Friday, September 14, 2018

Making Room for God

Dear Friends,

We are never finished working and reworking the relationships of our lives. The ones that endure for a good part of our lifetimes are great treasures. In other relationships, one or the other party, or perhaps both recognize that they might go on together for a while and eventually, each person will go on without the other.

And then there is our relationship with God. Before we came to be, God knew us when we were being made in secret (Psalm 139). After that the ball is in our court. The primary task of our life is to “do the work” so that we abide in God and God in us. Wait a minute, you might say, God always abides in us and we in God. True. But what human life requires for growth toward being our most complete selves is that we work to raise to the conscious level what is unconscious, assumed, taken for granted, expected but not named. It is hard work to grow in God and to recognize that God grows in us, since our minds are spilling over with contemporary information and our feet take us 10,000 steps a day in a multitude of responsibilities, wants and needs.

How do we enlarge ourselves so that the God who is with us and in us is not a stranger, a shadow, a backdrop for our life? How can God become our acknowledged awesome other, companion and friend?

Here are a few hints:

1. Become as empty of clutter as possible. A daunting task, I agree, but essential. Paul calls this work self-emptying. Jesus did it (Philippians 3). We may like our clutter, but then there’s no room for The Other. Something has to go. Maybe for two or three or five minutes a day, at first, but then in longer periods. Two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. We know this from our high school physics. Mindfulness or meditation can help achieve this emptiness – an emptiness which prepares us to receive God.

2. Become as open as possible to God’s embrace. Not just presence, embrace. God holds us all the time, and we can honor the embrace of our abiding God as it becomes more clear to us. The spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, writing in The Divine Dance, says: “…by yourself: you do not know how to desire God, you don’t know where to look, you don’t know what to look for, you don’t know what God’s name is, you don’t know God’s shape, you originally don’t know God’s energy. You will almost always look in the wrong places. Just beautiful sunsets and not the cracks in the sidewalk. Just weddings and funerals and not the laundry room.” This leads to a third point.

3. Ask God to enlighten you. God’s Spirit knows how, and in our world are people who can help us “read” and interpret God’s movements within us. Who are these people? Spiritual directors and professional religious, for sure, but also some of our neighbors, coworkers and friends once we drop them a word that connects us at this deep level. God leads us to those who can help. Be ready to engage them.

4. Start now. The God who abides with us and in us has the gift of closeness to give us in abundance. We can be sure of it!

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 7, 2018

Be Opened

Dear Friends,

Today I am thinking of a man who will never be remembered in Jim Memmott’s Democrat & Chronicle column about Remarkable Rochesterians. His name was Bernard Aloysius O’Byrne. Bernie’s funeral was held 30 years ago last weekend at the then Corpus Christi Church.

As a child, Bernie was judged to be one of those people who would never amount to much in life. In some bystanders, that conviction grew over the years. Bernie was a stutterer – and in a less patient, less accepting time, people put stutterers in a category all their own. Bernie was also an alcoholic, although eventually a recovering one. No one knows when or why he came to Rochester, but he spent his last 28 years here, washing dishes, going to AA meetings and using his personal money to help AA folks. Bernie died at Isaiah House, without money, without friends, without family, without any apparent success to mark his efforts. At the end of the funeral liturgy, the ushers took up a collection to send Bernie O’Byrne’s remains back to Carbondale, PA for his burial. He had hoped to rest in his family’s burial site. Now his wish would be granted.

Seven-hundred people came to Bernie’s funeral – people whom Bernie had touched, largely through AA. He had inspired, cajoled, championed, humored AA members to stay in their recoveries, to rebuild their lives and not be ashamed of illness of any kind.

These 700 people are a local living example of what James says in today’s second reading. They respected Bernie for who he was. Neither poverty, nor alcoholism, nor a speech impediment prevented them from honoring this man in death because he had touched them in life. Bernie was among the beloved of God.

Bernie was never cured of his stuttering. His mouth was never opened in the way you or I think valuable and necessary. But he was opened in a different way. God had brought about in Bernard Aloysius O’Byrne’s life a reversal of circumstances according to God’s design, not ours.

