Friday, July 31, 2020

Divesting for the Sake of Others

Dear Friends,

I bet many of us have had this experience. We come to a stoplight, often near an expressway exit, and there, looking directly at us is a disheveled individual, usually male, holding up a sign that says, “Hungry! Anything will help.”

My first reaction is to look at the stoplight and urge it to turn green so I don’t have to see this man anymore. Then I try to look away, fidget with something on the dashboard, try to ignore the person. Occasionally, if I have them in the car, I give the man a package of breakfast bars, or suggest that he go to the House of Mercy. The light turns green and I drive away, feeling sad, guilty, helpless.

How can I do anything in the face of this real life situation?

Then we hear today’s Gospel and I feel even more guilty. Jesus saw the crowd: poor people, homeless people, sick people, people without hope. The Scripture says, “Jesus’ heart was moved with pity.” Even though Jesus was still sorrowing over the beheading of John the Baptist, Jesus was very much present to the moment. He was a compassionate person. Compassion means “to suffer with.” Jesus was compassionate to the core of his being.

How do we imitate the compassion that Jesus shows in today’s Gospel? How do we do that in today’s society? I can see and fully understand why any of us might be reluctant to deal with that person at the stoplight or the one who stops us on the street and asks for money. We don’t feel safe. We are uncomfortable facing what may be potential danger.

So how do we, in this time and place, imitate the compassion of Jesus?

One of the leaders of the church in the 4th century, St. Basil, wrote, “The bread that you don’t eat is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked up is the money of the poor.”

Once in a while I watch an episode of a home improvement show just to see what I would do as a home designer. More often than not, closets are overfull with racks of clothes and boxes of shoes, storage areas are full of bins of “stuff,” rooms are full of children’s toys that the youngsters have outgrown and the garage and kitchen are full of generations of tools.

For us today, to act with the compassion of Jesus, perhaps we could take St. Basil seriously.

What, in the last two years, have you and your household not worn or used? What have the children outgrown in toys? All of these might go elsewhere, to be better appreciated and put to use. Package them carefully and discard what is clearly beyond anyone’s use. Make this a family effort. You and unnamed others will both benefit. This is not to make space so you can buy more. It is not the same as helping the man at the streetlight. His may well be a problem of mental or psychological distress. Thank God we have volunteer groups in Rochester who help gather the distressed and get them to safety.

May compassion of Jesus take root in us, and the ideas of St. Basil move us to divest for the sake of the lives of others.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Power of Wisdom

Dear Friends,

Today’s first reading from 1 Kings 3 gives us a snapshot of Solomon, Son of David, as he ascends the throne of Israel. “O Lord, my God,” he prayed, “I am a mere youth, not knowing how to act…Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” God was touched by the generosity of Solomon’s request, and it was given to him.

Fast-forward to 2020 – to two recent situations – one here in Rochester and the other in Atlanta. They both have to do with wisdom, i.e., an understanding heart. On Friday, July 17, the front page of the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester carried the photo of John Boedicker and Charles Milks, two white men in their 20’s, carrying a statue of Frederick Douglass to be erected in Maplewood Park. The backstory is a lesson in wisdom, for when John and Charles had vandalized a similar statue two years ago, they could have been penalized and no more. But wisdom prevailed in the Center for Dispute Settlement and the Re-energizing the Legacy of Frederick Douglass Committee. These groups created a restorative justice program for John and Charles, who went through a series of experiences that did not punish, but restored these two men to life in a multiracial community. That’s how they got to carry the new statue of Douglass into Maplewood Park.

Calvin Eison, chair of the Douglass Committee, was able to secure from Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley a pledge that prosecutors would try to use this restorative justice program with defendants of color who commit similar crimes.

Wisdom restores, plants understanding in wayward or lost hearts and creates new life.

The day this article was in the newspaper, John Robert Lewis, icon of the civil rights movement and last remaining member of the 1963 March on Washington, died in Atlanta at the age of 80. Lewis was gifted by God with an understanding heart from his youth. Once he realized that, he never wavered, though he was beaten multiple times in his call for justice and could have said, “I have done enough.” The word “enough “was not in his vocabulary. The historian Jon Meacham calls Lewis a saint who shaped his life on the beatitudes.

The life of John Lewis is a thread through our Congregation’s life, for the Sisters of Saint Joseph ran the hospital in Selma, Alabama where John Lewis was brought after the attack on the far side of the Edmund Pettis Bridge. He is one of our heroes.

These stories of recent events give us inspiration to ask God for wisdom if we think we don’t have it. The letter of James offers us this encouragement: “If any of you is without wisdom, let him {her} ask it from the God who gives generously and ungrudgingly to all, and it will be given him {her}” James 1.5.

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus tells the parables of the buried treasure, the merchant searching for fine pearls and the net thrown into the sea. “Do you understand these things?” Jesus asks his disciples? Given the examples of the restored John and Charles and in the spirit of John Lewis, Jesus asks us the same thing. How will we shape our life going forward?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Ambiguities of Life

Dear Friends,

Just under the surface of all our lives is a thing called “ambiguity:” on the one hand, it could be like this. On the other hand, it could be like that.

Who is to decide? Which is real? Which is better? Which can I be sure of? Why is it that what you are sure of, I am not? And what I am sure of, you cannot see at all?

We would like life to be certain, clear, and unambiguous. If the truth be known, we try to rid ourselves of the muddy waters of ambiguity.

One thing we hope will help us do away with ambiguity is a sign. If only we had a sign, then we would be sure, but then signs themselves are ambiguous.

Consider Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Elijah was fleeing from Ahab and his queen Jezebel. Exhausted from his journey, Elijah made his way up to Mt. Horeb, seeking God and some sort of sign from God about his next steps. “Go outside, God said to Elijah. Stand before the Lord and the Lord will pass by.” There was successively a fierce wind, an earthquake, and a fire – but the Lord was not in any of these. Then there was a tiny whispering sound. And in that moment, Elijah knew God’s presence and what to do.

Listening to God in these days of pandemic and pain multiplied in a variety of ways in people’s lives, with so much that is unsure, what next steps do we take? In John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus begins with Jesus getting word that Lazarus was ill. But Jesus did not rush off immediately to see his beloved friend. Jesus did not go to Lazarus until it was apparently too late. Instead, Jesus went when he thought he ought to go.

“Ought” has to do with a deep down sense of God’s presence that moves us if we are willing to be moved. The light comes to us and we walk by that light. “This is what I think I ought to do.” That’s the best we can do. We have read the signs of our world and life and have heard some small whisper that moves us to the next moment.

We do have to trust that God is with us, even though death seems to shroud us as it did Lazarus, and that life will emerge despite the contradictions, interruptions, disappointments, frustrations and risks that pepper our lives.

Even Paul was subject to the ambiguities of his life. “We see in a mirror dimly” he reminds us in 1 Cor. 13.12. Yet he went on without the full accurate picture of his journey. Lacking assurance and direct knowledge of this next steps, Paul opted for conviction. As the author of Hebrews says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Heb. 11.1).

