Sticking with Love

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, December 4, 2016

For a few weeks before this season of Advent began, we listened to many readings about the signs of the End Times—you know the ones:  nation rising against nation; earthquakes, plagues, and famine; desolation; suffering, persecution, and death.  I confess these have never been my favorite Scripture passages—I’m much more of an Advent kind of spirit.

But this year, in the aftermath of what we’ve seen unfolding in our nation and world, I found that the readings of the End Times felt somehow closer to my spirit than the hopefulness of Advent.  In our world this past year, we’ve witnessed a long and brutal election process, bullying, legitimizing hatred, demonizing immigrants, excluding or acting violently toward Muslims, the LGBT community, people of color, women—anyone who is perceived as different or outside the margins of power.

So many of us—including me—might not be feeling the Advent dream right now: that vision of the peaceable kin-dom with the wolf playing with the lamb.  With a dead stump blossoming into new growth.  With a desert drenched in rain and turning green.  With no more crying or weeping or mourning.  With images of rejoicing and dancing and feasts of fat, juicy food with enough leftovers to feed the entire planet.

handscradlingcandleThese Advent images stand in stark contrast to what many have expressed as their feelings going into this season.  In conversations, in faith sharing, in companioning people in spiritual direction, I’ve heard a litany of the same anguished life questions over and over:  How can this be?  What does this mean for people we love and care for, for people who feel unwanted and unheard?  How are we called to be?  And especially, where is God?  I can resonate with all of these questions.  Perhaps you can as well.

Each time I prepare to act as a spiritual guide with another, I pray to God, “Show me Your face.”  I’m asking to be present to the movement of the Holy One in the other person and in me, in what unfolds within and between and around us.  Lately as I’ve been listening to people share their pain, what they’ve been sharing is not a showing of God’s face but an absence: they feel the face of God is turned away, distant, silent, and invisible, as if God has completely disappeared.

I suspect this is what John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-6) was feeling as he sat in prison and wondered if his life and his witness made any difference.  So at this moment, in this Advent, if we’re not quite ready to move into rejoicing and hopeful expectation, that’s okay.  We may want to first take a contemplative pause.  Be still.  Ground ourselves in Love’s presence as we reflect on the loving way to move forward.

And then perhaps we might sit with John the Baptist in silence and in stillness.  From thejohnhandsonprisonbars-copy dark prison where he’s languishing, John the Baptist asks one of the most poignant questions in all of Scripture:  “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?”  We can imagine the fragile hope, maybe desperation, behind John’s questions.  As if he were really asking, “Tell me, have I been wasting my time?  My life?  Am I pointing in the right direction?  Give me a sign!  Show me your face!”

And we listen to Jesus’ indirect answer:  “Go and tell John what’s happening:  those who couldn’t see are opening their eyes; those whose ears were closed are listening to my voice; those who couldn’t find a way forward are now taking steps towards a more just, inclusive world.”  Do we believe this is possible?

I’ve read that after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, he was criticized because some said his words were naïve, that they presented a rose colored vision of the future, an impossible dream.  I suspect those who said that would also notice echoes of Dr. King’s words in the Advent readings with their dream of a peaceable kin-dom where all are welcome and none are turned away.

A year before he was assassinated, Dr. King took some reflective time away from the demands of the civil rights movement.  He rented a house without a telephone in Jamaica where he could work undisturbed.  He dedicated his time to crafting a vision of America’s future: he imagined better jobs, quality education for all, affordable housing, respect for the dignity of every person, an end to global poverty and suffering.  He not only imagined this; he committed his life to working with God’s grace to bring it about.  He poured out his passion in a speech called “Where Do We Go from Here?”–a question that resonates in 2016.  “Where do we go from here?” His answer in the face of social sin and violence:  “I have decided to stick with love.”

Dorothy Day also decided to stick with love.  She wrote, “Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife which may at any moment become for all of us a time of terror, I think to myself, ‘What else is the world interested in?  What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships?’…Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world…is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship with each other of love.”

God needs us to stand in a relationship of love with each other.  There is gift in naming and sharing our vulnerability, our unknowing, our uncertainty about what to do and how to be.  God needs us to show the face of the Divine to our world, because none of us can see the face of God except through others and the way we live our lives as people of peace and compassion, as people of justice, of right relationship with God, with others, with all of creation.   When we show the face of the Holy One and when others reflect that face to us, we are giving and receiving the gift of justice.  Only from this place of Love can we truly act with God to move forward God’s dream for our world.

