Thursday, December 28, 2017

A New Year

Dear Friends,

The photo above was taken in the Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park during this Christmas season. The walkways through the lighted plants were conducive to making the walker quiet and thoughtful. Someplace, deep within us, we are just that – quiet and thoughtful – as another calendar year turns into the blank page of 2018. What will it be like? What joys will we know, what sadness will come our way? Who will we become?

New Year’s resolutions are usually a bust before January is half over…but here are just three resolutions that might just work, if we are daring enough to cultivate them…

Welcome and treasure sleep. People of our day don’t do that. They cut rest short in favor of accomplishing something or enjoying something. Think of Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew. Four out of the five times that messages came from God, they came to Joseph with life-changing implications. They arrived in a dream. Did you ever go to sleep, wrestling with a problem only to find it lessened or resolved by morning? That is the same gift of God that Joseph received…but it requires that we welcome sleep.

Engage in holy repetition. Repetition is a fact of life, from daily wake-up routines, through the roads we travel, to work, cooking, keeping house, recharging cell phones. So what is holy repetition, then? It’s another way of describing the prayer that roots itself deeply with us. It makes us go over events of our daily lives or the surprises of our lives until we get right what those events really meant. Mary, when she and Joseph went up to Jerusalem to present Jesus in the Temple, came face to face with Simeon, a stranger who startled her with his insight into the Babe’s future and hers. “She pondered these things in her heart,” Luke tells us. Like her, we are never through pondering the meaning of our lives and the lives of others. Never done unless we stop. Give up. Don’t care. But if the practice of holy repetition is part of us, then we don’t let go of the gifts of God.

Participation in weekly Eucharist bears holy repetition. Practice valuing the repeated words and gestures of Eucharist. Think of the psalm response. If we sing it at Mass, it can become a mantra for the week. But most especially, being fed on the Bread of Life within the community of believers is non-dispensable for us, although, to our loss, we often choose to make it dispensable. Too busy with other things. Or think about how it feels when we haven’t eaten an ordinary meal for a number of hours, our stomachs begin to growl. Maybe we even become weak. So too, if we let weekly Mass pass by unattended. We hunger – and might not even grasp what the real hunger is. In the quiet and depth of us, we hunger for God.

God offers us a new year in which to live and grow and find our meaning – a new year to meet people whose lives are lessons in faith, hope and love and who help us become better, and we them. The arc of the year is before us.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Treasuring the Son

Dear Friends,

Here’s a story I found somewhere. It reveals how Christ comes to all who are open to Him, but we have to keep our eye on Him and value Him beyond all earthly treasures.

“Once there was a gifted artist whose paintings glowed with life, moved people to thoughts of God, thoughts of peace and new realizations about life. This artist’s paintings received rave notices even during his lifetime. Everyone wanted one. But the artist would not sell them.

“Toward the end of his life, the artist sketched a portrait of his son, who had died some time before. The work was crude, unfinished, with only hints of what the son looked like in all his human beauty.

“The artist died, and as decreed in his will, the paintings all went to auction. The world’s rich and famous gathered there, ready to lay out millions for the work of their choice. Each bidder knew there would be a battle ahead. All had their money ready.

“The auctioneer began.

“’Ladies and Gentleman, according to the will of the artist, the bidding is to begin with this unfinished portrait of the artist’s son.

“’What am I bid for it, please?’


“A second and a third time, the auctioneer pleaded with someone, anyone to begin the bidding.


“Finally, a woman wearing a funny little hat, who had only come to look and had very little money to spend, thought tenderly of the father and son.

“Timidly the woman said, ‘Five dollars.’ (That was all she could afford.)

“'I have five dollars,’ the auctioneer proclaimed, disbelieving. ‘Will anyone make it 10?’


“’Sold to the woman in the funny little hat for five dollars.’

“’Ladies and Gentlemen,’ the auctioneer continued. ‘The auction is over, for the artist decreed that whoever gets the son, gets everything.’”

Joy to you this Christmas for treasuring the Son.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Joy in Life

Dear Friends,

God is in love with our world. That is the luminous thread woven into the prayers, music and biblical figures of Advent. Once this realization becomes real for us, then joy is released to blossom in us.

It’s hard to grasp the meaning of joy with our minds. Joy is elusive. It is not happiness or euphoria. It defies definition but can be described and experienced in a number of ways. Joy grows in us over a lifetime. The person who is learning joy gazes at and walks in the world in such a way as he/she can see God’s imprint in life and nature. Joy is the keen awareness of God’s presence or the coming of God into our life journeys. As it dawns on us that God is very near, we find a deep satisfaction in life that has nothing to do with acquisition, fleeting pleasures or the superficial.

“The present moment is filled with joy. If you are attentive, you will see it.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)

“Joy, it seems to me, is a step beyond happiness. Happiness is a sort of atmosphere you can live in sometimes, when you’re lucky. Joy is a light that fills you with hope and faith and love.” (Adela Rodgers St. Johns)

“You are free to think thoughts of worry or joy, and whatever you choose will attract the same back to you. Worry attracts worry. Joy attracts joy.” (Rhonda Byrne)

“Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.” (Helen Keller)

“Joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.” (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel)  

So on this Advent Sunday, we come full circle to the Christmas truth that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son. Here and now, as in Bethlehem, God is in love with our world…with each of us and all of us.

Don’t make joy a project. Don’t try to pre-program it. The experience of joy is part of God’s promise and it will happen in your heart. Be lighthearted and spontaneous. Deep joy and fun don’t negate each other.

Look around you and see for certain that God is in love with the world. We have great cause to rejoice.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, December 8, 2017

Finding Our Desert

Dear Friends,

How are you doing with Advent so far this year? One woman told me during this last week that she felt pulled between her desire to use December as a season of anticipating Christmas and the anticipated celebration of Christmas in our culture. Christmas celebrations are in abundance. Too much too soon.

