Friday, March 24, 2017

Welcoming the Night

Dear Friends,

Unless we work the night shift, nighttime sleep is normal for us. Consider last night. Was it peaceful or restless? Full of sweet dreams or nightmares? Did your heart pound in the night with some real or imagined illness or did you wake refreshed? We either welcome the night or we put it off as long as we can. The night is our friend or our foe.

In the rich history of Scripture, the night is often spoken of as a time of holy encounters with God.

Jacob, for example, slept on a stone pillow in the Book of Genesis (28.10-28a) and as he slept, he saw angels moving up and down the ladder which reached from the ground to heaven. Then God came to Jacob, told him of his future and Jacob marveled: Truly God was in this place and I never knew it.

Some of the psalms invite us to regard the night as a holy time. “In the night, my inmost self instructs me. (Psalm 16.7) “You need not fear the terrors of the night (  Psalm 91.4). “By night may God’s song be on my lips (Psalm 42.8).

Nicodemus, a Pharisee came as a learner to Jesus by night and found in his encounter with Jesus the conviction that allowed him to join another Pharisee, Joseph of Arimethea in burying Jesus. At the end of the last supper, Jesus gave Judas a piece of bread, dipped in the dish. As soon as he took it, Judas left to betray Jesus. And it was night (John 13.30).

The night of Judas’ betrayal continued with the agony in the garden, the trial of Jesus, his imprisonment, and the denial of Peter. After the death and burial of Jesus, sometime before dawn on the third day, Jesus was raised up. By the time the women got there at dawn to anoint his body, Jesus was gone, the tomb was empty.

The new life of the Risen Lord of history began in the night in the garden. To borrow from Jacob so many centuries before. Truly, God was in this place, and we never knew it .

As the calendar hurries toward Holy Week and Easter, let the possibility of the holiness of the night become real for us. Let the night be a time to ask questions of Jesus as Nicodemus did. Let us welcome the night as a prelude to new life and welcome the day as the time to see what the night has revealed about God, about us. One night in particular calls us to celebrate it as holy: the Easter Vigil on Saturday, April 15 – the nighttime feast of Easter, when all creation, all of salvation history, newcomers to faith, the tried and steadfast, come to greet the Holy One who transforms the night. Don’t be put off by the length of the Easter Vigil. Give yourself over to it. Immerse yourself in it as one is immersed in the waters of Baptism. Plan ahead to be there.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Water of Life

Dear Friends,

Social scientists and geo-political analysts say that if there is to be a World War III, it will be fought over water.

Water is essential for life. Mindful of Lake Ontario to our north, and the Finger Lakes majestically spread out across our state, it’s hard to believe that water is also scarce.

The first and third readings for the third Sunday of Lent tell us that God is a water giver. God gives water to the grumbling Israelites through the staff of Moses and God gives it to the Samaritan woman through Jesus. “Whoever gives this water I shall give will never thirst. The water I shall give will become in you a spring of water gushing up for eternal life (John 4.14).” With this water that Jesus gives, our potential for growth and life is beyond our imaginings.

But it is not enough to take what the water-giver offers. We need to become the water-giver, Put on Christ. Become Christ and welcome the Samaritan woman who lives in our day.

Once, when I was working as a pastoral administrator in a rural area, I went to the home of a woman who wanted to have her child baptized. Pam’s home was in a rutted country lane in a rundown mobile home. The smell of ten cats assailed me as I walked in. In a cage across the small living room was a weasel. A half hour after we began our conversation, my eyes drifted to the cage. The weasel was out and about. I had to really concentrate on listening to Pam.

Besides baby Damian, there were three older children…by three different fathers, none of whom were married to Pam. Pam and Damian’s father were married. He was an epileptic. They were very poor.

Four children…four fathers. Today’s Samaritan woman. She wanted the water of life for her child, as she had for her older children.

Maybe we don’t know a Pam – but who is it that we are tempted to ignore because of the accidents of their birth or their lifestyle? Whom do we refuse a drink from our own precious well because they are strangers and we might not have enough? Whose life is diminished by our antagonism or worse, our indifference?

Jesus, sitting at the well at noonday risked rejection by the Samaritan woman. She could have turned her back on him, but they were open to each other and the water of life flowed between them.

Does the water of life flow between us when we meet strangers whose life-stories bear the scars of domestic warfare, crippling illness or more?