About that world Tennessee Williams wrote, “The world is violent and mercurial—it will have its way with you.  We are saved only by Love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend.  We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

So let us decide to stick with Love.  I can’t think of a better gift we could offer our world and give and receive from each other, this Advent and always.

NOTE:
This reflection was written for an Advent Evening of Prayer at Christ the King parish, Springfield Gardens, NY.  It’s offered here in a slightly modified format. 

My thanks to the many gathering for the Evening of Prayer and to all of you who prayed for us.  Advent blessings to all! 

TAKEAWAY

In discerning how to move forward in challenging times, Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded, “I have decided to stick with love.”
What helps you to be and to sustain a loving presence?

Who has shown the face of the Holy to you?

To whom have you imaged the face of God? 

 

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Upside Down Blessings 

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, November 20, 2016

Many of us cherish the practice of naming our blessings: at the end of the day, around a Thanksgiving table, during a time a prayer, on the heels of an exceptional experience.   This wonderful tradition cultivates a grateful heart and deepens our awareness of the  gifts our lives receive.

Having witnessed many expressions of gratitude for gifts and blessings, I’m especially mindful of one that took a different turn.  Parish members had been invited to name a quality they brought to the life of the parish, something that enriched or inspired both them and others, something that they cherished as a gift.  I listened to the usual litany of admirable qualities:  “I bring the gift of my joyful spirit.”  “I bring the blessing of my prayerfulness.”  “I bring the gift of my peacefulness.”  And so on.  But just as I was getting comfortable with the familiar choices, a voice in the back of the room intoned, “I bring the gift of my brokenness.”  The words made me sit up with attention.

Wounds and flaws and brokenness as a gift?  Vulnerability, setbacks and failures as agratitudeheart-copy blessing?  Go figure.  How, we might ask, is that possible?  Perhaps in the sense that Henri Nouwen describes, “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work.  Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment.”

As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, how about giving thanks for something that’s not “the usual”:  something that caused us pain or hurt, something that came from our shadow side, something disappointing that we now, with fresh eyes, see as an upside down blessing.  A blessing in retrospect, something cast in a new light by the passage of time, by grace, and by our own reflection and wisdom.

Sometimes we call them blessings in disguise, although they can seem like anything but: missing an important appointment or message; being delayed or detoured or re-routed from our plans; losing a job; receiving an unwelcome diagnosis; suffering a loss.  These difficult experiences or changes of plans can be annoying, disturbing, frustrating, even devastating, and yet, looking back, we can sometimes classify them as catalysts that turned our lives around, that pointed us in a direction beyond anything we could  have imagined.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, many people shared stories of how they were supposed to be at the World Trade Center that morning and how their plans were unexpectedly changed: a woman’s alarm clock failed to ring, and so she overslept; another person spilled food on her clothes, and so she had to take time to change; one had a child who dawdled over breakfast and didn’t get ready for school at the usual time; one man was wearing a new pair of shoes, developed a blister, and stopped at a drugstore to buy a Band-Aid.  In hindsight, they realized that what they had experienced as an unwelcome wrinkle in their morning–annoying or frustrating or maddening—was actually a moment that had spared their lives from the tragedy experienced by so many others.

Being grateful at all times doesn’t minimize the very real cost that entering the mystery ofgratitudefor suffering exacts–the terrible anguish, the intense physical or emotional pain, the feelings of rejection or loss or bewilderment or failure that sometimes accompany our human condition.  But when we live from a grateful heart, we acknowledge that, in spite of appearances in those moments, God is present to us, God accompanies us, God continues to pour out unconditional love for us, and that is cause for profound gratitude.  In our darkest hour, notes R. Wayne Willis, we can still use our pain and our loss to bless someone else whose wounds are fresher than ours.

Today and every day, may we move forward with a heart that is aware and profoundly grateful.

Takeaway

Reflect on one thing from your past experience that placed you in a space where you felt vulnerable, crushed, or uncertain.

What learnings or wisdom might you have received through this?

What blessing do you most desire for yourself?  For our beautiful, yet wounded world?

Pause at some point in your day to offer thanks for blessings of every kind.

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayer for the evening on “Claiming Our Lives as Blessed and Blessing” with the Rosary Society of St. Aidan’s Church, Williston Park, NY.  You can hear echoes of my time with these prayerful, reflective women in today’s blog post. 

