Friday, December 8, 2017

Finding Our Desert

Dear Friends,

How are you doing with Advent so far this year? One woman told me during this last week that she felt pulled between her desire to use December as a season of anticipating Christmas and the anticipated celebration of Christmas in our culture. Christmas celebrations are in abundance. Too much too soon.

To make space for Advent in our life, we need to develop a desert mentality. That is, a place we go in our minds and hearts, to a space in our homes set aside for our God-times, to meet God and be renewed. At its worst, deserts are dangerous, inhospitable lonely places. But deserts are also places where we can be, grow, assess, wonder, be tested, encounter God. Jesus did it. So did John the Baptist before him.

Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist in the desert. He is the voice in the wilderness calling his hearers to prepare the way of the Lord. His words echo the words of Isaiah to prepare the way of the Lord. Later, Jesus would say of John that “history has not known a man born of woman greater than John.” That’s quite a tribute.

John not only spent years of preparing the way of the Lord in the desert, the desert remained for him – an interior wilderness that threatened to overwhelm him. It would have been easy for him to die believing himself a failure, since he saw no satisfying completion of his work. The Messiah who came, his very cousin, was embarrassingly unlike the one he had preached about. Yet Jesus was attractive and John watched many of his followers leave him to follow Jesus. John was left to wonder if Jesus was the one to come or should he look for another. John was killed for the price of a dance, his head cut off at Herod’s command.

We experience our own wilderness or desert in the biblical sense – a place of testing where the integrity of our soul is tried, where the fabric of family life is stretched to near tearing, where communities are tried by tragedy and challenges to human values. It is within our modern wilderness experiences that the salvation promised by our God comes. The voice of God speaks to us out of the wilderness of illness or accidents, wildfires, the wilderness of a destructive relationship with a spouse, children, friends or employer, the wilderness of a moral wrongdoing, depression, loneliness, war or business noise, the wilderness of working for justice and peace in a less than conscious, less than welcoming world. This list is not exhaustive. There are other desert places also that endanger and frighten us.

But it is also here in our own deserts that we find the comfort of God. Think back to Jesus’ own temptations in the desert, they were overcome and then there was joy. Joy happens in our life when the wilderness has not overcome us, when we reach quenching waters and find them not a mirage, but real.

This week, as with John the Baptist, we come to recognize our own personal wildernesses or the deserts of our society and world, we can take heart. God is with us in the desert.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, December 1, 2017

Our Advent Door

Dear Friends,

By the time you read this you will have opened and closed any number of doors today. To open and close a door is an easy, natural, unthinking act – unless we’ve forgotten our key or our arms are too full to manage it.

Doors are an integral part of life. They provide access, offer privacy and protection from violent weather or thieves. Doors are also instruments of power. We can shut people out or let them in.

Advent is a season for opening some doors and closing others. It is a time to open the door to a deeper, stronger relationship with the Holy One, to open our hearts to others in friendship and reconciliation – to open our minds to new attitudes and practices that birth a future full of hope.

There’s a well-known painting by Warner Sallman, which shows Jesus, standing at the door and knocking. If we take a good look at the door in the picture, we see no knob on the outside. That door – and by extension – the door of the human heart can only be opened from within.

The work of Advent is to open the door of our lives to anew. When the knock comes, we react in different ways. We may be cautious, curious to see who is there, irritated to be interrupted, ashamed that our house is not in order. We may be curt at the door, guarded, fearful, elated. Or we may ignore the knock completely. “Go away, God! I don’t want to see you today!”

You may think that this idea of opening some doors and closing others is a mild-mannered, ineffectual approach to Advent. But let’s think about two doors to close which entail personal discipline and hard work.

Close the door to noise, even briefly every day and welcome quiet to let the hidden gifts of the season seep into our consciousness. Be with the silence. Well, OK, you might say, but what will I say to God? Say “Come, Lord Jesus,” or maybe say nothing at all. Let God speak to your heart.

