their love and affection.  Little is actually known of St. Valentine, for whom this day is named; however, many legends surround him.  One legend relates that, while he was imprisoned for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods, he healed the jailer’s daughter of her blindness.  According to that legend, on the day Valentine was executed, he left behind a note for the young girl that was signed, “Your Valentine.”

And so, our custom of sending Valentines.  Although the details of Valentine’s life are few, the message beneath the legend points to the primacy of loving others and being loved by God.  We are God’s beloved—what an amazing truth!   St. John writes, “See what love God has lavished on us in letting us be called God’s children.  Yet that in fact is what we are.”  (1 John 3:1-2).  Jesus knew himself as the Beloved at his baptism in the Jordan, when a voice came from  heaven saying, “This is my own, my Beloved, in whom my favor rests.”  (Matthew 3:17).  Henri Nouwen comments that being named as God’s Beloved was the blessing that sustained Jesus his entire life, that no matter what happened in his life—praise or blame—Jesus clung to the knowing of himself as the Beloved of God.

Imagine a world in which everyone acted as the Beloved of God and recognized that same belovedness in others.  On this particular Valentine’s Day, I’m very mindful of one of our IHM Sisters, Sister Adrian Barrett, who embodied this sense of knowing. Born on Valentine’s Day many decades ago, she lived her life as a continual blessing and an outreach to people in need, to people who were poor, or broken, or overlooked and dismissed by society.  30 years ago, Sister Adrian founded a wonderful organization, Friends of the Poor, sponsored by my IHM congregation.  I’d like to share with you what I wrote as a memorial for our Sister Adrian, who died at the age of 86 on October 12, 2015:

“On this 30th anniverary of Friends of the Poor, we celebrate and applaud the tender heart and bold vision of our founder, Sister Adrian Barrett, IHM.  Sister Adrian came into this world on February 14, the great feast of love and a harbinger of the life to follow.  Her rootedness in compassion for our most vulnerable neighbors led her 30 years ago to imagine Friends of the Poor, a ministry sponsored by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in Scranton.

Bringing together ‘those who have the desire to give with those in need of assistance,’ Friends of the Poor lovingly cares for the immediate physical needs of thousands in our area and also tends to their hunger for beauty, for welcome, for a sense of belonging.  Named ‘The Mother Teresa of Scranton’ by actor Martin Sheen, [who narrated a documentary on her life], Sister Adrian lived her life as a clear, uncompromising voice and a champion of those who are often forgotten, dismissed, or marginalized in our world today.

We are profoundly grateful for her holy and extravagant heart and we offer our ‘Hurrah!’ for all the ways she was a true Friend of the Poor these 30 years.”

Happy 1st Birthday in heaven, Sister Adrian, and thank you for all the ways you lived your belovedness and claimed it for so many of your dear friends.

Takeaway

What does being beloved by God feel like?  Look like?

Recall a time when you felt God’s care and tenderness in your life.

Name one way you can act toward others that will communicate that they also are so loved by God.

Salting Our Lives for the Life of the World

by Sister Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  for February 7, 2016

NOTE:  Special thanks to all who participated in our Spiritual Spa Day held at the IHM Center in Scranton, PA on January 30.  This week’s blog offers a sense of that experience.

Please join us on April 23 for another day, “Naming the Deep Breath,” where we will cultivate mindfulness as a life practice, engage in forms of breathprayer, and explore the grace of deep listening in the ordinary moments of everyday living.
Spiritual Spa Day Reflection

We have heard, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Yet how do we truly love ourselves?  How do we nurture our own soul and body as we also tend to our responsibilities of caring for our world through work, family, and relationships?

Since we cannot nurture others from a dry well, this day afforded us Sabbath time, a chance to assess our energy and spirit, restore balance, and move us towards wholeness and well-being through quiet, prayer, reflection, and practice.

A Spiritual Spa Day is a day for greening our lives, for nurturing ourselves as we also tend to our responsibilities of caring for our world through work, family, and relationships.  It’s a day to experience Sabbath time, a chance to assess our energy and spirit, restore balance, and move us towards wholeness and well-being through stillness, prayer, reflection, and self care.

As we began the day, we named our own weariness, brokenness, and desire for wholeness that had brought us to the day.  We held in our prayer the suffering and desire for wholeness of the many people we carried in our hearts.  We remembered our Mother Earth, herself in need of healing, rest, and renewal.  And we prayed for our sisters and brothers throughout the world for whom there would be no rest, no respite, no relief from the critical struggle to survive another day.  We sent our compassion and prayers for healing to everyone in our beautiful, yet wounded world.

We reflected on the message of an excerpt of Robert Bly’s poem, “Things to Think”:

“Think in ways you’ve never thought before
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats…
When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.”
How true, and yet how challenging sometimes to put into practice in a world so focused on productivity, speed, and busyness.

