Friday, April 28, 2017

Taking Delight in God's Good Earth

Dear Friends,

Each year in April and May, avid gardeners prepare the land for planting, and when the moment is right, put in their annuals. Long before that, perennials are divided, shared, swapped and pinched off.

Those of us who like to have perennials in our gardens also know that certain perennials send out long adventuresome roots: bishop’s weed, lilies of the valley, jack- o-lanterns, to mention a few. They go under sidewalks and around corners and won’t stop. The only way to eliminate perennials that threaten to take over everything is to attack their roots system, to find “the mother” as it’s called.

The sneakiest thing about these tentacled plants is that they reappear when you think you have eliminated them. Roots have the power within them to shoot life to the surface. These roots intertwine with plants we want to preserve. The danger is in killing both.

So too in the spiritual life. The good we intend, the love, the care, the hopefulness, our sense of justice are often intertwined with less noble and sometimes downright destructive aspects of our personalities and habits. We need a kind of spiritual round-up -- you  know, ”round-up,” the topical spray which goes to the roots of what needs to be eliminated.

Then, too, I can’t help thinking about uprooted people…refugees and immigrants.

About one in every 35 people in the world is a refugee or international immigrant, forcibly uprooted because of persecution or war. The uprooted face closed borders, closed hearts and closed minds. Where will they be welcomed to put down their own roots?

It’s up to the world’s gardens to receive the special blossoms and fruits of the displaced. But it’s at a cost to us. We might be asked to make room, become hybrid and after all, is that so bad?

In his lessons in the Gospel, Jesus tells us that it’s important to stay connected to the vine, to let the tares grow with the wheat until harvest, to be pruned, to scatter seed lavishly. Every lesson we learn from the earth and its yield is a lesson of faith.

Years ago, a parishioner where I worked, and fellow gardener, brought me a five ounce paper cup with a seed growing in it. “I don’t recognize it, Mike.”  He beamed. “It’s a redwood tree.” What an act of faith! To plant a redwood seed, knowing this tree could grow and flourish for a thousand years or more! Mike taught me an important lesson, echoed by the poet Wendell Berry. “Plant sequoias,” Berry says. ”Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant. Practice resurrection.”

So as spring deepens into planting time and the earth warms, plant flowers and vegetables. Scatter seed. Take delight in God’s good earth. Remember those across the world who gave their life’s blood so that others might plant freely. Hold up your green thumb as if to say to God “OK Gardener God, let the growing begin.”

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Breath of Christ

Dear Friends,

Thomas wasn’t there on Easter Sunday night, when Jesus breathed on his disciples – a comforting, welcoming, power-instilling breath. You and I know the power of breath in CPR, for example, and how close one has to be to feel the breath of another. The Greek word that is used to describe Jesus breathing on his disciples appears here and nowhere else in the New Testament. But it’s the same word used three times in the Old Testament – at the creation of human life by God in Genesis, when Elisha, the prophet is described in Second Kings as breathing life into a dead man, in Ezekiel, where the breath of God puts new life into dead bones. That very breath is in us, making us a faith community, a new creation.

That Easter night, the Risen Jesus also gave his disciples the power of loosing and binding. Catholic theology recognizes in this passage about binding and loosing the roots of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And so it is. But we can say moreover that the whole Church is called to bind and loose people. We tend to think of our responsibility to bind and loose as minimal and that the task/the grace of binding and loosing properly belongs to priests and bishops.

But the Gospel does not allow us to give this commission away. It’s like this: You and I and people all over the world participate in human reconciliation with God. That reconciliation is at the heart of the Lenten season we just experienced. I know people who, during Lent, made phone calls, wrote letters and did whatever they could to foster reconciliation among people and reconciliation of people with God. We bind people to be faithful to their commitments, to their own integrity. Richard III of England took as his motto “Loyalty binds me.” We, too, are bound by our loyalties, our talents, our unity as a believing community. We are also told to free one another from the people, situations and cultural inducements that bind us destructively. I cannot be persuaded that the American cultural practice of Sunday morning sports leagues for children and teens, a.k.a. churchless Sunday mornings, is for the good of the faith of families or the participants themselves.

On this Second Sunday of Easter, all our readings remind us that we are called and commissioned together, and that being together for Sunday worship is not a luxury but a necessity for Christians.