Please hold in your prayer all those who will be part of several Advent evenings and days of reflection in December.  Thank you!

Wishing you and those you love all the blessings of this Thanksgiving holiday!

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Choosing with the Light of the Moment

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, November 6, 2016

Every choice we make has an impact beyond what we can see at the moment of choosing.

With prayer, spiritual direction, discernment, conversation with people whose wisdom and values we admire, we hope to make significant choices rightly and in ways that will bring blessing and peace both for ourselves and for those affected by what we choose: a life partner; a home for our family; a new and promising job; a friendship; a vocation or lifestyle that holds meaning and promise beyond ourselves.  In ways both large and small, we are constantly choosing, deciding, discerning, and all of these choices, even the most routine, have consequences.

What are we to do and how are we to be when, even though we’ve been attentive and reflective, we look back on a choice that we’ve made and see that the way it’s unfolded over time is disappointing, limiting, or no longer life-giving?  Marriages can deteriorate; jobs can disappear; relationships can dissolve; a path we thought would lead to our enduring happiness and peace of mind can fall apart and collapse.  What are we then to do?  How are to be in the light of what we come to know or see years later?

I recently listened to a StoryCorps podcast that spoke to this.  In Could Have Been Anybody, (#482, September 9, 2016), StoryCorps invited Vaughn Allex to share a painful secret he had been carrying for years since September 11, 2001.  On that day, Vaughn was working at the American Airlines ticket counter at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.  He was just completing the check-in for Flight 77 when two men who were running late approached his counter.

Vaughn did everything that a ticket agent was supposed to do in that pre-9/11 era: he checked their IDs, asked them the standard security questions, and also flagged the men so that their bags would be held.  Following the 1988 Pan Am Flight 102 crash over Lockerbie Scotland—the result of a bomb on board–security worries at that time were focused on luggage that might contain bombs, not on the people themselves.  It turned out that the two men Vaughn checked in on September 11 were among the hijackers who brought Flight 77 crashing down into the Pentagon.  The hijackers killed not only themselves, but all 189 people on board that flight.

Vaughn, with a reputation as a thorough, responsible employee, was devastated.  He was haunted by the reality that his actions were tied to the loss of so many innocent lives.  Even though, in those pre-9/11 days of airline travel, he had taken all the steps required of him for check-in, he carried a tremendous burden of guilt and kept his role secret.  He tried to join a support group for those affected by the losses of that terrible day, but as he listened to the stories of people wracked with grief over loved ones killed, he felt there was no place for him, the person who had “allowed” such a tragedy to move forward.

He began to think that everything that had happened on 9/11 was somehow his fault.  When a woman who had no idea of the burden of shame he was carrying around shared that her husband had died on 9/11, what Vaughn heard was, “You killed my husband that day.”

It was only years later, in a new job with the Department of Homeland Security, that he edited an internal newsletter and decided, for the September issue, to invite people to share their stories of 9/11.  He also decided it was time to include his own.  What a release he experienced after the newsletter was published and he received message after message of comfort and understanding and affirmation.  Not one negative word.

So often in spiritual direction, people share their regret over actions or attitudes of thediscernment-roads-copy past, even over actions taken in good faith and after careful discernment.  This is true especially when the words spoken or the choices made did not result in a positive outcome.  There are often expressions of “I should have…” or “If I knew then what I know now.”  There is sometimes self-loathing or guilt or hidden shame.  So how, then, are we to be when, like Vaughn Allex, our best efforts seem linked to a negative result?

The reality is that we cannot change the past; what we can change is the way we remember it, the way we respond to it, the way we integrate it into where we are now.    We can accept the truth that, as flawed human beings, we did the best we could with the information we had at the moment.  We can name our pain and let it go.  We can refuse to beat ourselves up with those deadly and futile words, “I coulda, I shoulda, I woulda.”  We can use our anguish, our grief, our shame to bless someone else whose wounds are even fresher than ours.  We can continue to trust that our all-knowing God sees the desires of our heart, knows the motives of our soul, hears our deep longing for healing and wholeness, and continues to call us “beloved.”

Takeaway

Reflect on a choice you made in the past that had unintended consequences.
Revisit how you felt when things didn’t turn out as expected.
If you’re carrying guilt or shame over the result, take some time to sit with God and ask for the grace to forgive and be compassionate with yourself.

