Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Make a Fresh Start

Dear Friends,

On Wednesday we begin not only a new year, but a new decade. Spiritual gurus and pundits encourage us to start fresh, with a clean slate and whatever it takes to make the new year/new decade all it can be.

It’s almost as though we are invited to forget the past with its quirks, victories and defeats. But   Leonard Cohen, in his “Anthem” sets a realistic tone:
                                                “Ring the bells that still can ring.
                                                  Forget your perfect offering.
                                                  There is a crack in everything.
                                                  That’s how the light gets in. “

Yesterday’s issues may or may not be resolved. All may not be right with the world.
The unmanageable is still with us, but we do what we can. Suffering in the world will not cease in a snap. Exclusivity and financial power will still claim the attention of all who think that’s the way to savor the world.

But people of faith have another take on the new year. We believe that the light does come in through the cracks. Through them, we can stare down the hardness of society and the world at large.

We can depend on the light coming through the cracks to see into the gloom and unexpectedly find beauty. We depend on the light to see what needs to be fixed, and restored to its former dignity – to cultivate compassion, peace and sustainability.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a kind of peace in the world. The  peace  of the Roman Empire. But all the conquered peoples knew that Roman peace did not bring them life in abundance. That would be the gift of Jesus, who through his words and healing. Jesus  brought  believers into kinship with God and one another.

What Jesus did then He does now in our world, in every place and every year. 2020 will be no exception.

But we need to remind one another of His presence and love. We do this is families of faith, our own families and the families we choose to create.

So at the beginning of this new year and decade, fear not. Know with certainty that our loving God is with us as we tend, mend, send, bend, blend, and befriend. Nothing is predictable, except the presence of this God of ours.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, December 19, 2019

God is one with Us, Each and Every One

Dear Friends,

In my file I have a collection of talks and short pieces that fall in the category of “Things I Wish I Had Written.” Among them is an editorial written in 2003 for Maryknoll Magazine by its publisher and editor, Fr. Joseph Veneroso. Here’s part of his Christmas reflection:

                “ After we decorate the tree, write and mail our cards, buy and wrap all our presents and sing all the carols, we should visit a friend or relative who has a newborn baby. We should cradle the infant in our arms. Maybe hold the newborn’s bottle. Sing a lullaby. Better still, change the baby’s diapers.  

                Here is the great mystery of both life and salvation. Any newborn is a breathtaking marvel. But to think that the Creator of the universe would come to us in so small, wrinkled and vulnerable a form defies belief. That {more than} 2000 years ago, a child such as this was none other than God in the flesh boggles the mind.

                Just think: God became truly human, with all our weaknesses and mortality, tempted like us in every way, yet without sin (Heb.4.15). What does this say about God?  More amazing, what does it say about us? Humanity was capable of bearing divinity without melting or exploding, God was not embarrassed or humanity overwhelmed….

                As you hold a baby in your arms, watch a toddler or sigh in exasperation at the rebelliousness of your teenager, consider: Baby Jesus burped and spit up and plopped on his bottom while learning to walk. Toddler Jesus put all sorts of unsavory things into his mouth. And we know from Scripture that teenage Jesus caused great concern to Mary and Joseph. Adult Jesus knew hunger, loneliness, fear and love. He enjoyed companionship and wept at the death of his friend. The Gospels never mention Jesus worshiping in the Temple. His very being was an act of worship; his whole life was lived in constant communion with the Father. God experienced what it means to live and die as a human.

                We, in turn, can encounter God at every moment in the temple of our humanness, if we but cleanse it of sin. We share with God a common vocation: becoming fully human.

                Most of the time, we profess our belief in God.

                Christmas shocks us with the realization that God also believes in us.

To all you who read this,
 and to all you love,
I wish a Christmas made rich this year
 by the realization that God is one with us,
each and every one.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Crystallize what is within You

Dear Friends,

Stop to take a good long look at the image above.  The women are, of course, Mary and Elizabeth, at opposite ends of the family age spectrum, each pregnant and obviously glad to be together as their handclasp signifies. Each had a look of wonderment in her eyes. Symbols of holiness adorn their rounded bellies. We can read their story in Luke 1.39-56.

I found this image while visiting the University of Notre Dame a few years ago. I don’t know the artist’s name, but the picture was used to advertise an Advent bible series. I have brought it out of storage  each year since, because, if I can borrow a phrase from the poet William Wordsworth, this is “the pregnant season”. Wordsworth coined the term in his “Prelude” and  did not use it in a religious context, but it does apply to the here and now because, as we celebrate Christ, who became and becomes  one with us in our humanity, this is indeed a pregnant season, not  only for Mary and Elizabeth, but for us, male and female, in 2019 as well.

