Friday, August 11, 2017

Getting Through the Storm

Dear Friends,

It is decidedly a paradox.

God is not in the storm in the story of Elijah who arrives on the mountain in his flight from danger (1Kings19. 9 ff). God is in the storm in Matthew’s account (Mt.14.22-33) where he and Peter meet in the waves – Peter, courageous one moment, afraid and sinking in the next.

God is always where needed, but the way God is present varies. The gentle God of Elijah is the same as the God of Peter in the storm, although it does not seem so.

In a whisper in the mountain silence, God bids Elijah to go back to the place from which he had fled. Peter and Jesus get into the boat, rejoin the others as the storm abates.

We know about storms. Today’s newspaper reports that this will be an especially active hurricane season. We know national devastation from floods induced by downpours, and formidable tornadoes. Our own impossible, personal situations may not be dramatic, but when we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, we are invited by the Gospel to call out to Jesus “help me.” And He in turn will stretch out his hand to rescue us.

A week before my mother, Celia, died, I recall being indescribably weary. The accumulation of Celia’s arduous illness interwoven with my two distinct, simultaneous cancers and a broken leg had pretty much leveled me.

As I got on the elevator at the nursing home that day, I leaned my forehead against the wall and prayed “Dear God, I can’t do this alone today.” A little while later, along came my mother’s brother, Adam, my uncle who had come only three other times in 11 months. I recognized him in that moment for who he was: the outstretched hand of Jesus.

The boat tossed about in the storm has been an image of the church from earliest times. We can also apply the image to other societal situations. We can note that we are in danger of missing the boat – not recognizing what Jesus is calling us to be and do. Our boat is in danger of being overcrowded, as the boats bearing refugees have been overcrowded.

The complicated issues we face as a church, as a nation, as a world are fraught with the same kinds of danger facing floundering Peter. With our mind’s eye, as we sweep across the public ministry of Jesus, we find that he had a way of being alert and active at the very place he was needed most. His last promise in Matthew, before his ascension was “I will be with you always.” (Mt.28-20). We take Jesus seriously, for as God says in Psalm 81 “You called in distress and I saved you.”

The great truth of these stories is that in every time of storm and stress, Jesus, the Holy One, our Brother, will always meet us in the midst of the storm, or speak in the tiniest whisper and offer us whatever we need: peace, staying power, calm and an unfolding future. Whether in a tiny wisp of wind or in a stormy sea, our God comes to us.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, August 4, 2017

Seeing the Transfiguration in Others

Dear Friends,

The Feast of the Transfiguration is usually buried on a weekday in the dog days of August, so it goes by generally unnoticed. But not this year. This year, the feast is on a Sunday, and this will allow the worshipping community to savor it, wonder at what it bids us to see when we look upon the face of another. Matthew tells us that the face of Jesus shone like the sun. (Mt.17.2) Not only was Jesus radiant, but his disciples were caught up in that radiance. Transfiguration happened in Jesus and it happened in the eyes of the beholders. It was an unrepeatable moment when God’s presence was made known.

Perhaps you can remember times and situations when people’s faces were radiant – the joy on people’s faces who have been reunited after a long separation, the radiance on a woman’s face when she has given birth. I once watched a man carry the cross in a Good Friday prayer service. His face already carried upon in the anticipation of Easter. Neither you nor I might directly associate God with what we see in another face. Be that as it may, God’s glory is written on that face.

In some ways, we contribute to the process of transfiguration in others, just as, at times, we contribute to their disfiguration. We can inspire a transfiguration by making loving use of the power we wield with those around us. We can bring a moment’s freedom to those whose faces have been closed, hard or masked with indifference. We can bring a glow of dignity to those who have been humiliated, a realization of worth to those whose faces reflect a belief in their own worthlessness.

Ironically, we remember on this day of Christ’s transfiguration the annihilation of Hiroshima, Japan, and a few days later, Nagasaki. More than half of each city was destroyed by American atomic bombs. Civilian casualties were enormous. Survivors were disfigured in body and mind.

The story of massive violence against people has been repeated since then in terrorist attacks and disfiguring chemical warfare. We may think that we can do nothing about the pain human beings inflict on one other, but we can. We can reach out across the mystical miles and draw those who are suffering into the arms of Christ. We do this by joining our will to the will of Christ. Once we see – really see by the power of the Light of Christ, we can no longer participate in the disfigurement of others. Let it be so for the nations! Let it be so!