Reflect on a choice you wrestled with that has proven life-giving beyond your imagination.
Take time to sit with God and give thanks.

Reflect on a person you know who is currently struggling to make wise choices.  Hold that person in prayer and offer them your understanding and support.

 

Please hold in your prayer two upcoming days of retreat and reflection in November: one for St. Aidan’s Rosary Society on “Claiming Our Lives as Blessed and Blessing” and one on “My Work Is Loving the World,” at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY.

Many thanks for your support!

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Practicing the Righting Reflex

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, October 23, 2016

Notice our choice of words in the English language: to keep our balance or to lose our balance.  This implies that balance is something we can find and then also something we might easily lose control of or misplace.  Much as we may try to always remain upright and in harmony with our surroundings, the reality is that we will, at some time, lose our footing and tumble to the ground.  Clearly, we’re not always in control of standing upright, but we know that returning to a state of balance is important at any age.

If falling is ultimately going to come into our lives, soon or eventually, might it be of some importance to learn how to fall correctly and then return to a state of balance?  Athletes, actors, stuntmen and stuntwomen, dancers, ice skaters, gymnasts, people with mobility issues, all learn the proper way to fall so they can avoid preventable injuries, spare themselves further damage, and return to a sense of wholeness and well-being.

The animal kingdom may have something to teach us about righting ourselves after a fall.  Ever notice a squirrel scampering effortlessly across a thin telephone wire?  We’re not fooled by the squirrel’s seeming inattention to its perilous path; there is focus in every step.  How about a cat’s amazing ability to land on its feet after a fall from the heights?  Like cats, some other small animals possess what’s called the “righting reflex,” an amazing, innate ability to orient themselves as they fall in order to land on their feet.  What’s important to note here is that cats are not immune to falling.  Like all of us, they fall.  What they’re exceptional at is orienting themselves, being fully aware of their surroundings in the present moment, and quickly returning to a state of equilibrium after they fall.

falling-leaf-singleSo what might we learn about falling well that we can transfer and apply to the life of the spirit?  Perhaps, flawed and limited as we are, it’s accepting the inevitability of falling and losing our balance.  And then, with God’s grace, getting up and working and praying our way back to a place of being centered.

Here are a few helps for maintaining a steady grounding and also for restoring balance and wholeness once we’ve slipped in some way.

Go barefoot.
Take off your shoes, literally or figuratively, and spend time in the created world.  Take this “barefoot time” outside, if possible, for a closer look.  Notice how your sisters and brothers of the natural world maintain a spirit of harmony and balance and observe what they do to restore and heal themselves.  Take in with gratitude the beauty of the world around you.

Learn how to roll.
A safety roll allows gymnasts and other athletes to roll in the direction of their fall instead of trying to immediately stop their momentum, which could cause more severe injuries.  Accept the reality of your imperfect, human condition.  Grow in your awareness of where you are and how you are as you enter each moment or situation.

Breathe.
At every moment of your life, you’re inhaling and exhaling.  When you’re anxious and concerned, your breath may be shallow and rapid.  When you’re bone-tired or shouldering a heavy burden, your breath may appear as a long, drawn-out sigh.  When you’re in a space of peace and contentment, your breath may be calm, slow, and even.

Why not make your breathing a practice of attending to the present moment, connecting with where you’re aware of God’s presence, and paying attention?  Practice breathprayer by silently praying with each inhale and exhale, or by praying with simple words, e.g., Breathing in: I breathe in Your peace.  Breathing out: I breathe peace to our world.

Pause.
In the monastic tradition, there’s a practice called statio.  It’s often connected to the tradition of prayer throughout the hours of any given day. It’s a moment of quiet, a brief standing still.  Statio is the pause you take between ending one activity and moving on to the next.  You end one phone conversation and pause before dialing the next number.  You complete one piece of work and pause before taking up the next.  You pass through the doorway of one room and embrace what lies in the next.  Statio is a practice of contemplative consciousness that acknowledges the sacredness of what you’ve just finished and the sacredness of what you’re about to do next.

