Re-membering

by Chris Koellhoffer, May 22, 2016
Recently, life has been filled with far too many good-byes to cherished friends.  Giants who formed and shaped me spiritually, saints who companioned me and witnessed how to live a life passionately in love with the Divine and all creation.  Accompanying beloved ones as they journey into Mystery is surely a graced experience, but oh, at what cost to the heart!
Leave-takings are cumulative.  Like any loss, they build on every previous moment of letting go and bidding farewell that has filled a lifetime.  Perhaps it’s the price we pay for loving wholeheartedly and deeply.  Perhaps it’s a price that’s in some way offset by remembrance: remembering with profound gratitude how we ourselves have been loved and nurtured, embraced and cherished by those we miss.  Could it be that one of the blessings of those seeming endings is in the enduring remembrance of all the joyful, intimate moments that preceded them?
goodbyetreewithbirdsThose of us who have had to eulogize a loved one know, in a particular way, the challenge of re-membering.  When we re-member, we revisit and extract meaning from the lives of those who have died.  We ask: what might we highlight, underscore, lift up for our listeners to reveal the essence of those who have graced our life?  How do we pay tribute, how do we distill a lifetime of stories and memories into a collage of tender, humorous, or moving images?  How do we honor and re-member a life?
Some years ago, I offered a reflection on Jesus’ leave-taking.  On that Holy Thursday, I invited those present to enter into the experience of the Passover meal from the perspective of Jesus.  How did Jesus wish to burn that evening into memory, to be forever in communion with his beloved friends?  I reflected:

“This night is a testament to what matters.  Filled with love and profound compassion, it is a tender, final moment…It is Jesus’ legacy of witness and unending presence…

What words can he possibly utter that will endure through time and space?  On this night, every smallest word and gesture is laden with significance.  And so, he does what any person who loves would do: the towel is tied, the basin is filled, the feet are washed with care, bread is broken, and love is passed all around the table.  May we remember, and remember, and remember the gestures of a tender God among us.”

Like Jesus, the holy ones among us live with a keen awareness that every smallest wordrememberweremember and gesture is laden with significance.  As we celebrate the individual anniversaries that mark the passing of our beloved who now deepen into risen life, and as we come together for collective remembrances–Memorial Day, All Souls day, the feast of All Saints–may we re-member the life of Jesus and the great cloud of witnesses.  May we become more aware of their light all around us.  May we embody in our own lives their choices for compassion and justice that have left such a profound impact on our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

Reflect on those who have shown you the face of God.
Imagine their love and care surrounding you.
Offer thanks for their continuing presence in your life.
Ask them to accompany you in re-membering their witness.
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Learning to Listen Like a Robin

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, May 8, 2016

It’s that time of year here in the Northeast where no alarm clock is needed.  Count me among the music lovers who are serenaded at 5:00 each morning by a choir of wrens, cardinals, blue jays, and their assorted cousins.  Our winged neighbors are talented warblers and singers; I learned only recently that they’re also exceptional listeners.

A friend pointed out these avian listening skills when we were taking an early morning walk at the end of a week marked by constant and sometimes torrential rain, rain so steady and penetrating that the water-soaked mud bubbled up into puddles and routed dozens of earthworms from their cozy homes below.

“There!” my friend exclaimed, pointing to a red-breasted bird.  “You can see the robin listening.”

And so I could.  Listening made visible in both the stillness and the movement of that plump little bird.  Listening with absolute focus on every element around him.  Listening beyond the patter of raindrops and the splash of passing cars.  Like a contemplative immersed in prayer, the robin stood, head cocked back, then head low to the earth for several seconds.  Suddenly, a quick peck at the ground, and a wriggling worm was pulled from under the lawn.

Over and over, the same pattern.  A robin in the posture of deep listening, the swift dive of the head to the ground, the jubilant lifting of a startled earthworm caught in the robin’s beak, and finally, the feast of being fed by what the robin had so intently listened for.  What could that small bird hear that escaped our ears?

This meditation moment reminded me of what might be considered the central mantra for the Jewish people, based on Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”  The Message Bible translates it as, “Attention, Israel!  God our God!”

Shema Yisrael or Sh’ma Yisrael are the first two words of the Torah that is the central prayer in the Jewish prayerbook, frequently the first section of Scripture that a Jewish child learns.  These words are often recited in the morning and the evening, as a bedtime prayer for children, and as the last words breathed as one leaves this life.

Hear!  Listen!  Pay attention!  The mandate for all of us.  For effective communication tolistenwithhandbw occur, listening must be present. This is true not only in developing relationships with one another, but in our relationship with God as well.