At his home, one winter night, the famous 19th Century American evangelist DL Moody was listening to a guest defend himself in being separated from the faith community. “Frankly,” the guest told Moody, “I don’t see any problem about not being part of a church. I can be quite a good Christian out of the Church as well as within it.” In answer, Moody moved toward the fireplace, took up the tongs and removed a piece of wood that had been ignited. The two men watched the wood, separated from the fireplace, begin to falter, smolder and not long after, go out. The lesson brought the man back to church after that. He had learned that to separate oneself is to cease to burn.

The disciples accepted Thomas when he returned the following week, and the Risen Jesus gave him every opportunity Thomas said he needed to continue in faith.

We, too, have every opportunity to accept the breath of Christ into our being – to bind and loose in Christ’s name – intangible, real Easter gifts that can engender new life.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sips of Easter

The Lord is risen, Alleluia! Happy Easter, dear friends.

Today, rather than one more or less coherent little essay, I offer you sips of Easter to savor through the day or week. The sips of Easter are from others who, in gazing upon the Risen Lord, were moved to words – people who throughout history have used every medium of communication to say “I have  savored, adored, discovered, was touched to the quick by Jesus the Risen Lord.”

~Keep watch then, brothers and sisters… for the morning of that day which has no sunset has already shone upon us. (Guerric of Igny  c. 1150)

~Let all then enter the joy of the Lord! Both the first and the last and those who come after… Rich and poor, dance with one another, sober and slothful, celebrate the day. Those who have kept the fast and those who have not, rejoice today for the table is richly spread… Let no one go away hungry. All of you, enjoy the banquet of faith… Christ is risen, and life is set free. (Easter Sermon of John  Chrysostom )

~From an anonymous correspondent who sent this to Bishop Joseph L. Hogan of Rochester who then made it famous by circulating it in the diocese: “Who rolled back the stone? You did, when you laughed, cried, shared, trusted me… When you let me help you, hold you… When you could have said no but said yes instead… when you listened, smiled, and let me keep my dignity… when confusion, loneliness, disappointments came crashing in and there you were...When you gently called me to prayer, to celebrate life, to sing, to dance, to risk, to love. Then the stone rolled away. When you said I care, I love you, I need you, I’m sorry, I forgive you…then the stone rolled away. New life, spring, warmth, life, freedom were born. The resurrection became Reality. (Bishop of Rochester 1969-1978)

~“It all began with the Resurrection… if he had only stayed put…” Dan Berrigan S.J. (1921-2016) How would you continue his poem?

~Cartoon: Which came first the bunny or the egg? Neither, they are both made of chocolate. Caveman walks away, trips, slides down a hill, hits his head on a tree. Groggily, he notices a sign with an arrow. The word on the sign is TOMB. Caveman finds the tomb, goes in, comes out scratching his head saying to himself “Life’s greatest discoveries seldom occur without pain.” (B.C. by Mastroianni and Hart)

~The Jesus of Easter is the Completer of unfinished people with unfinished work in unfinished times. (Lona Fowler)

~The Resurrection is not a crutch. It does not allow us to excuse the killing of an innocent teenager or the conduct of a war that seems not to be headed toward some just resolution. The Resurrection, rather, is the reason to hold on to our hope. (Mark Hare)

~May the God who shakes heaven and earth, whom death could not contain, who lives to disturb and heal us, bless you with power to go forth and proclaim the gospel. Amen (Janet  Morley)

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, April 10, 2017

Celebrating Holy Week

Dear Friends,

Holy Week, among other things, is about resistance – the refusal to accept, be part of, grasp and take in whatever is set forth as necessary, irrefutable and absorbing.

Jesus was a resistor.

Hearing the crowd’s Hosanna, Jesus resisted the temptation to believe that the adulation of the crowd would last. Jesus resisted running away from suffering – yet in the garden, as he prayed, Jesus resisted suffering and the very comfort of knowing he was loved by his Father. Jesus resisted the night with its betrayal, the night of death and the bleakness of the tomb. He resisted bitterness as his disciples scattered and Peter denied any knowledge of Jesus. Jesus resisted the power of Rome and hostile religious authority that threatened to crush him.