So what we are called on to be today are people who trust that God is with us, and that the steps we take in harmony with God will lead us on, not necessarily to where we want to be but where we ought to be. So let’s be courageous, inquisitive, creative, self-examining, and loving. Let us walk with the clarity of God’s presence in the shroud of ambiguity around us.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Recapturing Our Childlike Qualities

Dear Friends,

As this very odd school year ends, I invite you to be a friend of a child or a group of children. Talk with them, or better still, listen to their questions, their observations about life. Get down on the grass beside a child, if you can. And peer into the eyes of a ladybug. You’ll never see it again the same way.

Too often, we organize children’s lives to an adult degree: sports uniforms, rules of play and the dressing down when a child has let down a success-oriented parent. Too much, too soon.

Play with children. Sing to them. Be silly together. Learn to be a child all over again. Don’t forget how much Jesus loved children. Don’t keep them away, he cautioned his disciples, for to such as these belong the kingdom of God.

Maybe if we recaptured our childlike qualities, we might find God and life so much more appealing, but let’s face it, other adults encourage us to subdue our childlike qualities.

We would characterize successful adults in our society as responsible, busy, serious, goal-directed, savvy, efficient, self-controlled, prompt, hard-working, capable and reliable. All good qualities.

In order to become people who bear all or most of these qualities, we have to abdicate the characteristics of children: play, risk, tearfulness, impulsiveness, secret places, burst of anger, humor and awe, curiosity, fantasy, candor, spontaneity, silliness, mischief, being adventuresome and an explorer.

Surely to become responsible adults, we have to control some of these qualities, but when we over-control or eliminate them, we run the risk of being depressed, harried, insomniac, martyrs on the altar of our own making. We get burned out, over-scheduled and give in to eating or drinking too much.

If we have become this classic adult, but still feel empty, wondering: “What is life all about, God?” then maybe this summer we need to accept a challenge from God. After all, God created the universe and life as a playful act. Reread Genesis 1 with this in mind or take a cue from Lady Wisdom talking about being with the Creator playing of the surface of the earth, playing before the Creator all the while, finding delight in the children of earth.

To do any of these things you may have to join the anonymous author of this daunting piece:
“I am hereby officially tending my resignation as an adult, and I have decided I would like to accept the responsibilities of an eight year old…I want to lie under an oak tree and run a lemonade stand with my friends on a summer day. I want to return to a time when life is simple…All you knew was to be happy because you were blissfully unaware of the things that should make you worried or upset. That everyone is honest and good. I want to believe that anything is possible…So here’s my checkbook and my car keys, my credit card bills and my 401K statements. I am officially resigning from adulthood. And if you want to discuss it further, you’ll have to catch me first, because...Tag! You’re it.”

I hope you had a laugh over this article. It’s not the way we usually look at life. It’s not what I usually write about. But in its own way, being childlike is a gift and a blessing. It is a choice to savor. It may be difficult to allow playfulness to creep into a life which had successfully stifled it. But taste it and see.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Carrying Life's Burdens Together

Dear Friends,

On this 244th Independence Day weekend, we look back on American growth and the times we have had to rebuild our nation after natural and human disasters of all kinds. Notable this year are the COVID-19 pandemic, which is continuing to speed through our country, and the protests on behalf of black and brown people that has confronted our complacence. Given all of this, what are we to make of our Gospel today? We hear the call of Jesus: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me...My yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matthew 11. 29-30). What does Jesus know about yokes that we don’t?

Yoke is not a commonly used word in our day and if we think of it at all, yoke is a freedom-restricting word. We have only to think of the yoke of slavery and oppression. That’s not anything we want for ourselves or our loved ones. Despite what history reveals we have done to black and brown people, the word yoke almost sounds un-American, because when we are yoked together, we can’t go where we want, when we want. We have to go where our yokefellow goes.

But to repeat the question, “What does Jesus know about yokes that we don’t?”

To begin, Jesus knows that yokes are meant to get the job done in an easier way. We pull together, here and now, to overcome the “isms” that threaten to destroy our nation, to put out forest fires and gather the resources to dig people and groups out of debt.

The second thing about yokes is that they are made to fit the wearers. One simply does not go off to the local Walmart to buy a yoke. They are made to fit the shoulders and the neck – made of wood by skilled carpenters so that there is no chaffing, no irritation due to rubbing.

(Let’s be imaginative for a moment. Perhaps where Jesus got those words he says to us today is from his memory of days working in the carpenter’s shop with Joseph. Maybe they made yokes. Maybe they had an enticing sign in their shop which said, “Our yokes are easy.”)

In any case, Jesus knew that we need yokes because he knew we have burdens to bear. Funny thing about us: some burdens we bear gladly, the stuff we have accumulated over the years.

Some of us take on the burden of being the savior of others, instead of letting God do the job.

But in our most honest moments, we know which burdens are essential and God-connected. They are the burdens which create, inspire and support life...burdens which give rise to justice, apply mercy like balm to sunburn or encourage peace on earth. There are the burdens of sharing one another’s joys and sorrows, the burdens of citizenship.

People can argue about it if they want, but one nation under God means that God is the yokefellow of our country, through all of our iffy times.

Going back to our Gospel, Jesus is our yokefellow. That means that we are not alone when we carry whatever essential burden is ours by choice or by providence.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 26, 2020

Whom Do We Receive into Our Lives?


Dear Friends,

Today’s readings – for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time – answer the question, “Whom do we receive into our lives?” The Shunamite woman in the Second Book of Kings welcomed the prophet Elisha. There would always be a room for him in this Shunamite household. And Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew bids us to receive Him, the prophets, the righteous (that is, the just and merciful) and anyone who gives a cup of water to the little ones.

To whom are we hospitable? In this most remarkable year, when we come face to face with our neighbor in new ways, when and how and why are we hospitable? Who do we welcome to the table of our minds and hearts? On whose behalf do we put forth hospitable actions?

Are we hospitable in our hearts to everyone in our family? Possibly not. Some we can’t stand. Some rub us the wrong way. Some are our role models and we take their spirits to abide in us.

Thinking of the generosity of the Shunamite woman toward Elisha, for whom or what idea, cause, new realization do we keep a room ready in our hearts or minds or homes? What literature do we read and study?

With whom do we spend time?

Who is it that makes us cross the street – literally or figuratively – in order to avoid?

Are we hospitable to people as they are or only if they are as we want them to be?

Are we hospitable to the prophets? I suspect that many of us would not think of George Floyd as a prophet. He probably didn’t think of himself in those terms either. But he stood as placeholder for all those who died by police violence, worldwide, and millions of people worldwide recognized him as such. By his dying and his dying words, George Floyd helped us rip off the scabs from our eyes that accepted the abuse of black and brown people by the police and by extension, by all of us who knowingly or not are invested with white privilege.

Speaking about prophets, the late theologian Carroll Stuhlmueller told his listeners, “prophets have the strength to be at the heart of the community and be rejected by that community.” And Parker Palmer, the Quaker spiritual writer asks us to be hospitable to the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned without demanding that they become our friends or grateful allies.