To make space for Advent in our life, we need to develop a desert mentality. That is, a place we go in our minds and hearts, to a space in our homes set aside for our God-times, to meet God and be renewed. At its worst, deserts are dangerous, inhospitable lonely places. But deserts are also places where we can be, grow, assess, wonder, be tested, encounter God. Jesus did it. So did John the Baptist before him.

Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist in the desert. He is the voice in the wilderness calling his hearers to prepare the way of the Lord. His words echo the words of Isaiah to prepare the way of the Lord. Later, Jesus would say of John that “history has not known a man born of woman greater than John.” That’s quite a tribute.

John not only spent years of preparing the way of the Lord in the desert, the desert remained for him – an interior wilderness that threatened to overwhelm him. It would have been easy for him to die believing himself a failure, since he saw no satisfying completion of his work. The Messiah who came, his very cousin, was embarrassingly unlike the one he had preached about. Yet Jesus was attractive and John watched many of his followers leave him to follow Jesus. John was left to wonder if Jesus was the one to come or should he look for another. John was killed for the price of a dance, his head cut off at Herod’s command.

We experience our own wilderness or desert in the biblical sense – a place of testing where the integrity of our soul is tried, where the fabric of family life is stretched to near tearing, where communities are tried by tragedy and challenges to human values. It is within our modern wilderness experiences that the salvation promised by our God comes. The voice of God speaks to us out of the wilderness of illness or accidents, wildfires, the wilderness of a destructive relationship with a spouse, children, friends or employer, the wilderness of a moral wrongdoing, depression, loneliness, war or business noise, the wilderness of working for justice and peace in a less than conscious, less than welcoming world. This list is not exhaustive. There are other desert places also that endanger and frighten us.

But it is also here in our own deserts that we find the comfort of God. Think back to Jesus’ own temptations in the desert, they were overcome and then there was joy. Joy happens in our life when the wilderness has not overcome us, when we reach quenching waters and find them not a mirage, but real.

This week, as with John the Baptist, we come to recognize our own personal wildernesses or the deserts of our society and world, we can take heart. God is with us in the desert.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, December 1, 2017

Our Advent Door

Dear Friends,

By the time you read this you will have opened and closed any number of doors today. To open and close a door is an easy, natural, unthinking act – unless we’ve forgotten our key or our arms are too full to manage it.

Doors are an integral part of life. They provide access, offer privacy and protection from violent weather or thieves. Doors are also instruments of power. We can shut people out or let them in.

Advent is a season for opening some doors and closing others. It is a time to open the door to a deeper, stronger relationship with the Holy One, to open our hearts to others in friendship and reconciliation – to open our minds to new attitudes and practices that birth a future full of hope.

There’s a well-known painting by Warner Sallman, which shows Jesus, standing at the door and knocking. If we take a good look at the door in the picture, we see no knob on the outside. That door – and by extension – the door of the human heart can only be opened from within.

The work of Advent is to open the door of our lives to anew. When the knock comes, we react in different ways. We may be cautious, curious to see who is there, irritated to be interrupted, ashamed that our house is not in order. We may be curt at the door, guarded, fearful, elated. Or we may ignore the knock completely. “Go away, God! I don’t want to see you today!”

You may think that this idea of opening some doors and closing others is a mild-mannered, ineffectual approach to Advent. But let’s think about two doors to close which entail personal discipline and hard work.

Close the door to noise, even briefly every day and welcome quiet to let the hidden gifts of the season seep into our consciousness. Be with the silence. Well, OK, you might say, but what will I say to God? Say “Come, Lord Jesus,” or maybe say nothing at all. Let God speak to your heart.

Close the door to violence. Isaiah in today’s first reading offers us the appealing image of beating our swords into ploughshares, i.e. giving up violence and creating peace. Some video games, movies, brawls at sporting events, wars across the world hold up violence for us to feast on vicariously. Say no to violence in word, deed and what we absorb.

Be like Mary who opened the door of her very self to the messenger of God. Be like Joseph who opened himself up to God’s call in dreams. Be like Jesus, who is the key to all life – our very own future.

Without drawing anyone’s notice, we can let the physical doors we open and close throughout the day remind us that our daily comings and goings are opportunities to meet and welcome God in others.

The key is in the lock. The divine visitor is at our Advent door. We need only open it wide with our welcome.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Truth

Dear Friends,

There was a long Old Testament history of awaiting the king of the Jews. The waiting continued into the New Testament as seen in all four Gospel accounts. The question of the expected King’s coming is brought to the fore when Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the king of the Jews?” In John’s Gospel, Jesus and Pilate have a particularly sharp and extended interchange about the meaning of Jesus’ kingship. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the awaited king, Jesus responds: “my kingdom does not belong to this world.” Pilate pounces: “Then you are a king.” Jesus replies: “You say that…For this was I born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.” There it is. Jesus’ kingship is rooted in and brings forth truth.

We could talk about the feast of Christ the King using the passages given in the lectionary for this cycle, but because we live in a time when truth-telling is a challenge in our country, it seemed appropriate to talk about Jesus and the truth he came to bring. In our everyday world, there is illusion and there is truth. Illusion in our day has a partner called fake news. Truth is confounded by the political and cultural front.

Soon, we will be caught up in the illusion of Christmas: the perfectly decorated home, the Christmas meal that rivals the best of Food Network chefs, and all those gathered around the table are polite and engaged. Not quite our experience is it? In fact, at its deepest level, Christmas is the beginning of Christ’s presence in our world which helps us see through the illusions that the myth-makers create. The disciples of Christ strive to be truth-tellers and truth-seekers.

We sometimes nibble around the edges of the truths and commitments of life. Sexual predators, and sometimes seemingly happily married men and women cast an eye around for someone else to attract. We are tempted to cheat at work, at school. We lead ourselves to believe that lying gets us off the hook or that, in the face of some responsibilities, “if I don’t want to I don’t have to.”

