Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Start of a New Year

Dear Friends,

On this clean page of a new year, we can begin by thanking God for making it through another year and to ask God’s blessing on the year about to unfold, with all of its unknowns, and unexpected twists and turns. Sensing our need for affirmation, the designers of today’s readings and prayers have given us first of all, an ancient blessing from the Book of Numbers (6.24-26):

The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!

God stands with us at the head of this new year, encouraging us to live fully, faithfully and freely.

Two phrases from today’s Gospel from Luke offer us stepping stones into this unformed year:

Of the shepherds, the Gospel says they understood (Luke 2.17). Our yearlong work is to understand what we are called to be and do, to deepen ourselves as spiritual, loving people – people generous with strangers as well as loved ones. We are invited to understand ourselves as individuals, as family members and parts of a national and global society at a time when uncertainty about our national direction looms large. We are asked to cast around and see who is doing the work of building the reign of God and understand how we can join in to the benefit of our world.

Of Mary, the Gospel says she treasured these things and reflected on them in her heart (Luke 2.19). Our yearlong work is to search out the meaning of our lives – where we are going, what God speaks to us through ordinary voices. Let me give you an example of finding the treasures in the ordinary voices we hear. A friend of mine lost her father on her very birthday some years ago. We were talking about that day recently. How did you get through it, I asked. How does your Dad’s death on your birthday color your birthday each year?  She had a profound answer. A child in the class that she had taught the year before her father’s death had given her a homemade condolence card when he died. The child had written: “How lucky you are to have your Daddy meet God on your birthday. No one else can say this about their Dads.” The words worked for my friend. She has treasured this experience and has held it in her heart.

These three tasks are before us; to understand, to treasure and to reflect. That’s enough to fill the whole year.                                                        

And now, from my congregation to your heart, this blessing for the year stretching out before us:

May the God of Strength be with you and may you be the sacrament of God’s strength to the people whose hands you hold.

May the God of Peace be with you, stilling the heart that hammers with fear and doubt and confusion and helping you sow peace in the world.

May the God of Joy be with you. May you share joy with others, throughout the year.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Relishing the Christmas Possibilities

Dear Friends,

If children will be part of your Christmas, be glad, because the house will resound with laughter and shrieks of delight. Children revel in Christmas. They learn early on about the generosity of God who came to be one with us, teaching us in the way he was born about simplicity and making due with little. Children don’t watch the joy of Mary and Joseph, or the shepherds coming in from the fields. 
They participate in that joy. They get excited about gift giving. They learn to rely on family and parish traditions that create the aura of Christmas. But Christmas is not primarily for children. It is essentially for adults who are trying to make real in life the faith that beckons them to be one with God.

Have you seen the GE commercial about messy imagination being born? It’s immediately rejected on the streets, in shops and neighborhoods. Imagination sleeps near the dumpster because no one wants it. “Imagination,” the voice-over goes on, “is the natural enemy of the way things are.” So is Jesus. Jesus is the natural enemy of the status quo which denies that life could be better, which accepts that lives are going nowhere. Jesus is rejected by many, even as the fruit of imagination is rejected.

Imagination gives rise to hereto for unexpected possibilities.

That first Christmas was a birth of possibilities for all who surrounded Jesus. One day, because the Word became flesh, the lame would walk, the blind see, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. Love, justice and compassion would prevail. People’s lives would have new meaning. The ends of stories would be turned inside out. When Matthew and Luke wrote the Infancy Narratives, they weren’t writing for children, but rather for women and men who were struggling with the beliefs, attitudes and practices of faith. So too with us. We struggle with what the world calls us to and what Faith in God calls us to. These are not the same. But they need not be contrary to one another. After all, the only place we can live out our faith is in the life we live in this world, here and now.

Because Jesus came as one of us, Christmas encourages us to be aware of our capacity for change and growth. It’s all too easy to become creatures of habit and get stuck in our ways. It’s a challenge to start something new. I can’t is not a Christmas word. Of course you can. After all, didn’t God come to accompany us through the pages of the years.

What is still waiting to be born in us?
What talents have we neglected over the years?
What dreams of our childhood are still awaiting fulfillment?
How can we bring joy and greater life to those around us?