Reading on in each of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus came down from Mount Tabor and was immediately confronted with a distraught father and his child in great need. Jesus attended to both the father and son.

I hope that, as we look at the faces of the people who come our way all year long, we really see the transfiguration that makes them radiant and the disfiguration that holds them in irons…that we see and act in healing/supportive ways even as Jesus did when He came down from the mountain.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, July 28, 2017

Embracing a Real Treasure

Dear Friends,

Refugees and people in disaster areas often post signs asking: “Has anyone seen…?” These desperate seekers are looking for the lost loved ones they treasure. Over the last several  years, news reports have told of sunken ships found  off the Florida coast, near Columbia and in the  Mediterranean  Sea near Israel. Gold and various desirable artifacts are on board.  The search, in all these cases, is for treasure.

It takes a developed skill to recognize a treasure. In January 1996, a woman discovered that a statue of Cupid which adorned the lobby of a Fifth Avenue building in New York City was more than a charming decoration. It was a long-lost, authentic Michelangelo. Countless people saw it daily for years, but only her eye, attuned to treasure, recognized it for what it was. Can we, can our family,our nation recognize authentic treasure? What are our treasures anyway? What would we go to the mat for? What quest absorbs our time and energy? Do we name as treasure some of the realities we hold in common with other people: our nation, our church, freedom, equality and human rights for all people? Is God a treasure for us? Do we seek to know and embrace the real Jesus Christ or are we satisfied with the Jesus of our own or someone else’s making? Do we spend time with our timeless God? Do we work at recognizing God as the indispensable, loving partner of our every moment?

Eavesdropping on the dream conversation between Solomon and God in 1Kings 3.5-12, God says to Solomon: "Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Then God waits to see if Solomon would ask for a long life for himself, riches or the lives of his enemies. Solomon asked for none of these. Instead, he recognized that he was inexperienced in governing – which prompted him to ask for an understanding heart – i.e. wisdom to distinguish right from wrong- to serve as a leader who knows justice and compassion. It’s precisely that prayer for wisdom that I wish could be on your lips and mine as we make our way through life.

To retain or acquire a treasure is a costly thing. Whatever it is that we prize, cherish or hold dear we will have to be willing to pay the price - take a risk. Are we willing to submit our instinctive embrace of our treasure to God ? Actively pursuing a real treasure requires that we let go of whatever prevents us from acquiring it, as in the following telling make-believe story.

Consider the man who so loved his native Crete that he died clutching in his hands the soil of his land. Peter , ever ready to offer hospitality at the gate of heaven, told the man  he would have to leave the soil there or he couldn’t come in. “No,” the man said. “I love it too much to let go!” The man’s wails of  protest  sent Peter hurrying off to find Jesus, who came to the gate and went through the same dialogue with the man from Crete. But Jesus was adamant. “Look, friend. You either drop the soil or you don’t enter heaven.” Reluctantly, the man let go of the soil which cascaded like rain back to Crete.  Then Jesus smiled , embraced the man and said: “Come.” Together Jesus and the dejected, empty- handed man walked up a long flight of stairs. At the top of the staircase, Jesus flung open the double doors and there, in all its splendor… was Crete.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Gift of Patience

Dear Friends,

One of the assumptions we commonly make is that human beings know how to do all the things human beings are called upon to do. We assume people know how to be married, how to be parents or friends. It is assumed we know how to love, be loved, forgive, be sick and die. But we only learn these things with time, practice, and the conviction that there is more to learn. In matters of faith, we assume that wisdom comes with age, that we know how to be disciples of Christ or how to be a Christian community.

But in our more reflective moments, we do know these things don’t happen automatically. They take energy, commitment and above all, they take time to develop and they take great patience.

In these summer months, as we read from the gospel of Matthew at our weekend Masses, we find Jesus teaching us to have the patience of the plants of the field, the mustard seed and yeast buried in the flour. This is the very patience Jesus urges us to have with one another.

How impatient we get with the driver with road rage, the neighbor’s boy who drops out of school, the acquaintance who should know better than to fool around with drugs. Yet, when someone in our own family suffers these same things, suddenly, our impatience dissipates and our judgment wanes. We name as illness that which we condemn in others. We learn the patience of Jesus when we ourselves or those closest to us begin to suffer from human weakness.