Jesus says to Pilate and to us: “if you belong to the truth, you will listen to my voice.” In order to listen to the voice of Jesus, we have to still the many voices that clamor for our attention, who offer their own versions of truth. Humanly speaking, it hurts when we don’t live the truth or tell the truth to someone we love. It can make our bodies ache. Moreover, we send mixed messages which can be confusing for the other person and our relationship can weaken or collapse.

People know when things get muddled, when we don’t abide in truth with love. They can’t be fooled. The most important day in our life may be when we tell the truth and live with its consequences.

Going back to Pilate, his name has been known to us for over 2000 years – associated as he is with the trial and death of Jesus. Pilate’s best gift to us is his question, which needs to become our question: What is truth? What is Jesus’ truth? What is our own truth as disciples of the Lord?

Good question for ourselves and for our church to end one liturgical year and begin another next week.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Giving Thanks

Dear Friends,

You and I have Thanksgiving on our minds this week: plans, memories and expectations about who we will be with and what that will be like.

One difference between a shallow and heartfelt anticipation of Thanksgiving depends on what we find ourselves grateful for, and the essential place of God in our gratitude. We have been told and may believe that God is the giver of all good gifts, but at a practical everyday level, we prefer to say, with our culture “mine and no one else’s.” It is simply hard to conceive that nothing is ours by right – not our talents, our so-called entitlements, our education, our family. I hope that when we encounter others we do say “They too are gifted.” For, so they are, to the glory of God, and the benefit of us all.

Here’s an exercise that I am going to do this week, and I invite you to do likewise. Print off this blog and for the list below, name people you know, personally or by reputation, world figures and people of history who fit these categories for which we can give thanks to this week:
  • Creators of beauty 
  • People who empower others to grow 
  • Teachers of wisdom 
  • Memory keepers 
  • Questioners of things taken for granted 
  • Seekers of justice and peace 
  • God revealers 
  • Harvesters of food and goodness 
  • People who make us laugh 
  • Installers of foundations 
  • Consensus builders 
  • Interpreters of history 
  • Givers of legacies in society, church and family 
  • Meaning makers 
  • Reconcilers 
  • Animators of delight in all good things 
  • Celebrators of God’s creation 
  • Those who offer vision and hope 
  • Those who accompany us in faith and mission 
  • Those who create or enhance sacred spaces 
  • Those who reveal the contradictions in our public and cultural life 

Remember the man whom Jesus cures of demons in Mark 5. 1 – 20? Once cured, the man wanted to follow Jesus, but Jesus tells him to go home! Go home to your family and friends and neighbors. Make it clear to them how much God has done for you.

Soon, it will be time to gather perhaps for Mass, meals, football, long walks, card games, conversations and relaxation. Figure out ways to have a short or long sharing of all the good gifts, especially the people with whom we have been graced. Share in some way, like the man Jesus cured, how much good God has done for you. Most especially, throughout the day, let there be a whisper of new realizations of gratitude to God in our hearts.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 10, 2017

"That They May Be One in Us"

Dear Friends,

A friend recently loaned me Jodi Picoult’s latest book, Small Great Things. It’s the story of Ruth Walker, a licensed labor and delivery nurse and Turk Bauer, a skinhead whose son dies in the hospital shortly after birth. Turk blames Ruth and a court case ensues in which Ruth is tried for murder. The significant part of the book for me is the daily, sometimes subconscious, racism that pervades the culture as seen in many of the characters in the book. Racism lives in America today.

While Small Great Things ends with a degree of resurrection, not all stories of racism end that way. Hatred has reared its ugly head in Charlottesville, Charleston, Dallas, New York and other cities. The list goes on. Do we feel hopeless in the face of the American tragedy of racism or do we take small great steps at a personal level to examine and root our racism in ourselves and our environment?

Cardinal Donald Woerl of Washington, D.C. recently released a pastoral letter to his archdiocese that’s good for all of us to read. He notes that “without a change in the basic attitude of the human heart, we will never move to a level of oneness that accepts each other for who we are and the likeness we share as images of God” – a contemporary way of expressing Jesus’ own words “That they may be one in us.”

Pope Francis continues by urging us to “combine our efforts in promoting a culture of encounter, respect, understanding and mutual forgiveness.”

The work is ours, but how do we do it? How about gathering some people together for a reading of Small Great Things, with an emphasis on seeing into the characters what we ourselves have said, done, ignored, encouraged? If not this book, surf the web and find a video to view and discuss, or go to a talk or a workshop that gets at the heart of the fact that hatred destroys the hater as well as the hated one. Exploring racism together helps keep us on point. 

The work of overcoming racism at a personal level requires the awareness and compassion of all of us who live in a self-centered culture. The current phrase is that “we need to get out of our comfort zone.” Only then, do truth and unity have a chance to ripen in us.

When faced with the world’s most awful problems, I often think of the symbol of the Easter candle from which our baptismal candle was lighted. It is by that candle – the Light of Christ – that we see into ourselves and around ourselves. Stand next to that candle in your imagination, close your eyes and be in the Godspace where you can see the procession of people coming to that candle. They are black, red, yellow, brown and white skinned. They come from Mongolia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Bronx. They stand at the borders of countries and at the edge of slums in Chicago and Sao Paulo. If God is for them, how can we be against them?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 3, 2017

Crossing the Threshold

Dear Friends,

I want us to think about death, yet death is the most ignored reality in our thinking, shoved into some box in the attic of our minds. We ignore it – yet death is never far from our consciousness and a frequent experience in our lives.

We experience the death of childhood dreams, the death of innocence when we first become aware of evil and the hurt we inflict on others. We experience the death of expectation, the departure of friends, the wind-up of our working days. All sorts of death.

We nod at the death of world figures and multitudes of anonymous people whose deaths take up three seconds on the news. Death plays a daily role in the movies, in books and on TV. Death surrounds us. Then comes the day when we are told yes, you have cancer; yes, illness will sap your energies and limit your future. Or we are in an accident that was a millisecond from taking our life.