Because Jesus dared to be one with us, let’s let Christmas this year be a time for something wholly new to be born in us. Relish the Christmas possibilities. Christmas blessings to you and all you love.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, December 19, 2016

Untying the Knots in Our Lives

Dear Friends,

Some people find their stomachs in knots as Christmas draws near. The thought of being with certain relatives, the anxiety over whether gifts are well-chosen and well-received, the deadlines, the baking and travel…all part of life, and not just grist for advice columns in the newspaper.

As Matthew tells in the infancy narratives, Joseph was in knots over what he should do about his pregnant betrothed, Mary. The child she carried was not his. The text doesn’t say so, but I suspect Mary was in knots, too.

Pope Francis, then Father Jorge Maria Bergoglio, had been the provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina. The times were challenging, and when he was relieved of his duties, Father Bergoglio went off to Germany to continue his studies of chemistry, which had been his original area of expertise.

One day, Father Bergoglio happened to visit a church where he came upon a sculpture of Mary entitled “Mary, the Untier of Knots.” The sculpture indeed showed her untying the knots of a ribbon. The statue spoke to him personally, so he set out to find out more.

It seems that in the early 1700’s, a young German couple was struggling to keep their marriage alive. They prayed to Mary for guidance, and they did their share of the work. Eventually, they were able to reestablish their marriage in a warm, loving way. In gratitude they approached a sculptor named Johann Schmidtner. They told him their story and asked if he would create a statue of Mary that would symbolize their gratitude and portray the very real life situation in which they had found themselves. The statue spoke eloquently of Mary, the Untier of Knots.

Later, when Father Bergoglio returned as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he brought with his a replica of the original Mary, Untier of Knots, and placed it in the cathedral. People have come there in great numbers ever since to view this statue of Mary, that she might help untie the knots of their lives.

Afterwards, Archbishop Bergoglio wrote a reflection which gives us hope when we consider the messiness, the knots of our own lives.

“Mary is the mother who patiently and lovingly brings us to God, so that God can untangle the knots of our lives. She is our mother, but we can also say that she is our sister, our eldest sister.

Mary’s life was the life of a woman of her people. She prayed, she worked she went to synagogue. Mary lived her life in the thousand daily tasks and worries of every mother.

Mary is the prototype of all humans. She is the human mother, who had human wisdom, strength and faith that we should all try to emulate.

Mary is the friend who is ever concerned that wine is not lacking on our lives. She is the woman whose heart was pierced by a sword and who thus knows and understands our human pain.

As a mother of us all, she is a sign of hope, especially for people suffering the injustice, poverty, the loss of loved ones, separation and divorce.

To each of us she says, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Am I not here - I who am your mother?’”

Knots happen in life. But as Christmas comes, no one can take hope from us.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Genealogy of the Infancy Narratives

Dear Friends,

Where did you come from? What ethnic people, what language group? What qualities of mind, heart and spirit are in you (some would say in your gene pool) by virtue of their being cultivated, honored, practiced by others in your family at various times in history? says it can give you information to help fill in some of the gaps in your identity. But there’s more to the question of who we are and where we came from that is important at this time of year for all of us who are Christian. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we come face to face with what it means to say we are part of the family of God, Father/Mother, Word and Holy Spirit.

The Russian artist, Rublev, shows the viewer in his painting of the Holy Trinity, that there is a fourth seat pulled up at the table. For us. We are welcome at the table of the Trinity. We belong. We are the brothers and sisters of the Word Made Flesh, Jesus, Emmanuel, God – With-Us. His family is our family.

So let’s pause over something we usually skip as boring – the genealogy that begins the infancy narrative in Matthew 1.1 – 17, and the genealogy in Luke 3.23 – 38. Even though we often skip these passages, they offer the reader a human context into which we can situate Jesus and our own spiritual heritage.