The other thing about patience, of course, is that patience can become the road to lethargy or inactivity, if we let it. We can be so patient that nothing important ever moves. Instead, Jesus calls us to be vigilant, attentively patient with a patience that discerns when to wait and when to act. Attentive patience and patient attention are twin ways in which we grow.

Nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus ever tell anyone to hurry. He invites his disciples and hearers to live fully, to be wholehearted and fruitful, but He never pushes anyone unduly, for like the leaven, the mustard seed, the plants growing in the field, He knows full well that fruitfulness and wholeheartedness take time. Life is full of God’s delays and not God’s denials.

Summer is a time for slowing down, a time to ask ourselves how patient we are with ourselves, with one another and whether or not we have a good attitude while waiting.  

Do we expect perfection, flawless performance right now of my spouse, children, friends, employer or myself? Do I want the world’s problems to go away right now? Do I fail to recognize the small steps of human growth toward the coming Reign of God and bless God for them?

In these summer days, which call for relaxation, let us take heart from the Gospel and value the time we have to live and grow in Christ. It will not happen automatically, but we have the model of centuries of people who understood the gift of patience and treasured the growing time they had.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, July 14, 2017

Celebrating Our Ancestors in Faith

Dear Friends,

This summer, I've been invited to four birthday celebrations – a 70th, 80th, 85th and 88th – celebrations for women and men who have lived life wholeheartedly and who have come to this day through their own share of life-shaping suffering as well a deep down delight. We celebrate with the people we love.

There’s another group of people to celebrate this month – people whom we seldom think of – namely the saints whose feasts appear in our July calendar. They are among our ancestors in faith, and could be numbered among our friends, if we learned about them and brought them into our consciousness.

We remember Thomas the Apostle (July 2) who, before Jesus’ passion exclaimed to him: “Lord, we do not know where you are going! How will we know the way?” Thomas inspired this response from Jesus – “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” After the Resurrection, Thomas desired to touch Jesus’ wounds, before he would believe.

Benedict, twin to Scholastica, lived in the sixth century, the founder of the Benedictine Order of women, men and oblates that exists to this day. The Rule that Benedict wrote was mild, balancing work with prayer, and full of hospitality. No wonder Dorothy Day became an oblate, for all these things appealed to her.

We remember Kateri Tekakwitha (July 14) born in the Mohawk Valley Region of New York State. She was an Algonquin-Mohawk, who bore the scars of smallpox on her face growing up, but inside, she was beautiful, and remarkably close to Jesus. She became Catholic, which was a source of conflict with her people so she moved to Canada, but never let go of the Lord. She died at 24. Shortly after her death, her scars disappeared.

Mary Magdalen‘s feast is July 22. She, who was called the Apostle to the Apostles, was often confused with the adulterous woman in John 8 and called a prostitute. She was none of these things. Only last year, Pope Francis raised her special day from a memorial to a feast, making her position among the holy ones the same as Peter and Paul and the other Apostles.

James (July 25), brother of John, was another Apostle. What wisdom he must have had, what depth and love of God that he was named the first Bishop of Jerusalem.

Martha (July 29), sister of Lazarus and Mary (not Mary Magdalen), appears twice in the Gospels – once as the counterpoint to her sister Mary, and once at the time of the raising of Lazarus, when she made the same profession of faith as Peter had elsewhere.

Finally, on July 31, we celebrate Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Company of Jesus, which we call the Jesuits. After a desultory youth, he was touched by God, went to Paris to study in the 1530s. There he met the men who would be the nucleus of his company. To this very day, Jesuits are called to educate the young across the world, and to do mission work in its many forms. Pope Francis, himself, is a Jesuit. It is in his heart.

During this month, mostly biblical men and women are remembered, but also strong founders of religious orders and lovely Kateri, who stands alone, apparently small among these giants of church history we celebrate this month. She belongs to Christ and to us is the very way the others do – our brothers and sisters in faith and beloved of God. Let’s celebrate them with our friendship because of all they dared in response to God’s call. They are good models for our daily lives.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, July 7, 2017

Encouraging Truth in our Lives

Dear Friends,

A new word has just made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary: post-truth, meaning that “facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The National Geographic featured as its cover story in June 2017, Why We Lie: The Science Behind our Complicated Relationship with the Truth.” The author, Yudhiyit Shattacharjee, believes that “Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human (p.38).” At one level, that may be the last word. But if we believe that we are oriented throughout life to the divine, then the deeper way of approaching the journey of life is as seekers after truth.

