Friday, May 25, 2018

Our Inheritance

Dear Friends,

Robert Indiana, the pop artist of the 60s, died last week. His most memorable piece was the square containing word “LOVE” broken into two lines, with a tilted “O.” Sculptures of “LOVE” can be seen in public places around the world. It is featured on greeting cards, wall prints, jewelry, and stamps. “LOVE” is the inheritance the world has received from Robert Indiana.

World Heritage sites around the world are those designated antiquities, whole villages and other human creations that are being preserved so that they can be visited and honored by generations. The world wept when ISIS blew up World Heritage sites in Syria and Iraq.

This weekend, we remember those who have died in service to the nation during all the wars from our national beginning. We honor these men and women and weep for our loss of them. We bless their lives however long or short they were, no matter where their mortal remains now lie. We remember them and their contribution to the freedom and bigness of life we have inherited through their sacrifice.

All of these – people, places, creations we can claim as our inheritance. There’s more. Among other gifts, we have inherited: 
     God our Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit (You are my inheritance, O Lord.)
     Life from our parents and ancestors
     Talents and qualities of our character embedded in our genes
     The Church shaped by the Lord and all who have made it durable and lasting for over 2000 years
     Freedom as a nation
     Life-enhancing ideas and inventions from philosophers, theologians, inventors, artists and musicians, engineers, storytellers, truth tellers and peacekeepers
     The earth with all its power, potential and fragile.

The common inheritance we share binds us together as human beings. We don’t always recognize the many aspects of our heritage. We sometimes pass them by as if they didn’t matter or pertain to us.

One of the characteristics of our time is the devaluing of our inheritance. Oh! We would never say it that way, but it’s nonetheless true. We walk away from family, church, God, because they do not meet our expectations. They demand from us more than we want to give or the way we want to give it. We have concluded that we need not treasure them. Captive to this viewpoint, we suffer immense, unrecognized loss, and the inheritance we bear begins to lose its potency for the future.

This holiday weekend, let’s reconsider what we believe about ourselves and what we believe about those who have passed on to us a rich, varied, inexhaustible inheritance. Drugs do not satisfy. The social media ironically keeps us separated from one another. Money can’t buy the things for which we have an unquenchable thirst. Only our divine and human inheritance will do all of this, and more.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, May 18, 2018

Following the Holy Spirit

Dear Friends,

I believe that the single most important promise ever made and ever kept was the promise of Jesus to send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be with His followers always. That promise is variously repeated in chapters 14 to 16 of John’s Gospel. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have told you” (John 14.26).

And then the Spirit came, on Pentecost Day itself, in wind and fire. The disciples went out into the streets, and there, in the midst of the people, these formerly fearful disciples newly filled with the Holy Spirit, preached about Jesus, the Risen One. Their words were understood in as many languages as there were people gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost who heard them.

The Acts of the Apostles tells how the disciples traveled out from Jerusalem, baptizing and conferring the
Holy Spirit on those who had come to believe.

And so it has been to this day.

But who is the Holy Spirit? Mechtild of Magdeburg, a 13th century Beguine, wrote a concise rendering of who the Holy Spirit is:

“The Holy Spirit is a compassionate outpouring
  of the Creator and the Son.”

She went on:

  “This is why when we on earth pour out compassion and mercy
  from the depth of our hearts, and give to the poor,
  and dedicate our bodies to the service of the broken,
  to that very extent do we resemble the Holy Spirit.”

This Holy Spirit, given in love to us, is not an afterthought of Jesus, not just a sidebar to life, but rather, the Holy Spirit is the completion of God’s gifts to humanity, a way we see the human in a new way, infused by new energy. The Holy Spirit impels us to reach out to other people as our sisters and brothers.

Regrettably, the world is still caught up in works of marginalization, oppression and brutality. Writing in The Guardian about the #MeToo movement on May 11, Moira Donegas bleakly observes: “This is a common, but still very strange belief that the epitome of maturity and personal strength is the resigned acceptance that the world cannot be better than it is.”

But this is not true. With the Holy Spirit alive and active in our world, we can welcome and use to full advantage the power and the wisdom of God to shape our characters with the sort of boldness that makes the unity and cohesion of all people a goal of our lives. We do what we can. God in the Spirit inspires. We are called to imitate God in compassion and mercy. Pentecost is a day to take the measure of our willingness to partner with the Holy Spirit to revitalize our world and say yes to God.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, May 11, 2018

A Mother's Hands

Dear Friends,

I’ve been looking at people’s hands this week and how they hold the power and potential for good and sometimes pain. I suppose this Sunday’s celebration of Mother’s Day is my reason for it, and the hands of our mothers have played a major part in our early lives. Here’s a stream of consciousness look at hands.

I was 13 when I had my not-quite-burst appendix removed. One day, shortly after my return home from the hospital, I was in bed, restless, sweaty, still in some pain. My mother, Celia, came in and offered to give me a sponge bath. I, a teenager! A sponge bath? “No, thanks, Mom. I’m ok.” Somehow, my mother interpreted my no as a yes, and the next thing I knew, she was at it. Once done, she slipped away, as I drifted into sleep, remembering the gentleness and love in her hands. I woke up refreshed and genuinely better.

