Monday, October 17, 2016

What Being Catholic Means to You

Dear Friends,
My Aunt Teresa died at the age of 85 on September 13. She had not been a churchgoer since her teens. One day, several months before she died, I cautiously asked her what sorts of funeral instructions she would like to leave for her children to follow? Teresa was puzzled. What did I mean? Do you want to have a service at all? Something at the funeral home? At a local Protestant church in town? No! Teresa’s voice suddenly got stronger. I’m Catholic. I’ve always been Catholic. I want to be buried from the church where I was baptized. And so it was.
I was stunned at Teresa’s sense of herself, but in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been. Catholic roots run deep and a lack of weekly practice does not always imply that a person has abandoned her faith. It has taken another path.
While Christianity is still the largest religion in our country, individuals are moving from place to place along the spectrum. Others are simply getting off, that is to say, choosing to be unaffiliated with any faith tradition.
Some leave their church because they disagree with the teachings of their faith on certain points. Some have been alienated by a priest or a member of the pastoral staff. Others no longer feel welcome because of the life choices they have made. Some may come back. Many others might not.
But what goes on in the hearts of those who apparently don’t return?  Do their hearts ever burn with love for God? Does Jesus still mean anything to them? Where do they find meaning in life?
These are not questions easily resolved over a cup of coffee at a busy Starbucks. Both questions and the leaving are typically not quick for believers. I believe that, if the church has meant anything to them at all, the hurt must be personally deep for people to go, and the departures hurtful for family members and friends. The pews are more and more empty in Mainline Protestant Churches and in the Roman Catholic Church. But are the people who “left” really gone?
In fact, some are, notably Millennials (people born between 1982 and 1999) who have a wide range of faith choices to consider. Some were never baptized, their parents wanting them to make up their minds when they got older. The ones who were baptized haven’t always been encouraged to love the church, its rituals and seasons. Jesus is not well known to them. What would entice them to come back?
Yet Millennials admit to a “God Hunger.” They also strongly desire to experience community connections. They desperately want the world to be a better place, yet the options of ways and means are too many and too frustrating. Millennials sample practices from many faiths. Finding a spiritual home is a work in progress for them.
There are ways that God calls to people – older and younger—to draw close. Some of us only recognize traditional ways: prayer, sacraments, Mass, the authorized moral life. But God can act wherever and however the person needs to have the pain assuaged, the realizations about life become more clear, love more abundant in their life. God offers a sense of wonder at the cosmos, and human solidarity to lead us pilgrims along the way. These are not lost on Millennials and others called “Nones.”
As for the Church, to borrow from Pope Francis: Believers should wear church membership as a loose-fitting garment, not a straightjacket.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, October 10, 2016

Privacy vs Solitude

Dear Friends,
There is privacy and there is solitude. We seek each of them for very different purposes.
Privacy is frequently sought as an end in itself, an escape from people, situations, anything that impinges on our self-controlled choices. Privacy was not something expected of life in earlier centuries. People lived together for survival, slept together for warmth, turned work together into community affairs and even play at times. People traveled together for security, listened to one another for news and knowledge. But progress and technology have made these ends achievable without others. Privacy is highly sought after and valued in our country, but is not a friendly word. Most frequently, privacy means ”Keep Out!” Even the fact that most houses built within the last 30 years have back patios and porches but no front porches suggests a great preoccupation with privacy.
Solitude, on the other hand, is time away from people to gather oneself together, to think and pray. Solitude is for the sake of renewal, for the sake of the future. Solitude sees oneself as related to society. The purpose of solitude is rest, reflection, perspective, a chance to listen to God in the stillness. People tell of healing or wisdom achieved when silence and solitude are embraced.
I think of Jesus in this context. He was a public figure who sought solitude to be with His God in prayer.
But Jesus always came back. He did not retreat from people, but accepted them, encouraged, healed, taught and questioned them. People were most often better because they had experienced Jesus.
People enlarged Jesus, too. The woman with the hemorrhage who touched Jesus enlarged Him (Luke 8. 40-48). Because of His interaction with her, He had to comprehend what it meant that the power went out from Him to strangers who were not His own fellow Jews.
Like Jesus, you and I are called to be public people – giving and receiving life in mutuality. The temptation is to dismiss this person, this group as having nothing to do with me. It’s much more human to say that this person, this group and I have a chance to create a better, loving world, because we are doing at it together, sometimes without knowing it. We need solitude to stoke our fires for the work of building society and life. “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers and sisters.” (Thomas Merton)
I can’t help thinking of those of you in our world who are homebound or who have limited energy to be out in public. You, too, like the rest of us, have to struggle against being totally private people. That means welcoming and calling the neighbor, sharing stories of the day. It means phone calls, letters, electronic reachout. To borrow from Henry David Thoreau, in each of our houses we need three chairs: one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, October 3, 2016

