Monday, January 23, 2017

Being Open to the Chaos in Our Lives

Dear Friends,

Have you ever felt out of control? “Of course,” you may say. “Everyone feels out of control sometimes and I am no exception.”

Today, being out of control or perhaps, experiencing things being beyond our control is common. News events from around the world, the sports schedules of our children, favorite restaurants and meeting places closing unexpectedly, the next four years in our country are beyond our control.

About all of this, we can claim, “It’s chaotic!” We fear and abhor chaos and avoid it as much as possible. In our western, logical way of thinking, we believe that if we exert enough control, the chaos will go away. But it doesn’t. Chaos is a non-negotiable part of our times.                    

Indeed, it’s been part of our world from the beginning. Consider Genesis 1.1. “When God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the water…” Out of this formless void, this darkness, this seemingly lifeless place, God drew forth life. Out of chaos, life.

Once God created the universe, God did not control it with rigidity and totally unalterable predictability. Our God, even today, does not so control our world and our lives that there can be no exceptions, variations, subtleties, nuances and newness.

Today one of the newest understandings in science is called chaos theory. In essence, chaos theory says that small fluctuations lead to large scale transformations. In human life, small fluctuations here/now, lead to large scale transformations then/there. You and I can become other than we are at this moment by setting into motion the small changes that can take us to a new place – either to a better self, a better community, a better world, or to a place of destruction, darkness and despair.

The small changes we make are important when we make them, not out of a sense of controlling the future, but out of a sense of creativity. Jesus knew about control, chaos and creativity, although certainly not in those words. He knew he was not in control of his life, his call, his destiny. All of this belonged to His Father. “I have come to do the will of the one who sent me. (John 5.30)”

Jesus couldn’t control the way people responded to Him or rejected Him. He couldn’t control Judas or the rich young man who walked away or the nine lepers who didn’t come back to say “thank you.”

Things did not go Jesus’ way, but this lack of control didn’t stop him from being faithful to the end. His Father raised Him up from death – death, that ultimate lack of control. Jesus, our Brother and Lord, passed through chaos to a creative present. He lives with us now as our constant companion as we try to live in faith and hope and meet life’s uncertainties with a creative spirit.

Our God calls us, as our God called Jesus, to pay attention to the tiny insignificant things that may well play a major role in shaping our life and world – our own mustard seeds, our own leaven or the tiny supply of oil and flour that sustains us. When in these days of national change, we recognize that absolute control is not ours, we welcome the possibilities that chaos may be hiding, and we do what believers in God have always done, we go forward together.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, January 16, 2017

Reclaiming Our Sense of Belonging

Dear Friends,

The feasts of Christmas, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God and Epiphany saw church attendance spike, as it does on major holydays. People’s reasons for coming are many, and may even vary from time to time. After the holidays, people move on to other Sunday morning activities. They are gone.

Somehow, the fact that, from our Baptism, we have belonged to the Church and from our First Communion, we have belonged at the table escapes the Christmas/Easter (Chreaster) Catholic. The truths that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, that it is a meal of grace, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross made present and indeed, Christ’s Real Presence, are not enough to hold and sustain many of today’s Catholics. What keeps people away is not theology - not even belief. Adult Catholics, who have outgrown their childhood clothes, have also outgrown their childhood sense of Eucharist. Their interest has drifted away, is circumscribed by today’s culture and absorbed by today’s needs and desires.

Before even acquiring with an adult mind and heart the deep meanings of Eucharist, one needs to take small steps to reclaim our sense of belonging – like coming to Mass and sitting closer to the altar than is first appealing. Be attentive to the moment, to the people seated nearby. Pay attention to the flow of the liturgy: welcome, an all-embracing reconciliation and prayer. Listen to the readings and homily. Fix on one word, one phrase, one sentence to take home to feed on from time to time during the week. Pick up the hymnal and follow the hymn. Hymns are designed to speak to the heart. Say the Creed found in the front cover of the hymnal. The Creed puts believers in touch with the rich history of belief before our time and around us. Let the Eucharistic Prayer wash over you. Say the Our Father with openness. Greet others before coming to communion. Be aware of others doing the same. Receive communion and become what you receive. Be sent forth. The work of the Eucharist is intended to mix with your own work until the next time you come.