Others involved in the event of these days marshaled resistance as well. Judas resisted the new, unexpected way that Jesus offered people salvation. He wanted Jesus to savior his way. Peter resisted Jesus who knelt to wash Peter’s feet. Later, Peter resisted his conscience and the loyalty Jesus inspired in him. The women in their vigil at the cross and at the tomb resisted the threat of the Roman military and the jibes of the crowd.

Resistance either comes from faith or it does not. When it does not come from faith, as we see in this week’s drama, it disappears into cowardice, shrinks from the inside and leaves failure in its trail. Such resistance obscures the likeness of God in the resistor and offers no spark to ignite the world.

But resistance that comes from faith leads to new life, a renewed confidence in God and Easter itself. Jesus’ cry on the cross shattered the last human resistance – death – forever. On Easter, the resistance of the stone, the inability of Jesus’ disciples to recognize him, and most of all, the resistance called fear gave way to lasting, indescribable joy.

In our world, this Holy Week and Easter, we find all these same resistances played out. Some US citizens resisting self-centeredness, yet others resisting truth. Worldwide, medical workers resist epidemics and at the same time regimes resist being overthrown. Signs of resistance are everywhere. It’s often hard to sort out their meaning. That’s why we need Easter, for when Christ Easters in us and in our world, we recognize the good to embrace and the evil to reject. Boundaries become permeable, resistance gives way to harmony, we become participants in a community working for the common good.

As Holy Week unfolds, I hope we can resist being bystanders only in an ancient drama, bystanders, who in their lack of concern for others, “leave no fingerprints on what their hands have touched.” (Charles Wright)

This week, do not resist Christ. Touch Him in his Passion, Death and Resurrection. Touch one another with the encouragement of faith. Touch the empty tomb. Touch the spring flowers that proclaim He is risen.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Meaning of the Cross

Dear Friends,

We have just experienced several weeks of federal officials at the national level passing the blame for the twists and turns of government. Passing the blame is a common human ancient trait, going back to Adam and Eve. For better than two thousand years, people have dealt with the death of Jesus on the cross by passing the blame. Pontius Pilate is responsible. No, the Scribes and the Pharisees are responsible. No, no. The whole Jewish people throughout history are responsible. And then the question turns on us: Are we responsible? Not me, you might say. I wasn’t there. But the focus on blame doesn’t get to the meaning of the cross. Blame is easy. Solidarity with Jesus on the cross is hard.

God in Jesus, the Word Incarnate, died on the cross, held close by His Father, just as every person is held close by God at the moment of death. God in Jesus came to save us from the destructive power of sin. In the Gospel Jesus does not ask us to imitate Him. Rather we are called to be in solidarity with Him in his life, death and resurrection. Put another way, to be a Christian is to share in the dying and rising of Christ. These are powerful thoughts – almost beyond our ability to grasp, but try we must.

Here’s an important point about the dying of Jesus that is found in the Gospel of John 19.30. It is the cry of Jesus just before he dies: “It is finished.” Far from being a whimper of defeat, tetelestai, the Greek word for what Jesus calls out, is the shout of victory of an athlete as he crosses the finish line. Jesus was not defeated by the cross. It was the instrument of victory over sin and ultimate death.

The earliest tradition of symbolizing Jesus on the cross has this sense of triumph. Christ was the victor. Christ passed from life to glory through his death on the cross. Then there was a turn, and for many centuries until recent times, the Jesus who was imaged on the cross called us to concentrate on his pain, his wounds, his blood. We contemplated Christ’s sufferings, and that was a good thing, but it didn’t help believers reach the realization that Jesus’ death was not the end. The cross was His way to glory and to restore our relationship with God. Many modern crucifixes have renewed the older imagery of Christ, on the cross, who stretches out his arms to draw us to himself.

Good Friday is less than two weeks away, the middle day of the Triduum between the Supper of the Lord and the Easter Vigil. The power and meaning of the cross can get lost in Holy Week when so much of our truth as believers comes to absorb us in such a short time. That’s why it’s good to start now to dive into the meaning of Christ’s gift of Himself and His new Risen Life among us.

Do you have a crucifix at home? Move it into a more prominent place where you can see it and call for its deepest meaning to flood through you. Mark your calendar for the Liturgy of Good Friday. While it is a laudable practice to participate in the Stations of the Cross, the stations are not the Liturgy of Good Friday. Find out its time and be there. Bring no agenda except to be in solidarity with Jesus in his time of victory over death and sin.

