Thursday, November 15, 2018

Our Attitude of Gratitude

Dear Friends, 

Even as we thank God for family, friends and the blessings of everyday life, let’s extend the boundaries of the things we think about as Thanksgiving approaches. Let’s enlarge our attitude of gratitude.

Here are two writers for whom gratitude has evolved in insightful ways.

Writing in the Sunday Times of London in 1996, a British transplant to America named Andrew Sullivan reflected on Thanksgiving during the 15 years he had already been in the United States. He said, “I’m thankful for the American talent for contradiction. The country that sustained slavery for longer than any civilized country is also the country that has perhaps struggled more honestly for the notion of racial equality. The country that has a genuine public ethic of classlessness also has the most extreme economic inequality in the world. The country that is obsessed with pressing the edge of modernity also has the oldest intact constitution in the world. The country that still contains a powerful religious right has also pushed for the equality of the homosexual community. A country that cannot officially celebrate Christmas is also one of the most deeply religious nations on the planet. Americans have learned how to reconcile the necessary contradictions not simply because their country is physically big enough to contain them, but because it is spiritually big enough to contain them. Americans have learnt how to reconcile the necessary contradictions of modern life with verve and a serenity few others can muster. It is a deeply reassuring achievement.” Some contradictions have been resolved here since Sullivan penned these words, but the call to gratitude remains.

The runner up for the annual  Foley Poetry contest sponsored by America magazine in 2017,Detroit  lawyer William O’Leary wrote in part he had gratitude
                For charity, joy, peace, patience
                That have always roamed the woods in front of me…
                                For believing in Adam and Eve
                                And Sister Mary John Francine who called them               
                                Saint Adam and Saint Eve
                                And all the believing that followed…
                For vows of marriage, vows of silence, vows
                Of chastity that bend the starlight to earth…
                                For holy names and graves…
                For the grace of growing old
                And thinking that it’s wisdom.
                                For that share of intimacies
                                I don’t share with words
                                But recollect with sadness and content.

May Thanksgiving be touched with wonder over realizations that continue to emerge in your very being.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Creating an Attitude of Generosity

Dear Friends,

Pepe and Rose were homeless people in Rochester in the 1980’s. Pepe was Sicilian, a burly, bushy-bearded man. Rose, his sweetheart, was fair and Irish, complete with a lilting accent.   Somehow, they found their way to Saint Mary’s Church, and once they saw that we were hospitable, they came every Sunday. After they had been there a year or two, the parish began raising funds for the renovation of our worship space. One Sunday, after the 8:30 Mass, Pepe pressed a dirty, crumpled up dollar bill into my hand. “This is for the renovation”, Pepe announced with Rose’s smiling approval. “ Oh, Pepe,” I countered, “couldn’t you use it for a meal this week?” But Pepe would have no part of it. I could see that thanks were the only proper response. On the day the church reopened, Pepe and Rose came up the aisle, their eyes drinking in every detail. I came upon them just as Pepe was saying to Rose, “Rose, will you look at what we did!”

 I never read the story of the widow feeding the prophet Elijah with her meager store of ingredients without thinking of Pepe and Rose.

Then there’s the gospel account of the woman whom Jesus sees walking slowly toward the temple treasury, the smallest Jewish coin in her hand. She was intent on making her contribution to the temple upkeep.

The unnamed woman was a widow, socially degraded by her widowhood. This woman was generous beyond her means, unlike the Scribes and Pharisees whose grasping ways Jesus rejected.
The generous sharing of what we have is no simple matter. How much of what we have should we share? With whom, why, when and how? There can also be in us a niggling sense that what we share may be wasted or misused to build political or religious empires rather than assuage the pain of the people.

Generosity is not only complex, it requires trust, and trust means “no assurances.” Take the widow of Zarephath  for instance. She had to trust that that using the last bit of her oil and flour for the prophet would not mean death for her and her son?

How does one create in oneself an attitude of generosity – a non-clutching, other-centered way of living?

