More Spiritual Reflections

Spiritual Reflections


Living the Questions

Sr. Chris Koellhoffer, IHM
September 14, 2010

Reflection for Evening of Prayer

Good evening, and thank you for your presence with us as we pray our questions tonight.

Someone asked me a few days ago if I were going to offer answers to any questions, and I was delighted to reply that no, I'm off the hook on that. But as Rilke says, our hope is to live into the answers some distant day. And our hope is to do that together.

I'd like to begin by inviting into this circle of prayer our dear friend and witness, John the Baptist:

While John was in prison, he heard about the works the Messiah was performing, and sent a messenger by way of his disciples to ask Jesus this question:

"Are you the One who is to come, or do we look for another?"

In reply, Jesus said to John's disciples: "Go back and report to John what you hear and see:

The blind recovering their sight;

The crippled walking;

Those with leprosy cured;

The deaf hearing;

The dead being raised to life;

And the anawim—the have-nots—

having the Good News preached to them."

So here's the picture Matthew paints for us: From the dark prison where he was languishing, John is struggling with physical pain, nagging doubt, an unshakable sense of abandonment. But I suspect that even in the midst of so much anguish, John was also immersed in deep contemplation, and that it's out of that contemplative space that he summoned his courage and dared to ask:

"Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?"

As questions go, they don't get much bigger than that.

Behind John's words, we can hear poignancy, hope, perhaps a touch of desperation. What he was really asking was, "I have just this one life, and I'm facing the end of it, so I need to know: Has my life been spent pointing in the right direction?"

John took a tremendous risk in daring to ask that question. By asking, he put his life and his entire ministry on the line. But by asking the question, born of his pain and his prayer, he also opened himself to listening to God's voice in new ways.

"Are you the one who is to come?"

I love it that Jesus didn't give a direct answer, yes or no. Instead he gave a direction: "Go and tell John what you hear and see":

As our Sisters, Associates and many gathered here know, every four years our IHM congregation enters into a Chapter, the governing body of our congregation. This past year, we chose to enter into a contemplative process of deep prayer and profound conversation with one another.

This process was what Wendell Berry describes as

"to pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye

clear. What we need is here." (Collected Poems 1957-1962)

In our fast-paced world bent on action, we made a counter-cultural choice, convinced that nothing could be more critical at this moment than for us to stand still and stand together in prayer. It was a choice to reverently listen to the way that the Word of God was bearing fruit in the life of each of us. It was a choice to share our deepest desires that reveal God's dream for us and for our world.

It was a choice that made us, like John the Baptist, dare to ask a question:

How do the choices I make today/we make today affect persons who are in need in our time?

What choices must we make as we live out our commitment to God and God's people?

Asking the question invites us to live as mystics, to be available to and for the moment. Karl Rahner describes mystics as persons who can see the mystery in anything and everything—in the everyday and the ordinary, as well as in the very extraordinary.

In living our questions, we are called to that kind of everyday awareness. We open ourselves to transformation. We commit ourselves to learn "how God's dynamic energy is at work in every moment and every day and every place, and how that same energy is at work in each one of us." (Marcia Allen, "The Role of Contemplation in Religious Life Leadership").

Donna Fyffe reflects on this everyday awareness, this living as a mystic, by asking "What if?"

"What if the work of women religious is to create deeper insight; reframe what is; see reality differently; generate greater consciousness; go to people's blind spots and uncover values, beliefs, the Christ within?"

What if our work is one of integrity, being in the place of mystery and grace, so that we can influence social transformation and co-create with God what is needed for these times?

"What if" is at the heart of our questions.

5 years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the martyrdom of the 4 North American churchwomen, my parish in Queens, New York, invited Peter Keogh, the nephew of Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke, to come and speak to us. He shared some of what his family had seen when they visited El Salvador not long after Maura's death in 1980. Much of her story I had heard before, but one piece was both new and consoling for me:

She didn't know the answers. She was struggling with the questions.

Peter told us that the days leading up to her death were full of questions for Maura. She had spent many years in Nicaragua where she fell in love with the Nicaraguan people. She had only recently come to El Salvador and she was trying to find her place and her purpose and the deeper meaning of her being there.

When Maura's family visited the little room where she had lived, it was almost completely barren, just a bed, a desk. But they did find one personal item in her room: the prayer of Thomas Merton which we prayed earlier this evening. In her struggle and her doubt, Maura prayed this prayer every day as a way of living the questions:

"I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end..."

"But I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me..."

When we hear the story of Maura's courageous choice to remain in El Salvador despite the increasing violence and threat of harm to her, we sometimes forget that she was first of all human and struggling with the same big questions that we are:

How do the choices I make today/we make today affect persons who are in need in our time?

Like John the Baptist, like Maura Clarke, like all the holy ones who have gone before us, who walk beside us, and who live beyond us, we are all at times longing for confirmation: that our lives have meaning, that our choices have moved us in the right direction, that in the ordinary day-to-day as well as the big stuff, we are on the right track and pleasing to God.

Our questions are a reminder that each day we are creating "the future we want by the decisions we make and the actions we take." (Donna Fyffe). Our questions invite us to live as mystics, to weave through each day an awareness of our relationship to God, our neighbor, ourselves. We believe that it is only in standing together, rooted in God and the gospel, that we can courageously commit ourselves to live these questions, for they are our entry point into the joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties of the people of this world.

How do the choices I make today/we make today affect persons who are in need in our time?

What choices must we make as we live out our commitment to God and God's people?

We remember Jesus' reply to the disciples of John the Baptist:

"Go and tell John what you see and hear!"

Let this be said of us, that we have dared to ask the questions and live the questions

So that, to paraphrase Jesus' response to John,

the blind can someday see the faces of their loved ones;

people with limited mobility can one day dance;

those who have lived in a world that ignores and dismisses them will have their voices heard;

those bent over by oppression and injustice can once again stand up straight.

We dare to ask these questions so that we can accompany our loving God in bringing hope and promise and saving grace to our longing, waiting and wounded world.

May it be so!