There is something especially poignant about the sensitivity of Jesus in healing the deaf – mute in today’s Gospel. Jesus drew him away from the crowd to save him embarrassment. As the deaf-mute watched, Jesus spat on the ground to communicate his intention to heal. In those days, spittle was understood to be curative. Jesus touched the man’s eyes and tongue. Among the Mediterranean people, the mouth and ears allowed for the heart’s expression. Jesus looked up to heaven in order to indicate that he acted in union with God. And the man – a foreigner – was made whole. “Ephphatha! Be opened!” Jesus said to him. Jesus cured this man, but not every sick person He met. It is the reversal that’s important – and the gateway to reversal for Bernie and for each of us is Ephphatha! Be opened!

In our personal lives, Ephphatha can mean be open to recognizing and dismantling the fears that keep us from speaking the truth in love, be opened to new and deeper experiences which can be ours if we stop living on the surface of life, be opened to the heritage of our families and church, open to a God who offers limitless hope instead of hopeless limits. Ephphatha! Be opened!

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Laboring for the Fruits of the Land

Dear Friends,

Last weekend I was at Mass at St. Mary’s in Canandaigua, where the homilist for the weekend was Deacon George Dardess. George was there to thank the community for its efforts in helping sustain the migrant community centered in Marion, and to encourage continued support. He told a story about his first time going out to harvest an onion field with a group of migrants. Once there, they asked him, “Where are your gloves?” George didn’t even know he was supposed to wear gloves. The men huddled. Then they came up with a clever solution. One left handed worker would lend George his right glove and a right handed worker would give George his left glove. The work commenced. George never forgot the migrants’ care for him, their novel approach to problem-solving, and their dedication to getting the job done. These unlettered men were workers in the spirit of God.

Work is a big, ever ancient, ever new topic. It is first of all, an extension of God’s creative and redeeming action. We are creative workers in our own right and at the same time, cooperators with God in the work of sustaining, building, renewing and rebuilding our world. So in a very real sense, our work – whatever it is – belongs in the context of friendship, community, faith, education, play and celebration. Whoever we are, we work together with and for others and we benefit from their talents and daily labors.

Our work does not define us, although we sometimes let it, especially if we believe we have an “important job.” But all jobs are important. In an age when the human race is moving toward greater technological sophistication, people will have to rethink and revalue both who we are and what our work means. Some works are ageless, others are time limited. We need wisdom to know the difference.

Everywhere, in whatever career, vocation, profession, service, trade, or ministry we find ourselves, we are not alone in our efforts, successes or defeats. People labor across the world for the fruits of the land, for the advancement of culture, for better life for all.

This Labor Day, so significant in terms of the labor movement in our country, let us pledge to shape work in a meaningful and ennobling way. As the writer Simone Weil reminds us, work has a spiritual nature. Action based on this realization needs to be released in us.

With this world view, and God as our model of work, let’s celebrate one another this holiday!

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, August 24, 2018

Nurturing the Hearts of Our Children

Dear Friends,

Pope Francis is in Ireland this weekend. One of his reasons to be there is to call attention to and celebrate families at the World Meeting of Families. Since 1994, the Vatican Office for Laity, Family and Life has gathered people in various parts of the world in support of family life – to repeat and renew the love of Christ for families throughout the world.

Families have been very much in the news during these last few years: refugee families, immigrant families, families uprooted from their homes by war. So many. So tragic. Yet, Jesus continues to say about the children of these families – indeed, all families, “Let them come to me” (Mark 10.14). Rather than focus on the dark side of family life, let’s take a few moments before the new school season begins to recommit ourselves to love our children in the Spirit of Christ, and help our children to grow in every way they possibly can.

I live with Sister Melissa Gernon, a talented second grade teacher at our Congregation’s Nazareth Elementary School. This school, like other schools, is full of talented, intense, challenged, funny, curious children. Recently, Nazareth has put its creative energies into an international strategy to help the children grow. Called the Nurtured Heart Approach, this dynamic process was developed by child specialist Howard Glasser, founder of the Children’s Success Foundation. One school out west writes on its website that through using the Nurtured Heart Approach, its goal is “to build inner wealth, to transform what children believe about themselves and give them abundant evidence that they are valuable, good, competent and able to cope and succeed in life.”