We do get fearful when death draws close – our own or that of loved ones. Then some of us dare to reach out for faith and try to wrap it around us:
                If God is for us, who can be against us?
                If we have died with Christ, we believe we shall also live with him.
                Christ has conquered death. Of whom shall I be afraid?
After Lazarus died and Jesus finally got there, Jesus told Martha “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Martha replied on behalf of us all, “Yes, Lord. I do believe.”

If we let it, the Word flows over us in our fears, washing them away, so we dare to sing: “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears from death into life.”

A friend of mine lost her husband two years ago. Since then grief has been the lens through which she has viewed daily life, although she hid it well. On the phone the other day, she said “Last night I talked with God about how I am living. Then I stopped talking and listened to God. God said. Live!”

Yes, live. We’ve just passed All Souls Day, the feast of the tenacity of life. The ones who have gone on before us are both with God and with us still. As one of our loved ones dies, both they and we cross a threshold – they to eternal life with God, we to life without their daily, tangible presence. At what threshold am I now standing? What am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? “Crossing a threshold is always a challenge. It calls for courage, and a sense of trust in whatever is emerging” (John O’Donohue).

In these days when death asks for our attention, will we trust God enough to believe in life, given and exchanged for new life?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Light Within Us

Dear Friends,

I am glad to live with Sister Melissa Gernon, the second grade teacher at Nazareth Elementary School. I watch her often, evenings, as she prepares for the next day or the next week or the next season. Melissa is avid about helping seven-year-olds make the connection between the things they love and enjoy in life and the God who holds them close. So in my personal Halloween file now, I have a cut out pumpkin that one of her children colored. On the back it says:

Being a Christian is like being a pumpkin.
God picks you from the patch, brings you in, washes all the dirt off of you.
God opens you up and scoops out all the yucky stuff, including the seeds of doubt, hate, greed, etc.
Then God carves you a new smiling face and puts His light inside you
To shine for all the world to see.

How much we need the light is a matter of fact. In these days when nights are getting longer, we find people stringing up “winter lights.” We used to call them Christmas lights, but the need to light up the darkness presses us to string up our outdoor lights long before the Christmas season is upon us.

The word “dark” is more and more often used to describe the times in which we live. We know we need light to find our way through the darkness that threatens us spiritually, culturally and morally. But where do we find it and can we trust it? In the saints of our world. They are God’s beacon through the darkness.

Paul, the lead character in Michael Malone’s short story “First Lady” is mulling over saints as he sips his Guinness: “...saints are people the light shines through. Not just the famous saints…but the everyday saints around us in the world. Light shines through them and illuminates what they see. The light goes right through to what they love so that we can see its beauty. They don’t get that way because they’re looking to…”

Saints are not self-centered people who muster up light to impress others. No. Saints illumine the world, because they live common lives and do common things with uncommon generosity. They practice a little restraint and a little courage. Saints take God more seriously and themselves less so. They care for others and treat them with dignity. Saints take hope by the hand and never let it go.

When each of us was baptized, our own baptismal candle was lighted from the Pascal Candle, which is the premier Easter Vigil symbol of Christ’s Resurrection. With that light, we saw enough to make choices that would be important for our lives. With that light, we help illuminate the lives of others. With that light, we have come to this day. The light of Christ will never waver. Never go out.

Why should we fear the darkness? The light that guides us is within us, pumpkins that we are.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, October 23, 2017

Being Mary

Dear Friends,

The closing of the 100th anniversary of the Apparitions of Mary to the children at Fatima was observed on October 13, 2017 at Fatima and in many places around the world. Our Lady of Fatima has touched the lives of many. The National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima was built in Lewiston, NY in 1954. Many people go there to pray, seeking solace, strength, hope through the intercession of Mary.

In countries on every continent, people have created shrines to Mary – at last count, some 350 of them. A Marian shrine is a place of apparition, or a miracle ascribed to Mary or a site which is centered in a historically strong Marian devotion. Remarkably, these shrines have helped communities and individuals stay strong in challenging times.

There isn’t a time in the history of the Church when Mary has not been honored. In a fresco in the Catacombs of St. Agnes, Mary stands between Peter and Paul as a symbol of the Church. She was proclaimed the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431. And over the centuries, for women, Mary has been the model of motherhood, midwife in labor, intercessor.

But the story of Mary and her place in Catholic life has many dimensions. Men throughout history have found their call to serve God through Mary. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, prayed through the night at Monserrat, a Spanish shrine from 888 AD. Women In our day and age, have begun to probe the New Testament to see the humanity of Mary, and to see her as friend and sister as well as mother and model. Women have searched for the Mary of the Gospel, and found her to be, not mighty and miraculous, but humble, faithful to God, to Jesus, and to Joseph. She was brave enough to question the angel before giving her assent to God. Once, she and Joseph were refugees from Herod, and had to deal with a lost child. We find her alert to the needs of people around her, as she brought to Jesus’ attention that the wedding table at Cana was running out of wine. Before she bore Jesus, Mary has faith that he was indeed the Son of God. She was a public witness, standing beneath His cross. She gathered with the fearful disciples before Pentecost. Then, she and the Holy Spirit met for a second life-giving experience in wind and fire.

The late Sally Cunneen, American writer and publisher, once wrote: “Whatever our problems and differences are today, we are able to see Mary as a human being who reminds us that our ordinary life, with its joys, challenges, suffering and death, is precisely the life her son took on. Hence, we can live with new hope in the belief that all these ordinary things are meaningful and open to the holy.”

As I age, I think particularly of Mary after the Resurrection. She was old, by the standards of her day. She has no family, but only these disciples of her Son. Even with them, her work isn’t done. She accompanied them in those first turbulent decades in the community of believers.

In ways the Holy Spirit reveals, we are called upon to imitate Mary by using our gifts on behalf of the many who belong to Mary’s Son.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, October 13, 2017

All Are Invited

Dear Friends,

A current practice among engaged couples is to send out postcards announcing their coming nuptials some months before the event. An FYI, but not a new concept.