Matthew’s Infancy Narratives can be described as a bridge between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The first thing Matthew tells us is that Jesus can be traced through Joseph back to Abraham. One notable point about Matthew’s genealogy is that four women are included. Not all were seemingly “pure.” Tamar tricked her father-in-law, Judah, into her bed. Rahab was a prostitute who saved Jesse and his colleagues from death in Jericho. Ruth was a poor foreigner. Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, when she came together with David. These four all bore sons. There’s more to their stories, of course, but in fact, these four women were counted as important in the lineage that led to Jesus.

Luke places his genealogy of Jesus immediately after the baptism of Jesus. It’s shorter, includes no women and traces Jesus back through history to Seth, Adam and ultimately, God.
In our belonging to the family of God, the Israelites, Hebrews, Jews are part of our spiritual history. That means that we ought to be ready for an immense spiritual gathering for Christmas, for these people will be there as well as our own families of origin going back as far as we can trace them. Christmas is a celebration of mutual belonging: God with us, we with God, we with one another from time immemorial. This Christmas, think big.

~~~Continuing from last week our list of people to cherish during Advent as God cherishes us:

Dec. 12 world delegates to the United Nations   Dec. 13 the visually impaired and their supporters     Dec. 14 those newly  elected  to serve                  Dec. 15 children dying of malnutrition                         
Dec. 16 retail clerks                                                   Dec. 17 prisoners on death row
Dec. 18 the people of Haiti

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, December 5, 2016

Thinking Outside the Box

Dear Friends,
The American public has just witnessed success and failure played out in our national, state and local elections. Now, in this time before Christmas, Christians celebrating Advent are given John the Baptist, the man and the message to consider. By today’s political standards, John, the man, was a failure – a loser. He was never first. His followers left him. He lost his life. He died not knowing whether what he said or did would bear fruit. Yet he stands out in the Gospel, and has lessons for us as no other.
John’s greatness can’t be measured by success or failure. It was his sense of perspective that made John a giant in the realm of faith. He knew he was part of a reality much bigger than he, and was open to the unknown. He had a critical role to play in preparing the way for Jesus, but he was not the whole drama.
This is our story, too. As we review our year as people are wont to do in December, we recognize elements of success and achievement – highlights for which we can be grateful. We also experienced down times, maybe even rejection and disappointment. In some ways, we have entered into the unknown. John encourages us to look at the bigger picture. Suppose that, taking our cue from him, we open ourselves to understanding who Jesus is and who we are in relationship to Him. Only then, our perspectives on truly important things can change.
John’s message to anyone who would listen is to personal conversion. By that, John doesn’t just mean to do things differently. In fact, he means to change our way of thinking and that’s much harder to do, isn’t it? Patterns of thought die hard. We are called to reform our thinking toward our relationship with God and the many people and problems in our contemporary world. Then we can act in new ways. It’s only when we dare to think outside our own personal box that we can help this world of ours move toward the reign of God. What can we do personally to reform ourselves first? That’s worth considering this week as we let John the Baptist influence us in our growth as people who share life and faith.
The paradox of John’s life could well be the paradox of our own: recognizing that as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we really don’t end up being less in the process.
Going back to last week, the first week in Advent, I hoped that each of us could practice cherishing people as God cherishes us: people who are strangers, people who revolt us, people upon whom we would cast a judgment if we dared. In case you haven’t had a chance to make a list for every day of this week, here are some to consider:
                                            Dec.5  guests and volunteers in our area soup kitchens and shelters
                                            Dec. 6 firefighters, the deceased and dispossessed as a result of natural 
                                                        disasters in Tennessee and Alabama and other places in the South
                                            Dec. 7 military veterans from countries around the world
                                            Dec. 8 expectant mothers and fathers
                                            Dec. 9 adversaries and those caught up in the fighting in Aleppo and Mosul
                                            Dec. 10 blood donors and blood recipients
                                            Dec. 11 victims of abuse and their abusers

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cherishing the People of the Earth

Dear Friends,