Close the door to violence. Isaiah in today’s first reading offers us the appealing image of beating our swords into ploughshares, i.e. giving up violence and creating peace. Some video games, movies, brawls at sporting events, wars across the world hold up violence for us to feast on vicariously. Say no to violence in word, deed and what we absorb.

Be like Mary who opened the door of her very self to the messenger of God. Be like Joseph who opened himself up to God’s call in dreams. Be like Jesus, who is the key to all life – our very own future.

Without drawing anyone’s notice, we can let the physical doors we open and close throughout the day remind us that our daily comings and goings are opportunities to meet and welcome God in others.

The key is in the lock. The divine visitor is at our Advent door. We need only open it wide with our welcome.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Truth

Dear Friends,

There was a long Old Testament history of awaiting the king of the Jews. The waiting continued into the New Testament as seen in all four Gospel accounts. The question of the expected King’s coming is brought to the fore when Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the king of the Jews?” In John’s Gospel, Jesus and Pilate have a particularly sharp and extended interchange about the meaning of Jesus’ kingship. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the awaited king, Jesus responds: “my kingdom does not belong to this world.” Pilate pounces: “Then you are a king.” Jesus replies: “You say that…For this was I born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.” There it is. Jesus’ kingship is rooted in and brings forth truth.

We could talk about the feast of Christ the King using the passages given in the lectionary for this cycle, but because we live in a time when truth-telling is a challenge in our country, it seemed appropriate to talk about Jesus and the truth he came to bring. In our everyday world, there is illusion and there is truth. Illusion in our day has a partner called fake news. Truth is confounded by the political and cultural front.

Soon, we will be caught up in the illusion of Christmas: the perfectly decorated home, the Christmas meal that rivals the best of Food Network chefs, and all those gathered around the table are polite and engaged. Not quite our experience is it? In fact, at its deepest level, Christmas is the beginning of Christ’s presence in our world which helps us see through the illusions that the myth-makers create. The disciples of Christ strive to be truth-tellers and truth-seekers.

We sometimes nibble around the edges of the truths and commitments of life. Sexual predators, and sometimes seemingly happily married men and women cast an eye around for someone else to attract. We are tempted to cheat at work, at school. We lead ourselves to believe that lying gets us off the hook or that, in the face of some responsibilities, “if I don’t want to I don’t have to.”

Jesus says to Pilate and to us: “if you belong to the truth, you will listen to my voice.” In order to listen to the voice of Jesus, we have to still the many voices that clamor for our attention, who offer their own versions of truth. Humanly speaking, it hurts when we don’t live the truth or tell the truth to someone we love. It can make our bodies ache. Moreover, we send mixed messages which can be confusing for the other person and our relationship can weaken or collapse.

People know when things get muddled, when we don’t abide in truth with love. They can’t be fooled. The most important day in our life may be when we tell the truth and live with its consequences.

Going back to Pilate, his name has been known to us for over 2000 years – associated as he is with the trial and death of Jesus. Pilate’s best gift to us is his question, which needs to become our question: What is truth? What is Jesus’ truth? What is our own truth as disciples of the Lord?

Good question for ourselves and for our church to end one liturgical year and begin another next week.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Giving Thanks

Dear Friends,

You and I have Thanksgiving on our minds this week: plans, memories and expectations about who we will be with and what that will be like.

One difference between a shallow and heartfelt anticipation of Thanksgiving depends on what we find ourselves grateful for, and the essential place of God in our gratitude. We have been told and may believe that God is the giver of all good gifts, but at a practical everyday level, we prefer to say, with our culture “mine and no one else’s.” It is simply hard to conceive that nothing is ours by right – not our talents, our so-called entitlements, our education, our family. I hope that when we encounter others we do say “They too are gifted.” For, so they are, to the glory of God, and the benefit of us all.