Through the summer, each of us masked as we pass another person on the street, would find it easy to ignore him/her. Who would know? Who cares? In our hearts, we would know. At this moment, the hospitable wave, the thumbs up would makes a big difference. Small positive gestures bring God’s grace to others.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Attic of Your Mind

Dear Friends,

Talking with friends and family about how they spent these 100-plus days of pandemic isolation, a number of people said they hoed out various parts of their homes, including their attics. That made me remember a phrase I learned many years ago – “look for it in the attic of your mind.”

We all have nooks and shelves and niches in our mind where we have stored ideas, memories, unfinished tasks, things we learned in classes or from life situations. This Father’s Day weekend, I find myself recalling songs my father, Connie, sang to me, how he taught me to read a road map, how he prayed, and his stance at the tee as he played golf. Do dust off the memories of your Dad this weekend, and share them with your family.

But there is something more precious that is somewhere in our minds: something Paul in Philippians 2.5 encourages us to have within us, namely “the same attitude/mind that is in Christ Jesus.” I would hope that the mind of Christ is active in you during these days when the pandemic is mixed with the aftermath of George Floyd’s untimely death. These two realities, plus the economic downturn the pandemic caused, have absorbed us whether we want them to do so or not.

But where will we go for wisdom and understanding about the meaning and implications of these interwoven realities? Gurus from many spheres of influence tell us what to fix, how to proceed, what the most important thing to do might be. Still others remind us that we can’t honestly say these problems have nothing to do with us. We cannot claim we are out of the loop.

This is where the mind of Christ comes in. Most especially, the mind of Christ, His attitude toward people, which we have been taught since our youth, is where we are to go for courage, insight,  determination to seek truth and follow after it and set people free of illness, poverty and racism/sexism. Life today can be so full of absorbing things that we forget God, Jesus, the mind of Christ, the call we said “yes” to as His disciples at our Baptism and repeated at our Confirmation. These life-giving realities may well be in the niches, corners, shelves in the deep recesses of our own minds. Go hunting. Find what Jesus reminded his hearers, his disciples: “love God with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole soul and your whole strength and your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12.30-31). Remember his story of the Good Samaritan, the ways he healed the blind, lame, and deaf. He treated women and children with respect. Some commentators believe that Simon the Cyrenean, who helped carry the cross, was black. Race, gender, age made no difference to Jesus who served all.

In the weighty matters before us today, neutrality is not an option. Our participation in the reshaping of our decimated world will make a difference. So, put on the mind of Christ. Let your own heart be shaped by Christ’s desire for a world that keeps coming closer and closer to heaven on earth. As one of the encouraging ads on TV says: “Together we can” – which we edit “Together with Christ, we can.”

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 12, 2020

Finding the Holy Spirit in Turbulent Times

Dear Friends,

Two weeks ago, our Church celebrated Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit. The wind and fire transformed the lives of Christ’s disciples. It’s easy to forget the presence of the Holy Spirit now, given the pandemic with its continuing destruction of human life, the violent death of George Floyd and its aftermath, and the misery of the economy. So today, let’s pause to ask, “Where is the Holy Spirit in all of this?”

That’s a good and proper question – one to ask in silent prayer when we take time to focus on our oneness with God. But we should ask it in public as well, ask it of neighbors, friends, strangers with whom we work or with whom we are thrown together in a variety of circumstances. “Where is the Holy Spirit in all of this?”

The Spirit is not in the killing of people by virus or by human hands. The Spirit is not in the self-serving destructiveness and violence of looters masking as protesters. The Spirit is not in people in power who use these turbulent times for their own advancement.

It was a knee on the throat of George Floyd that took his life away from him. Across the country, high-ranking police officers “took the knee” in the midst of heartbroken protesters to express solidarity. Two different ways in which people used their knees: Derek Chauvin took the breath from George Floyd for some nefarious reason. Chief Vincent Tavalero in Brooklyn used his knee to express solidarity with the powerless in the face of police action. Maya Angelou writes, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” To build on the blessedness that Jesus offers, blessed are those who suffer with the suffering.

In ambulances, emergency rooms, ICU's, clinics and long lines of people waiting, the Holy Spirit is in the capable hands of medical personnel, bringing healing, and where healing was not possible, bringing comfort. The Spirit of God has been everywhere essential workers did what they were committed to do, giving them energy and courage to stay the course. Blessed are those who take their work seriously.

In our homes, the Holy Spirit has been present as parents attempt to continue their children’s education, and generations care for one another in whatever way they can. The Holy Spirit is with those who mourn separation from loved ones by service, sickness, dying or death. It is hard and maybe even devastating to experience loss. Do we recognize others who speak or act in ways that convey the Spirit’s unique and abiding presence wherever people live and move and breathe, weep, and find new strength to go on? Blessed are those who become aware of the Spirit.

Pope Francis urges Americans to work toward national reconciliation, to expunge the sin of racism from every corner of our life as a nation. “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to any kind of racism or discrimination and pretend to claim to defend the sacredness of human life.” Another Vatican official describes racism as like a virus that worms into people’s hearts and destroys them and everyone else besides. The Holy Spirit is in every attempt at reconciliation. It’s hard work, but then, the Holy Spirit is used to hard work.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 5, 2020

Becoming One with God

Dear Friends,

Today is the feast of the Trinity – Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker. We celebrate the fullness of God – “God who gives us sun, when we expect rain, dreams when we expect a storm…God, who plays with us, turns us sideways and around. (Michael Leunig, A Common Prayer)”

Throughout Christian history, people shared visual images of the Trinity. Patrick used the shamrock. The German monks developed the pretzel with three twist. Each caught an aspect of the mystery of the Trinity.

The image above is a copy of an icon created by the Russian monk Andrei Rublev (d.1430). The figures are obviously related. They have the same look. They are ageless.

The Father is represented by the figure (looks like an angel) on the left. We know this because behind the Father is a house. In my Father’s house there is room for everyone.

The Word Incarnate, Jesus is in the middle. There is a tree behind him. An old hymn tells us that Jesus died for us on a tree. Jesus has two fingers on the table, perhaps to signify the two natures in Christ, perhaps to point to the bread and cup.

The third figure is the Holy Spirit, whom we invoke in every Eucharistic Prayer: “Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy that they may become for us the Body and Blood of Christ.” A community of love – united around the table.

Most of us, looking at this icon, are so engrossed in these figures that we fail to see an additional important feature of the icon. There, between the feet of the Father and Holy Spirit is a stool, drawn up to the table – an invitation to you and me to come, sit at the table of God’s very intimate life. Come and sit. Be one with God.

Even as we celebrate the God who has created, redeemed and sustains us, we are invited to be one with God.

These days when the world suffers immensely because of the coronavirus, science, technology, medicine and every other good human construct we can name are in a battle to conquer the beast who threatens life so relentlessly. In the days and months ahead, aspects of life will be uncertain. We will know instability and unrest. Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeaux says, “this is a time of profound planetary adjustment.”

Going forward, we will have to depend on every resource possible and on one another to not only survive, but to love and grow. But more than that, let’s remember to rely on God, no stranger to love and intimacy, who invites us to the very family table of God. For centuries, in good times and bad, the words of St. Athanasius (296 – 373) have resonated in the believing community: “God became human so that humans might become God.” We are at the table of God.