In ancient times, kings also announced the approximate time for a family member’s wedding banquet weeks or months in advance. The exact details of the banquet were given at a later date. To say yes to the advance invitation and no to the more proximate invitation was considered an insult.

In the Gospel for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, which we celebrate today, those who heard his story knew what Jesus was talking about, namely, the sacredness of a wedding invitation. Sacred. As usual, though, Jesus’ story featured a twist and had a second deeper meaning (Matthew 22.1-14).

The audience for whom Jesus intended his parable was the Jewish Community of his day. Ages before, they had accepted God’s invitation to be his chosen people – his special guests at the banquet of the Kingdom of God. Isaiah describes the preparations of God for that mountaintop banquet in today’s first reading. In it, we find the tender presence of God and the total satisfaction and delight of the people at the banquet. (Isaiah 25. 6-10a)

But later, when Jesus came to announce the banquet of God was at hand, some of the Jewish rejected the proximate invitation to the joy of that table.

In the parable, one invited guest decides to work his farm instead of coming to the banquet and another chooses to attend to business. These would-be guests didn’t go off drunk. They didn’t perform criminal acts or forget the date. They simply did not value the invitation or take it seriously. They chose something else. God was not a priority in their life.

There’s a second, startling thing about this story. The king, having been refused by one potential set of guests, sends his messengers out to the highways and byways to bring in the good and bad. Yes. That’s what it says: the good and bad. Even one of this new round of guests does not value the invitation by refusing to put on the wedding garment which the host provides.

No one is excluded from the invitation. We might exclude some, like Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas sniper or other notorious figures. We might even exclude people we don’t like.  But they are all invited.

Sometimes we believe that we ourselves are excluded because we’ve had an abortion or are in a second unblessed/civil marriage or because we’ve been involved in a questionable business deal or because we’ve been told “You don’t belong!” But we are not excluded either. The invitation is for us, too.

As this week unfolds, let’s ask ourselves: Who am I in the story? Am I the servant messenger of the king, inviting others to the wedding feast? Am I the one who chooses something else – good as it may be – something that keeps me away from God’s banquet? Or am I one who has been invited because others refused to come? With whom do I identify and what does this mean for me?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, October 6, 2017

Words Matter

Dear Friends,

At the same time as Pope Francis was in Columbia during late September, the Vatican issued a new document from the pope – a motu proprio, that is, a document written on his own initiative. In this document, Pope Francis announced a change in Canon Law which would return the process for approving translations of liturgical texts back to national bishops’ conferences rather than the Vatican. We might not think so, but this is an important change, which will allow the formal language used in our current celebrations of Eucharist to give way to language consistent with our lives today.

Words matter. Some words convey intellectual content and some words touch the heart and reflect our deepest selves. Words can draw us closer to God and things divine, or not. The culture in which we live also makes a difference to what words convey. In so many ways, words matter.

The Constitution on the Liturgy, the first document of the Second Vatican Council, called for our Eucharistic Liturgy to be in the vernacular, so that the faithful (you and I) could celebrate Christ’s self-gift to all with “full, conscious and active participation.” Any of us who were in the pews in 1973, as well as the priest-presiders, knew what arduous work it was to make the switch from Latin to English, but the effort made us experience Eucharist in a deeper way. It also became clear that the first English translation of the Roman Missal needed to be followed by a more polished, life-touching version. The International Commission on the English Language produced a beautiful new Mass text for use beginning in 1998, but Rome rejected this translation and had another translation prepared which we began to use in 2011.

Here is the Opening Prayer for the Feast of All Saints, as translated in each of these three time periods. I offer them here for you so you can get the “feel” of each way the community is encouraged to pray, and what we might look forward to. Try praying each of these out loud and hear how they feel.

Let us pray…                                                        
Father, all-powerful and ever-                         
living God, today we rejoice in the                  
holy men and women of every time               
and place. May their prayers bring us            
your forgiveness and love.                                
We ask this…                                                                                                        

Let us pray…                                        
All-holy and eternal God,                              
you have given us this feast                         
to celebrate on one day the                         
holy men and women of every                    
time and place. Through their                      
manifold intercession, grant us                     
the full measure of your mercy       
for which we so deeply long.                        
We ask this…                                                    
Let us pray…
Almighty, ever-living God,
by whose gift we venerate
in one celebration
the merits of all the Saints,
bestow on us, we pray,
through the prayers of so
many intercessors, an
abundance of the
reconciliation with you
for which we earnestly long.
Through our Lord….

It will probably be five to 10 years before our faith communities have a new Eucharistic translation that speaks to our hearts, but we may see glimpses of it before then. Even to know it is coming is an encouraging thing.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 29, 2017

Respecting Life

Dear Friends,

The first Sunday of October is designated throughout the American Church as Respect Life Sunday. Often in people’s minds, “respect life” is synonymous with and limited to standing against abortion, and sometimes euthanasia, though it really has to do with life issues from womb to tomb. As I was casting about for a way of talking about this topic in a reflective way, a thought in the Editor’s Note of The Atlantic for this month caught my attention. Jeffrey Goldberg was talking within a political context about the “democratic norms of restraint, moderation, forgiveness, and compromise.”

And I thought – those are not just political norms, they are important words, important attitudes in our faith lives as well. Restraint, moderation, forgiveness and compromise pertain to how we approach and work through the critical moments of our lives as we interact with others. They are words that require the discipline of unruly parts of our thinking and action. More than unruly, when we refuse to be restrained, moderate, forgiving and willing to compromise, we act out of a self-righteousness that bespeaks self-satisfaction, and a self-centeredness that disrespects the other.

How ungodlike that is.

Others get trapped in our judgments and self-appointed dominance and sometimes others die as a result or perhaps some part of them dies. To respect life means “Don’t trap people.” In the Eucharistic Prayer of the Maronite Rite, the wording of the Lord’s Prayer helps us understand what this means: “Let us experience the same freedom from our mistakes that we allow others to experience,” the community prays. Let others live. Let them make their own choices. Work with them in whatever ways possible.