Here’s an exercise that I am going to do this week, and I invite you to do likewise. Print off this blog and for the list below, name people you know, personally or by reputation, world figures and people of history who fit these categories for which we can give thanks to this week:
  • Creators of beauty 
  • People who empower others to grow 
  • Teachers of wisdom 
  • Memory keepers 
  • Questioners of things taken for granted 
  • Seekers of justice and peace 
  • God revealers 
  • Harvesters of food and goodness 
  • People who make us laugh 
  • Installers of foundations 
  • Consensus builders 
  • Interpreters of history 
  • Givers of legacies in society, church and family 
  • Meaning makers 
  • Reconcilers 
  • Animators of delight in all good things 
  • Celebrators of God’s creation 
  • Those who offer vision and hope 
  • Those who accompany us in faith and mission 
  • Those who create or enhance sacred spaces 
  • Those who reveal the contradictions in our public and cultural life 

Remember the man whom Jesus cures of demons in Mark 5. 1 – 20? Once cured, the man wanted to follow Jesus, but Jesus tells him to go home! Go home to your family and friends and neighbors. Make it clear to them how much God has done for you.

Soon, it will be time to gather perhaps for Mass, meals, football, long walks, card games, conversations and relaxation. Figure out ways to have a short or long sharing of all the good gifts, especially the people with whom we have been graced. Share in some way, like the man Jesus cured, how much good God has done for you. Most especially, throughout the day, let there be a whisper of new realizations of gratitude to God in our hearts.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 10, 2017

"That They May Be One in Us"

Dear Friends,

A friend recently loaned me Jodi Picoult’s latest book, Small Great Things. It’s the story of Ruth Walker, a licensed labor and delivery nurse and Turk Bauer, a skinhead whose son dies in the hospital shortly after birth. Turk blames Ruth and a court case ensues in which Ruth is tried for murder. The significant part of the book for me is the daily, sometimes subconscious, racism that pervades the culture as seen in many of the characters in the book. Racism lives in America today.

While Small Great Things ends with a degree of resurrection, not all stories of racism end that way. Hatred has reared its ugly head in Charlottesville, Charleston, Dallas, New York and other cities. The list goes on. Do we feel hopeless in the face of the American tragedy of racism or do we take small great steps at a personal level to examine and root our racism in ourselves and our environment?

Cardinal Donald Woerl of Washington, D.C. recently released a pastoral letter to his archdiocese that’s good for all of us to read. He notes that “without a change in the basic attitude of the human heart, we will never move to a level of oneness that accepts each other for who we are and the likeness we share as images of God” – a contemporary way of expressing Jesus’ own words “That they may be one in us.”

Pope Francis continues by urging us to “combine our efforts in promoting a culture of encounter, respect, understanding and mutual forgiveness.”

The work is ours, but how do we do it? How about gathering some people together for a reading of Small Great Things, with an emphasis on seeing into the characters what we ourselves have said, done, ignored, encouraged? If not this book, surf the web and find a video to view and discuss, or go to a talk or a workshop that gets at the heart of the fact that hatred destroys the hater as well as the hated one. Exploring racism together helps keep us on point. 

The work of overcoming racism at a personal level requires the awareness and compassion of all of us who live in a self-centered culture. The current phrase is that “we need to get out of our comfort zone.” Only then, do truth and unity have a chance to ripen in us.

When faced with the world’s most awful problems, I often think of the symbol of the Easter candle from which our baptismal candle was lighted. It is by that candle – the Light of Christ – that we see into ourselves and around ourselves. Stand next to that candle in your imagination, close your eyes and be in the Godspace where you can see the procession of people coming to that candle. They are black, red, yellow, brown and white skinned. They come from Mongolia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Bronx. They stand at the borders of countries and at the edge of slums in Chicago and Sao Paulo. If God is for them, how can we be against them?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 3, 2017

Crossing the Threshold

Dear Friends,

I want us to think about death, yet death is the most ignored reality in our thinking, shoved into some box in the attic of our minds. We ignore it – yet death is never far from our consciousness and a frequent experience in our lives.