Today, let’s act on that belief and nor despair. We are becoming one with God in a profound way in these turbulent times.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, May 29, 2020

Standing Together

Dear Friends,

I remember the first time I saw Les Miserables. It was memorable. The singers were inspired, the dancing energetic, the pathos heart-wrenching.

       “Red, the world about to dawn,
        Red, the color of desire,
       Red, I feel my soul on fire.”

This was what the students sang before they made their stand before their foes. And as Jean Valjean lay dying he sang to his adopted daughter, Cosette, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

At the end of this electric production, the whole cast came to the apron of the stage. They reached their arms toward the audience and sang, “Will you join in our crusade? Will you be strong and stand with me?”

Like one person, the audience surged to its feet, cheering and singing with the cast, saying with our bodies and voices, “Yes! We will join you! We will stand with you!” Even now, I cry when I remember how I felt as we were invited with such direct and poignant words.

Today, Pentecost, the liturgical color is red. That day, the world of the ancient Church was about to be born. Caught up in the moment, the disciples desired that it be so. Their souls were on fire. To this day, right now, the early disciples invite us to join them, be strong with them. The Holy Spirit has been given and it will never desert the followers of the Word Made Flesh.

In this pandemic time, when we can grow irritated at the absence of the ordinary in our lives, when jobs, money and food are scarce for many, will we still turn to the Spirit of God, be faithful to the Risen Christ and find ways to encourage others to “keep the faith?” This is the day that renews in us the companionship of the Holy Spirit who is our helper, advocate, strength, comfort and healer.

After Pentecost, the disciples were able to face and resolve difficult questions, stand up to the authorities that would crush them. They could do these things and more. Because their belief in the Risen Christ had become conviction. All they said and did depended on their conviction.

Conviction means I will. I will be. I will join my efforts to those of others. I will hold fast to belief even though naysayers will challenge me. I will go. I will do. I will minister to others in whatever way I can in Christ’s name.

We see reflected in the daily news, people’s hardships because of this pandemic, but we also see examples of others who want what they want without regard for the virus which they might receive or carry to one another without knowing it. If we let it, Pentecost can be for us also a feast of conviction – the conviction that when we treat one another lovingly, we see the face of God.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Recognizing Our Part in Renewing Earth

Dear Friends,

If nothing else, this devastating COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the pace of human life. We find ourselves at home most of the time, and unless we are essential workers, we are out for only exercise or errands. The creatures of the world notice our absence. In Llandudno, Wales, wild mountain goats came into town and sampled the bushes, garden vegetables and trees. In a photograph from Nigeria, lions are resting comfortably in the blazing sun on a paved, untraveled highway. And the storks whose migratory pattern takes them over an Albanian lagoon have settled there in large numbers.

At the same time that nature and clear air levels have changed for the better, we have experienced the collapse of our economy, devastating illness and the noble attempt to find ways of addressing COVID-19 and the human need for the basics of life.

May 24 marks the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ “bold bid to help humanity to love the earth, to glimpse its sacredness and be moved by its plight” (Austen Ivereigh, Wounded Shepherd, p.195).

What’s the connection between the Pope’s message and our virus-induced misery? For one thing, the ecological crisis is deeply connected with our human and political crises. To come through all of these crises requires new ways of thinking and acting. Begone competitiveness and selfishness! Welcome cooperation, compassion and awareness!

Create a new heart in us, O God – new heart to save what Pope Francis calls our common home. A new heart can happen only through conversion – seeing with the eyes of God, listening with the heart of God and acting with the tender heart of Jesus. This will take work on our part and a cooperation with our attentive God.

If you haven’t read Laudato Si’, Google it and spend time absorbing Francis’ insights. He himself, when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, experienced an ecological conversion. It became abundantly clear to him that human beings were not meant to dominate the earth but to live compatibly with other creatures.

As we suffer through the pain of this pandemic, the time is right for us to awaken to our shared responsibilities in bringing forth a massive renewal of the planet, which Francis calls our homeland – “one world with a common plan.”

Among steps to take, consider our “throwaway culture” with its emphasis on production and consumption. These pandemic days have shown us that we can do with less. We can also teach our children by our actions more than our words to value the earth. We can also pay attention and support the efforts of young people who are the conscience which calls adults to ecological conviction and action.

The Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, and Pope Francis met one day in April 2019 in St. Peter’s Square. With delight, Pope Francis told her “Go on, go on, continue!” And she in turn exuded joy at his caring: “Thank you for standing up for the climate, for speaking the truth. It means a lot.”

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, May 14, 2020

We Are Never Alone

Dear Friends,

Today’s section of John’s Gospel reminds me of a poignant story a woman told me.

Her mother, up in years, lived in Philadelphia, in the family home where my friend had grown up. One night, the phone call came. My friend’s mother had suffered a massive stroke. She was gone. When my friend arrived home, her only sister hugged her. “We’re orphans!” she wept. Here they were, mature women with families of their own, yet the word orphan came to mind as they characterized their new state in life.

Competent, functioning adults feel vulnerable and abandoned when the protective canopy of an older generation is torn from them. The orphan is plunged into an experience of greater responsibility with fewer resources, compelled to provide for self without the luxury of being provided for. At whatever age, the orphan yearns for the intimacy which now seems irreplaceable – an intimacy of relationship where identity is derived from belonging rather than achievement. From the perspective of the bereaved, the one enduring personal loss, death is never timely. As adults, however, we are not comfortable admitting our own adult perception of having been abandoned.

Likewise, as people of faith, we suffer the acute absence of God or meaning in our lives. Somehow, we have been shaken loose – maybe because we went off to college, lost a loved one or experienced a crisis like this pandemic. We can’t seem to put our life into a larger context. Maybe we feel we have no life story at all that means anything to anyone.

Even if we search for meaning somewhere other than the Christian community, we might nonetheless hear a small voice nudging us to Sunday worship. We might get as far as a back pew, well away from others who clearly have a sense of belonging, but relax. There will be no thunderbolts.

Going back to today’s Gospel, Jesus assures us “the Father will give you another Advocate to be with you always…who remains with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14.16 -18).

If we let the poetic, mystical message of this Gospel seep into us, it can make us realize that we, well and truly, are never orphans. God’s promise has been given to us. The Spirit has come to us and will continue to abide with us.

We are not orphans.

We are never alone.

        We are always in the company of the Spirit of God. That’s God’s promise to us.

        Belonging is the door of our own eternity. We have only to cross the threshold.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, May 8, 2020

The "Yeses" in Life

Dear Friends,

Tomorrow is my 80th birthday. Birthdays are like the parables of Jesus. They seem like simple stories but they admit of a multitude of meanings that keep coming to us as our lives go on. Today, I would like to hold up an abbreviated parable of these 80 years as a mirror for reflecting on your own experiences.