Crying Out to God

Dear Friends,
The first reading from the prophet Habakkuk (1.2, 2.2-3) made us sit up straight this weekend if we happened to be in church for Mass.                   
                                               How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you do not listen!
                                               I cry out to you “Violence!” But you do not intervene.
People of every age, from the beginning, have uttered that cry, right up to today’s migrants, refugees, and all who suffer from natural disasters. We don’t have to look to distant places to find cause to cry out to God, though. The violence and poverty are in our very streets. You and I are the brothers and sisters of everyone who suffers violence. Suffering – and in the midst of suffering – a cry to God for help. These are things we share in common.
Likewise, within us is a yearning for another day, when there will be no more racism, terrorism or sexism. We yearn for a day when our church heeds the call of Pope Francis in the name of Jesus to welcome all, all, all who call the church home and to welcome all others who come to our doors.
Yearning. Deep within us, we yearn for human realities that seem impossible.
Left to ourselves, we might well despair and smother the yearning in us before our hopes get too high. We fear the apparently impossible.
But God not only hears Habakkuk, God answers him – and us as well.
                                The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint.
                                If it delays, wait for it. It will surely come. It will not be late.
The vision of Jesus calls us to love without clutching, live without contention, serve without competition. These are not idle dreams. As yearnings within us, they are the voice of the Holy One speaking to us.
The problem is – we don’t easily believe that the vision is possible or that it is coming or that we will have what it takes to live by the vision.
But God knows us. God has not given us a cowardly spirit (2Timothy.7) but a spirit of power, love, and self-control as well as a faith that leads us to do things that are, at first, inexplicable. On the surface, we may judge that we are on a treadmill – doing the same thing day after day. We may fear that, as a society or a world, we are falling back into barbaric ways, or losing sight of life-giving values. We may conclude that we are a people without victory or without hope.
In one sense, there are no answers to some of the questions we ask of life and of God, but in another profound sense, the answer is within us in the form of an undeniable yearning for life, goodness, harmony, justice and peace.
This yearning is not born of na├»ve optimism, but rests on a bedrock of confidence in the God who invites us to…
                                …wait for the vision. It will surely come. It will not be late.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, September 26, 2016

Celebrating Our Angels

Dear Friends,
Angie. Angelo. Los Angeles. Entertaining angels unawares. The Blue  Angels. Michelangelo. The Angel Moroni (Mormon). Satan. The Angel of Death (Jewish). Angel food cake.  Jibril (Muslim). Isn’t she an angel?
Part of our American lexicon includes words and phrases that have to do with angels. The cultural focus on angels was high during the 1990’s, when books about angels flew off the bookstore shelves, Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America” was a big hit, and the Walters Art Gallery featured “Angels from the Vatican.” With all that is on our plate these days, we don’t hear much about angels.
Still, this week, in the Catholic liturgical calendar, we celebrate the feasts of the archangels Michael (who is like God), Gabriel (God is my strength) and Raphael (God has healed) on Sept. 29 and the feast of the Guardian Angels on October 2. The Hebrew Scriptures refer to the “messengers” of God, go-betweens between God and human beings. The word “angel” comes from the Egyptian word “aggelos” and isn’t used until a few centuries before Christ. But the messengers come to many, including Abraham, Mary, Joseph. The angel Raphael stays close to Tobit. Jesus, in Matthew 18.10 speaks of guardian angels for children: “Do not despise these little ones, for their angels in heaven are always beholding the face of my father.”
Some of the stories about Lucifer becoming Satan, the wars among the good and bad angels before and at the end of time are not biblical. They come from the Mesopotamian religions and were woven into post- biblical Christian beliefs. Because of the richness of religious imagination in the near east, we also find that Judaism and Islam honor angels in their literature and belief.
Medieval theologians helped make some sense of the place of angels in the order of creation by placing them in the ascending order from earthly matter to the transcendent God. Angels filled in the gap between the human and the divine. The poetry, art and stories of Milton, Dante, Fra Angelico and other artists included angels in their finest works.
Strictly speaking, according to the Dominican theologian Richard Woods, “the existence of angels is not a matter of divine revelation, but is presupposed by both biblical witness and church teaching. Angels are less the subject or content of revelation than its medium.” But humanly speaking, we are comforted by the sense that angels watch over us and that we are not alone in the cosmos.
Angels are not just for Christmas decorations. “Angels add color and richness to the spiritual life.” (Arthur Green) “The angels of all creeds are part of that mystery.” (Anne Underwood)
Celebrate your special angel today.  
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, September 19, 2016