At this time of year, we come out of our summer productivity and our fall harvest to become large with expectation. Each of us is pregnant in many ways, this year in ways that are different from other years.

We may  be:
  • pregnant with hope, not giving in to the threat of depression or despair
  • pregnant with newly forming or unresolved questions about life
  • pregnant with the realization that what we bear within us, in our minds and hearts,  waiting to emerge, is not our to keep but to  share, to pass on
  • pregnant with gifts for others – gifts of insight, the works of our hands, words of compassion and encouragement, new ways of looking at reality
  • pregnant with the unexpected and unanticipated but nonetheless worthy to be held tenderly and given to others.

One day, we will give birth, just as Mary and Elizabeth gave birth to Jesus and John the Baptist. crystallizing what is within us for the benefit of others.

Jesus and John the Baptist enriched the world. They said no to whatever diminishes the world’s           goodness.

As the days leap on toward Christmas, scan the horizon of our world, for today, Christ comes to us, borne in Mary who brought the savior to John and his mother.  I hope we can honor one another as Mary and Elizabeth honored each other. This is one way Christmas will be for us remarkably new, and not a backward glance into history.

-Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, December 6, 2019

Reform: Walk with him toward the Light

Dear Friends, 

Tell the truth now.

What would you do if John the Baptist appeared in your world today? Would you be drawn to him as an attractive figure? Would you welcome him if he knocked on your door? More than likely, not.

On the surface, he was an odd man – off putting, unkempt, wild looking. He cared neither about food or fashion. John appeared briefly, spoke forcefully, baptized humbly, died violently.

For many, that sums up John – a fleeting figure in the dustbin of history. But the man and his message are deeper than this passing glance. For Christians, he is a challenge worth engaging.

First of all, consider the man. Each of the Gospel writers presents John in the shadow of Jesus. He was a lesser light – a messenger. How hard it must have been for him – strong,  yet clearly second. Or which of us, having carefully cultivated a group of followers could watch them walk away to follow someone else? By modern standards of success, John was a failure. He died not knowing whether what he said or what he did would bear fruit.

Secondly, consider his message. The message of John can be summed up in one word: Reform. Reform is a time for decision, not apathy, or indifference or mere comfort. The message “reform” can also be translated “Transform your lives.” John doesn’t mean simply change the way you do things. Instead, he means  change your way of thinking and that’s so much harder. Change your way of thinking toward people in need, toward clients and terrorists, toward people who stir up prejudice or dislike in us.

No excuses! It’s not enough that we are Catholic or that Uncle Harry is a priest. Reform is a work that needs our personal attention. And if the reform/ transformation of our life is to be real and lasting, then we must believe we are capable of reform, by activating the wisdom and knowledge – the virtues -  that have been given to us. We also have to believe that the impossible is possible. We can put our hand in the adder’s lair and come out unscathed. The adder will not overpower us. But it’s not all up to us. We  need support and encouragement in our attempt to reform. We can’t do it alone. Paul urges us to accept one another as Christ accepts us. And finally, to sustain the reform of our lives, we need to turn to God in prayer. With God this Advent season, we can turn from being overwhelmed by darkness to seeing that light truly diminishes destructiveness we find in darkness.

This Advent, take John the Baptist by the hand. Walk with him toward the light.  

-Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 29, 2019

Don't Rush Into Christmas

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Dear Friends,

Even though stores are already  festooned with Christmas displays with   Christmas songs in the background,  my hope for you is this:

Don’t rush into Christmas.

Allow yourself Advent-time to wonder about the ways Isaiah and other prophets teach us to prepare for the coming of God into human life. On this first Sunday of Advent, Isaiah tells of the vision God has in mind for us. This vision is an arc over the world, from our ancient past to our undisclosed future. Call it a rainbow if you wish – a way to meet God on the way to meeting the Messiah. As we climb the mountain of God that Isaiah speaks of – the mountain of God, signs along the way will tell us if we are on the right path. Look for them.

-Do we find violence and disaster giving way to harmony and peace? If so, God is on the                     mountain with us.

-Are we willing to be pruned so that our grasp and practice of God’s vision become true ,                      real and lasting ? Let’s not be afraid to be pruned. Pruning is what needs to happen to us                      as we go higher up the mountain with the Lord.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel, reminds his followers how the people before Noah’s day ignored the coming flood. We are not called to be like them, but rather mindful of the floods of life with the high waters of Lake Ontario as a daily reminder. We can survive the flood, particularly if we work together.

Stay awake, Jesus told his followers.

Ready yourself for what is to come, the fullness of light and life in God.

Light and life, the promise of God are not idle promises.

The Promised One is coming, so say awake.