On this Mother’s Day, how can we resist some thoughts about our mothers – the first carriers of our lives. From my childhood, my mother, Celia, had trouble with me. I was a contrarian who didn’t want to follow her directions. One day, when my mother was talking to a neighbor across the front fence, she called out to me “Joanie, don’t go into the street.” I stood on the curb and looked at her as I stuck my toe into the street. She turned away and laughed. That’s how life was. For better or for worse, I have put my toe into many streets of life. Did you do that?

There were tough moments when I was attacked, literally by neighborhood thugs and once by a boy in my class at school. My mother taught me courage and resilience. She stood by me just as Mary stood by Jesus throughout his life and never turned away. Maybe your mother stood by you as you grew or maybe she didn’t or couldn’t. Who stood by you at critical times of your life?

Later, when I wanted to respond to God’s call to religious life, she resisted. Celia reasoned that I would be locked away forever and not be able to taste the options of life. Years later, my mother admitted to the richness of my life, and hers as a result. What choices have you made in response to God’s call that your family could value only in retrospect?

Over the years, I have learned that the journey of my adult life is more than the first commitment I made as a Sister of Saint Joseph. That choice was certainly foundational but it swelled with other calls to welcome, accompany, discern with and integrate others into faith, other times to say “Yes.” Thinking again of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we remember her "yes" to the invitation of God to bear her son. That "yes" took her to stand on the shores of his life as he preached, taught, healed. It took her to stand beneath the cross and to experience the terrible pain of holding his dead body in her arms. Mothers never want to experience the death of their children. But she also experienced his Risen from the dead and she experienced the Pentecost coming of the Holy Spirit (for the second time for her). What has the first “Yes” and other “Yeses” of your life meant to you and others?

Here we are today – threatened by a virus we can’t see or hear or touch, but one which could overwhelm us as individuals, families, and as a church and nation. Often the cable networks carry pictures of people who have died from complications of COVID-19. Many of them were young – serving the community with their talents and desires. Why did they die and why, at 80, am I still here? What does God want of me? Why are you still here? What does God want of you?  

What does faithfulness to God and to my treasured commitments mean to me in this new context? Shall I put my toe into the street again? To borrow the question of Mary to the angel: “How will this be?” What does it mean to say “Yes” to God at my age – and you at yours?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, May 1, 2020

Shepherding Us Through the New Norm

Dear Friends,

We hear people talk about “getting back to normal” after the pandemic subsides. I hope we don’t, for what was normal before COVID-19 was a time that did not treasure the poor, the homeless, Indigenous, Black and Brown people, people fleeing from persecution of all kinds. The wealthy kept growing richer. The middle class, found itself in free-fall.

What the new normal needs is a miracle of love and unselfishness.

That’s a phrase I borrowed from Walter Munk, one of today’s great oceanographers. Munk coined that phrase to describe the only way he knew to overcome global warming. That phrase also describes what we must do to emerge from this this pandemic time as well. “A miracle of love and unselfishness” needs to root itself in our lives if we and our communities are to be made whole as waves of the coronavirus, sweeping with stealth across our planet, threaten us.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we celebrate the one who stands with us in all we suffer. It’s well known that sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. When someone other than their true shepherd calls, the sheep simply don’t respond.

We hear the undeniably repeated call in the 10th Chapter of John’s Gospel, “the sheep hear his voice as he calls his sheep by name and leads them out {of the sheepfold}. (John 10.3)…I have other sheep that do not belong to his fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice and there will be one flock and one shepherd (John 10.16)…My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish. (John 10.27-28).” Even though, as largely urban people, we have no daily familiarity with sheep, we are moved by the image of a shepherd loving his sheep so ardently.

In Pope Francis, the world has found a contemporary shepherd who speaks with the voice of the Risen Lord – a profound leader who urges the world and not just the church to live out the love and unselfishness that the Risen Jesus calls us to if only we hear his voice. Francis, in his letter on the need to save the earth, (Laudato Si’) affirms that the planet is a single homeland that calls for “one world with a common plan.” That calls for us to shake ourselves free of being grasping, selfish and self-centered and instead, make common efforts toward shaping the common good of our planet. As the virus crossed boundaries without seeing them, people in the new normal need to cross boundaries of state, class, gender and race in support of one another.

Francis is a shepherd in the image of the Good Shepherd. He urges us to be that too.

During this painful time, we find people stretching out to help one another. Let’s not stop once the immediate worst is over. Let us be changed in heart and mind and spirit, generous beyond anything we have done in the past. The new normal will take effort on everyone’s part, a miracle of love and selflessness.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Stranger on the Road


Dear Friends,

Once again today we hear the much-loved story of Jesus encountering his disciples on the road to Emmaus. Cleophas and an unnamed partner were fleeing Jerusalem, disappointed and miserable. Their world had collapsed. We don’t know who was with Cleophas, but it could have well been his wife, Mary, who had stood beneath the cross of Jesus. Let’s call Cleophas’ travelling companion by that name.

As darkness began to encroach, Mary and Cleophas were approached by a solitary stranger. They could have cut him out of their journey. Passed him by. Perhaps it was pure mid-Eastern courtesy that prevented them from doing so – more likely some deep tugging of grace. The stranger seemed to be ignorant of the things that had transpired over Passover and the Sabbath. He listened to their interpretation of what had happened. The stranger – Jesus unrecognized – was attentive to them, and then it was his turn to unfold the Scriptures for them – to offer them meaning and hope. And as they listened, something happened to them. Much later, they would reveal to each other how their hearts burned within them as He spoke.

At this moment in 2020, we are all together as a people beginning to emerge from the coronavirus. Like Cleophas and Mary, we want to run away from the place of our miseries; our hopes dashed. We might even want to run away from a God who doesn’t seen risen or present in our world, shattered as it is by this invisible enemy. Like Mary and Cleophas, we try to name the things that have happened – to us individually, to our church, our relationships, our world. What we fear is that things won’t go back to how they have been. It’s likely they will change. Maybe evolve. Maybe change radically. The stranger on the road – Christ unrecognized – will be our travelling companion. Let’s listen to Him. And when we invite Him in as a guest for supper, He will feed us with himself instead.

In the days ahead, when Eucharist will be available to us again, will we go? Maybe before all this, the meaning of Eucharist was escaping us, but how about now – in this new time. Pay attention to what is happening within you. Does your heart burn within you? Will you recognize the Risen Lord? Looking at the wounds this virus has brought us, will you see Jesus’ wounds in others? Will you come to know that we need one another in dawning new ways? Will you? Will I? Will we?

This beloved story of the disciples and Jesus on the road to Emmaus, tells us to take courage, for Christ will meet us on the way to a new tomorrow. It tells us: the stranger who walks with us and helps us understand what had happened is no stranger at all.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Wounds of Christ

Dear Friends,

For Him, it didn’t have to be this way,
Risen Christ that He was.

He could have left His wounds
in the tomb,
staining the stone,
untreasured.

But Jesus’ wounds were the embodiment of
the compassion he bore for everyone.

Jesus’ breath,
halted in death,
was fresh, deep and sweet
on this new Day.

Beyond this day, Jesus wanted His holy wounds
to touch the wounds of people where they suffered
in every time and place, as with the silent virus eroding our world.