Dwell in Mystery.
In the aptly titled, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, Philip Simmons, a 35-fallingleaveslargeheartyear-old husband and father of two small children, was diagnosed with ALS and given, at best, a few years to live.  He chose to learn to live richly in the face of loss, the work that he called “learning to fall.”  He wrote of falling as a figure of speech: we fall on our faces, we fall for a joke, we fall for someone, we fall in love.  We fall away from ego and our carefully constructed identities, our reputations, our ambition.  And we fall into compassion, into oneness with forces larger than ourselves, into oneness with others who are likewise falling.  “We fall, at last, into the presence of the sacred,” he wrote, “into godliness, into mystery, into our better, diviner natures.”

No matter what is happening in our lives, may we continue to learn how to fall into the faithful, loving heart of God.

Takeaway

Reflect on a memory of falling in your life.  What learnings might you take from that experience?

How did you heal after that fall?

What restores you to wholeness?

My deep thanks for your prayer for last week’s retreat with the Sisters of St. Dominic at St. Catherine’s Health Care Center, Caldwell, NJ.  It was a delight and a grace to spend time praying and reflecting with those holy women.

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Good Vibrations

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, October 9, 2016

We drink it.  We bathe in it.  We wash dishes, clothing and so many other items in it.  We swim with delight in it on a humid summer day.  We fish in it from a dock or a boat.  We cook with it.  With all our everyday connections to water, might we also learn something from it?

Masaru Emoto, a Japanese scientist and author of The Hidden Messages in Water, believes there are many lessons water can teach us.  He discovered that, just as we human beings are affected by the thoughts, words, and feelings of others, so are molecules of water.  He notes that this makes sense, for from a physical perspective, the average human body is 70% water.  As fetuses, we are about 99% water.  When we are born, we are 90% water.  If rhythmswavewe reach adulthood, we will be 70% water.  And if we live to old age, we will still be at least 50% water.  He concluded that throughout our lives, we exist mostly as water.  Naturally curious, he began to conduct a series of scientific experiments with water.

Dr. Emoto was struck by the fact that no two snow crystals are alike and deduced that if he froze water and looked at the crystals, each one would appear totally unique.  Then began a long journey of trial and error as he tried to find a way to capture the frozen crystals and photograph them.  Eventually, he succeeded.

One day his research assistant wondered aloud what would happen if water were exposed to music.  What effect might the vibrations of music have on water?  So together they placed a bottle of water on a table between two speakers and exposed it to classical music, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Mozart’s 40th Symphony, Chopin’s Etude in E, as well as other types of music.  The water exposed to gentleness and beauty resulted in crystals that were well-formed, with distinct characteristics.  The water exposed to loud music with vulgar lyrics resulted in crystals that were fragmented and malformed.

The scientists then wondered what would happen if water were exposed to positive and negative words, since words are also vibrations.  They wrote phrases with positive connotations–“Thank you”, “I love you”, in a variety of languages–on pieces of paper wrapped around bottles of water with the words facing in towards the bottle.  At a later time, they also invited children to speak these words aloud to the water.  They did the same with negative words—“Fool!”  “You make me sick!”  In these experiments, water exposed to gentle, loving words resulted in beautiful, shapely crystals.  Water exposed to hateful, negative words produced crystals that were malformed and fragmented.

Dr. Emoto summarized the learnings from these experiments as illustrating the power ofblue-coast-copy words on both water and human consciousness.  Water, he believes, teaches us in a very clear way how we must live our lives.  It helps us to see ourselves and our universe differently.  “The vibration of good words has a positive effect on our world,” Dr. Emoto noted, “whereas the vibration from negative words has the power to destroy.”  One has only to enter a room full of strangers in conversation to notice that some people are vibrating in ways that feel joyful or content, whereas others may move through the room carrying and vibrating messages of sadness or anger.

There is so much more contained in The Hidden Messages of Water, and I invite you to explore its riches, especially as it relates to the healing power of love and gratitude.  The questions these experiments raise ultimately become, “How can I grow in awareness?  How can I positively impact the Earth? How do I wish to vibrate for the life of the world?”

 Takeaway

At the end of the day, begin an Examen of sorts by entering into quiet prayer and reflection, and ask yourself,

Was I giving off good vibrations?
Was I a positive presence in anyone’s life today?
With what, with whom did I resonate?
How did I affect the quality of this day?

Offer a prayer of thanks for God’s presence with you.  Commit to vibrate the same loving presence to the people you meet.

 

Thank you for your prayerful support of two events I offered in the past two weeks: “Doorways to the Holy: Opening Together into the Heart of God”, a morning of presentation, reflection, and process for the IHM Sister-Associate Conference; and “Tenderly, in the Tangle of Our Minds,” a workshop on discernment for the Scranton Diocesan Congress.   