God, the giver of all life, calls us to life. Let’s accept other human beings for who they are as well as the creatures of earth. Respecting life means honoring all life everywhere and at all times even the lives of those that are wrong-headed, wrong-hearted and dangerous. At the same time, we think of plants and animals to provide our food. We are called to be God-like in choosing how we access the food that we eat.

Choosing life/respecting life is about standing with leaders who seek to eradicate poverty and whatever causes untimely death. Both Genesis and Pope Francis remind us to ask ourselves: Who is my brother? Who is my sister? We see the devastation of people’s lives on TV. We take in the pain of it all momentarily, but then we are on to the next thing. Since some things seem too big for us to handle in our small worlds, we do nothing or little. The problem is indifference to the lives of others.   

Respecting life begins when we develop and sustain an attitude of respect toward our brothers and sisters nearby as well as far away. Then acting in a respectful way becomes more doable.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 22, 2017

Appreciating God's Creatures

Dear Friends,

During the height of Hurricane Irma, several small dolphins got washed up on the gulf coast. Two members of a TV crew tugged them back to their watery home, while a cameraman filmed the rescue. A week or two before, in southeast Texas, rescue squads saved household pets from death – bedraggled looking cats and dogs were spirited away. Meanwhile, on the vast King ranch, cattle instinctively moved to higher ground, but had no food, so hay was flown in. Intuitively, human beings save animals from dire circumstances whenever we can. Their presence in our world is more than a backdrop for human drama. In an interview after she wrote “Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the Love of God,” Elizabeth Johnson CSJ wrote ”the beasts have their own relationship with God, apart from us, as creatures of God whom God also loves. It’s not all about us.”

Animals, from earliest times, have had an important place in the lives of human beings, not just as sources of food and clothing, but as sources of joy, learning, companionship, healing and wonder. Job 12.7-8 reminds us “Ask the beasts, and they shall teach you; or the birds of the air, and they shall tell you. Or the reptiles on earth to instruct you, And the fish of the sea to inform you.”

You and I, our predecessors and contemporaries have been nudged to value animals, domestic and wild, by perceptive interpreters of the animals of our world. Chief Seattle, addressing the US government in 1854 reinforced our connectedness with animals; “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.” The American naturalist Henry Beston challenges us to “have a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals…They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”

Environmental respect, justice and wonder have long been part of the writings of Catholic bishops and popes, but these ideas have yet to catch fire in people’s hearts. We have yet to realize that this way of thinking about the beasts is not an add-on to faith, but part of the very path of faith we travel. “Exult, all creation, around God’s throne” we pray at the Easter Vigil. Even as we say these words, we don’t fully recognize how all creation participates in the Resurrection of Jesus.

October 4, the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, is a scant 10 days away. In preparation for the feast, why not use these days to heighten our appreciation for the beasts with whom we share the earth. Go to the zoo, check out the Southeast Asian quail that play underfoot at the Lamberton Conservatory, feed the fish at Powder Mills Park, watch National Geographic or WXXI programs on animals. Tell remembered stories of seeing animals interacting with various species and one another.

The American author Barry Lopez invites us to do our part in reestablishing an atmosphere of respect for the complexity of animals’ lives and give up trophy hunting, factory farming and laboratory experiments that cause animals to suffer unduly. This respect could even help us feel revivified as a species.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 15, 2017

To Stay or To Go

Dear Friends,

Over the last few weeks, our whole country has watched residents in flooded areas of Texas and Florida be called to make a decision: to leave their homes or to hunker down, to walk or drive away or to cling to all they have come to value as their own. In short, to stay or to go.

One reason we have been absorbed in their stories is because they are our own stories. Throughout history, people like you and me, indeed, whole communities have been asked to decide whether to stay or go. Within the last 25 years, the people of Hong Kong (1997), in the face of a pending return to the control of mainland China, had to decide; the people of Scotland in a referendum (2015) had to decide whether or not to leave the British Commonwealth. Most recently, all of Britain had to decide whether to leave the European Union (2016).

Individuals have had to decide whether to leave a marriage, a job, their church which they have found less than welcoming, their homeland, their plans, their pets, their remembered safety and security.

To be faced with that decision – to stay or to go – is to stand on a threshold, to be called beyond ourselves as we have been. The deepest call is to be faithful to our heart, to our God and to the values which we know to be life-giving. How can we cross that boundary? Will we have the strength to do and to become anew?

Most of the time, people in these frames of mind or situations don’t have the luxury of a long time to think, and have to rely on their store of learnings, understandings, intuition, orientations, values and relationships to see them through. At times, no one asks us out loud whether to stay or go. We just hear it in our hearts. But sometimes the question is public, so that our responses can stir others to thought and decision as well.

To my mind, the most vivid biblical moment where the question – to stay or to go – is public occurs in Chapter Six of John’s Gospel. Jesus tells his listeners that He is the bread of life, the living bread. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. (Jn. 6.53)” Murmuring followed, and many of his disciples concluded, “This is a hard saying; who can accept it? (Jn. 6.60)” Jesus watched many walk away and then said to the Twelve “Do you also want to leave? (Jn. 6.67)”

There it is. Will you stay or will you go? Will you walk with me or not?

Thankfully, Peter spoke words of belief on behalf of all of them, and hopefully for us all well.

That is the clue when we are standing at our own personal thresholds. Dare to believe God first. Include and embrace the community in the decision in some way. Dare to go forward without clarity but with confidence in God and our choices nonetheless. “Another road will take you into a world you were never in. New strangers on the path await, new places that have never seen you will startle a little at your entry...May you travel in an awakened way” (John O’Donohue, To Bless The Space Between Us).

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 8, 2017

"What Do You Want Me to Do for You?"