Give me a drink, Jesus says to the woman. Give me a drink the stranger says to us. Be ready to share the water of life. Let it flow.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, March 13, 2017

Coming Home

Dear Friends,

Thinking of home, wanting to be home is an abiding part of our human experience and longing. Refugees leave home with the hope of finding, establishing a new home – somewhere they will be known and welcome, consulted on matters of life…where they can keep “their things,” no matter how little they have…somewhere that people can come to visit and know hospitality…somewhere that they can put down the tent flap or close the door. To be homeless is to have none of these.

Home is where the heart is, “I’m coming home today,” the voice on the phone announces. “Country road take me home to the place I belong,” the late John Denver sang.

We not only want a home for ourselves and our families, we want a home for God. Hence, people all over the world throughout history set apart places to be sacred. We build altars, temples, churches and shrines, and we weep when people without sensitivity destroy these holy places because they belong to the other.

In the Synoptic accounts of the Transfiguration, Peter expresses our human urge to stop, to honor a sacred space by building a kind of home. “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” Peter says, dazzled by the sheer beauty on the face of the Lord, awed that he should be present to experience Jesus this way.

But Jesus says no. No home, not even a temporary one. If we follow Jesus, the Transfiguration story tells us we have to leave behind our desires, our securities. We have to leave the sacred mountain with Jesus – to go with Him to Jerusalem, to the sharing of Himself at Passover, to his trial and passion and death on the cross and resurrection. Jesus, who had no place to rest his head, (Mt.8.20) would find His apparent resting place in the tomb where he would be laid after his death on Good Friday.

But fast forward to the account of the empty tomb on Easter in the Gospel of John. There’s a detailed description of what Peter saw – a line that many of us consider a throwaway. “When Simon Peter arrived…he saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. (John 20.6-7)” Did the separation of the head cloth tidily set aside mean anything at all? Yes, it did.

In the household culture of the day, when the master left the table after a meal, he left his napkin in one of two ways. If he left it crumpled, discarded as it were, it signaled the servant that the master was not coming back. But if the napkin was neatly folded at his table setting, the servant understood that the master wasn’t finished yet. He would be back. At the empty tomb, the folded head scarf signaled His followers that Jesus would be back, as indeed He was. Jesus, who was raised up from the dead is back. He lives with us, has made His home among us, walks with us through good days and bad. On His way to Jerusalem, at the mount of the Transfiguration, Jesus couldn’t, wouldn’t stop. But afterwards, after He had risen and gone back to His Father, Jesus would nonetheless stay with us, never to leave us. In the face of this mystery, with His Father and at the same time with us, we can say to the Risen One: it’s so good to have you home.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, March 6, 2017

Staring Down the Hinderer

Dear Friends,

Lent is less than a week old and we are already confronted with the desire to be done with it. That’s why, for the first Sunday of Lent, whether we are in liturgical year A or B or C, the readings are always about Satan and how he interacts with Jesus in the desert and this year.

Did you know that the word, Satan, means “hinderer?” Satan is anyone, anything, any relationship or situation, any interpretation of life or way of thinking that prevents us from becoming fully what Christ wants us to be – His brothers and sisters – alive and active on behalf of goodness in our world.

The naturalist, Craig Childs, once wrote about being confronted by a mountain lion in the wilderness that straddles New Mexico and Arizona. Childs, equipped only with a knife, knew that this weapon was no match against the cat which kills by leaping on its prey’s back and attacking the spine.

     “We (the lion and I) made clear, rigid eye contact. It began to walk straight toward me…A stalking stare…The cat was going to attack me…My only choice, the message going to the thick of muscles in my legs was to run…

     What I did instead was not move. My eyes locked onto the mountain lion. I held firm to my ground, and did not even intimate that I would back off.

     The mountain lion began to move to my left, and I turned, keeping my face to it, my knife at my right side. It paced to my right, trying to get around to my other side, to get behind me. I turned right, staring at it. My stare is about the only defense I had.

     It was looking for the approach. I wouldn’t give it any leeway, moving my head to keep its eyes on mine. The lion began a long, winding route, still trying to come from behind…It watched me closely as it left. It walked into the forest…I never saw the lion again.”