Look around at what you see and what you hear? Some medical professionals put their own practices on hold and spend a month or two every year or so using their skills on behalf of the poor of the Caribbean.  Some people I know give away a top or slacks when they get another. Trevor, a 10 year old in Philadelphia saw on the news that the homeless in his city had no pillows or blankets. He convinced his Dad to take him to find someone to give his own pillow and blanket. Then he started asking his neighbors for their contributions. Before long, the whole city had caught onto the boy’s generosity.

These examples show how ingenious, how creative people can be when they take the call to generosity seriously. Their stories are mirrors through which we can look at our own lives.
For anyone who tries to hear the Word of God and keep it, the generosity of the widows in today’s readings are a reminder and a promise – a reminder that what we have is not ours to covet or hoard and a promise that, in some unspeakable way, the good we have and are will not run out in the sharing.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Beyond Our Own Desires

Dear Friends,

There are wishes and then there are desires. These two are not the same, are they? To wish for something may put us in the realm of imagination. “When you wish upon a star…” Whereas when we truly desire something, the goal is real, even if it is achieved only with great effort. We desire to learn, to escape, to belong. We desire a higher life, to press forward, to love. Michelangelo once prayed, “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.” Merton has another take, “Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”

The stories of some people who interacted with Jesus are recounted today and over the last few Sundays.  On the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Oct.21) we heard how James and John came to Jesus. He asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?” They desired glory, power, status as the ones who sat next to Jesus in the kingdom. 

The following week, Bartimaeus, the blind man, was making himself a nuisance, trying to get Jesus’ attention. The crowd shushed him, but Bartimaeus would not be still. He cried out (sometimes that’s what we need to do). Jesus heard him and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Again the same question. But this time, the seeker does not wish for power. He desires sight. That’s all and that’s everything: the ability to see clearly, which allows a person to touch reality in an exceptional way.

Finally, this weekend, a scribe comes to Jesus, asking for certainty as to which is the first of all commandments. To love God and one’s neighbor with everything one is and has, the scribe and Jesus agree. They took each other’s measure, and neither was found wanting. They both desired to be one with God, each in his own way.

Three people come to Jesus with their desires. Do we do that? Do we come to Jesus with our desires, confident that Jesus will take us for who we are?  For Jesus, God-with-us, will do just that.

Beyond our own desires, we can ask: What does God desire? Greg Boyle S.J., the founder of Hometown Boys, and a sensitive writer, has his own answer to that question: “The desire of God’s heart is immeasurably larger than our imagination can conjure.” God desires us to come, live with, to cherish life with God. God wants us. God desires our companionship. Hard to believe, isn’t it? We make mistakes, bad choices. We are irritable and want things our way. We are weak, small in thinking and small in our actions on behalf of others. But the truth remains. God desires to be one with us. God wants us to accept each other’s races, religions and talents – to give up hating and killing those who are different from us. 

The Irish writer, John O’ Donohue prays that we may “have the courage to listen to the voice of desire that disturbs us when we have settled into something safe.”
As we desire, so shall we live.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, October 26, 2018

Honoring Our Faith Traditions

Dear Friends,

Three ancient feasts appear on our calendar this week: All Saints’ Eve (Halloween), All Saint’s Day, and All Souls Day. In today’s culture, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day could very well not exist at all. Halloween, the first celebration of the Saints, has been transformed into the second biggest commercial holiday of the year, with huge amounts of money spent on costumes, parties, and candy. Playfulness on Halloween is a good thing. Still, it’s valuable to get in touch with our Catholic roots as these special days approach.

In our own faith tradition, these three feasts are a foretaste of the fullness of time, when God will bring all creation home to heaven. In November, in the northern hemisphere, just as the harvest is finished, Christians keep our own harvest feast – God’s harvest – the harvest of the Saints and all our beloved dead. In November, the earth itself seems to fall asleep. The world around us mirrors our interior mood of gratitude and awareness of our predecessors in faith and life.