Listening, whether it’s listening to another person, to all of creation, or to God, involves presence and awareness.  It’s much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is stepping out of our own world and paying full attention to the other.

In our relationship with God, how deeply and truly do we listen?  Robert Wicks might have been wondering that when he observed,  “When we pray, how often do we say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening?’ More often, I think, we say, ‘Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking!’”

When we were nearing the new millennium, the year 2000, Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon collected inspiration for the coming century.  They invited leaders and visionaries around the world to offer blessings and expressions of hope for the next one hundred years, and published them in Prayers for a Thousand Years.

One of the many profound messages in this book is Jay McDaniels’ hope for the next thousand years.  May we pray it as a prayer to deepen our capacity to listen, truly listen, to the Divine and to all of creation:

“In this century and in any century,
Our deepest hope, our most tender prayer,
is that we learn to listen.
May we listen to one another in openness and mercy
May we listen to plants and animals in wonder and respect.
May we listen to our own hearts in love and forgiveness.
May we listen to God in quietness and awe.
and in this listening
which is boundless in its beauty,
may we find the wisdom to cooperate
with a healing spirit, a divine spirit,
who beckons us into peace and community and creativity
We do not ask for a perfect world
but we do ask for a better world.
We ask for deep listening.”

Takeaway

As you pay attention and listen to the Spirit working in and through you today and in the days ahead:

What touches you?  Surprises you?  Sparks something within you?  Challenges you?
Frightens you?  Makes you sad or angry?  Resonates with you?

What might God be speaking to you today in silence?  In those you meet?

What keeps you from listening to the voice of the Holy One?

 

NOTE:
Wishing all who nurture, support, create, and bring to life a blessed Mother’s Day!

 
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Star Gazing

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, April 24, 2016

Just what is the real disaster?  Our answer to that question may go all the way back to our childhood, to a worldview that was shaped and formed by what we saw when we first looked up at the heavens.

Recently, I attended an orientation on spiritual care, an aspect of relief efforts deeply needed in the aftermath of disasters of every kind.  Disaster significantly disrupts people’s lives and impacts them on every level.  When dealing with the harsh realities of a world turned upside down, vulnerable, fragile people dealing with catastrophic loss are greatly in need of immediate tending of their urgent physical needs, of course.  They’re also deeply in need of a ministry of presence, of compassionate, caring people who can accompany them as their capacities for hope and resilience are restored.

At the orientation session I attended, someone asked for a broad definition of disaster and received the response, “a natural or man-made situation that causes suffering.”  Reflecting on disaster later that day sent me to the dictionary in search of other words that are the fallout of the tremendous dis-ease that enters people’s lives in frightening and violent ways at times of overwhelming disaster.  Look up “dis” in the dictionary and you’ll see that the list is long and includes dis-placed, dis-possessed, dis-oriented, dis-illusioned, dis-mantled, dis-missed, dis-stressed, dis-turbed, dis-connected.

StarsinskyIn a landscape blanketed in grief and loss, another definition of disaster also applies, and it’s the one I embrace.  Madeleine L’Engle defines “disaster” by its etymology, its root words:  dis and astrum—“separation from the stars”.  So dis-aster is, quite literally, finding oneself distanced from hope, from dreams, weighed down by a worldview devoid of light and promise.

This is the definition of disaster that most resonates with me.  When I was a toddler, my family moved to suburban New Jersey, to a home set on the top of a hill.  My father, transplanted from urban Newark, embraced life in the countryside wholeheartedly.  Sometimes late at night, long after we had fallen asleep, he would shake us awake, wrap us up in blankets, and carry us out to the second floor deck.  There, our sleep-filled eyes would slowly open to a midnight sky ablaze with stars.  The enormity of all that sparkled above us left us hushed with awe and wonder.  I grew up believing that my name was written in those stars, and a hundred astronomers could not have convinced me otherwise.

Perhaps this is the same worldview expressed by the poet Rilke when he prayed:

“Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.”

This is my prayer today and every day for you, for me, for all those we love and carry in our hearts, for our sisters and brothers everywhere in our beautiful, yet wounded world.

Takeaway

What is your earliest memory of looking up at the night sky?

What do you see when you look at the heavens now?

How would you describe dis-aster—separation from the stars?
My thanks to all who participated in “Naming the Deep Breath,” a retreat day I led at the IHM Center in Scranton, PA, on April 23.  It was a grace to pray, reflect, and share your wisdom around our practice of living in the present moment.

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Seeing Beyond

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, April 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

So this Easter season holds an invitation to ponder:

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

Takeaway

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

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

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

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM – for March 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway

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

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

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

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A Lasting Hosanna

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PalmSundayondonkey

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

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

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

Takeaway

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

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

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

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that about?”

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway

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

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

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

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

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