Please hold in your prayer an upcoming week of guided retreat I’m offering for the Sisters of St. Dominic, St. Catherine’s Infirmary, Caldwell, NJ.  My deep thanks for all your support!

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Of Standing and Staying

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, September 25, 2016

Lately, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on the word, “standing.”  In September, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, and I was especially struck by the first word of the Gospel reading (John 19:25-27) for that day:  standing.  “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”  Standing by the cross.…That got me wondering:  Might that word, standing, offer an invitation for how we are to be with the suffering of others as well as our own?  To stand inside pain and loss?  To stay with the questions of our time and not settle for quick or superficial answers?  To own our inability to save others?

In our desire to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, one thing becomes clear very quickly. Much as we desire to take away the suffering of others, to protect those we love, that’s not in our power, is it?  It wasn’t in Mary’s power, either.  But Mary reminds us of what we can do: accompany the pain of others even when we can do nothing to fix it.  Might she be calling us to do the difficult inner soul work of standing and remaining with the wounds of our world, holding them in our prayer, and learning from our companioning?

Mother of Sorrows is one of the titles of Mary.  In Mexico, Mary is sometimes also calledstandingsorrow the “Pesame,” the one who stands as a witness to injustice.  “Pesame” is used when there is pain that cannot be assuaged.  Pesame, I’m sorry for your pain.  It’s grieving with the other.  It’s standing with the other.  It’s used to describe Mary, the widow, the mother of the condemned, the brokenhearted one at the foot of the cross, the one who stands and watches and never ever abandons.

In Peter Daino’s book,  Mary,  Mother of Sorrows, Mother of Defiance, he writes of Mary as Pesame and also as defiant.  I had never thought of Mary as defiant.  Daino explains that Mary is certainly a woman who said yes, fiat, but that she’s also a woman who could say no.  And he asks, where in the Gospel does Mary say no?  She says no during the visitation to her cousin Elizabeth, when Mary sings the Magnificat.  In that bold song, she says no to the mighty on their thrones.  She says no to the well fed.  She says no to the oppressor who exploits the poor and the hungry.  Because she stands with and accompanies those who are oppressed, those who are not mighty, not well fed, she says no.  She stands with.  She remains, just as God does.  She witnesses for us a spirituality of accompaniment.

A spirituality of accompaniment acknowledges that God does not solve all our problems or take away our suffering and pain.  Mary understood that what God does is walk with us, be present to us, be in unfailing relationship to us.  So we also are invited to say no.  We say no to sin and death and violence having the last word.  We say no to despair.  We say no to giving up, to turning back, to turning away from the most vulnerable among us.

balancehands-copyAnd like Mary, we also say yes.  We say yes to remaining, to staying on while others abandon and give up.   We say yes to being transformed by the learnings that come to us through the collective ache of our world.  We say yes to remaining in the messy,  confusing, painful places where something new is struggling to bubble up and break through. We say yes to sharing the fate of God for the life of the world.  We say yes to embracing with acceptance the powerlessness we feel in the face of pain, violence, or loss, and meeting it with inner hospitality.  We say yes to carrying and loving what God carries and loves.

So today and every day, may we keep our hearts open in the face of what we cannot change.   May we engage life in a new, more contemplative way within the context of the brokenness and violence around us, as well as within and among us.  Like Mary, may stand with a world and stay with a world that is both beautiful and broken.

Takeaway

To what in our world do you say “Yes!  Fiat!” 

To what do you say “No”? 

Where are you being called to stand with others in their pain or brokenness?

What might you learn from staying with and not running away from your own suffering?

This reflection was originally given during a directed retreat with the Sisters of Mercy in Sea Isle City, NJ on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.  It’s modified for this blog.

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Pursuing Peace

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, September 11, 2016

Today, the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that claimed so many innocent lives in the United States, we pause once again to remember.  In that remembering, we hold in tenderness and prayer our sisters and brothers everywhere in the world who have also known what it is to have loved ones brutally taken by acts of violence.

Rather than post a new blog today, I invite you to revisit my post of August 14, 2016, Right Here, Right Now.  Pair this reflection, written after I spent a summer day in 2016 at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, with the prayer written soon after September 11, 2001 by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat:  Rest in Peace: September 11, 2001, a spiritual perspective on the World Trade Center tragedy written as an “I Am” prayer poem.