Early in this Advent season , pay attention to this personal challenge:
Do not rush too quickly toward Christmas,
But linger instead on the mountain roads of Advent.
Find God on the ascent.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Sunday, November 24, 2019

A King Who Is Available to Us Every Day in Every Way

Dear Friends,

Since 1925, the Church has celebrated the feast of Christ the King. It was a feast that was created for the times and spoke to the times, and it still does if we try to learn what this kingship of Jesus really is. It does not give him airs. It does not keep him at a distance from the people.  He is close to us, our savior. That is who he is and who he is for us: Our Savior. If we are honest, we know that we cannot save ourselves. In our day, we like to think we can, but we really can’t. Our salvation depends completely on God, who wants us, loves us, draws us close. God does for us what he did for Jesus. God traveled the roads with Jesus, was his inspiration, confidant, uncompromising source of uncompromising strength. The Father of Jesus never failed Him, even when Jesus’ own strength failed and he came close to death.

In his life, Jesus had no kingly aspirations. Instead, he was a realist who met people where they were and when possible, helped them move on toward a new and better way of living. Of the many important things we can call to mind about Jesus on this feast day, two seem particularly important for us to recognize and make our own in practice.

Jesus was available to others. As  He traveled through Galilee and eventually into Judea Jesus was available to people who noticed him and those who did not.  The Widow of Naim, for example, didn’t see him, so absorbed was she in her grief, but, Jesus noticed her, and dealt with her sorrow in the most remarkable way.

Jesus was available to people who didn’t want what he had to offer, like the young man who went away sad because he was wealthy and couldn’t bear to let go of his wealth. In this case, Jesus did not succeed.

Traveling through Ireland in October, our coach driver/guide was candid when we asked him about his life in Ireland. He told us just how things worked out and then he invariably added: “I did the best I could.” That was what Jesus did – the best he could when people accepted him or when people chose to diminish his word, his gifts of teaching and healing.

Jesus made no claim to be a celebrity, an important person among  kingmakers who felt they had a right to judge people’s importance. Jesus was one-with-God and one-with-us.

How, then, do we do what Jesus did? How do we become available to people and do all we can for them and with them? How do we acquire the tenderness of Jesus, the fearlessness of Jesus, the compassion of Jesus toward all who suffer? How do we do the best we can with God the Father as out guide?

This feast offers us a time to turn to Jesus and offer him our hearts, our daily living, our hopefulness and realization that we can only do what we can. This is a very different way of looking at this King of ours.

-Sister Joan Sobala 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Don't Panic...Have Hope

Dear Friends,

The recent forest fires of California have reduced people’s tangible treasures to stubble, leaving them neither root nor branch.  Fire came leaping across roads, hot spots reignited, the roar of fire was followed by complete devastation. That’s why Californians, engulfed in fire, can recognize today’s  first reading from the prophet Malachi as describing their lives at this time. Yet beyond the description of engulfing fire, the reader can find hope to go on:  “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” (3.20a) When things are at their worst, have hope.

Devastation leads some to panic, rather than to hope. Panic believes that all that is most important in life is in danger of being lost. Hope says “Yes, there will be losses, some of them monumental, but God is with us to heal and provide in unexpected ways.”

Panic is one response to catastrophe. Another response is lethargy – doing nothing. The Thessolonians we read about in today’s second reading were lethargic. They expected Jesus’ second coming at any moment, so they no longer carried their share of the workload of society. Paul condemned this attitude as unworthy of Christ’s followers. He urged them to keep on keeping on.   Rather than cosmic panic or destructive lethargy in the face of all that threatens us, there is a third response – we’ve said it already -  hope . Hope is the message of today’s Gospel when we experience today’s catastrophes as our own end times. When our jobs are phased out, when relationships fall apart or illness and death threaten to swamp us, we can say “It’s over!” But, in response,  Jesus, in today’s Gospel says to us:

                                Don’t stray.        
                                Don’t panic.
                                Give witness to the faith that is in you.
                                Endure in hope .
                                I will be with you to give you the strength you need.
                                I will give you the words to say.
                                “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” (Luke 21.19)

The difference between despair and hope during personal or societal calamities is  measured by our openness to the stunning truth that we are:
                                held up
                                propelled forward
                                beckoned by a faithful God who love us.

In the darkness and stillness of these cold November nights, stir up hope by mulling over the ways God has offered us new life in the past, and is with us to  enlarge our future.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 8, 2019

Staying Active in the Church

Dear Friends,

A short book by Bishop Robert Barron is making the rounds of our parishes. Entitled “Letter to a Suffering Church,” Bishop Barron lays out the issues of the sexual abuse crisis in the church. He taps lessons from Scripture and the history of the church to show the Church’s power for good in times when the power of the demonic has tainted and diminished aspects of church life. He points out how the church has been durable and enduring as it has returned time and again to the commitment of Peter in John 6.66-68 where Jesus says to Peter as other followers walk away: “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter responded: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” In the last chapter of this slim volume, Bishop Barron encourages Catholics not “to cut and run” but to stay and fight for the Church of Jesus Christ.