Think of your own mother and how she ministered to you in your growing up, your childhood illnesses and how much of what you learned from her then stays with you, no matter what she was like.

I’ve heard enough stories of mothers to know that mothers are not always gentle with their hands. Their own experiences made them what they were. And God was in the mix, no matter how life with Mother played out. Today, we remember them – their hearts, their hands, their values and personal stories.

When we use our hands for good, we are like God. God is Mother to us as well as Father. Christians have a long tradition of believing that. The hand of God is in this, we say. “The heavens are the work of your hands” we say of God (Hebrews 1.10). And of the angels, Psalm 91.11-12 says “on their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against the stone.” And then there is Jesus’ beloved Mother Mary who did all that could be for Jesus in His infancy and childhood. One day, years later, she took his lifeless body into her hands, and cradled Him once more in her arms.

Jesus used His hands to heal the sick and restore the dead to life. He took bread into His hands, blessed it, broke it and gave it to His disciples. That same night, He washed the feet of his disciples with his hands. And after His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples to look at His hands and feet, for He bore the wounds of the cross in his hands and feet. They are a treasured part of His risen life.

Later, it was said of Peter near the end of John’s Gospel, “You will stretch out your hands and another will lead you and take you where you would rather not go” (John 21.18). As followers of the Risen Lord, we are asked to do the same – to go where we are called by God and not by our own determination.

Hands. Hand over/hand on/hand down culture, tradition, family values. Hand up to a new level of growth and consciousness. Hands are instruments of profound love and respect or hate and torture. Accept the laying on of hands in faith. Wash your hands for your own health and that of others. Receive in your hands. Just put it in the hands of God. Be the hands of God for the untouchables and those with contagious diseases. Think of your Mother’s hands.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Great Biblical Women

Dear Friends,

Since the Middles Ages, most of the statues or paintings of St. Anne feature a young Mary at Anne’s side. One of them is holding a book. Anne is teaching Mary to read. Nothing in our ancient tradition says that Anne actually taught Mary to read, but it’s reasonable to think that the source of Mary’s knowledge of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) was her mother Anne. Stories, lessons, poetry and psalms were passed on, mother to daughter, so that God’s presence and action in the biblical tradition could be cherished by each succeeding generation.  

Among the treasured stories we can believe that Mary learned was the story of Hannah, wife of Elkanah. Hannah’s story and Hannah’s own Magnificat are told in 1 Samuel 1–2.1–11. Unable to bear a child, Hannah wept in the temple. She encountered Eli the priest, and after first judging her rashly, Eli then prayed for her to conceive. In time, Hannah gave birth to Samuel. She dedicated the child to God and sent him to the temple to live. Samuel grew up to be a great prophet in Israel. He was the one sent by God to Bethlehem to identify and anoint David as king.

Hannah and Mary – two daughters of the matriarch Sara, who like her, gave birth in unexpected circumstances. Hannah and Mary…who gave their sons over to God with songs of praise and thanksgiving.

Mary, knowing the story of Hannah, took Hannah’s song into her own heart. There it became enlarged, soaring with themes of God’s justice, mercy and love of the poor – Mary’s own Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-56).

Even more than through song, their lives were interconnected. Hannah’s son Samuel anointed David king. Centuries later, Mary, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, bore the Son of God, the Son of David.

Hannah and Mary had believed, trusted and took their next steps, convinced that God, who had seen them through thus far, would raise up their sons as they were meant to be – Samuel a prophet and Jesus the longed for Messiah.

In this month dedicated to Mary, read out loud in prayer the songs of Hannah and Mary. Tell the stories of Hannah and Mary to children and grandchildren as one tells the stories of our family ancestors.

Tell the stories, relish and celebrate the bonds of faith between generations of women in your family and these great Biblical women.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Pruning of Our Lives

Dear Friends,

Last Sunday was a fresh spring day – the first we’ve had this year so far. I took a long walk through the neighborhood and watched homeowners rake, prune, and create piles of winter debris along the roads. One way to look at the devastation of this particular winter is to say it was nature’s way of pruning away weak or dead parts of still-healthy plants. Nature-watchers say that pruned trees and greenery fare much better than those left unattended.

People also need to be pruned, although we don’t always want to admit it. The story of Paul’s pruning is told in Acts 9. Yet even after he had well and truly been pruned, the community of believers was still suspicious of him. They remembered well how Saul had persecuted their brothers and sisters in faith. But trustworthy Barnabas introduced Paul to the community, which grafted him onto the vine, and the graft took.

One of the results people associate with being pruned – trimmed back – is a certain soppy meekness – a diminishment of zest or feistiness. But Paul was never meek – neither before nor after his conversion, so we, too, can take courage that we will be ourselves, and even better, after we are trimmed back.

Pruning is a means to an end – to increase the yield or to bear more and better fruit and an indispensable element of growth. Connectedness is another. It may seem obvious but is worth underscoring: every tendril, every offshoot grows if, and only if, it is connected with the original plant or is grafted onto another. But we know individuals and groups that separate themselves from that which sustains them. Couples split, children walk away from their families, individuals leave the church of their earlier years and choose to be isolated from worshipping communities. These things happen and separation may be the right thing to do. But not always. It takes discerning with the Holy Spirit‘s wisdom to know what to do with the separations we consider as necessary for life.  