Yes, His wounds stir life
in us who are so wounded today.
His wounds,
hands and feet and side, make us,
wounded as we are,
cleary, undeniably
one with Him.

How faultlessly wise of Jesus not to reject His wounds
for they throb with the truth of all
we can trust about Him
in this fearsome time.

Come to think of it: We might not recognize the Risen Christ without them.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, April 10, 2020

Feeling the Power of Easter


Dear Friends,

This year, Easter – Sunday and Season – are inextricable bound together with the coronavirus. Some people say that the Sunday after our nation is free to move about again will be the real Easter this year. We can certainly celebrate it then, but we would miss the power of Easter if we don’t “celebrate” Easter when our nation faces death as it does right now.

Easter tells us that death is not our destiny. God gave no permission for death to hold Jesus as its permanent victim. Rather, death, like an old snake skin, lies discarded at the garden gate.

“Jesus, You live and we live because You live.
Our minds cannot grasp it, so we leave it to our hearts to embrace new life in You.”

Easter is not naive. We don’t close our eyes to the realities around us. The cross always stands in our sanctuary, even though this day, this season, it is draped with the mantle of victory.

Today, though our hearts are heavy with the anguish of many, “we celebrate Easter because we believe there are no God-forsaken places, no God-forgotten promises. Easter is the ultimate intrusion of God into places and situations we deem to be God-forsaken. Jesus lives and we live because of him.” (Lutheran Bishop Mark Harmon)

Clarence Johnson, New Testament scholar and co-founder of Habitat for Humanity writes of Easter: “On the morning of the resurrection, God put life in the present tense, not in the future. Not a hope for the future but a power for the present. Not so much that we shall live someday but that He is risen today. Jesus’ resurrection is not to convince the incredulous nor to reassure the fearful, but to enkindle believers…”

So today, let yourself be enkindled. Go outside and at least in your heart and in your imagination, meet Jesus in the garden. Like Mary Magdalen, you may not recognize Him at first, but He will call you by name. Then, like Mary, you will see Him Risen and Glorious, and your heart will be glad.

Today – outside – feel the pull of the resurrection and let courage stir in you to meet the days ahead.

May God Easter in You Today.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Mind of Christ


Ah, God.
Today begins Your week.
Oh, I know that every week is yours,
but this week is yours
in a more distilled way.
You’ll be more on my mind this week
than in an average week.
Help me to drink deeply of Your passion,
let the alleluia stir in my depths,
so that next week
it will rise in me
like the dawn.

Dear Friends,

To learn how to suffer this pandemic time, we must learn how to stand in Jesus’ place – to bear pain, abandonment, cruelty, distance, condemnation. Through all of it, Jesus was faithful and true. May it be so with us.

He trusted and obeyed his Father and broke the power of sin and betrayal. In the great and little tragedies of life, let this mind of Christ be ours as well. May it be so with us.

Love led Jesus through to death to life. His love. His Father’s love. May it be so with us.

That is our last word.

Next week, Jesus has the first word as He Easters over the world.

All week long, let us live into His New Day. Alleluia.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

To Whom Do We Belong


Dear Friends,

Since the unfolding pandemic began, I have been home – like you, grateful to have a place of safety with people to whom I belong.

But then, events as seen on various media outlets started me thinking about the question, “To whom do I belong?” The answers to that question seem simple, but they are not, for over the centuries of human life, belonging has happened unbidden, been cultivated, limited, enlarged, denied and sometimes forgotten about.

With you, I wonder to whom do we belong, for how long and how? Are we ever finished belonging or belonging anew? As I write this at the end of March 2020, with the pandemic touching more and more lives, insightful leaders have encouraged us to act on the belief that we belong to everyone. We are in some measure, responsible for one another’s well-being, life or death. Belonging is not earned. It is freely given or it is withheld.

Belonging requires perseverance on our part. We could say: “this belonging that I experience today is not what I thought it would be, so I am going to move on and care only for those whom I choose.”

Belonging sometimes comes as a surprise. We would not initially have thought we belonged to this one or that. Mid-20th century, our Sister Rosalma Hayes was studying in Europe. One day, she came around the corner of a public building in Paris. Toward her came a Sister of Saint Joseph in a similar habit. They did not know each other’s language, but they recognized each other, kissed each other’s brass bound crucifixes worn with the habit, and kept going. France was a homier place to be because of that encounter. It takes courage to belong to anyone, however fleetingly.

Sister Rosalma Hayes

Before this pandemic struck, our Congregation was preparing to celebrate 80 years of serving in Alabama. Eighty years of working with, loving and encouraging the black community to be all they could be. We came to belong to the black community, and they to us. Belonging meant that we came to be part of something greater than ourselves as we lived life beyond the greater Rochester area. That belonging in Selma was put to the test when in 1965, the civil rights march made its way across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. We were prevented from marching by the dictate of the archbishop of Mobile. Instead, with desire, we watched the marchers pass by our convent. They were ultimately attacked on the far side of the bridge. At Good Samaritan Hospital, which we ran on behalf for the black community, our Sisters tended to the great John Lewis and his confreres immediately after the attack. Our belonging to the black community of Selma was sealed in those days.

Sister Barbara Lum at the Good Samaritan Hospital Nursing Home in Selma, AL

Sister Kathleen Navarra and Sister Patricia Flass (not pictured) continue to mission in AL

Whether moved by a humanitarian perspective or by the sheer love of God, you and I – every person – belong to a far greater community than we realize.

Writing in the March 2020 issue of The Atlantic, David Brooks reminds his reader that “for vast stretches of human history people lived in extended families consisting not just of people they were related to but people they chose to cooperate with" (p64). That same unity of cooperation was unique to Jesus and His followers long before our day. Paul expressed it as all of us being members of the Body of Christ. “There are many parts but all one body” (1Cor.12.20).

That’s where we are today: “members of one another” (Marshall Sahlins). We are called to experience the “inner solidarity of souls” (J Pretz – Johansen). The maturity that such connectedness requires comes only with suffering together through destructive times, and not allowing our spirits to be crushed.

That moment is now. This pandemic will either make rise in us a new sense of universal belonging or it will make us fall back into ways that are not of God. In our age, many of our contemporaries and maybe we ourselves have trouble with the reality of God. We may want to deny the truth of God, the faithfulness of God in these devastating times. But pause, drink in God’s Spirit.

Perhaps this is our time’s new admission that we do belong to God. Not a God who commands servitude but a God who honors our capability to embrace one another. It takes courage to belong to anyone, much less God.

So we come to it. Belonging to people. Belonging to God. Work the phones, send e-mails, use social media as a tool for engaging the other. Pray with someone else’s prayer or our own. These days are too precious to waste marking time.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, March 27, 2020

We Are Made for Life, Not for Death



Dear Friends,

Do you remember the comedian Danny Thomas? After his father’s death, he wrote about that robust, energetic man who had emigrated from Lebanon with his wife. The Thomas family prospered and raised a large family. When his father was dying, he called his wife and all his children around him. He raised himself up in bed, looked at them all lovingly and said, “Damn death!” Those were his last words.