In another sense, November gives us a much needed opportunity to focus our attention on the tenacity of life. Life simply does not let go. We have only to think of perennials that we cut back to the ground in the fall, only to have them return with energy, beauty and profusion the following year.

So on these three days, let’s incarnate in ourselves what others who have gone before us in faith have done. Let’s try to live common lives and do common things with uncommon generosity and practice a little restraint and a little courage. Let’s take God more seriously and ourselves less so, take hope by the hand and never let go. Let’s care for others and treat them with dignity. And laugh at truly funny things.

During November, in your household: 
  • Make a list of your favorite saints: the ones who have inspired you with their unrelenting clinging to God, even in the face of disdain or threat. 
  • Put this list in a place where you’ll see it every day. Perhaps you’ll want to put it on a table, along with photos and mementos of your own beloved dead. 
  • Light a candle and reminisce. Tell stories. Ask the older generation for their recollections. 
  • Begin a winter’s worth of care for the lonely, the troubled, the homebound for whom November ushers in a season of bleakness without people at the door or on the phone.

On All Souls Day:
  • Visit a cemetery – one nearby or one in which your deceased loved ones are buried. 
  • Make grave rubbings.
  • Sit on a bench there and let your eyes linger over the tombstones which represent so many people who tried their best in life, or maybe not. 
  • Think about the words found on a very old tombstone in Leeds, England: "Those who love God never see each other for the last time."

November, more than any other, is a month of remembrance and gratitude for life around us and before us.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Exercising Our Civic Duty

Dear Friends,

My friends, Giuseppe and Mark delayed returning to Milan, Italy until they could vote early in New York State. They wouldn’t miss voting for anything! Giuseppe became a citizen of the United States in 2008, in time to vote in the presidential election that year. At the same time I experience his enthusiasm for the American process, I recall people who didn’t vote in 2016, because they didn’t like either presidential candidate. Their vote was lost.

This blog comes with a couple of weeks left before Election Day to encourage you to encourage others to vote on November 6. Among other things, it’s the Catholic thing to do!

Catholic Social Teaching directs Catholics to participate in public life and to exercise our civic duty. In a moment of truthful humor, Pope Francis remarked that, “A good Catholic meddles in politics.” He calls us to put aside exclusion, and embrace the common good.

Here are a few questions about our national election that arise out of our faith with its focus on social justice:

With respect to Racism: Will the candidate work to reverse the disenfranchisement of people of color by supporting the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act?

With respect to the Economy: Does the candidate have a plan to undo the damage of the tax law that widens wealth inequality?

With respect to Immigration and Refugees: What has the candidate said about a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants or about the separation of families at our border?

With respect to Healthcare: Does the candidate reject efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even while addressing its limitations?

With respect to Gun Violence Prevention: Does the candidate support legislation to ban assault weapons and strengthen background checks?

With respect to Global Peacemaking: Does the candidate support the increase of funding for diplomacy, peace-building and development, while cutting Pentagon spending and nuclear weapons?

With respect to the Environment: Does the candidate support the Paris Climate Agreement and a shift to green energy?

Respect for the First Amendment: Freedom of Religion and Conscience: Does the candidate have a thoughtful position that upholds both religious liberty and our responsibility to others?

These are the major areas roiling our political waters, but these are not the only questions. The Gospel is not our private domain, calling us to holiness without regard for others. In fact and in truth, the Gospel calls each of us to the public square – to dialogue with others who may agree or disagree with us so that we may understand and embrace the common good – the good of all without exception.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, October 15, 2018

Putting Our Possessions in Perspective

Dear Friends,

Money. We earn it. We need it. We want more of it. We share it, or maybe not. Money helps or hinders us in our search for life’s value and meaning.

Take the rich young man that Jesus meets in today’s Gospel. A good man. Still, the rich young man believed that something was missing in his life. He turned to Jesus for insight, and got more than he bargained for, because Jesus pushed him to consider the unthinkable. “Go. Sell what you have and give it to the poor. Then, come follow me.”