Takeaway

May we dedicate this day and all the days to come to pursuing the path of peace.

Rhythms of Grace

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, August 28, 2016

One of the sweetest of lullabies has to be the reassuring evenness of rolling waves breaking on the shore, over and over again.  Anyone who has spent time by the ocean on a stormless day or night knows that familiar, gentle song.

This continual meeting of sea and sand opens the heart and mind to notice other rhythms as well.  Morning sun peeks over the horizon and evening sun sinks in a blaze of color.  A daily walk reveals the routine of animal companions who are creatures of the dawn and dusk: dolphins swimming back and forth on some kind of aquatic timetable; the cautious red fox, the family of skunks, the watchful rabbit, the Purple Martins fluttering in and out of their houses in day’s first light, all going about the tasks of scouting, feeding, caregiving.  Over and over, purposefully, with attention to their surroundings, following a pattern and pausing at regular intervals during the day.

Taking in the rhythms of the natural world reminds us that there are rhythms to the life of the spirit as well.  One of these is the Examen,  a way of reflecting on the events of the day and discerning the movement of our hearts, God’s grace at work in us, and how we have responded.  This way of reflecting is described by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, in his Spiritual Exercises.

rhythm sunriseAn examen-type reflection can take place at any time.  You might pause midday to discern how the day is unfolding.  You might enter into it in the evening, taking a sacred break as night approaches.  It’s an invitation to become aware of how God has been present.  To savor one or more moments of the day, and give thanks.  To notice when you loved and when you were loved.  To express sorrow to God for anything you regret and to ask for forgiveness.  To look forward to a new day and to ask for God’s grace as you begin anew.

Over many years, I’ve been attentive to other expressions for reviewing the day.  Sometimes asking questions in a fresh, creative manner enables us to see with new eyes and hear as if hearing for the first time.  One of the  most compact distillations of an Examen I’ve ever heard came in the words of a small child, who reflected that when he said his prayers at night, he thought about “where I did good and where I messed up.”  What a great Examen!  Brother David Steindl-Rast practices an Examen of gratitude, where, at the end of the day, he names one or more new things for which he has never before expressed gratitude.

In To Bless the Space Between Us, John O’Donohue offers “At the End of the Day, A Mirror of Questions,” as a way to reclaim the sacred in your everyday moments.

Here are some of my favorite questions in that mirror at day’s end:

Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
From the evidence—why was I given this day? 

In Seven Sacred Pauses, Macrina Wiederkehr offers her own list of reflective questions, including:

Have I been a good memory in anyone’s life today?
Have the ears of my heart opened to the voice of God?  to the needs of my sisters and brothers?
What do I know, but live as though I do not know?
How have I affected the quality of this day?
Is there anyone, including myself, whom I need to forgive?
When did I experience my heart opening wide today?
What is the one thing in my life that is standing on tiptoe crying, “May I have your attention, please?” 

The invitation is before us to pause and reflect on what attracts us and grabs our soul,  on what we resist on any given day, on where we invite love to flow through us and where we place obstacles to love.  With God’s grace, may we develop or deepen the regular practice of prayerfully reviewing the day and take a sacred pause this day and in all the days to come.

Takeaway

Take a prayerful pause toward the close of this day.

Use an Examen that is part of your daily spiritual practice, or sit with one or two of the questions offered above.

Invite our loving God to speak to your heart.

Listen, and give thanks.

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Right Here, Right Now

by Chris Koellhoffer, August 14, 2016

This present moment, this sacred now, is all we really have.  Yesterday is unrepeatable and held in memory.  Tomorrow is not guaranteed to any one of us.  This train of thought has lingered with me since I visited the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City this past week.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in New York beginning a certificate program in spiritual direction.  I spent the next 24 hours in the company of frightened yet compassionate strangers, all of us haunted by the eerie silence of a normally noisy city, all of us desperately searching for information and trying to find a way home.  Home for me at that time was the 10th floor of a high rise apartment in Jersey City, across the Hudson River.  From that perch, I prayed and wept for days as I looked out on the smoking, smoldering Manhattan skyline with its terrible, raw scar and its gaping emptiness.  I had not been able to return to the site of this overwhelming loss and grief until just this past week, some 15 years later.