Connected to Christ and the believing community doesn’t mean we lose our individuality with all its grandeur and funny little quirks. On the vine that is Christ, the branches do not all look alike or act alike.

I know a man named Ben who had a horrendous life as a youth. Abuse and neglect drove him into crime – serious crime that resulted in years of incarceration. Upon release, Ben went back to his own city to reconnect with family and friends, but people he knew were fearful that he would fall back into old ways. They wouldn’t trust him. Providentially, Ben came across AA which accepted him unconditionally. With lots of encouragement, now years later, Ben has found himself part of a community that accepts him for all he has become. He, in turn, is reaching out to others to help them connect.

What we say we believe about the vine and the branches becomes real as we accept people not of our own choosing who are pruned by God’s grace and are ready to be connected to us in faith and life.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, April 20, 2018

Being God's People

Dear Friends,

Papa Francesco has done it again! At the beginning of his sixth year as our Pope, Francis has offered believers, and indeed the world, grist for spiritual growth.

This, the fifth of his documents, is an apostolic exhortation on holiness. Entitled Gaudete and Exultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), Pope Francis invites believers “to be holy by living our lives with love and by being witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (14).

In 135, Francis soars as he tells the reader about the essential connection between love of God and love of neighbor..."God is eternal newness and impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where women and men, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek answers to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! God is fearless, always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, God himself becomes a fringe. So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find Him there. Indeed, He is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.”

At the same time, Francis doesn’t dismiss our need for prayer. “I do not believe in holiness without prayer, even though that prayer need not be lengthy or involve intense emotions” (147). But he continually goes back to the indispensable need to serve others. “We may think that we give glory to God only by our worship and prayer, or simply by following ethical norms. It is true that the primacy belongs to our relationship with God, but we cannot forget that the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others” (104).               

In Chapter five, Francis writes about some virtues he believes to be important for us to practice in our lives if we are to be holy: “perseverance amid life’s ups and downs to endure hostility, betrayal and failings on the part of others,” (112), humility, boldness and apostolic courage.

He also tells the reader that community is necessary for holiness, contrary to our contemporary culture that advocates being apart. “Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things” (134).

“Growth in holiness,” Pope Francis continues, “is a journey in community, side by side with others” (141). “Each community is called to create a God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the Risen Lord” (142).

“Do not be afraid of holiness,” Pope Francis says. “It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind for you when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self” (32).

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, April 13, 2018

Handing Ourselves Over

Dear Friends,

There’s a subtle little something that happens to us after Easter. What a relief! Another Lent has been negotiated in a more or less satisfactory way. Jesus is safely risen. Our catechumens and candidates are baptized and welcomed into the church. We can relax. Enjoy the blossoming springtime. Live out the rest of the year without concentrating on Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Christ’s in his heaven, the poet says. All’s right with the world. What more is there to say?

The more is this: we are never done moving between the events of Holy Week and Christ’s risen presence. So during the weeks of the Easter Season, this blog will occasionally look at some aspect of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ last days and His Resurrection, and see that they have something revelatory to say to us in our times which are growing more secular and less convinced of Jesus’ present day reality.

In all four Gospel accounts of the Passion, it is said that Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. Pilate had that power bestowed on him from Caesar. Jesus, in His own way, accepted the power of Pilate over Him. Jesus did not flee, or argue or try to change things. He allowed Himself to be handed over.

That made me think about the many ways we hand ourselves over to people and situations, or that people hand themselves over to us, for better or worse. Some hand themselves over to social media. At some level, we hand ourselves over to doctors, dentists, airline pilots, educators. We trust their skill and learnedness. We believe we will get to our destination, our goal by placing ourselves in their hands: lower blood pressure, strong, healthy teeth, skills acquired to make a living. I know a man who just had major reconstructive surgery done. For six years, he had handed himself over to a doctor who tried many procedures, but failed to address the root problem. Another doctor, the one who did the surgery, was disgusted with the doctor who let the pain go on for six years. Healing sometimes requires that we hand ourselves over to new guides.

There is a level of life deep within us that we are reluctant to hand over to anyone, and certainly not God – our privacy, our mistaken belief that we are the primary guides of our own lives and this has nothing to do with God. I think of Ignatius of Loyola – soldier and man of the world – who sustained a battle injury and had to convalesce in a place where the only books were about Jesus and the saints. These were enough to set him on the path to a future unlike any he had anticipated.

To what spiritual guides do we hand ourselves over? Cultic leaders who want to dominate us or guides who help us follow the unseen paths along which God guides us already?

And who has been handed over to us for better or worse? If we are parents, our children have been handed over to us to guide and inspire. If we are educators or faith leaders, we are called to help shape those we work with not to be like us but to be like Jesus.

Jesus, handing himself over to Pilate went to his death. But that was not the end, for Jesus was ultimately handed over to eternal life. That is our destiny, too.

~Sister Joan Sobala