Becoming attentive to the depth of Eucharist takes effort, and time. It also means being willing to welcome such change in ourselves. Pope Francis, in his Epiphany homily this year, said that when we allow it, “holy longing for God” wells up in us. This longing for God, Pope Francis, went on, “shatters routines and impels us to change.” St. Augustine, in Book Seven of his Confessions, has Jesus say to the reader “I am the food of grown men and women. Grow, and you shall feed upon me. You will not change me into yourself, as you change food into flesh, but you will be changed into me.”

What God and the messengers of God say so often in the Scriptures, “Don’t be afraid.” Do not be afraid of what can happen when longing for God becomes real. Do not be afraid that your zest for life will be diminished or your loved ones will find you altered in an unwelcome way. God’s Eucharistic love offers believers no diminishment - only life restored, renewed, returned to your heart.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 6, 2017

Creating a Culture of Encounter

Dear Friends,

The Feast of the Epiphany is the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles – that is to say to the world at large. Three mysterious wise men from the East found their way to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus lived as an infant with Mary and Joseph. The story and the symbolism appeal to us: the star, the dream, the gifts, even to some extent, the daring of these figures to strike out into the unknown. They were, if we can use the analogy, the first Star-Trek team. They are a part of God’s love story with people. We are the reason he sent His Son; we are the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, Germans, Africans and Hispanics, Arabs, people from every country on earth. Epiphany is the Feast of God in Jesus holding us close. After the wise men left, the Holy Family took to the road, under the cover of darkness, to escape persecution.

The story of the Epiphany and the Flight into Egypt make us think of today’s people traveling away from persecution and helplessness toward safety and a new life. Their tragic stories fill our daily news, almost to the point where we can hardly tolerate the misery we see.

For nearly 50 years, the United States Bishops Conference (USCCB) has used the power of the biblical stories of the wise men and the flight into Egypt to put before us the circumstances confronting migrants, including immigrants, refugees, children and victims and survivors of human trafficking. Thomas Merton, who died long before our current human flight across continents, could reflect on the plight of these brothers and sisters in words that apply today. “With those for whom there is no room in the inn, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present to those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.”

Pope Francis calls us to create a culture of encounter and in so doing to look at and touch in some way the people moving across our world, to hear their stories and help however we can. “For me,” Pope Francis says, “the word is very important. Encounter with others. Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do as Jesus does: encounter others.”

We don’t have to go far to have such encounters. One night last week, some friends and I were having dinner in an Indian restaurant. We did what we always do: talk with the wait staff. That night, there were Afghani and Indians who brought bread and steaming hot food. But the person who caught our attention was a young woman from Nepal who told us pieces of her own story as she poured water and we prompted her to say more. Tearfully, she told of the mixed happiness of her marriage here to a man from Nepal and their ardent desire to go home. But there is no work for him there in his field.

Here’s another encounter you won’t want to miss – an Arab-American on a city street in the United States who writes a message for passersby to read and encounter him as he stands there vulnerable and deliberately blindfolded. Go to

Epiphany reveals to us that the unknown – that which we dare to encounter on our way to our destination – can hold God. May we have a year of openness to such touching encounters.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Start of a New Year

Dear Friends,

On this clean page of a new year, we can begin by thanking God for making it through another year and to ask God’s blessing on the year about to unfold, with all of its unknowns, and unexpected twists and turns. Sensing our need for affirmation, the designers of today’s readings and prayers have given us first of all, an ancient blessing from the Book of Numbers (6.24-26):

The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!

God stands with us at the head of this new year, encouraging us to live fully, faithfully and freely.

Two phrases from today’s Gospel from Luke offer us stepping stones into this unformed year:

Of the shepherds, the Gospel says they understood (Luke 2.17). Our yearlong work is to understand what we are called to be and do, to deepen ourselves as spiritual, loving people – people generous with strangers as well as loved ones. We are invited to understand ourselves as individuals, as family members and parts of a national and global society at a time when uncertainty about our national direction looms large. We are asked to cast around and see who is doing the work of building the reign of God and understand how we can join in to the benefit of our world.