Behold! Behold!    The wood of the cross on which has hung our salvation.     O come let us adore!

~ Sister Joan Sobala

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

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Culture of Non-violent Resistance

Dear Friends,

Non-violent protests have taken place across the country and elsewhere in the world since President Trump’s inauguration, even to this weekend. In themselves, such protests are a powerful symbol of solidarity and resistance to perceived injustice. Otherwise seemingly ordinary people are moved to act in extraordinary ways, convinced that human problems can be solved without violence. A movement, which began to rise as seemingly isolated instances in the last century, continues to be treasured, and repeated, albeit in new ways. We not only see it, we recognize it as holy. It’s ours to carry on for the sake of life.

One remarkable instance of non-violent resistance in Nazi Germany has been told by a man named Nathan Stolzfus. He reports that a thousand women demonstrated before the Rosenstrasse Detention Center in Berlin, demanding the release of their Jewish husbands who had been arrested by the Gestapo. The women were defiant, refusing to disband. After three days, the Gestapo released the men. Almost all of them survived the war. The women’s resistance had been both powerful and successful.

Non-violent resistance ultimately led to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. True, there have been violent demonstrations since then, even into this century, but the non-violent protest was rising to the level of conviction in the lives of Americans and many people around the world.

The United Nations unanimously declared the first decade of the 21st century to be the “Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.” At times, popular movements have been violent, but what is exposed to the world in such violence is the incredibility of violent regimes who don’t understand that violence is self-defeating. People want peace. The gateway to peace is non-violence. The cessation of hostility and genuine reconciliation are ways to peace, and nothing less will do. We ourselves have to make the choice to be non-violent.

In 1999, I was in Selma for the 35th anniversary of the March to Montgomery which had ended in violence just over the Edmund Pettis Bridge. That anniversary day, while waiting in the streets for the event to begin, many original marchers told bits and pieces of what happened as they went through last minute preparations for the 1964 march: Keep your hands in your pockets. Look forward. Don’t provoke anyone. “Yes,” an ardent civil rights youth had called out, “what if someone hits me and I want to hit back?” “Then you don’t march!” shot back the organizer. It was more than a rule to follow. It was the hallmark of non-violent action on behalf of justice. Non-violence would eventually win in that call for justice.

Nowhere in the gospel does Jesus ever use or advocate violence. In the Garden of Gethsemane, not long before Jesus would die violently on the cross, Jesus said no to the use of violence by His followers. There, in the garden, Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave, Malchus (Jn 18.10). Jesus told Peter to put away his sword. When Luke reports this incident, Jesus heals the slave’s ear. (Lk 22.51.)

In these days, we turn to Jesus, the non-violent teacher of non-violence, to show us firm resistance without recourse to the sword or its contemporary counterpart.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, January 30, 2017

To Stay or To Go

Dear Friends,

Think Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. One day, Jesus asked Peter and his closest followers a vital question about staying with Him or leaving. Jesus had been talking about giving His flesh for them to eat and His blood to drink. His opponents pressed Him harder and harder about this unbelievable message. After hearing His words, some of Jesus’ disciples stopped walking with Him. “This is intolerable language,” they said. “How could anyone accept it?” (Jn.6. 60, 66)

Then Jesus turned to the Twelve. “What about you,” he asked. “Do you want to go away, too?” (Jn.6.67)

The ultimate decision: to stay with Christ or to leave Him. Peter then spoke and hopefully, we dare to make his words our own. “Lord, to whom shall we turn? You have the words of everlasting life. We have come to believe that You are the Christ, the Holy One of God.” (Jn. 6. 68)

The decision “to stay or to leave” looms before human beings of every age, nationality and outlook. People facing political unrest or change in their very nations ask themselves: Do I stay or leave? Refugees are crossing the world because of how they respond to that question. Married people, priests, members of religious orders, weighing personal needs and church developments ask: Do I stay or leave? Women who find resistance in the Church to our ministerial priesthood ask: Do I stay or do I leave? Workers in every field of human endeavor and expertise ask: Do I stay or do I leave? Stay in the field at all? Stay in the field here? Remember a few years ago, the sketch of the little girl, holding tight to the flags of the United Kingdom and England, while the flag of Scotland floated freely away? The caption read “Must you go?” Our questions of staying or going affect others, too. In consideration of them, we weigh our choices.