Teachers can’t do this work alone. They need the partnership of parents, grandparents, other family members, and neighbors.

Children are elusive. They push our buttons. They don’t necessarily trust adults. They recognize when we are more interested in our tech toys than in them. What was there about Jesus that drew them to Him? Did they see His focus on them, His interest and encouragement?

As our kiddos get ready to go off to school, what will we do? Will we breathe a sigh of relief that they will be gone during the day? Or will we nurture their hearts? And if we are Christian, will we nurture the virtues in them? Will we recognize and tell them we see the kindness they exhibit, the hopefulness with which they live, the love with which they treat the bullied child in their class? Will they recognize our sincerity when we praise them? Will they find in us models to emulate?

Even if we don't have children of our own, we are all part of various groups which include children. Will Christ’s love for them shine in us?

As schools open, will we make every effort to nurture children?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Bread of Life

Dear Friends,

Remember that in John’s gospel, there is no narrative of the institution of the Eucharist at the last supper. Instead, John tells how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples after the meal. John’s point Service of others is indispensable to partaking in the Eucharistic meal. But earlier in his gospel, John devotes the whole of Chapter Six to a dialogue about Jesus self-giving as the Bread of Life. Jesus, his opponents and his disciples all weigh in. For a whole month of Sundays this summer, our Gospel is the continuous reading of this discourse, ending next Sunday.

The claims and promises of Jesus had aroused cynicism, ridicule and contempt among Jesus’ opponents. “This sort of talk is hard to endure,” the people said. Many of them left, some of them sad. They must have wished that Jesus had not said what he did. Now they had to make a choice – and some could not accept the reality of what Jesus was offering.

The close followers of Jesus had perhaps had their share of drifting, being complacent or self-assured about Jesus and his self-giving. Now they had to choose. “Do you want to leave me, too?” Jesus asked them.

It’s a wonderful thing about Jesus that he is not insecure. He permits his disciples to make choices about staying or going. But even though he left people free to choose, Jesus himself did not back down from what his critics called his “hard sayings.” He didn’t say: “You misunderstand me. I was only speaking in symbols. Let me say it another way.”

Jesus meant what he said and said what he meant. And then he waited for his disciples to respond.

He waits for us, too.

Over the years, some of us have indeed gone away…gone away from Christ or at least from the Church as we have known it or believe it to be. Perhaps at some point, the fragile bud of faith, the enthusiasm of our service, our sense of belonging to the church was crushed. Maybe we found the church forbidding, unyielding, unloving and have walked out the door. Or maybe one Sunday we got up to go to church and we just didn’t go. After that it became easy not to go. Others of us may have been drifting in our church without really making a commitment. Maybe our minds and hearts have gone away, but our feet still bring us here.

Today, God calls us to take a second look – not at what we think the church is, but at who Jesus is and what he calls us to be. Some of us can claim that we have never gone away. We are, nonetheless, not exempt from Jesus’ question, but are called to change, deepen, grow stronger in our faith convictions.

No matter where we are vis-a-vis God and church, when we can’t find words to respond to the God who asks us, "Will you stay or will you go away?” we can at least borrow the words of Peter to make our own and say over and over again: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Your words are the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Assumption of Mary

Dear Friends,

Wednesday our Church celebrates the Assumption of Mary.

The date, the feast, its meaning can easily escape us. What does this feast say about Mary? What does it have to do with my life? More than we think.

It’s a feast of homecoming. Mary believed in the promises of God, among which is Eternal Life. She waited long to go home to God. Joseph died too soon, and much to her pain, Jesus too died. Joyously, He was raised up and ascended to be home with God. All her life, Mary prayed the Psalms of her people and wondered, “When will I come to the end of my pilgrimage and enter into the presence of God?” (Ps.42). Her life, tucked away in obscurity as she aged, gave way to newness. She was taken up whole and entire. Someday it will be thus with us as well.