The rich young man couldn’t do it. He went away saddened, the Gospel says, but he couldn’t let go of his possessions. All he could do was walk away.

The Word of God is a two-edged sword, we read in Hebrews – today’s second reading. The Word of God was dangerous to the rich young man’s clinging to what he had – a quality he didn’t know was in him until Jesus challenged him.

Having money or even great wealth is not contrary to the Gospel. We have to be very clear about that. It’s the preoccupation with, the clinging to whatever money or possessions we have that is contrary to the Gospel. How hard it is to follow a light, to hear a voice along life’s journey if we are so preoccupied. But it is not impossible. Jesus says that with His God and ours: nothing is impossible.

Avarice, possessiveness, the acquisition of more and better toys are not the prerogative of the wealthy.

No matter what’s in our pocket, its value is defined by the heart.

As the 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, pointed out: “where clinging to things ends, there God begins to be.”

These readings invite us to sort out what is really important in our lives and what is not, what we value beyond all else as individuals and as a nation.

We don’t have Jesus before us to challenge us in the same tangible way that he challenged the rich young man, but we do have Jesus and the Spirit of Wisdom described in today’s first reading – the Spirit who enlightens our choices and helps us treat all good things without possessiveness.

“I prayed,” Solomon says, “and prudence was given to me. I pleaded – and the Spirit of Wisdom came to me.”

Would that you and I would be like Solomon. Would that we would pray and plead and be open-handed before God.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Aftermath of Divorce

Dear Friends,

Like you, I have family members and friends who have been through a divorce.

No one enters a marriage planning on divorce. No one enjoys the divorce process. It is a devastating experience. It tears at our lives.

All of us know people who, because of divorce and remarriage, no longer feel welcome at Catholic worship. They feel awkward, uncomfortable and maybe angry at what looks like a rejection of them. In the spirit of the compassionate and merciful Lord, about whom Pope Francis speaks so frequently, I hope they will come home to a God and a community who will welcome them and not judge them. In every way possible, I pray that people experience the Church in the aftermath of divorce as a place where hurts are healed, and hearts find the courage to rebuild life. All of this takes work, both on the part of the Church and the hurting or alienated.

It’s true that there are pockets of judgment in the Church, but the Church is bigger than that. This conviction about a big church goes back to Jesus. It is based on the promise of our faithful, gracious God to be with us on our life’s journeys, who will celebrate with us our victories and hold us in our defeats, who will laugh with us in times of joy and cry with us in moments of sorrow and sadness. God does not desert us.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of divorce. He tells His listeners that that is not God’s intention, but the result of choices that men made over the centuries leading up to his day. Only men could initiate the divorce procedure. Grounds for divorce varied among the various rabbinic schools of thought, ranging from flimsy reasons, like poor cooking, to more serious reasons, like adultery.

Specifically, in Mark’s Gospel, as we hear it today, Jesus speaks of the implications of divorce as it pertains to women. For a woman, divorce meant total disgrace in the community, as well as loss of home and children. It was a catch 22: it was socially unacceptable for her to be on her own, yet no respectable man would marry her. In short, in Mark, Jesus is addressing divorce, not as we know it today, but as a situation in which a woman is treated as an unwanted possession.

The longer version of the Gospel today includes the next few verses, in which Jesus draws a child to himself and says, “Let the children come to me…for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mark 10 . 14). Both children and women were considered the property of men in Jesus day. Jesus, in these two passages, calls for the full dignity of women and children to be recognized and upheld. The promises of God belong to them as well as to men. This way of thinking and acting has come down to us, but with resistance, as we see in the major issues of sexual exploitation raised in our society today.

The bottom line in today’s Gospel is to honor people for who they are, to shape our thinking and actions so that people may know we honor them, respect them, love them.

~Sister Joan Sobala