So we focused this day on self-care, on salting our lives for the life of the world; on nurturing our own body and spirit so that we could be refreshed and renewed to continue our ministries of caring compassionately for others.

Our sister, Salt, had much to teach us about the spirituality of self-care.

In many cultures, salt is a symbol of healing and wellness.  The Armenians salt their newborn babies.  In the Catholic tradition, the minister of Baptism places salt in an infant’s mouth.  At the time of the prophets, the Jewish people washed a baby in water, salted him or her, and wrapped the baby in cloths.  Today, the custom is still followed of dipping bread in salt on Friday nights to symbolize God’s covenant with Israel, to symbolize preserving the contract between God and God’s people.

Salt is the only rock we eat.  The human body needs salt for digestion and for the transporting of nutrients and oxygen throughout the body.  Clearly, a certain amount of salt is necessary for our well-being and our enjoyment of life.

So for our Takeaway today, I invite you to reflect on how you are salting your own life and the life of the world.

Takeaway

Salt is a preservative.
In parts of our world where there’s no refrigeration, salt is sprinkled on food to keep it from perishing.  So salt invites us to reflect:
What do we cherish?  What is worth keeping and holding on to?

Salt is an enhancer.
It brings out flavors we might otherwise miss.  So salt invites us to reflect:
What is already part of our lives that we may want to highlight and emphasize?

Salt is an agent of healing.
If you’ve ever had a cut and gone swimming in the ocean, you know how that stings and yet how the wound heals much faster after being exposed to salt water.  So salt invites us to ask:
What wounds, what hurts, am I in need of healing?  What are the wounds to which I’m called to minister?

Salt is a flavor.
We know that it can lose its potency over time.  So salt invites us to ask:
What is needed in my life to avoid losing flavor, to remain continuously salty, and to flavor my life and the life of others?

Salt is a symbol of wisdom.
So salt invites us to ask:
What can I learn from the salty ones, the wisdom figures, those who have endured and who continue to be salt for themselves and for the life of the world?

Life Remembered

by Sister Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for January 31, 2016

We have probably all passed them, the makeshift roadside memorials placed at the side of a road where a fatal traffic accident has occurred.  They stand as a testament to lives lost and to bereft friends and families marking a grief beyond words.   We may have no idea what the accident was that claimed a life, when it took place, or who the person being memorialized was, though there may be a few clues in what stands there: perhaps a stuffed animal, a favorite color, balloons, a jersey once proudly worn.  One thing is certain and universally felt:  someone has died and someone is being remembered.

Some passersby may make the sign of the cross, sigh, or pray a silent prayer as they drive past the memorial.  Some drivers may not even notice.  When I drive by one of the memorials, I always mouth the same words, directed to the person who has died:  “Bless you, and comfort those who love and miss you.”

There’s a roadside remembrance on Route 6 near Archbald, Pennsylvania.  It’s a wooden angel on a post, and there are always flowers attached, sometimes changing with the seasons.  This memorial is beginning to show the wear and tear of several years of enduring the intense cold and heavy snows of January and the blistering heat of August.

I’ve always been curious about who the person is to whom the memorial is dedicated, butRoadside memorial the layout of the highways leaves no room to pull over, get out of the car, and pay a quiet visit.  Every time I drive by, I wonder about the life lost and the people left behind.  I wonder what the person’s final day was like as they moved through the ordinariness of it with no idea it would be their last on earth.  It takes me back to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and the character of Emily Webb, who in the stage play has died and longs to revisit one day in her life, her 12th birthday.  She ends up disappointed and seeing how few people treasure the dailiness of each moment.  Emily cries out, “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you!” and she wonders aloud, “Does anyone truly understand the value of life while they live it?”  “Saints and poets, perhaps,” she’s told.

Saint and poets.  People who cultivate awareness and mindfulness.  People who struggle to live in the present moment.  People who savor the exquisite beauty of this planet and take nothing for granted.  People who enter each day with a grateful heart.
People who remember that every moment is precious and fleeting, that all we really have is the now, and that every now is sacred.

In To Bless the Space Between Us, the late John O’Donohue offers a reflection, “At the End of the Day:  A Mirror of Questions.”  The questions are an examen a sorts, an invitation to look back on the day that’s coming to a close and to reflect on how we’ve been present.  They echo Emily Webb’s question, “Does anyone truly understand the value of life while they live it?”  You may want to use this Mirror of Questions to help you notice, truly notice, how you have been and how the Divine has been at work in your life on any given day.

Takeaway

At the end of your day, reflect on some of the questions offered by John O’Donohue:

What did I learn today?
What new thoughts visited me?
Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I do today for the poor and excluded?
Where did my eyes linger?
Where was I blind?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?

From the evidence—why was I given this day?