Finding Connectedness

Dear Friends,

The car in the parking lot sported at least six bumper stickers. One in particular caught my eye. It said: God bless everyone. No exceptions.

Not everyone buys into that sentiment. “We are loved by God, and worthy of blessing. Sorry. You’re not.”

That idea has been around since people formed religions and decided who is in and who isn’t.

Scientists, working in quantum theory in our day, point out that everything is part of the whole and all things are connected in some way. Theologians of many faith traditions are finding buried deep in their religion’s core beliefs that connectedness is also a foundational concept, and that somehow, over centuries of one-upsmanship, separation became the norm. People began to treat one another as not being related at all. In the United States, where community was essential to our founders, today’s culture has moved us back to individualism. My way. When my way is respectful of others, there is hope of communication, and finding ways to bridge separateness. But the task requires our uncompromising attention.

Let’s talk about Christianity, because we know it best. In Christianity, God is love. God loves us unconditionally. In God there is abundant compassion - no violence, no discrimination. Or as Paul puts it in Ephesians: “In Christ Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. All are one in Christ.”

How do we bring connectedness, compassion and no discrimination into our consciousness? To begin, we need to appreciate that God is love, non-violent, welcoming of us, desirous that we all be one with God’s very self. It means that we try to look at other people with new eyes, walk around in their shoes, change our language when we speak of God and other people. Language represents a worldview. What’s your worldview? Hierarchical, community-based, one that recognizes our connectedness with all of creation? Is it rooted in unity without uniformity?

Appreciating the efforts, struggles of others, understanding their hopes and fears are all part of the work of acquiring the consciousness we need to work at being more united with God.

At the same time that we learn to appreciate the connectedness we are learning to see, we need to participate in the work of becoming one with the universe – people and nature as well as with God. Find like-minded people and learn from each other this important lesson.

Finally, believing that we are one more profoundly than we are separate, we begin to promote that way of living by allowing our new consciousness to be seen by others, in the way we treat people and the earth with reverence, humor, gentleness, and care.

This may sound abstract. To try to live this way is the only way we can test its worth as a way of living our faith more profoundly. We might even find that we like it, sleep better at night, and are full of wonder at the goodness, beauty and web of life we are part of.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, September 12, 2016

