Monday, February 13, 2017

Phrases of the Heart

Dear Friends,

We’ve been so serious lately as a nation (and rightly so), but on this day before Valentine’s Day, let’s be playful. Instead of an essay, I invite you to think about phrases of the heart. Think about them, add to them, let them be part of your conversation and prayer over these days when we celebrate the faithfulness of the human and work to overcome the vagaries of the heart. Ready?

Happy heart / big-hearted / heavy-hearted / warmhearted / dear heart / lose heart / stouthearted / brave-hearted / heart and soul / heartache / heart to heart talk / sweetheart / cold-hearted / my heart melted / open your heart / bottom of my heart / heartbeat away / close to my heart / broken heart / you’re all heart (and of course, hearts of palm and celery hearts.) OK, now let’s get serious.

Jesus is described as a man of heart. Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart (Mt. 11.29). My heart is moved with pity for the crowd (Mk.8.2). He was well aware of what is in the human heart (Jn.2.25). My heart is filled with sorrow (Mk.14.34). In Matthew, My Heart is nearly broken with sorrow.

And sadly, it is said of Judas that immediately after the Passover meal, “Satan entered his heart.” (Jn. 13.27). Better to remember Mary, who reflected on all that had happened in her heart (Lk.2.19) and who heard from Simeon that her heart would be pierced (Lk2.35).

The Scriptures also describe what our hearts are to be like. Love the Lord with your whole heart. (Mt.22.37) Remember that where your treasure is so is your heart (Mt. 6.21). Paul invites us to set our hearts on greater gifts (1Cor.12.31). He also tells us that the Holy Spirit will stand guard over our hearts and mind (Phil.4.7). The psalms remind us to give thanks to God with all our hearts (Ps.9.2) and to pray for a steadfast heart (Ps.57.8).

And here’s a whole set of beliefs and conclusions and turns of phrase collected from human wisdom or human folly about the human heart: The heart does not always have its way. Our hearts can change. The heart takes risks. Communities as well as individuals have heart. Only the heart can forgive. The longest distance is from the head to the heart. God can fix a human heart if we give God all the pieces. The heart is where we suffer.

Today, as the work of the day continues, as we meet people, perform whatever life tasks are assigned to us or which we voluntarily take on, as we eat and drink and love and explore the world, as we suffer whatever pain is uniquely ours, let us try to be wholehearted and single-hearted. Even when we are restless or anxious or subject to envy or rejection, when we seek God today, we shall find God (Jer.29.13). Count yourself among the believers who were of one heart and one mind (Acts.4.32).

May what you have heard from the beginning remain in your hearts (Jn.2.24).

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Culture of Non-violent Resistance

Dear Friends,

Non-violent protests have taken place across the country and elsewhere in the world since President Trump’s inauguration, even to this weekend. In themselves, such protests are a powerful symbol of solidarity and resistance to perceived injustice. Otherwise seemingly ordinary people are moved to act in extraordinary ways, convinced that human problems can be solved without violence. A movement, which began to rise as seemingly isolated instances in the last century, continues to be treasured, and repeated, albeit in new ways. We not only see it, we recognize it as holy. It’s ours to carry on for the sake of life.

One remarkable instance of non-violent resistance in Nazi Germany has been told by a man named Nathan Stolzfus. He reports that a thousand women demonstrated before the Rosenstrasse Detention Center in Berlin, demanding the release of their Jewish husbands who had been arrested by the Gestapo. The women were defiant, refusing to disband. After three days, the Gestapo released the men. Almost all of them survived the war. The women’s resistance had been both powerful and successful.

Non-violent resistance ultimately led to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. True, there have been violent demonstrations since then, even into this century, but the non-violent protest was rising to the level of conviction in the lives of Americans and many people around the world.

The United Nations unanimously declared the first decade of the 21st century to be the “Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.” At times, popular movements have been violent, but what is exposed to the world in such violence is the incredibility of violent regimes who don’t understand that violence is self-defeating. People want peace. The gateway to peace is non-violence. The cessation of hostility and genuine reconciliation are ways to peace, and nothing less will do. We ourselves have to make the choice to be non-violent.

In 1999, I was in Selma for the 35th anniversary of the March to Montgomery which had ended in violence just over the Edmund Pettis Bridge. That anniversary day, while waiting in the streets for the event to begin, many original marchers told bits and pieces of what happened as they went through last minute preparations for the 1964 march: Keep your hands in your pockets. Look forward. Don’t provoke anyone. “Yes,” an ardent civil rights youth had called out, “what if someone hits me and I want to hit back?” “Then you don’t march!” shot back the organizer. It was more than a rule to follow. It was the hallmark of non-violent action on behalf of justice. Non-violence would eventually win in that call for justice.

Nowhere in the gospel does Jesus ever use or advocate violence. In the Garden of Gethsemane, not long before Jesus would die violently on the cross, Jesus said no to the use of violence by His followers. There, in the garden, Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave, Malchus (Jn 18.10). Jesus told Peter to put away his sword. When Luke reports this incident, Jesus heals the slave’s ear. (Lk 22.51.)

In these days, we turn to Jesus, the non-violent teacher of non-violence, to show us firm resistance without recourse to the sword or its contemporary counterpart.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, January 30, 2017

To Stay or To Go

Dear Friends,

Think Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. One day, Jesus asked Peter and his closest followers a vital question about staying with Him or leaving. Jesus had been talking about giving His flesh for them to eat and His blood to drink. His opponents pressed Him harder and harder about this unbelievable message. After hearing His words, some of Jesus’ disciples stopped walking with Him. “This is intolerable language,” they said. “How could anyone accept it?” (Jn.6. 60, 66)

Then Jesus turned to the Twelve. “What about you,” he asked. “Do you want to go away, too?” (Jn.6.67)

The ultimate decision: to stay with Christ or to leave Him. Peter then spoke and hopefully, we dare to make his words our own. “Lord, to whom shall we turn? You have the words of everlasting life. We have come to believe that You are the Christ, the Holy One of God.” (Jn. 6. 68)

The decision “to stay or to leave” looms before human beings of every age, nationality and outlook. People facing political unrest or change in their very nations ask themselves: Do I stay or leave? Refugees are crossing the world because of how they respond to that question. Married people, priests, members of religious orders, weighing personal needs and church developments ask: Do I stay or leave? Women who find resistance in the Church to our ministerial priesthood ask: Do I stay or do I leave? Workers in every field of human endeavor and expertise ask: Do I stay or do I leave? Stay in the field at all? Stay in the field here? Remember a few years ago, the sketch of the little girl, holding tight to the flags of the United Kingdom and England, while the flag of Scotland floated freely away? The caption read “Must you go?” Our questions of staying or going affect others, too. In consideration of them, we weigh our choices.

How do we deal with questions of leaving or staying as they rise in us? Surely it’s a question of judgment, values, convictions, of vision and hope. There is no absolutely right or wrong answer. But there are ways of weighing these questions with wisdom and insight.

I will stay, if there is more life than death in staying? I will stay, if I have something to offer and it can bear fruit? I will stay if there in me a sense of rightness about staying that I can’t shake?

Or I will go, if there is more death than life in staying. I will go, if there is nothing I have to offer that will bear fruit or if what I have to offer is unacceptable and cannot bear fruit. I will go if I believe that God bids me to go elsewhere.

Not very clear or measurable criteria are they? We can argue with them and create our own criteria.

Still, they are a start for our thinking and encouragement to face one of life’s more challenging questions. Who knows. Perhaps, up the road, clarity will confirm our decision and make firm our way.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

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