Last week, spending time at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, I realized that I was once again in the company of strangers, all of us reverently trying to absorb the enormity of what we were witnessing.  There were a few hushed whispers, many quiet tears, but mostly, there was the remembering and the cherishing, especially in the memorial exhibition, In Memoriam.  Together, we entered a corridor and gazed up at the “Wall of Faces,” portrait photographs of the nearly 3,000 men, women, and children whose lives were taken by violence that day and in the February 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.  We lingered over the touchscreen tables that offered a further glimpse into the WTC calla lily copyprecious lives commemorated through photographs, audio recordings, mementos.  Outside at the reflecting pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers, we searched for familiar names and let our fingers linger when we found them.

That day at the memorial and museum, I who am a writer and lover of words had no words.  No words.  Words were not enough for the bright lights snuffed out not only here in New York City but in all the places in our world that have experienced acts of violence and savagery.  No words.  Only a reverencing for all that had been so brutally taken away.  No words.  Just a sense of communion with the corporate ache and the collective weeping of the human family.

Since then I have carried with me a wondering at what those lives might have become, what gifts and graces they might have showered on a world that continues to mourn their absence but honors them by moving forward in hope.  Most probably, none of the beautiful, smiling faces filling wall after wall of the 9/11 memorial had any intuition that a September morning would be their last.  All they had, which is all we have, is the present moment.

Their faces, and the faces of the many who have known both the beauty and the brokenness of our world,  challenge me, impel me, plead with me:  “Live with awareness.  Don’t delay in sharing your love.  Be extravagant with compassion.  And do this right here, right now.”

Takeaway

Pause for a moment of quiet.

Name any loss which you are carrying today.
Ask God for healing for your own heart as well as the hearts of your neighbors across the world.

In the moments ahead of you today, how might you be invited to be a person of peace and tenderness?

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Of Wounds Invisible

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, July 31, 2016

Sometimes the most ordinary of things can reveal a fresh way of looking at our world. For me, that ordinariness is a temporary boot.

In a strange way, I’m going to miss my boot. 15 inches tall, crisscrossed by Velcro, it has caused my usual steady, balanced gait to morph into something resembling the lumbering of an ungainly bear. I was dancing when a fracture occurred as I came down on the side of my foot—and wearing a boot was an unintended and unwelcomeboot consequence of that moment. But in the days since, the boot has offered a powerful spiritual practice to me.

Its “can’t miss it” size and shape have opened up constant conversations. “What happened to you?” often leads to stories about mishaps and encumbrances from friends and strangers alike. The attention it has garnered has deepened in me an awareness of a whole universe we simply can’t see: a world of brokenness that’s not visible. The boot has opened up for me a way to pay attention to the world of the unseen.

When I strap my foot in each morning, I pray for the many I will meet that day who carry wounds imperceptible. Among those I’ll encounter, I wonder who will hold hurts and have raw edges that aren’t announced by the outward signs of bandages or casts. I wonder:

Who might be putting on a brave smile and going out to meet the day with a broken heart?Who has been shattered by a cherished relationship abruptly ended, and not by choice? Who is mourning a beloved companion or partner taken by death?
For whom is loneliness so searing that it eclipses all other thoughts and emotions?
Who yearns to change patterns and habits that hold them captive?
Whose ability to experience joy has been threatened by a daunting diagnosis?
Who is imprisoned by regret?
Whose economic reality weighs them down with despair or wears them out with anxiety?Who struggles to climb out from underneath shame?
Who finds it nearly impossible to move forward with hope?
Who longs for the day to end in a movement toward healing and wholeness?

heart hidden hurt copySo my boot, initially an inconvenience and an irritant, has grown into a daily meditation of sorts, a reminder of the invisible brokenness, diminishment, and limitations in my own life and in the lives of the people who come into my circle of awareness each day. St. Paul wrote of desiring to have the same attitude as Jesus, to see as Jesus did, to put on the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). In much the same way, the poet and mystic Rumi urged us to

“Borrow the Beloved’s eyes.
Look through them and you’ll see
The Beloved’s face…”

With or without the visible reminder on my foot that announces something has been broken, I hope to remember to learn to see from this Divine perspective, to slow down, to look below the surface into the hearts of everyone in our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Reflect on a time in the past when you may have carried hurts that no one else could see.

If someone responded to your pain with tenderness, give thanks for that gift of tenderness.

How might you deepen your own compassion for the wounds of others?

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