It’s a feast that recognizes that the whole human person is worthy of being taken up. Mary is the first. We will all follow. One day, our entire body, soul, spirit, memory, thought, consciousness will be taken up. With God, we can expect nothing less.

It is a feast that honors our bodies as part of our redeemed whole. It’s good to remind ourselves that human bodies are good and redeemed, even as our souls and spirits are redeemed: our bodies, the bodies of our family members, babies, loved ones, wrinkled bodies that assume character with length of years, women’s bodies, men’s bodies, bodies that don’t seem to work very well, young and energetic bodies. They are all worthy of honor.

Contrast this way of thinking and living with the dishonor with which we see human bodies treated in our world today: carnage, pornography, sex slavery, the abuse of women, children and the unborn. Some people live as though human bodies are throwaways, worthless, “collateral damage” for our use and abuse, to make money and gain power. People in the world over could turn this feast into an affirmation of the body’s holiness, goodness. Wouldn’t it make a wondrous difference if this could become a lasting, absorbing world view?

It is a feast that proclaims that life is without end. We put closure on our conversation, conferences, business dealings, and sometimes on our relationships. The opposite of closure is “without end.” We say, “I will love you forever (beyond death).” We pray to one God, world without end. There was no closure in the life of Mary. No closure in our lives, either.

Today, set aside whatever ordinarily absorbs you and focus your attention on the homecoming of Mary. Let your mind and heart soar to the great beyond. Let’s thank God for Mary’s life without end. Let’s think of our own future without end. Let’s enjoy this holyday when we celebrate Christ’s victory writ large in His Mother.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Purpose of Prayer

Dear Friends,

Last weekend, the columnist Leonard Pitts wrote in the Democrat and Chronicle Newspaper about prayer. The takeoff for his column was the request for prayer by one of the hostages held by a gunman at an LA Trader Joe’s and the negative tweets in response by an Australian woman called "Elizabeth Post."

Of the many ways we can talk about prayer, here are a few to add to your own thinking.

Prayer is the name we give to the way we communicate with God. The purpose of prayer is not to call God’s attention to our needs or to change God’s mind. Prayer is asking that we see things as God sees them. Prayer changes us, not God. Many of us learned to pray as children. Some of us have moved on from the limitations of children’s prayer and have begun to pray as adults who engage God in a growing relationship. Some of us have continued to limit our prayer to an expression of our needs and wants, both every day and in desperate moments. There’s certainly room in our prayer to include these needs. We might also dare to venture into a deeper way of being with God.

The Scriptures invite us to call God our strength, our rock, the source of our being, our beckoner, our light. God accompanies us through life and when the road gets bumpy, God doesn’t leave us. Pitts concludes his column this way: “As a preacher I know recently observed, prayer is not just a plea to get out of our trials. It’s also a way of getting through.”

Still, there’s more to be said about prayer. As we grow to be more one-with-God, as our turning to God becomes more normal for us, our prayer becomes richer. Never perfect, but capable of depth. We pray in thanks for the beauty of creation, in hope for a greater kindness in the world. We pray that people use the tools of life for good, not evil. We pray for mutual respect and an acceptance of how different we can be from one another. We pray to be less judgmental and more mutually respectful. We pray because God loves us and wants us to become truly as human as we can be. We pray for world movements that teach us these ways of being and doing. When people like "Elizabeth Post" lash out, it is often out of a deep reservoir of hurt, recognized or not. We pray for a healing of hurts in the world of seemingly obnoxious people.

We pray to God to help us give up the tendency to violence that broods in us and sometimes just lurks under the surface. Violence, the result of sin, is real in the world. We know it. We recognize it, but not always in ourselves. We pray to God who loves us and invites us to give up violence and sin and embrace others whatever their lives may hold.

As we learn to praise God for all the good things we experience in life, we also learn to praise people for the good that is in them. So much better than condemnation for what we find distasteful!

Most of all, we pray to God because God is loveable and we could have no better life-partner and friend.

~Sister Joan Sobala