Dear Friends,

Years ago, a psychologist friend of mine said that the most important thing we can ask someone in need is, “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s so much easier to do something we want to do or to presume we know what the other needs. My most vivid example of getting it wrong was an incident that took place years ago at St. Mary’s Church, where I was a staff member. One of our regulars at weekday Mass was a very senior woman named Brigit. Brigit was Irish-born and most of us found her speech hard to understand. She mumbled for one thing, and sounded as though she had pebbles in her mouth. Brigit wore the most raggedy shoes imaginable. They were sneakers, open and frayed across the top. Concerned Mass-goers said to me, “Get Brigit new shoes. We’ll pay for them.” I did. Brigit seemed grateful, but within days, the sneakers looked the same as the previous pair. Then it came out. We had not really asked Brigit why her shoes looked as they did. Turns out she had painful bunions, and the only way she could tolerate her shoes was to alter them. We had missed the point entirely because we thought we knew but had not asked.

In Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus asked before acting. The three incidents are similar, involving one or two blind men, and in the third case, a blind man named Bartimaeus. Each attracted Jesus’ attention, but Jesus did not presume to help them before they stated their desire. “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer came with conviction. “Master, I want to see.” (Mark 10.51) The implicit became explicit.

In recent weeks, two dramatic stories have borne out the importance of someone inviting others to act in the spirit of Jesus’ words to the blind men, who could be understood as anyone needing help. In the Christopher Nolan film, “Dunkirk,” Winston Churchill called the British fleet of fishermen and pleasure boats that made their home along England’s southern shore to rescue as many British soldiers, stranded, backs against the sea on the beaches of Dunkirk. Once called, the fleet made its way across the Channel to bring home as many as they could. The members of the fleet were not without danger, but the effort went forward so that these soldiers would once again see Britain and stand on its soil.

The other dramatic story is more current. Called by authority to put all boats to the rescue effort in southeast Texas, the Cajun Navy arrived from Louisiana – men with their memory of Katrina still fresh. Once there, the Cajun army asked those they came to rescue, “What can we do for you?” They saved the lives of people and pets, not without danger to themselves.

We really don’t need a disaster or a war to make active in ourselves the example of Jesus of how to initiate generous service to others. We live with family, neighbors, friends, and newcomers to our land who all, at some time or other, need to hear those words from us. “What do you want me to do for you?” Rather than hide behind our locked doors, or avert looking into the eyes of others, we need to ask and then to act. Now is the time.

And then there are the times we are the recipients of the question, the need. Be ready to tell it clearly and be grateful for the ones who have come in the name of God to help.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 1, 2017

Creating the Future

Dear Friends,

On this Labor Day weekend, let’s put our life’s work – whatever it is – into a God-context.

The local Rochester folk heroine, Hattie Harris, once said something that has stuck in my mind: “Be ashamed.” She said, “be ashamed to die until you have done something life-giving for the community.” Hattie was 101 when she died (08/11/98), honored by young and old alike. People recognized that she lived her words, but her own work of a lifetime in influencing politics and urban life for good was unfinished, just as Moses’ work was unfinished as he died gazing at but never entering the Promised Land.

Still strong at 120, Moses died on Mt. Nebo, in modern day Jordan. Moses, who had led his people for 40 years of struggle through the desert, Moses, who had climbed Mt. Sinai, saw God and received the Commandments, Moses, who trusted God, was not permitted to cross over the Jordan.

“We, too,” says author Tom Cahill, “shall die without finishing what we began. Each of us has in our life, at least one moment of insight, one Mt. Sinai – an uncanny, otherworldly, time – stopping experience that somehow succeeds in breaking through the grimy, boisterous present, the insight that, if we let it, it will carry us through life.”

Stop and think what your own mountaintop experience was and how it gives you courage and energy to go on. Think, if you will, of what you have worked to achieve, where you have added your talents to create the new, what future you build on your past and present. As we take on tasks which are bigger than our lifetimes, we need not be saddened by the apparent lack of completion. Here is how theologian Reinhold Niebuhr puts it: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing that we do, however virtuous can be accomplished alone, therefore we must be saved by love.”

Faith, hope and love are the God-works in us waiting to be released into the next generation. They are the spiritual tools that God has given us to offer succeeding generations a world that is less violent and profane, more true and loving.

You might be tempted to say as I have been tempted to say “Who- me? I’m little. I don’t have any great influence. My world is small.” Wrong! We are the inheritors of a very large world, and the co-creators of a very large future in which God lives with us all.

Despite our reluctance to see who we are and what we can offer others, God calls us, stirs up in us desires and hope for justice and peace in our day. God wants us to add our piece – our own wonderful, tender albeit tentative piece to the creation of the future. Believers over the centuries have kept their eyes fixed on Jesus to learn how to do this. On this Labor Day weekend, let’s pledge to do the same.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Power of Keys

Dear Friends,

From their primitive invention 6000 years ago in Babylon, keys have been important. The power of keys made its way into Scripture as we hear in the readings for this date, the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, A cycle.

Isaiah tells us in the first reading that Shebna held an important post in the king’s palace. He was the chief of staff, the majordomo who controlled access to the king. Think Reince Priebus or John Kelly. The symbol of Shebna’s office was the key he wore on a sash across his shoulder. But Shebna was corrupt, ousted and the key of office was given to Eliakim, who carried out his work responsibly.

In the Gospel of Matthew (16.13), Jesus gives Peter the keys of God’s Kingdom. With them, he can bind or loose, close or open.

The symbol of keys is important in our own lives. We open and close doors for ourselves and others. We encourage loved ones to stretch their wings or we tell them they’ll fall flat if they try. We hold others to heavy, impossible responsibilities or reimbursement, or we are moderate, forgiving, patient. We live on the surface or life and prevent ourselves from growing in depth or we take appropriate risks and dive deep. We have keys to our dwellings, our cars, our mailboxes. Passwords are modern day keys.

Through the priesthood of all believers, and like Peter, you and I have keys to the kingdom. Our own authority is not to be taken lightly.