Craig Childs stared down the lion that would hinder his life. Jesus, in the Gospel, stares down the hinderer. By virtue of our baptism, you and I are given the courage of discipleship to do the same.

The hinderer still stalks us, and sometimes, presents us with something so desirable and apparently good that our resistance wears down.

The good news comes at the end of 40 days in the desert, when the angels come to minister to Jesus. God was with Jesus in His temptations and beyond them.

The story of Jesus’ temptations and those of Craig tell us in divine and human ways, that God, who has created us so lovingly and sees us as good, will not abandon us to our quirks, our rebellions or to the hinderer.

Early in Lent and throughout this season, God, the Father of Jesus and Our Father is with us and for us as we look the hinderer in the eye.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, February 27, 2017

Lent and the Holy Smudge

Dear Friends,

Lent begins on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, large numbers of people will find their way to one of the timely  Masses  and services that will be held that day. People, even those who do not frequent weekly liturgies, somehow find Ash Wednesday relevant.  We will accept on our foreheads and wear all daylong the holy smudge. We will wear it as a sign of conviction and a badge of commitment – a proclamation that we are believers in the Risen and Living Holy One who died to give us life beyond all telling. Lent is the beginning of our pilgrimage to Easter, with all that meant for Jesus and could mean for us.

The holy smudge, for us, is an outward sign of something deep in us. At least that’s the hope. The holy smudge is somewhat akin to the phylacteries (little boxes) the Israelites were instructed in Deuteronomy to wear on their foreheads and wrists . In these boxes were written the Shema, which begins: “Hear, O Israel, that the Lord our God is one.” Hopefully for the people who wore them they were more than outward signs.

A variety of people who walked with Jesus did outward public actions in his name, but Jesus was not impressed. He  spoke harshly about the ones  who did these acts  only to be noticed, but whose hearts didn’t belong to Christ. There was no personal commitment in them. Jesus said to them: I never knew you.

But Jesus knows us when we try to discern God’s will for our actions and the direction of our lives. We are called to be salt, light, blessedness for others.  When we cease to contribute to the worlds’ overdose of violence in word and action, the holy smudge of Ash Wednesday reaches our hearts. Justice, compassion and unity become more than causes. They mean that God in us is active and generous.

Great spiritual gifts have been given to us. We relish them and amplify them during Lent through the practices that are thousands of years old: prayer that opens us up to God’s grace, fasting that makes us understand the hungers that really matter and giving alms from our need and not just from our overage. This Lent, I hope we can be imaginative about what these practices mean. One Latin American bishop, recognizing that in his poor country most people had little to eat, told them to find new ways to fast. If you know how to read – he told them – teach someone else to read. That’s being imaginative with one of the core practices of Lent. Poetically put by some anonymous bard:
                                Is this a Fast to keep the larder lean? And clean of veals and sheep?
                                is it to quit the dish of flesh, yet still to fill the platter high with fish?
                                Is it to fast an hour, and show a downcast look and dour?
                                No: ‘tis a Fast to dole thy sheaf of wheat and meat unto the hungry soul.
                                It is to fast from strife and old debate and hate;
                                To circumcise thy  life.
                                To show a heart grief-rent; to starve thy sin, not bin;

                                And that’s to keep thy Lent.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, February 20, 2017

Defining Heaven

Dear Friends,

Each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to “Our Father who art in heaven” and we include a line that says “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Heaven. When is the last time you included in your conversations some reference to heaven? Life, lived as it is today in the fast lane, is so absorbed in today that any thought of heaven leaves us skeptical. Still, even though the word “heaven” is not part of our everyday vocabulary, once in a while, it’s good to be reminded that heaven is a reality and a goal for Christians, as well as other religious groups. Muslims believe the deserving end up in a peaceful abundant paradise; many Buddhists and Hindus believe they must pass through a series of heavens before they get to the enlightened bliss of nirvana. Many Jews believe in life everlasting in God’s kingdom which shall never be destroyed. Some African faiths speak of a long journey to a lovely next world, while others teach that the heavenly spirits live among us.

Two stressful times, in particular, find people desperately hoping for heaven: first, at times of persecution, when people endure suffering for who they are at the cruel hands of others. At this time when life seems to be falling apart, the suffering and their loved ones focus on heaven and what God has in store. Secondly, when our loved ones are dying – we believe more compellingly than at more placid times that the dying are on their way to heaven. We want them to be whole, safe happy and without pain. Moreover, for Christians, life with God in eternity is for everyone.

