What We Swallow

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM      June 18, 2023

On the long drive on the way to Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, MA last week, I was savoring the quiet and noticing signs that spoke to me. One touted the construction work in progress along the highway, the result of a bipartisan effort of legislators. Hurray for them, I thought, coming together for the common good. Later, a license plate simply proclaiming, in all caps, “LUKE 6.” The Beatitudes, I presumed. Or perhaps a beloved Luke had turned 6? I began to wonder what Scripture I would put on my license plate if given a choice. Luke 15 (The parables of the lost and found—the wandering sheep, the lost coin, the errant child)? Or Mark 14, the woman who anointed Jesus before his suffering and death? Or? That wondering lingered for many miles.

And then this one, scrawled on the rear windshield of a passing car: “I need a new kidney. Elizabeth.” And a phone number. That one remained with me, settled into my consciousness all through the retreat and my daily intentions at liturgy. “For Elizabeth, waiting in hope for a kidney transplant.” What stage of kidney disease was she in now? How desperate must she be to advertise her deep need on her windshield? Was every passing car a source of hope?

My stream of consciousness reverted to my Dad, who had died nearly forty years ago with kidney failure. Early on, he had obtained a handicap parking placard which he used often as his energy was depleted by treatments. But because he had no visible disability, he noticed that people often gave him disapproving glances as he exited his car, as if he had no right to enter a reserved parking spot. My Dad’s response: he started faking a limp to satisfy everyone.

How little we know of one another or the burdens we carry! How much we rely on appearances as ultimate truth. How often we completely miss the heartache of those closest to us as well as the pain of a suffering world all around us. All of these wonderings stayed with me as I entered into the holy work of companioning others in a directed retreat. I hope these wonderings will remain with me far beyond these days.

KTMD Entertainment, Unsplash

As I write this, still in Gloucester, I hear the raucous cry of gulls and the wind whipping a flag. I gaze at a windswept Atlantic and assume a storm is near. I scan the ocean and pray no vacationing boaters will be caught in its fury. I pray that my neighbors of fin and claw who call this body home will live in safety. Here on land, in a place of peace and protection, I pray for Elizabeth, facing the storm and waiting in hope for the gift of life. I pray for you, reading this blog, and all that you carry in your heart, those weights both visible and deeply hidden. And I leave you with this exquisite poem by Rosemary Wahtola Trommer:

Watching My Friend Pretend Her Heart Isn’t Breaking

On Earth, just a teaspoon of neutron star
would weigh six billion tons. Six billion tons.
The equivalent weight of how much railway
it would take to get a third of the way to the sun.
It’s the collective weight of every animal
on earth. Times three.

Six billion tons sounds impossible
until I consider how it is to swallow grief—
just a teaspoon and one might as well have consumed
a neutron star. How dense it is,
how it carries inside it the memory of collapse.
How difficult it is to move then.
How impossible to believe that anything
could lift that weight.

There are many reasons to treat each other
with great tenderness. One is
the sheer miracle that we are here together
on a planet surrounded by dying stars.
One is that we cannot see what
anyone else has swallowed.

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Hold in your prayer the critical needs of someone you know who is suffering.
Then expand your circle of prayer to include all those whose physical or emotional pain is unknown to you.
Bless both the known and unknown needs of our world and entrust all to the care of the Holy One.

Chris Koellhoffer, a Sister, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scranton, PA), is a writer, presenter, and spiritual guide. She has experience as an English teacher and school administrator, television producer, director of communications, and pastoral associate. She has also ministered in IHM leadership as councilor for spiritual development and director of peace and justice for her IHM Congregation.  She has served for many years as a spiritual director and retreat director.

A long-time contributor to Living Faith, Chris is a writer and poet whose reflections and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including Review for Religious, Living with Christ, Journey, Alive Now, Living Mercy, and LCWR Occasional Papers. She is the author of Longing for the Endless Immensity: Reflection and Prayer for Living a Life That Matters (Sisters of IHM); With Jesus Today: A Contemporary Way of the Cross; According to Your Word: Daily Prayers for Advent, and In Your Kindness: Daily prayers for Lent. (Creative Communications for the Parish).

Her life has been deeply shaped by the power of words and images, by her passion for beauty and story, and by relationships with people on the margins. She currently serves as a writer, presenter, and spiritual guide through her Mobile Spirituality Ministry.