Finding the Quiet

Dear Friends,
Bright skies were overwhelmed by darkness on September 11, 2001. That darkness lingers in Americans even to this day. Even though the darkness recedes into some hidden place in our being, we carry that darkness because we can do nothing else. Darkness is a companion of life. How we hold it within us is the important thing.
Were you surprised looking at the front page of the Democrat & Chronicle on Sept. 4th to see (the new) Saint Teresa of Kolkata described as being a woman whose inner life was steeped in darkness? By her own admission, she had known from the late 1950’s a spiritual dryness – what Saint John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” In bits and pieces, this is what Saint Teresa said of herself over the years: “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss of God not wanting me – of God not being God – of God not existing...I find no words to express the depths of the darkness…If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of the ‘darkness’.”
And yet she served the poor faithfully, found Jesus in the needy, admonished would-be missionaries who wanted to join her to stay home because the poor are there as well. Saint Teresa was impelled by the love of God, and that is what sustained her through the darkness.
You and I, like Teresa, have a spiritual life, be it big or small, ripening or waning. As with so many other aspects of our life, we’d like to be in control of our spiritual journey – in charge, so to speak. We’d like to say “Now. This much and no more. No. I can’t hear you, God. How about doing it this way.”
We miss the point completely if, in talking about our spiritual life, we don’t spend time with God in prayer. But “God and me” is not enough. With God, we embrace and are embraced by others, serve others. Like Saint Teresa. Like the first responders on 9/11.
We need to work at our spiritual lives daily, yet not be satisfied that we are safely on our way to some sort of spiritual success. Sometimes we over-plan our spiritual lives, set limits or goals. But our relationship with God is about none of these. It is about being open, paying attention to the small and the large signals that come our way that help us move toward God even if we can’t see God as we would like – even if we experience darkness and have no taste for God.
Every person who wishes to grow into God needs time for quiet/solitude. Saint Teresa certainly did. You do. I do. Quiet allows us to be astonished about what God is doing in our midst or out there or in each of us. Peace requires a measure of quiet. Find a place in the garden of your heart where peace can take root. Take time – even if only minutes – for quiet.
Thomas Merton once observed that “When we pray, we are always in over our heads.” We swim against God, at times, resist God because we don’t want to challenge our complacencies, patterns, the sinfulness we are somehow comfortable in. We may even like our misery. Don’t take that away. What does it take not to swim against God? For one thing, relax. Let God be God. Allow yourself to be cherished, treasured, held close by God .
If need be, emulate Teresa of Kolkata. Don’t be afraid to live in the darkness for a while. God will find you there.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Helping Shape One Another

Dear Friends,
I heard someone say recently that she constructs her identity online and that she didn’t need or want other interactions to interfere. She wanted to design herself as she walked into the future. I doubt this young woman is the only one who seeks and spends what she terms life giving time on the internet. She’s probably not the only one to search for her identity online.
It’s true that we all create ourselves in some part, by discipline, practice, working our way through new ways of dressing, acting, thinking speaking.
But to limit to oneself the creation of oneself online is insular, at the very least. The old adage was “It takes a village to raise a child.” We can also say “It takes a community to shape a person.”
In a community, we rub against people who have been shaped by the beliefs of and interactions with people. Within a community, we’re exposed to sight, sound, smell, texture, arguments, whispered words of love, laughter. We hear the stories of our family members, their life-giving or destructive relationships. Some things community offers are narrow, bigoted, dead wrong. Still, in the history of civilization, for better or for worse, people have lived, survived, thrived in community.
We hear people’s stories of struggle to be with God. Members of the community tell of blessings received, shared or rejected. We learn what it means to lose oneself for the sake of the other, rather than be absorbed in ourselves, incessantly monitoring whether others like us or don’t like us. In a community, if we recognize it only in retrospect, we develop our capacity to grow our capacity for life and for the infinite.
According to Harvard ethicist Michael Sandel, “what it means to be human is in persistent negotiation with what we have been given.” It takes time to recognize and name what we have been given, and evaluate it. Sitting before the computer, we may think we have total control of our lives. In fact, we need to rein whatever control we think we have in cyberspace.
I am not interested in weaning people away from the valuable contributions that computers make to life including some of our psychological functions. But machines leave little room for ambiguity, chaos, God’s kindom. In cyberspace, what room is there for love, forgiveness, reconciliation? Theologian Ilia Delio reminds us that “when God disappears from us, we disappear to ourselves.” What a loss!
The person who is incontrovertibly caught up in desiring to shape his/her own live through cyberspace – that is apart from the community – is like the prodigal son, who says to his father, ”I don’t value my relationship with you. Give me my inheritance and let me go.” Thank God he has the sense, acknowledged the pull to return. The father welcomes him unconditionally. The second son does not. He refuses to be reconciled. Perhaps staying behind – not exploring the possibilities of his own cyberspace – has hardened the second son against forgiveness as a true option for him. Both sons have lost something. Homes that are broken by the choices of family members can be fixed, but not without effort and not without reaching out to God. Reigniting love is the work of everyone. It takes community.  
~ Sister Joan Sobala