How do we deal with questions of leaving or staying as they rise in us? Surely it’s a question of judgment, values, convictions, of vision and hope. There is no absolutely right or wrong answer. But there are ways of weighing these questions with wisdom and insight.

I will stay, if there is more life than death in staying? I will stay, if I have something to offer and it can bear fruit? I will stay if there in me a sense of rightness about staying that I can’t shake?

Or I will go, if there is more death than life in staying. I will go, if there is nothing I have to offer that will bear fruit or if what I have to offer is unacceptable and cannot bear fruit. I will go if I believe that God bids me to go elsewhere.

Not very clear or measurable criteria are they? We can argue with them and create our own criteria.

Still, they are a start for our thinking and encouragement to face one of life’s more challenging questions. Who knows. Perhaps, up the road, clarity will confirm our decision and make firm our way.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, January 23, 2017

Being Open to the Chaos in Our Lives

Dear Friends,

Have you ever felt out of control? “Of course,” you may say. “Everyone feels out of control sometimes and I am no exception.”

Today, being out of control or perhaps, experiencing things being beyond our control is common. News events from around the world, the sports schedules of our children, favorite restaurants and meeting places closing unexpectedly, the next four years in our country are beyond our control.

About all of this, we can claim, “It’s chaotic!” We fear and abhor chaos and avoid it as much as possible. In our western, logical way of thinking, we believe that if we exert enough control, the chaos will go away. But it doesn’t. Chaos is a non-negotiable part of our times.                    

Indeed, it’s been part of our world from the beginning. Consider Genesis 1.1. “When God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the water…” Out of this formless void, this darkness, this seemingly lifeless place, God drew forth life. Out of chaos, life.

Once God created the universe, God did not control it with rigidity and totally unalterable predictability. Our God, even today, does not so control our world and our lives that there can be no exceptions, variations, subtleties, nuances and newness.

Today one of the newest understandings in science is called chaos theory. In essence, chaos theory says that small fluctuations lead to large scale transformations. In human life, small fluctuations here/now, lead to large scale transformations then/there. You and I can become other than we are at this moment by setting into motion the small changes that can take us to a new place – either to a better self, a better community, a better world, or to a place of destruction, darkness and despair.

The small changes we make are important when we make them, not out of a sense of controlling the future, but out of a sense of creativity. Jesus knew about control, chaos and creativity, although certainly not in those words. He knew he was not in control of his life, his call, his destiny. All of this belonged to His Father. “I have come to do the will of the one who sent me. (John 5.30)”

Jesus couldn’t control the way people responded to Him or rejected Him. He couldn’t control Judas or the rich young man who walked away or the nine lepers who didn’t come back to say “thank you.”

Things did not go Jesus’ way, but this lack of control didn’t stop him from being faithful to the end. His Father raised Him up from death – death, that ultimate lack of control. Jesus, our Brother and Lord, passed through chaos to a creative present. He lives with us now as our constant companion as we try to live in faith and hope and meet life’s uncertainties with a creative spirit.

Our God calls us, as our God called Jesus, to pay attention to the tiny insignificant things that may well play a major role in shaping our life and world – our own mustard seeds, our own leaven or the tiny supply of oil and flour that sustains us. When in these days of national change, we recognize that absolute control is not ours, we welcome the possibilities that chaos may be hiding, and we do what believers in God have always done, we go forward together.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, January 16, 2017

Reclaiming Our Sense of Belonging

Dear Friends,

The feasts of Christmas, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God and Epiphany saw church attendance spike, as it does on major holydays. People’s reasons for coming are many, and may even vary from time to time. After the holidays, people move on to other Sunday morning activities. They are gone.

Somehow, the fact that, from our Baptism, we have belonged to the Church and from our First Communion, we have belonged at the table escapes the Christmas/Easter (Chreaster) Catholic. The truths that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, that it is a meal of grace, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross made present and indeed, Christ’s Real Presence, are not enough to hold and sustain many of today’s Catholics. What keeps people away is not theology - not even belief. Adult Catholics, who have outgrown their childhood clothes, have also outgrown their childhood sense of Eucharist. Their interest has drifted away, is circumscribed by today’s culture and absorbed by today’s needs and desires.