In the long history of belief or conjecture about the afterlife, Jesus stands out as the One whose words and actions make heaven take on new meaning for his followers and for all time. He doesn’t speak of heaven as a reward, certainly not a place of material pleasures, tribal triumph or falling into the cosmos no longer a unique person. For Jesus heaven is a glorious personal transformation and an eternal communion with the living God. Ultimately, heaven is the believer’s true home and ultimate destiny. In Luke, Jesus says to the repentant thief also hanging on a cross: “This day, you shall be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23.43) In his own agony, Jesus thought of another person who was suffering. Paul puts the prospect of eternal life with God this way: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has ready for those who love him.” (1Cor.2.9)

Christian teaching used to highlight heaven as our true goal with this life as an antechamber, a prologue. With Vatican II, believers have been taught to savor, build up and take delight in our lives and this world with all its surprising possibilities, needs and challenges. We now say that heaven is already here in our midst. Heaven is not some far distant place. Wherever the Beatitudes are lived out, wherever people are more aligned with God’s ways, heaven is already present. Dante, in the Paradiso, describes heaven as “a state of being in which we open up to more love.” That certainly can happen here and now.

Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College says of heaven: “It is the New Jerusalem, and Paradise Regained, the Community of Saints and the Eternal Eucharist; everlasting Easter and a million Christmases. It is an end to death’s sting; it is the eternal ongoing, ever growing experience of God. It is the ecstatic dram of St. John: ‘Holy, holy, holy.’” Heaven is real, though we do not know its details.

Take a look around you. What heaven will be has already begun today.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, February 13, 2017

Phrases of the Heart

Dear Friends,

We’ve been so serious lately as a nation (and rightly so), but on this day before Valentine’s Day, let’s be playful. Instead of an essay, I invite you to think about phrases of the heart. Think about them, add to them, let them be part of your conversation and prayer over these days when we celebrate the faithfulness of the human and work to overcome the vagaries of the heart. Ready?

Happy heart / big-hearted / heavy-hearted / warmhearted / dear heart / lose heart / stouthearted / brave-hearted / heart and soul / heartache / heart to heart talk / sweetheart / cold-hearted / my heart melted / open your heart / bottom of my heart / heartbeat away / close to my heart / broken heart / you’re all heart (and of course, hearts of palm and celery hearts.) OK, now let’s get serious.

Jesus is described as a man of heart. Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart (Mt. 11.29). My heart is moved with pity for the crowd (Mk.8.2). He was well aware of what is in the human heart (Jn.2.25). My heart is filled with sorrow (Mk.14.34). In Matthew, My Heart is nearly broken with sorrow.

And sadly, it is said of Judas that immediately after the Passover meal, “Satan entered his heart.” (Jn. 13.27). Better to remember Mary, who reflected on all that had happened in her heart (Lk.2.19) and who heard from Simeon that her heart would be pierced (Lk2.35).

The Scriptures also describe what our hearts are to be like. Love the Lord with your whole heart. (Mt.22.37) Remember that where your treasure is so is your heart (Mt. 6.21). Paul invites us to set our hearts on greater gifts (1Cor.12.31). He also tells us that the Holy Spirit will stand guard over our hearts and mind (Phil.4.7). The psalms remind us to give thanks to God with all our hearts (Ps.9.2) and to pray for a steadfast heart (Ps.57.8).

And here’s a whole set of beliefs and conclusions and turns of phrase collected from human wisdom or human folly about the human heart: The heart does not always have its way. Our hearts can change. The heart takes risks. Communities as well as individuals have heart. Only the heart can forgive. The longest distance is from the head to the heart. God can fix a human heart if we give God all the pieces. The heart is where we suffer.

Today, as the work of the day continues, as we meet people, perform whatever life tasks are assigned to us or which we voluntarily take on, as we eat and drink and love and explore the world, as we suffer whatever pain is uniquely ours, let us try to be wholehearted and single-hearted. Even when we are restless or anxious or subject to envy or rejection, when we seek God today, we shall find God (Jer.29.13). Count yourself among the believers who were of one heart and one mind (Acts.4.32).

May what you have heard from the beginning remain in your hearts (Jn.2.24).

~ Sister Joan Sobala