Beginning yesterday, our churches were dressed in subdued colors – shades of blue and light lavender with some pink woven in. This ambiance signaled the First Sunday of Advent. Unless we go to Mass weekly, unless we light a special set of Advent wreath candles to our homes, unless we have homes festooned with our own touches of blues and light lavender with streams of pink woven in and hold off the merry reds, we will not even know it is Advent – a time of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s coming into the world. The world at large skips Advent. The Christmas rush of shopping, baking, parties and a long list of “to do’s” is happening already. Christmas Carols have been playing in our malls for some time now. We’ll get tired of them soon. Christmas reds and ivy green and twinkling lights distract us from preparing our hearts for Christmas.
The Evangelist John says in the prologue to his Gospel, verse 1.14, that the Word leapt into the world and pitched his tent among us. The Word became human in Jesus, who has loved and cherished us endlessly, undeniably and intensely. So why not emulate Jesus and prepare for Christmas by spending these four weeks cherishing the people of the earth, day by day.
Get out a calendar page for November 28 to December 24. Fill in some days with the name of someone/some group that you will think of, pray for and cherish for the whole day in Jesus’ name. Leave some days blank so that newcomers who enter the theatre of life this month can be included with their story of unexpected pain, success shared, newness, revelation and hope. Reach wide. Jesus came to save the world. He excluded no one. Nor should we.
Here’s a sample week of people to cherish:
                November 28                    refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean
                November 29                    school children and their families
                November 30                    our grandparents and the great lessons we learned from them
                December 1                       people who are working to make America welcoming for all
                December 2                       the newest members of our family (babies, newbies through      
                                                             marriage and friendship)
                December 3                       the opioid addicted and those who love them 
                December 4                       the deceased in today’s obituaries
The point is not to just remember these people with our thoughts, but to cherish them in our hearts…to hold them close, be with them and for them, as Jesus, the Incarnate Risen One is. God loves each and every person with a tenderness beyond words. God has been and is faithful to us, has and does put aside our sin and knows us for what we are at our very core: redeemed children of an embracing God. To be like God is to cherish all people in our daily lives all year long. We practice this way of being Godlike during this Advent season, as we prepare to celebrate the Word who has leapt into our world and finds himself very much at home among us.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 21, 2016

Deepening Our Gratitude

Dear Friends,
What do you say to someone who thanks you for a kind word, a thoughtful gesture or unexpected encouragement? Most often heard in the public square today is the response “No problem!” This phrase is really a throwaway, isn’t it? It may well be that both the giver and the receiver of thanks are distracted – not really present to one another.
What ever happened to “You’re welcome?” This response “You’re welcome!” acknowledges a gift given and taken in, a word or gesture valued, not diminished by a throwaway response. Receiving or giving a grateful word takes a certain bigness of heart, a sense that together, the giver and the receiver of thanks have achieved a new moment in the human journey of connectedness. We are better for having had this encounter.
Often, the gospel we use for a Thanksgiving Day Eucharist is the story of Jesus and the 10 lepers. (Luke  17. 11 – 19) We tend to lump these lepers together into a faceless group, as if they came out of nowhere and were going nowhere.
But they were people with life stories, like you and me. Someone loved them. Maybe they had a spouse or children who missed them, who wondered what had brought this disaster down on them. Birthdays, weddings, deaths were missed. Maybe some were professionals whose work was forfeited because of their illness. They were women and men, young and old, from here and there. Jesus went to them. He stood in their outcast place with them and gave them new life. Nine ran off to resume that life. Maybe they didn’t even realize that Jesus had anything to do with their cleansing. But one did: a foreigner, a stranger, a Samaritan. When in his own moment of joy, the healed man recognized the source of his cure and thanked Jesus. The Scripture doesn’t say so, but I suspect that Jesus knew his own moment of joy.
Gratitude begets joy, and joy is contagious.
So here are the ingredients we’ve already mentioned that we can use to deepen gratitude in our gifted lives:                                  be present to/conscious of the one being thanked
                                           recognize our connectedness with one another
                                           say the words “thank you”
                                           experience joy and pass it on
This Thanksgiving, “pray not only because you need something, but because you have a lot to be grateful for” (Pope Francis). For all the gifts of life, say thank you to God, not “no problem.” No matter our feelings about the recent elections, Theodore Roosevelt encourages us: “No people on earth have more cause to be grateful than ours, and this is said reverently, in no spirit of boastfulness in our own strength, but with gratitude to the Giver of good who has blessed us.”