I’d like us to consider some practical thoughts, building on Bishop Barron’s call to stay active in the church. And I take my cue here from no less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt.

Somewhere, sometime she said “Great leaders we have had, but we could not have had great leaders unless they had a great people to follow. You cannot be a great leader unless the people are great.”

As a church, are we great? I believe we are greater than we seem to be, yet many parish church buildings echo with diminished Mass attendance. Parents don’t encourage children’s religious education or other involvements for fear of abuse or even because it’s dull. Committees, parties and social justice concerns are scarcely attended, if at all. Give it all a second chance, just as each of us has been given a second chance at something important.

Eleanor Roosevelt would tell us that we are the ones who must have the insight and do the work of strengthening parishes. Instead of complaining about the lack of parish vitality, consider doing something about it. Pose the question to the pastor: “What would you think if we had a   ___or began a ___ or revitalized our ___?”  If we ask these questions, we also need to be ready to follow through!

And when we come to Mass, do we make a point of getting to know other (maybe even new) parishioners or the visitor? It’s been well noted that people do not come back to Mass if no one talks to them. Do we sing and pray with energy? It would make a difference to the people as well as the presider. It is not his Mass. It is the Mass of the community and we all share it. And why is it that we have the same lectors and Communion ministers each week – mostly women. Why do men hold back?  “Oh, I am not worthy?" we might say. But we are a priestly people and that means all of us side by side.

It is true and ugly and unworthy of Christ that a relatively few clergy have been abusive of children and youth. But it is not all of them. Have you encouraged faithful, hardworking priests by your words? Have you taken the initiative to invite them over for dinner or host a gathering at your home with a few others just to talk about parish life?

Rediscover the possibilities of parish life, the great works of the Church, like Catholic Relief Services. Make room in your weekly schedule to become Catholic anew. Start somewhere, like maybe with prayer.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Death is a Stage of Growth

Dear Friends,

 Death, that threshold into the unknown, has visited our homes  during the last twelve months, if only in the newspaper. We have looked at the obituary pages, and seen familiar faces looking out at us – the faces of people we have known and loved or known slightly but admired nonetheless. We’ve seen the faces of people who died tragically, and others who had fought the good fight against potent diseases. To talk about death before it’s proximate for us or for our loved ones is an important thing to do. For, when death is proximate, we want to deny it, to negate it. Death infuriates us, makes us fearful, absorbs us in its details. Death, when it is upon us or our loved ones, can hold us hostage. At that point, we cannot hold death  up to the light, examine it, study it, put it in a life context or learn the lessons that human history, religion and culture have to teach us about death.

The Rev. Peter Gomez says in The Good Book, “Death is not something we want to understand or know; death is somehow unfair, and in this country it is culturally unconstitutional, violating our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” At the same time, individuals and groups are searching for ways to help people be healthy in their dying. We also find people understanding death in spiritual, religious and metaphysical terms and valuing these understandings.  Americans  are coming to recognize death as a life companion . It takes a certain daring to learn lessons of death and dying before one needs them.

Death is too important a time in our life to enter into without thinking about it – without preparation, but we are sorely tempted to do just that. I don’t mean the how, when and where of dying. We can fantasize about those things, but it’s not likely that we will die the way we think or would like. Instead, it would be valuable  to prepare our minds and hearts for a reversal. Usually, we prepare for the more: higher education prepares us for work, maturing prepares us for relationships, growing to adulthood prepares us to embrace a bigger world. Preparation for death acknowledges that one day, work will diminish, relationships  will  no longer be as they were. Our world will shrink, for as we die, we shed expectations, plans, the need to possess.  Preparation for death opens us to the paradox: less is more. Yes. In the face of death, less is indeed more. 

The mystical teachings of ancient lands and people as well as the Christian tradition all speak of death as a passage. Not the end, a passage. Death is another stage of growth. Those of us who embrace Christianity  acknowledge  the passion and death of Jesus as an indispensable part of our tradition. If Jesus had died, and that was all, our faith would be fruitless. But our tradition holds that Jesus passed through death to new life. We call Him the firstborn from the dead, and what was real and true of Him is a promise for all of us who live. Death is a door to life. It’s not an easy door to pass through. It includes suffering. But for Christians who understand the meaning of Christ and the power of His own experience, the only way out of suffering is through it, and only Christ can get us through it.

We hope we will die well. But that can only happen if we do sufficient “death-thinking” earlier in life. As the author Ira Byock reminds us, “The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last days or weeks that we compose the message of how we will be remembered, but in the decades that precede them .Who lives is dignity, dies in dignity.” 

-Sister Joan Sobala