Somehow I think those words sum up the rage, the grief, the helplessness that we have all felt when we have lost someone close to us, or when we realize our own time is limited on this earth…or in this rare moment when a pandemic threatens to invade our lives in an invisible way.

Death is cruel. It is terrifying. It goes counter to everything we cherish.

It is too bad that our churches are now closed for public worship, for today, we are gifted with the story of Jesus and his friend Lazarus. Today we understand that Jesus knows only too well the pain of losing someone close to him. Troubled in spirit, moved by deeper emotions, Jesus wept.

Some Scripture scholars believe that the words “He was deeply troubled in spirit” would be better translated “he was angry.” Jesus was angry as we have been angry when life is disrupted and we are helpless. For all intents and purposes Jesus would have agreed with Danny Thomas’ father; “Damn Death!” Jesus was not philosophical about death, nor does God expect us to be stoical, unmoved in the face of death – anyone’s death.

So why do we read this lengthy gospel two weeks before Easter? Because followers of Christ like us believe that, in Jesus, God has indeed damned death.

In his Passion, Jesus did not bypass the terrors of death. He met death head on. Jesus was not willing to give death the last word. We hear that conviction in today’s gospel when Jesus says to Martha “I am the resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me, even though he dies will live” (John 11.25). In other words, we are made for life, not for death. We are made for God, the living God, the God of life. Death is the antithesis of everything Jesus represents, of everything He is. He is life.

This is why Easter is the critical, central feast of our Faith. This is why we prepare ourselves for it during Lent – any Lent – but this one, with its remarkable face-to-face encounter with death. This is why we read this gospel today.

It helps us focus on our belief that one day, Jesus will say to all of us as he said standing before the tomb in Bethany so long ago:
                “Lazarus! Martha! Mary! And all of you, my beloved friends: Come out! Into the Light!
                 Untie them and let them go free.”

~Sister Joan Sobala

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Calling Upon Faith To Help Us Through the Darkness






Dear Friends,

One of the things Jesus says about Himself , quoting Isaiah in Luke’s gospel, is that “he was sent to bring new sight to the blind.” It’s no wonder then that all four Gospels tell stories of how Jesus cured blindness. John’s story of the man born blind and his encounter with Jesus is much more detailed. It is a rich source of illumination about life for it deals not only with spiritual insight and the triumph of light over darkness, but also the struggle in life against the power of human darkness.

Caught up as we are in the Coronavirus  pandemic, we may become distracted from other important aspects of life and be  inclined to shed the daily food that sustains us spiritually – the Gospel, prayer, the recognition of God’s abiding and tender presence, our  concern for and service of others.  We might find ourselves stuck in the darkness. Plato, centuries before Christ, reminded us that “we can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy in life is when adults are afraid of the light.”

In this time of potential panic, let us not be afraid of the light. Instead, let us call upon faith to help sustain us through the threatening darkness of world-wide illness.

Three thoughts about the journey out of darkness seem important for  us to consider:
It’s a very long journey from blindness to sight to insight. Most often, we carry our blindness alone, accommodate to it until Jesus stands before us, touches us and urges us to take the next steps if we want to see. Left alone, we stay blind. Sharing what we experience may be very helpful.

We come to insight only when others challenge what our sight means. In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees jeer and deride, threaten the man born blind with rejection. They try to make him back down from the truth of his experience. But his truth, his determination is greater than their pressure.
Holding fast to the truth of his experience, the man born blind prefigures Jesus – who from his capture in the Garden of Gethsemane to His death on the cross is challenged by the powerful who also jeer and deride Him .They try to derail Jesus from embracing the deep meaning of what he is doing.

Just as the man born blind was instructed to wash his eyes, we too have been washed at the instruction of Jesus. We call our washing  Baptism – a once- in-a- lifetime event which we draw upon all our lives. In Baptism, we receive the promise, the invitation and the grace to be one with the Risen Christ. But there is no automatic guarantee that we will live in the light. Living out the promise, the invitation and the grace is our work. That’s one reason to keep Lent carefully, especially in this stressful year.

Are we afraid of the light? If not, then we are not afraid to experience  Christ  coming  through self-giving,  suffering and death to radiant light to walk with us at this fearful time.  It is in His light that we will see where we are, and how to make our way through the days ahead.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, March 12, 2020

More to St Patrick's Day Than Meets the Eye

The Irish "Big Three"... St. Columba/Colmcille, St. Patrick and St. Brigid




Dear Friends,

There’s more to St. Patrick’s Day than meets the eye. It’s the tip of a rich form of Christianity that began with Patrick in the 5th century, grew with Brigid, Abbess of  Kildaire, also  in the 5th century and took off across the Irish Sea with Columba, a 6th century monk from northern  Ireland, who landed on the small island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides. There in 563, Columba founded Iona Monastery. Long before Columba’s arrival, Iona had been considered a holy place, where Vikings, the Irish and Scots had buried their kings. It was considered to be a thin  place, that is a place where the membrane between heaven and earth was so thin that someone standing there could easily touch heaven.

Columba’s monastery flourished. The monks farmed, taught local people and worked on illustrated copies of the Scriptures, preserving them in this isolated place while the continent of Europe seemed to be shrouded in forgetful darkness. The  famous  Book  of  Kells, enshrined at Trinity College, Dublin, is actually an illuminated manuscript labored over by the monks of Iona, beginning 800.

By the middle of the 7th century, a Roman style of structuring the Church was being promoted in the Isles.  This  Roman  style  consisted  of dioceses with bishops, priests, deacons and parishes. The Celtic style implied that local communities were clustered around monasteries, where people prayed, studied and were kept safe from marauders. In 664, with the Abbess Hilda presiding over the Synod of Whitby, King  Oswy of Northumbria  chose  the Roman style of structuring church. While the 

Abbey of Iona resisted the Roman mission well into the latter part of the 9th Century, the formally structured Celtic mission was ended in 1203. People in Ireland and Scotland nonetheless continued the Celtic prayers, songs  and theology on their own.  Since 1900, Celtic Christianity has experienced a revival which many of our peers find helpful for prayer and spiritual growth. It is not antithetical to other expressions of Christianity. Rather, it is a way of listening to God and acting out of the inner beckoning of God.

Good and holy things, like Celtic Spirituality, have a way of reappearing and appealing to people who revive them for the good of all. I am skipping a lot of history but want to tell you that, today, the Abbey of Iona is flourishing, as part of the Church of Scotland with strong ecumenical ties. Celtic spirituality flourishes today through the music of John Bell, the writings of John Phillip Newell and John Donohue.  Celtic Christianity as seen through their music, prayer and writings emphasizes God at the heart of Creation and the goodness of all life. There is a profound  Trinitarian motif running through Celtic Spirituality, as we see in this ancient prayer:  “The Sacred Three/ My fortress be/ Encircling me/ Come and be/ ‘round my hearth and home.”