We experience the death of childhood dreams, the death of innocence when we first become aware of evil and the hurt we inflict on others. We experience the death of expectation, the departure of friends, the wind-up of our working days. All sorts of death.

We nod at the death of world figures and multitudes of anonymous people whose deaths take up three seconds on the news. Death plays a daily role in the movies, in books and on TV. Death surrounds us. Then comes the day when we are told yes, you have cancer; yes, illness will sap your energies and limit your future. Or we are in an accident that was a millisecond from taking our life.

We do get fearful when death draws close – our own or that of loved ones. Then some of us dare to reach out for faith and try to wrap it around us:
                If God is for us, who can be against us?
                If we have died with Christ, we believe we shall also live with him.
                Christ has conquered death. Of whom shall I be afraid?
After Lazarus died and Jesus finally got there, Jesus told Martha “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Martha replied on behalf of us all, “Yes, Lord. I do believe.”

If we let it, the Word flows over us in our fears, washing them away, so we dare to sing: “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears from death into life.”

A friend of mine lost her husband two years ago. Since then grief has been the lens through which she has viewed daily life, although she hid it well. On the phone the other day, she said “Last night I talked with God about how I am living. Then I stopped talking and listened to God. God said. Live!”

Yes, live. We’ve just passed All Souls Day, the feast of the tenacity of life. The ones who have gone on before us are both with God and with us still. As one of our loved ones dies, both they and we cross a threshold – they to eternal life with God, we to life without their daily, tangible presence. At what threshold am I now standing? What am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? “Crossing a threshold is always a challenge. It calls for courage, and a sense of trust in whatever is emerging” (John O’Donohue).

In these days when death asks for our attention, will we trust God enough to believe in life, given and exchanged for new life?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Light Within Us

Dear Friends,

I am glad to live with Sister Melissa Gernon, the second grade teacher at Nazareth Elementary School. I watch her often, evenings, as she prepares for the next day or the next week or the next season. Melissa is avid about helping seven-year-olds make the connection between the things they love and enjoy in life and the God who holds them close. So in my personal Halloween file now, I have a cut out pumpkin that one of her children colored. On the back it says:

Being a Christian is like being a pumpkin.
God picks you from the patch, brings you in, washes all the dirt off of you.
God opens you up and scoops out all the yucky stuff, including the seeds of doubt, hate, greed, etc.
Then God carves you a new smiling face and puts His light inside you
To shine for all the world to see.

How much we need the light is a matter of fact. In these days when nights are getting longer, we find people stringing up “winter lights.” We used to call them Christmas lights, but the need to light up the darkness presses us to string up our outdoor lights long before the Christmas season is upon us.

The word “dark” is more and more often used to describe the times in which we live. We know we need light to find our way through the darkness that threatens us spiritually, culturally and morally. But where do we find it and can we trust it? In the saints of our world. They are God’s beacon through the darkness.

Paul, the lead character in Michael Malone’s short story “First Lady” is mulling over saints as he sips his Guinness: “...saints are people the light shines through. Not just the famous saints…but the everyday saints around us in the world. Light shines through them and illuminates what they see. The light goes right through to what they love so that we can see its beauty. They don’t get that way because they’re looking to…”

Saints are not self-centered people who muster up light to impress others. No. Saints illumine the world, because they live common lives and do common things with uncommon generosity. They practice a little restraint and a little courage. Saints take God more seriously and themselves less so. They care for others and treat them with dignity. Saints take hope by the hand and never let it go.

When each of us was baptized, our own baptismal candle was lighted from the Pascal Candle, which is the premier Easter Vigil symbol of Christ’s Resurrection. With that light, we saw enough to make choices that would be important for our lives. With that light, we help illuminate the lives of others. With that light, we have come to this day. The light of Christ will never waver. Never go out.

Why should we fear the darkness? The light that guides us is within us, pumpkins that we are.

~Sister Joan Sobala