Beyond our own individual lives, the symbol of keys is also very important. We speak of the key to unlocking a problem or a mystery. Keys to the city are given to important visitors. Emotionally we speak of another person as having the key to someone’s heart. Jailers have keys or know the key-code that locks people away. Keys are also the symbols of adventure. Having car keys for the first time or the giving up of one’s car keys are significant moments in a person’s life.

I once knew a man named Claudius Milburn, a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church where I used to work. Gentle, challenged Claudius had lived for 30 years at the Newark State School. When the state began placing people like Claudius into more normal situations, Claudius came to Rochester. Claudius was a remarkably ardent believer who helped out before and after Mass. One day, something prompted Claudius to say “The day I was released, I said ‘I’m free! I’m free! No one will ever lock me up again.’”

Jesus believed in Peter enough to entrust him with the keys to the kingdom. And what of us? Do we have faith enough to stay with the Lord, though sometimes, like Peter we falter? Do we believe that God believes in us…that God will not take from us the keys of binding and loosing, opening and closing?

As we believe, so shall we live.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A World of Inclusive Love

Dear Friends,

If we think about the way we live in our country as well as the way the US immigration process is being shaped, it is clear that people are divided into (potential or actual) insiders or outsiders. People are enemies or allies, acceptable or not, Protestant or Catholic, Muslim or Christian, educated or not. Sometimes workers and management see each other in hostile ways. The divisions in Congress are evidence as well that we cut ourselves off from one another by the word “or.” But divisiveness is not of God. In Isaiah, we hear that “the burnt offerings and sacrifices of foreigners who join themselves to me will be acceptable at my altar” (Isaiah 56.6-7). So much of Paul’s letter to the Romans invites us to give up divisions and be reconciled with one another.

Inclusiveness is hard work, even for Jesus. When Jesus crosses the geographic boundary from Galilee into Tyre, he encounters a Syro-phoenician woman who crosses invisible ethnic and religious boundaries to seek healing for her daughter from Jesus. She is a symbol of all those excluded from Jesus’ original mission to the Jews. She called out to Jesus, but he would not answer. But mothers, worldwide, will do anything to achieve their children’s well-being. She speaks her truth in the face of prejudice and would not accept no for an answer. Even the insult Jesus sent her way could not deflect her from her point. In a moment of grace, she deftly turned Jesus’ words into a compliment of sorts, transforming his no into a life-giving yes.

“Lord, help me,” she begged (Matthew 15.21-28), using the same words that Peter spoke as he sank into turbulent waters in the previous chapter of Matthew. Why should Jesus help Peter and not the Syro-phoenician’s daughter? Why indeed? Faced with the Syro-phoenician woman’s insistence and persistence, Jesus experienced a conversion of heart. He moved from being exclusively for the Jewish community to being inclusive. Never again in the Gospel would Jesus’ embrace be narrow.

How narrow are we? Last weekend’s altercation in Charlottesville, VA was the product of right wing groups who believed themselves to be superior to all others and therefore, sure of their rightness, dared to wage a battle against their so-called inferiors. Will we tolerate that way of dividing people one from another? The inclusiveness of Christ needs to reach into backyards, summer festivals, homes and in the centers of national, state and local government. The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, spoke to his city in early July as the last of four Confederate monuments was removed. He reminded his people “This is not about statues, this is about attitudes and behavior as well. If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society, this will all have been in vain.” Mayor Landrieu ended by quoting Abraham Lincoln: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us the right to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.”

In the name of Jesus, who dared to connect in compassion with the Syro-phoenician woman, let us also serve the cause of inclusive love.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, August 11, 2017

Getting Through the Storm

Dear Friends,

It is decidedly a paradox.

God is not in the storm in the story of Elijah who arrives on the mountain in his flight from danger (1Kings19. 9 ff). God is in the storm in Matthew’s account (Mt.14.22-33) where he and Peter meet in the waves – Peter, courageous one moment, afraid and sinking in the next.

God is always where needed, but the way God is present varies. The gentle God of Elijah is the same as the God of Peter in the storm, although it does not seem so.

In a whisper in the mountain silence, God bids Elijah to go back to the place from which he had fled. Peter and Jesus get into the boat, rejoin the others as the storm abates.

We know about storms. Today’s newspaper reports that this will be an especially active hurricane season. We know national devastation from floods induced by downpours, and formidable tornadoes. Our own impossible, personal situations may not be dramatic, but when we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, we are invited by the Gospel to call out to Jesus “help me.” And He in turn will stretch out his hand to rescue us.

A week before my mother, Celia, died, I recall being indescribably weary. The accumulation of Celia’s arduous illness interwoven with my two distinct, simultaneous cancers and a broken leg had pretty much leveled me.

As I got on the elevator at the nursing home that day, I leaned my forehead against the wall and prayed “Dear God, I can’t do this alone today.” A little while later, along came my mother’s brother, Adam, my uncle who had come only three other times in 11 months. I recognized him in that moment for who he was: the outstretched hand of Jesus.

The boat tossed about in the storm has been an image of the church from earliest times. We can also apply the image to other societal situations. We can note that we are in danger of missing the boat – not recognizing what Jesus is calling us to be and do. Our boat is in danger of being overcrowded, as the boats bearing refugees have been overcrowded.

The complicated issues we face as a church, as a nation, as a world are fraught with the same kinds of danger facing floundering Peter. With our mind’s eye, as we sweep across the public ministry of Jesus, we find that he had a way of being alert and active at the very place he was needed most. His last promise in Matthew, before his ascension was “I will be with you always.” (Mt.28-20). We take Jesus seriously, for as God says in Psalm 81 “You called in distress and I saved you.”

The great truth of these stories is that in every time of storm and stress, Jesus, the Holy One, our Brother, will always meet us in the midst of the storm, or speak in the tiniest whisper and offer us whatever we need: peace, staying power, calm and an unfolding future. Whether in a tiny wisp of wind or in a stormy sea, our God comes to us.

~ Sister Joan Sobala