Of Mary, the Gospel says she treasured these things and reflected on them in her heart (Luke 2.19). Our yearlong work is to search out the meaning of our lives – where we are going, what God speaks to us through ordinary voices. Let me give you an example of finding the treasures in the ordinary voices we hear. A friend of mine lost her father on her very birthday some years ago. We were talking about that day recently. How did you get through it, I asked. How does your Dad’s death on your birthday color your birthday each year?  She had a profound answer. A child in the class that she had taught the year before her father’s death had given her a homemade condolence card when he died. The child had written: “How lucky you are to have your Daddy meet God on your birthday. No one else can say this about their Dads.” The words worked for my friend. She has treasured this experience and has held it in her heart.

These three tasks are before us; to understand, to treasure and to reflect. That’s enough to fill the whole year.                                                        

And now, from my congregation to your heart, this blessing for the year stretching out before us:

May the God of Strength be with you and may you be the sacrament of God’s strength to the people whose hands you hold.

May the God of Peace be with you, stilling the heart that hammers with fear and doubt and confusion and helping you sow peace in the world.

May the God of Joy be with you. May you share joy with others, throughout the year.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Relishing the Christmas Possibilities

Dear Friends,

If children will be part of your Christmas, be glad, because the house will resound with laughter and shrieks of delight. Children revel in Christmas. They learn early on about the generosity of God who came to be one with us, teaching us in the way he was born about simplicity and making due with little. Children don’t watch the joy of Mary and Joseph, or the shepherds coming in from the fields. 
They participate in that joy. They get excited about gift giving. They learn to rely on family and parish traditions that create the aura of Christmas. But Christmas is not primarily for children. It is essentially for adults who are trying to make real in life the faith that beckons them to be one with God.

Have you seen the GE commercial about messy imagination being born? It’s immediately rejected on the streets, in shops and neighborhoods. Imagination sleeps near the dumpster because no one wants it. “Imagination,” the voice-over goes on, “is the natural enemy of the way things are.” So is Jesus. Jesus is the natural enemy of the status quo which denies that life could be better, which accepts that lives are going nowhere. Jesus is rejected by many, even as the fruit of imagination is rejected.

Imagination gives rise to hereto for unexpected possibilities.

That first Christmas was a birth of possibilities for all who surrounded Jesus. One day, because the Word became flesh, the lame would walk, the blind see, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. Love, justice and compassion would prevail. People’s lives would have new meaning. The ends of stories would be turned inside out. When Matthew and Luke wrote the Infancy Narratives, they weren’t writing for children, but rather for women and men who were struggling with the beliefs, attitudes and practices of faith. So too with us. We struggle with what the world calls us to and what Faith in God calls us to. These are not the same. But they need not be contrary to one another. After all, the only place we can live out our faith is in the life we live in this world, here and now.

Because Jesus came as one of us, Christmas encourages us to be aware of our capacity for change and growth. It’s all too easy to become creatures of habit and get stuck in our ways. It’s a challenge to start something new. I can’t is not a Christmas word. Of course you can. After all, didn’t God come to accompany us through the pages of the years.

What is still waiting to be born in us?
What talents have we neglected over the years?
What dreams of our childhood are still awaiting fulfillment?
How can we bring joy and greater life to those around us?

Because Jesus dared to be one with us, let’s let Christmas this year be a time for something wholly new to be born in us. Relish the Christmas possibilities. Christmas blessings to you and all you love.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, December 19, 2016

Untying the Knots in Our Lives

Dear Friends,

Some people find their stomachs in knots as Christmas draws near. The thought of being with certain relatives, the anxiety over whether gifts are well-chosen and well-received, the deadlines, the baking and travel…all part of life, and not just grist for advice columns in the newspaper.

As Matthew tells in the infancy narratives, Joseph was in knots over what he should do about his pregnant betrothed, Mary. The child she carried was not his. The text doesn’t say so, but I suspect Mary was in knots, too.

Pope Francis, then Father Jorge Maria Bergoglio, had been the provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina. The times were challenging, and when he was relieved of his duties, Father Bergoglio went off to Germany to continue his studies of chemistry, which had been his original area of expertise.

One day, Father Bergoglio happened to visit a church where he came upon a sculpture of Mary entitled “Mary, the Untier of Knots.” The sculpture indeed showed her untying the knots of a ribbon. The statue spoke to him personally, so he set out to find out more.