And I thank God for you who stop by this blog to consider and sometimes savor these weekly thoughts.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 14, 2016

Post-Election Reconciliation

Dear Friends,

This week, we are awash in words, and we need to be. We are a people who are trying to understand the meaning of this presidential election – deeply divided by profound sadness, fear, and even abhorrence on one side, and on the other, elated satisfaction embedded in the hearts and minds of people who believed they were finally heard. Each of us comes to these contrasting emotions side from where we stand. That’s the truth of it: we hear, we perceive, we choose from where we stand.

Listening to a variety of voices over the past few days, I heard some journalists admit they didn’t do their homework – they didn’t adequately go out to where people lived and hear their voices raised in frustration and anger. I heard some people say they were caught off guard: Who would want anyone but Hillary Clinton, with her courage, experience and convictions? But more Americans than not tipped the scales of the electoral process toward now President-elect Donald Trump.

I heard Khzir Khan interviewed early on Election Day. The anchor wanted to know if Mr. Khan had acquired a taste for politics. Would he pursue a political career? “No,” Khzir Kahn said. “But I do have 44 commitments with various groups across the country until next April: opportunities to talk about reconciliation.”

Reconciliation is not easy to come by. We must first seek out the other – the one from whom we are alienated and talk through the miseries that have divided us. That’s the first major hurdle, isn’t it? We don’t know how to talk with each other. To say where we stand and why. Too often, people who embark on these conversations only want to make their own points and not take in the meaning the other is trying to convey. That’s what made reconciliation so difficult between the prodigal son and the older brother. The older brother, who had had everything up to that point, didn’t want his brother to have everything. Reconciliation requires standing on a common ground and hope for a common good. Both sides must engage in the effort – but this week may be too soon. Grief and its opposite, the elation of victory, need to run their course.

Those of us who share the Christian tradition know, at least as a practice and tenet of faith, that we are all called to help shape the kindom (reign/kingdom) of God…a kindom of justice, peace, respect, love – a kindom where the Beatitudes are embraced as a daily way of life and the works of justice and mercy (Matthew 25) are a daily task for all of us, no matter our political affiliation. We know these, as well as we know that in our national founding documents, all people are created equal. Without doubt on my part, this election calls us to be conscious of these life-shaping foundations and to activate them with renewed vitality over these next four years.

In a reflection on the these times, my friend Bill Johnson, former Mayor of Rochester, ended with a strong reminder from the poet Maya Angelou: “You may not be able to control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Will we individually and collectively make that choice?

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 7, 2016

Uniting as One Nation Under God

Dear Friends,
This is a week of coming face to face with life-altering choices for Americans: choosing leaders and recalling how many Americans choose to be sent into harm’s way for the sake of the common good.
I speak, of course of Election Day (Tuesday), and Veterans’ Day (Friday).
It’s well-known that we have been in a cycle of paralysis, which thwarts our desire to be all we can be as a people – our desire that everyone benefit from life in these United States. 
As we prepare to choose, political candidates at every level have tried to convince us of their positions. Are there other voices to listen to? I know one in particular that we heard speaking to a joint session of Congress last year: Pope Francis. Here are some excerpts from his speech on September 24, 2015, to mull over as we attempt to hear God’s voice in concert with our choices as we prepare to vote. I invite us to read over these thoughts (even out loud), pray over them and carry them in our minds and hearts to our polling places as a reminder of the good we have been as a nation and the good we are called to.
                “Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this, you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you…you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face…
                All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by the disturbing social and political situation of our world today…We know that to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you as a people reject…
                I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams.’ Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people…
                A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their sisters and brothers, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton….
                {Here is} some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream. “
This week, I wish you the courage to vote with an openness to all our brothers and sisters who join together in a mutual desire for life in abundance. May you honor all who have served our nation’s vision of a world at peace. May the end of the week find us more deeply united as one nation under God.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, October 31, 2016

