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

Monday, August 29, 2016

Recommitting Ourselves to Our Work

Dear Friends,

Some visionaries tell us that, in the future, people will not work at all.

At first, that possibility sounds wonderful, and it could well be our personal hope, too.
In fact, it is highly unlikely and not even desirable, because work is an integral part of human life, and has been from earliest times.
Many people think that work came to human life after Adam and Eve had sinned as a punishment for sin. But Genesis 2 tells us otherwise. In this text, we find the earliest biblical interpretation of creation, God creates the first mortals, plants a garden and places the man there to cultivate and care for it.
As Labor Day weekend looms before us to mark the traditional end of summer, and we turn our faces to the fall season, let’s pause to rethink the meaning and value of work as integral to our lives. What dangers exists that thwart making work meaningful today?
For Christians, work is one of the ways we are Godlike. God not only created once long ago, God creates today, here and now. God has invited us to be creators too. We create new life, imaginative and fruitful ideas, beauty, fun. God in Jesus has performed the work of redemption, and continues to do so today. In John’s Gospel, for example, Jesus talks to Philip and the other disciples about the works he does – works that are healing enlarging, reconciling. We are called to do these works too, to help transform the world.
Wherever we work, whatever we do, we are a significant part of a divine-human relationship that makes the world a better place in every way possible.
Some of the jobs people do, while they contribute to the over-all wellbeing of the community, can be easily and peacefully left at the end of an eight hour day. One danger of the jobs that can be left at the end of the day is choosing not to do them well – to have a sense that it doesn’t matter. Other jobs demand much more of a commitment, continued learning and practice. The danger in these jobs is that they become so absorbing that we become overcommitted to them to the detriment of other important aspects of our lives. In the end, we can fall victim to our jobs – and become the proverbial workaholic.
Here are two invitations that can help us recommit ourselves to our work in a fresh way:
                Place our daily work – whatever it is – into the framework of God’s creative and redeeming love               – to see what we do as important, because in working we participate in God’s continual shaping                of our universe.
                Place our daily work in the context of life. Work isn’t all there is, yet work contains elements of friendship, community building, education, faith, play and celebration.
Enjoy whatever aspects of your work you can. Enjoy other people’s creative work.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, August 22, 2016

Let Wonder Take the Lead


Dear Friends,

Here’s another way of thinking about the work of our lifetime: We mold and behold.

The phrase came from the American Catholic moral theologian William E. May (1928 – 2014). There’s a lot packed into these seemingly simple words, mold and behold. It’s not a matter of embracing one and not the other. Together they give rise to life.

Through discipline, practice and determination, the Olympic medalists molded themselves into athletes who passed the limits of others and sometimes themselves. Athletes who try to mold themselves into super athletes also find tension as they succeed “this far and not as far as they want to go.”

Parents mold their children in many ways – offering them opportunities, testing their desires and talents. But parents need to accept their children for who they are, even as they try to mold them. As a result, tension is, not surprisingly, woven into family life. 

We’ve seen some of these family and athletic dramas unfold during the Olympics. But do parents recall that they are given children by God to love unconditionally? And do athletes love themselves even though they are unpredictable? Molding goes only so far. Beyond that – and perhaps, more to the point, at the same time as parents, athletes, people in general grapple with life, wisdom bids them to behold life as a journey that cannot be confined to our molding of it.

Enter awe and wonder, realities that are hard to discern much less embrace. In our day, people are so quick to look and then move on, to ask a question and not wait for the whole answer. We don’t even realize how much we pass by.

Wonder requires a full stop before that which is wondrous – to take it in, relish it, recognize that it is not for us to own, not for our consumption but to hold gently and then let go. Awe can be curious, beckoning us to delve deeper, but we can never claim complete understanding of what we truly behold. Sometimes we have to rein in our desire to control and just look, taste, touch, feel, hear, allow ourselves to be caught up in the wondrous.

Life in us is mediated through the divine. Jesus, in John 10.10 says of himself: “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.” He does not reduce the lame, the anguished, seekers after truth, justice and healing into people to be molded. Instead, Jesus releases in them the good that has been suppressed, the love that has been warped or rejected, the awe that raises them out of themselves.

This week, I invite you to join me in taking time for wonder – in the nighttime sky, the rainbow, the face of an old person who has experienced what (s)he would not have expected from  life. 

In the presence of the truly awesome, come to a full stop. Look. Listen. Be reverent. Let wonder take the lead. Let’s not try to shape it by our own desires.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, August 15, 2016

Celebrating Mary

Dear Friends,
Today, we celebrate the arrival home of Mary, Mother of God. She started out her earthly life humbly. She ended that way, too, tucked away somewhere, waiting to die. Mary didn’t know what would follow, except that she believed she would see her Son again, and Joseph, who died too soon.
Nothing in Scripture tells of her death, but believers had an instinct for the truth of Mary’s life, death and beyond. The conviction became well rooted in the faith community that Mary went to God, whole and entire: body, soul, spirit, memory, thought and consciousness. All was taken up. All.  With Jesus, Mary could expect nothing less.
For at least 1500 years, believers like you and me have carried her in our hearts and minds and prayer. We speak of her in the present tense, as present with God, here and now. Mary is the first. We all follow. One day, our entire body, soul, spirit, memory, thought and consciousness will be taken up. With Jesus, we can expect nothing less.
Ordinarily, we don’t think of life beyond death, except maybe at funerals. This life, this world absorbs us. And why shouldn’t it? It’s all we experience, and it is wondrous. Even though we, as Catholics, say we believe in life everlasting, the thought doesn’t grab us – compel our attention. That’s why this feast is precious. It calls us to pay attention: beyond what we know is wondrous in life, nature, science, knowledge, something more wondrous awaits us.
Sorry, Yogi. At death, it’s not over. What looks like the end is in fact a continuation of life enriched, emptied of self-serving or pain or aimlessness. The end for us as for Mary is being lifted up to newness. The old and treasured in us will not be gone, just as it was not gone for Mary. Our earthly end is the first moment of eternal life. And I am confident that there will be wonder, awe, delight and surprises, for God is full of these realities which we experience in limited ways in this life.  
Today, set aside whatever can drag you down and focus your attention on the homecoming of Mary. Let your mind and heart soar. Say "Thank You" to God for her life and for her eternity. Enjoy this holy day when we celebrate the victory of Christ over death writ large in His Mother.
~ Sister Joan Sobala