It seems that in the early 1700’s, a young German couple was struggling to keep their marriage alive. They prayed to Mary for guidance, and they did their share of the work. Eventually, they were able to reestablish their marriage in a warm, loving way. In gratitude they approached a sculptor named Johann Schmidtner. They told him their story and asked if he would create a statue of Mary that would symbolize their gratitude and portray the very real life situation in which they had found themselves. The statue spoke eloquently of Mary, the Untier of Knots.

Later, when Father Bergoglio returned as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he brought with his a replica of the original Mary, Untier of Knots, and placed it in the cathedral. People have come there in great numbers ever since to view this statue of Mary, that she might help untie the knots of their lives.

Afterwards, Archbishop Bergoglio wrote a reflection which gives us hope when we consider the messiness, the knots of our own lives.

“Mary is the mother who patiently and lovingly brings us to God, so that God can untangle the knots of our lives. She is our mother, but we can also say that she is our sister, our eldest sister.

Mary’s life was the life of a woman of her people. She prayed, she worked she went to synagogue. Mary lived her life in the thousand daily tasks and worries of every mother.

Mary is the prototype of all humans. She is the human mother, who had human wisdom, strength and faith that we should all try to emulate.

Mary is the friend who is ever concerned that wine is not lacking on our lives. She is the woman whose heart was pierced by a sword and who thus knows and understands our human pain.

As a mother of us all, she is a sign of hope, especially for people suffering the injustice, poverty, the loss of loved ones, separation and divorce.

To each of us she says, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Am I not here - I who am your mother?’”

Knots happen in life. But as Christmas comes, no one can take hope from us.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Genealogy of the Infancy Narratives

Dear Friends,

Where did you come from? What ethnic people, what language group? What qualities of mind, heart and spirit are in you (some would say in your gene pool) by virtue of their being cultivated, honored, practiced by others in your family at various times in history? says it can give you information to help fill in some of the gaps in your identity. But there’s more to the question of who we are and where we came from that is important at this time of year for all of us who are Christian. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we come face to face with what it means to say we are part of the family of God, Father/Mother, Word and Holy Spirit.

The Russian artist, Rublev, shows the viewer in his painting of the Holy Trinity, that there is a fourth seat pulled up at the table. For us. We are welcome at the table of the Trinity. We belong. We are the brothers and sisters of the Word Made Flesh, Jesus, Emmanuel, God – With-Us. His family is our family.

So let’s pause over something we usually skip as boring – the genealogy that begins the infancy narrative in Matthew 1.1 – 17, and the genealogy in Luke 3.23 – 38. Even though we often skip these passages, they offer the reader a human context into which we can situate Jesus and our own spiritual heritage.

Matthew’s Infancy Narratives can be described as a bridge between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The first thing Matthew tells us is that Jesus can be traced through Joseph back to Abraham. One notable point about Matthew’s genealogy is that four women are included. Not all were seemingly “pure.” Tamar tricked her father-in-law, Judah, into her bed. Rahab was a prostitute who saved Jesse and his colleagues from death in Jericho. Ruth was a poor foreigner. Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, when she came together with David. These four all bore sons. There’s more to their stories, of course, but in fact, these four women were counted as important in the lineage that led to Jesus.

Luke places his genealogy of Jesus immediately after the baptism of Jesus. It’s shorter, includes no women and traces Jesus back through history to Seth, Adam and ultimately, God.
In our belonging to the family of God, the Israelites, Hebrews, Jews are part of our spiritual history. That means that we ought to be ready for an immense spiritual gathering for Christmas, for these people will be there as well as our own families of origin going back as far as we can trace them. Christmas is a celebration of mutual belonging: God with us, we with God, we with one another from time immemorial. This Christmas, think big.

~~~Continuing from last week our list of people to cherish during Advent as God cherishes us:

Dec. 12 world delegates to the United Nations   Dec. 13 the visually impaired and their supporters     Dec. 14 those newly  elected  to serve                  Dec. 15 children dying of malnutrition                         
Dec. 16 retail clerks                                                   Dec. 17 prisoners on death row
Dec. 18 the people of Haiti

~ Sister Joan Sobala