In short, truth-telling is at a premium in our national life. Conflicting accounts of an event make us wonder where the truth is. Advertising heralds the value of products, while hiding defects or problems the product can inspire (except for drugs which are required by law to state all the possible side effects.) And then there is fake news, a term which the President uses to reject the truth of journalism.

We are inundated in dishonesty which is clever as well as blatant. Recognizing truth, valuing and trusting it is a new work-in-progress in ourselves and for our children.

Followers of Christ understand that Jesus valued truth and lived by it. You will know the truth, he told his disciples, and the truth will set you free. I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14.6). He called the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of Truth” (John 14.17) and promised that the Holy Spirit would guide you into all truth.

Standing before Pilate, Jesus was clear: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (John18.37)” Do we – you and I – belong to the truth, or do we wonder, with Pilate “What is truth? (John 18.38)”

When we think of the crucifixion of Jesus, we are overwhelmed by the pain, the sheer brutality of it. But along the way of his public ministry and right on to his cross, Jesus became freer as he accepted the truth of who he was. We are free when we follow him into truth. That means following Him into the truth of life with its social, political, cultural everyday dimensions. It means searching for the truth, recognizing deceit and saying no to ways of thinking and acting that are deceitful.

True and lasting relationships and communities are built on truth which is shared, accepted, honored as life-giving. Lies in the foundation mean that the structure will crumble.

So often we say we can do little to change the world. One major thing we can do is to be truthful and to encourage truth-telling in others. Here are three ways how living can engender truth in the world: 
  • First, stay rooted in a faith community which preaches Jesus’ message of unity with God as essential for life. 
  • Secondly, speak the truth in love, even when it’s costly for us. 
  • Finally, spend some time in solitude, face-to-face with God in a way which inspires us to listen to the abiding truth which God offers.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Laughter of Life

Dear Friends,

Laughter is an essentially human characteristic. We are the only creatures that make connections that tickle our funny bones. Bob Newhart says that “Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” That’s one reason why Saturday Night Live has such a wide audience. 

“Then our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy. (PS.126)” That was what the captives did on their way back from Babylon. They were going home to Israel.

For some time after 9/11, the American public didn’t and couldn’t laugh. Comedians, it was noted, simply stopped trying to be funny. They huddled, but then went back to work.  They instinctively knew “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. (Eccle.3.4)”

The Rochester priest Gus Hanna considered himself a magician and a comedian as well as a dedicated man of God. He held young people in thrall with his humor, so that he could impart to them the deep lessons of faith. The youth he was closest to were at St. Joseph’s Villa – a safe place for troubled and troublesome children and teens through the mid-to-late decades of the last century. Father Hanna even had jokes on his voicemail. People would call, not to talk with him, but to hear his joke of the day.

Norman Cousins, longtime editor of The Saturday Review, learned the power of laughter during a battle with a debilitating illness. He discovered his condition improved when he enjoyed himself. Laughter, Cousins wrote, is like inner jogging. It helps us heal by activating the immune system.

One day at the end of January 1992, I found myself sitting in an outpatient cancer center, hooked up to an intravenous system, ready to receive my first dose of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Other women and men were there, too, likewise hooked up, each absorbed in dealing with their own cancers. There, above the tube leading to my arm, was the first drop of chemo. I closed my eyes, waiting for a spiritual image to come. Unbidden, what I heard in my mind instead was “Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It’s off to work we go.” I started to laugh out loud. People wanted to know what was so funny.  I told them. They laughed too. Like prayer, laughter binds people together and tears down the walls separating us.

Laughter, according to theologian Karl Barth, is the closest thing humans have to the grace of God. Laughter is as sacred as the hymns we sing, stained glass and silence.

So go ahead, laugh at oxymorons like working vacation, plastic glasses, definite maybe and exact estimate. Laugh with the 104-year-old woman, who, when asked what the best part of being her age was, replied: “No peer pressure!”  Laugh at ourselves when a mighty swing on the tee of the first golf hole produces a dribble or a whiff.

This summer, especially, let’s make a place in our faith for lightness, merriment and joy in simple pleasures, especially in the face of so much pain, madness and idolatry in the world around us. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6.21 )”

~ Sister Joan Sobala