Honoring Life Stories

Dear Friends,
As our calendar turns this week through Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, we are at least vaguely aware that this is the time to remember loved ones as well as strangers who have gone before us.
To highlight these days and these memories, I’m going to do two things this week, and I invite you to do so as well.
First, I’m going to take a walk in a cemetery – a slow, thoughtful walk, pausing to look at individual tombstones, and groups of tombstones that point to relationships among people deliberately buried together. A walk like this might take us to historic Mount Hope Cemetery, or to an old, apparently forgotten cemetery in the country or to a village cemetery. My immediate family members are buried in Lackawanna and Batavia. I doubt if I’ll get to either place this week, but walking through another cemetery will help me remember that my loved ones lived their lives as fully as possible, and now their remains are in a treasured place, like the one I’m walking through.
Ghost walks are popular around Halloween. This is not intended to be a ghost walk, but a tender walk of remembering people who lived as we do, with hopes and desires, frustrations and delights, sadness and joy.  If you see a small pile of stones at a particular gravesite, take a closer look. What this pile of stones may represent is a practice borrowed from our Jewish brothers and sisters, for whom a stone placed at a gravesite indicates honor, connectedness, reverence for the ideals that moved that person in life.
The second “to do” of the week is to go to one or both lectures offered this week at Nazareth College as part of the Annual Shannon Lecture Series. This week, the speaker is Robert Ellsberg, the publisher of Orbis Books, internationally recognized for his extensive publications about the saints of our world. He includes in his books, figures as widely separated in time and religious orientation as Sadhu Sundar Singh (Indian Mystic), Rahab (Faithful Prostitute of the Book of Joshua), Agneta Chang (Maryknoll Sister and Martyr),  St. Boniface (Missionary and Martyr) and Johann Sebastian Bach (Composer) to mention a few. Mr. Ellsberg will start with A Revolution of the Heart: From Dorothy Day to Pope Francis (Thursday, November 3 at 7 pm at the Schutts Center at Nazareth College) and will continue the next day with Saints and Prophets: Models for Today (Friday, November 4 at 1:30 pm in the Golisano Center.) To fill our minds with other people’s stories of faith is to give ourselves a new way of looking at our own lives. As Pope Francis told our Congress last September, “saints offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality.”
Both of these “to do’s”  offer ways of looking outward at a time of year when the temptation is to hunker down and give up venturing “out there” – where people and situations which can expand our hearts, minds and souls.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Food in Our Life

Dear Friends,
Is not life more than food? Jesus asks this in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 6.25)
Of course it is, we would say, but we also have to admit that food is a great human preoccupation and a primary source of comfort as well as nourishment. Our mother’s milk was, after all, the first of our human comforts. Hot soup during this recent spate of rainy weather has also been a comfort.
Food is intimately bound up with our biblical origins and history as a people of faith
  • Adam and Eve got into trouble because they chose to eat food that was forbidden.
  • When the Israelites were in the desert, God gave them daily substantial food called manna.
  • The remembered stories of and about Jesus often brought people together around food – parties, and dinners and ritual meals and pick up meals on the road. Then of course, there is the multiplication of the loaves and fishes – a story told by each of the evangelists, so profound was this experience for the followers of Jesus.
Jesus knew how important it was to share food and drink with people and He went beyond that to link food with His relationship with His Father. “I have food to eat that you do not know about,” Jesus told his followers (John 4.32) “My food is to do the will of the One who sent me (John 4.34).” “Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life – the kind of food I was offering you (John 6.27). In the mystical transformation of food’s nurture of mind and body, Christ comes in Eucharist as bread and wine to nourish our daily lives.
Halloween marks the beginning of a long holiday season, where the centerpiece of our hospitality will be food that is shared. Looking ahead, how about making space in our lifestyles to find and savor spiritual food in times that could easily distract us from God’s presence and care? How about reexamining our own use of food as a humanizing agent for ourselves and our communities?
Generations of health experts have warned us that we are what we eat. The irrepressible Zorba the Greek in Nikos Kazantzakis’s great novel points us to the truth of being what we eat. “Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are. Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humor, and some, I’m told, into God.”
Like Jesus, we, too, have food to eat which we do not know.
Food for bodily and spiritual strength.
Food for vision.
Food for re-valuing food, and sharing it at life’s many tables.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

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