Before even acquiring with an adult mind and heart the deep meanings of Eucharist, one needs to take small steps to reclaim our sense of belonging – like coming to Mass and sitting closer to the altar than is first appealing. Be attentive to the moment, to the people seated nearby. Pay attention to the flow of the liturgy: welcome, an all-embracing reconciliation and prayer. Listen to the readings and homily. Fix on one word, one phrase, one sentence to take home to feed on from time to time during the week. Pick up the hymnal and follow the hymn. Hymns are designed to speak to the heart. Say the Creed found in the front cover of the hymnal. The Creed puts believers in touch with the rich history of belief before our time and around us. Let the Eucharistic Prayer wash over you. Say the Our Father with openness. Greet others before coming to communion. Be aware of others doing the same. Receive communion and become what you receive. Be sent forth. The work of the Eucharist is intended to mix with your own work until the next time you come.

Becoming attentive to the depth of Eucharist takes effort, and time. It also means being willing to welcome such change in ourselves. Pope Francis, in his Epiphany homily this year, said that when we allow it, “holy longing for God” wells up in us. This longing for God, Pope Francis, went on, “shatters routines and impels us to change.” St. Augustine, in Book Seven of his Confessions, has Jesus say to the reader “I am the food of grown men and women. Grow, and you shall feed upon me. You will not change me into yourself, as you change food into flesh, but you will be changed into me.”

What God and the messengers of God say so often in the Scriptures, “Don’t be afraid.” Do not be afraid of what can happen when longing for God becomes real. Do not be afraid that your zest for life will be diminished or your loved ones will find you altered in an unwelcome way. God’s Eucharistic love offers believers no diminishment - only life restored, renewed, returned to your heart.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 6, 2017

Creating a Culture of Encounter

Dear Friends,

The Feast of the Epiphany is the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles – that is to say to the world at large. Three mysterious wise men from the East found their way to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus lived as an infant with Mary and Joseph. The story and the symbolism appeal to us: the star, the dream, the gifts, even to some extent, the daring of these figures to strike out into the unknown. They were, if we can use the analogy, the first Star-Trek team. They are a part of God’s love story with people. We are the reason he sent His Son; we are the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, Germans, Africans and Hispanics, Arabs, people from every country on earth. Epiphany is the Feast of God in Jesus holding us close. After the wise men left, the Holy Family took to the road, under the cover of darkness, to escape persecution.

The story of the Epiphany and the Flight into Egypt make us think of today’s people traveling away from persecution and helplessness toward safety and a new life. Their tragic stories fill our daily news, almost to the point where we can hardly tolerate the misery we see.

For nearly 50 years, the United States Bishops Conference (USCCB) has used the power of the biblical stories of the wise men and the flight into Egypt to put before us the circumstances confronting migrants, including immigrants, refugees, children and victims and survivors of human trafficking. Thomas Merton, who died long before our current human flight across continents, could reflect on the plight of these brothers and sisters in words that apply today. “With those for whom there is no room in the inn, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present to those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.”

Pope Francis calls us to create a culture of encounter and in so doing to look at and touch in some way the people moving across our world, to hear their stories and help however we can. “For me,” Pope Francis says, “the word is very important. Encounter with others. Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do as Jesus does: encounter others.”

We don’t have to go far to have such encounters. One night last week, some friends and I were having dinner in an Indian restaurant. We did what we always do: talk with the wait staff. That night, there were Afghani and Indians who brought bread and steaming hot food. But the person who caught our attention was a young woman from Nepal who told us pieces of her own story as she poured water and we prompted her to say more. Tearfully, she told of the mixed happiness of her marriage here to a man from Nepal and their ardent desire to go home. But there is no work for him there in his field.

Here’s another encounter you won’t want to miss – an Arab-American on a city street in the United States who writes a message for passersby to read and encounter him as he stands there vulnerable and deliberately blindfolded. Go to

Epiphany reveals to us that the unknown – that which we dare to encounter on our way to our destination – can hold God. May we have a year of openness to such touching encounters.

~ Sister Joan Sobala