John Donohue revived the ancient term ,”anam cara”, the name given to a person who acted as a spiritual guide, companion and teacher – someone who was the truest mirror to reflect our soul.
According to the spiritual vision of the ancient Celts, Jesus is the secret Anam Cara (the soul friend) of every person, What  a wonderful way to pray.  Jesus, Soul Friend.  Jesus ,  Anam  Cara.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, March 6, 2020

The Walls of Life


Dear Friends,

Recently I saw a world map reflecting the spread of the coronavirus from its source in Wuhan, China. Arrows connected Wuhan with places on every continent. The coronavirus does not respect walls.

Many other aspects of life do not respect walls either. Have you ever noticed how the yearning for justice and peace, the love between people, the tender embrace of God for people and all of creation appear all over the world, without apparent interaction causing them? Walls do not bar the good and holy, nor the misery of mind, heart and body that people inflict on one another. Walls seem powerful. But as a graffiti message on the Berlin Wall proclaimed, “Sooner or later, all walls come down.”

You and I deal daily with external demeaning walls and painful inner walls. We are the sisters and brothers of Rahab, whose story is told in Joshua 6. She harbored the messengers of Joshua who had been sent to reconnoiter the city so that the Israelites could overcome Jericho. For her hospitality, Rahab and her kin were saved. Because of her hospitality, the walls of Jericho fell. Walls can come down when people are gracious to one another.

The writer Lauree Hersch Meyer invites us to “choose your wall. Wailing wall, graffiti wall, mural wall, Berlin wall, great wall of China [wall at our southern border]. Walls to paint, lean against in the sun, play ball with, cuddle into for shelter from wind…wall between chaos and creation…between fear and energy, numbness and hope, lethargy and imagination, death and life. Living walls that honor memory and grief. Walls that hold in; walls that keep out.

“Walls invisible and visible, walls recognized and hidden, walls acknowledged and denied. Walls that define, invite, declare positions and limits, afford place and safety.” If you have to have a wall, and many of us do, choose one that adds to the value of life.

Think about the walls you have come up against or constructed in life. Have they provided safety, honored the Spirit and celebrated life? Stand before the walls of the tomb that held the dead body of Jesus. Those walls could not withstand the life of God within.

In this season of Lent, let’s choose the walls we wish to climb over or pull down, retain or not. Let’s choose the partners with whom to tear down destructive political, immoral walls. In fact, we cannot deal with threatening walls by ourselves. We need one another.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 28, 2020

Voting is a Sacred Action

Dear Friends,

Our American political life at the moment consists of caucuses, primaries, town hall meetings, polls and debates – state by state. One would think a person could escape it all by turning to a blog like this which defines itself as about God, faith, community and the common good. Surprise! You may not think of it this way, but voting is a sacred action.

Pope Francis tells us in The Joy of the Gospel: “An authentic faith...always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it.” Many of us are familiar with the social teachings of the Church, amassed since Leo XIII in the late 19th century in a compendium of writings about the intersection of the Gospel and the issues facing the world and its cultures. As a matter of fact, Catholics of each age have since been encouraged to apply the principles of social justice as issues arise in our times. Moreover, Pope Francis holds that our political lives must be seen as an essential element of our personal call to holiness.

But there’s more, as San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy told his listeners in a talk he recently gave at the Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture at the University of San Diego. Bishop McElroy impressed on his listeners that “it is primarily through the votes of Catholic women and men, rooted in conscience and in faith that the Church enters into the just ordering of society and the state. And it is primarily in voting for specific candidates for office that believers as citizens have the greatest opportunity to leave the world better than we found it.”

In another part of his talk, Bishop McElroy tells us that “we are called in our lives as citizens and believers to be missionaries of dialogue and civility in a moment that values neither. This requires deep spiritual reflection, courage and judgment. It demands a Christlike dedication to seeking the truth no matter where it may lie.”

Take for example the remaining candidates in today’s Democratic Party’s primaries. They are all individuals whose capacities and intentions offer the nation a wide range of policy options.

It is voters’ responsibility to measure the candidates’ understanding and conviction about the environment, beginning and end of life issues and the exclusion of people based on race, creed, ethnic origin, gender and lifestyles.

Voters – you and I – need to study the candidate’s character not just whether we like them or not.

Again, Bishop McElroy: “Faith-filled voters must assess the competence, intelligence, human relation skills, mastery of policy and intuitive insights each candidate brings to bear, for voting discipleship seeks results, not merely aspirations…Which candidate will be likely to best advance the common good through his or her office in the particular context he/she will face?”

To repeat from our opening paragraph, “voting is a sacred action.” As the year unfolds, may we treat it as such.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Work of Lent


Dear Friends,

I don’t know if you realize it, but for the last several weeks, our Gospel passages have been from the Sermon on the Mount as given to us by Matthew. Some theologians and spiritual writers describe the Sermon on the Mount as containing the hard sayings of Jesus and his ethical demands. Without being told, we know that to follow Jesus is not a sentimental journey, a self-satisfying trek through life. It is work. It requires that we recognize ourselves as sinners, and go on to acquire positive ways to walk away from sin and walk in the steps of the Holy One.

The “holy smudge,” which we accept on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday and wear all day long, is a sign off conviction, a badge of commitment, and a proclamation to all who come our way that we are followers of the Risen and Living Holy One who did not shun death to give us life. In 2019, the CNN talk show host Chris Cuomo appeared on his nightly program bearing the holy smudge for the world to see. Wearing our own holy smudge, let’s watch to see if he repeats the practice this year.

The work of Lent is continual transformation. We discern and try to do God’s will. We become salt, light and blessedness for others by being non-violent, by finding creative ways to change our world for the good, by practicing justice as well as compassion – all the things the Sermon on the Mount tells us to do.

What are some of the ways we can effect positive lasting change this Lent?
  • By increasing our capacity to love. What is our capacity anyway? As much as a thimble, a cup, a gallon, the sea can hold?
  • By giving over our need to control
  • By clinging less to what we own or who/what we allow to own us
  • By activating the treasures that faith and the Church can offer

This Lent, what will it take on our part to change in a positive way that lasts?
  • Choose one thing. Not everything, but one small thing to begin.
  • Be willing to work at it. Be attentive. Practice the change daily. Review it nightly.
  • Improve on the idea when it seems right to do so.
  • Be willing to start over again if need be. Don’t let one failure throw you off course.
  • Wear prayer as you do your skin.
  • Don’t be alone in the process. Celebrate small steps with the community of faith.

The spiritual work of Lent is arduous, but we need not fear or hesitate as we drink in God’s inspiration and energy to become a new creation. God will, indeed, lead, beckon and accompany us along the way. We are on our way!

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Unbinding the Ties that Bind



Dear Friends,

Watching the Senate Trial of President Trump following his impeachment, I wondered to whom the senators were bound? To their God , the ultimate recipient of the oath? To the Constitution?  Or  to the Republican Party?

During our lifetimes, each  of us is bound as a consequence of the choices we make. Sometimes we are bound together to achieve a  common goal. Sometimes, we bind ourselves to our own detriment – as when we cannot let go of a destructive idea or practice or a habit that can overwhelm us. Sometimes we bind others by not forgiving them the wrong – real or imagined – that they have done, by freezing them into a moment of time when they did something wrong or mean, or stupid or compromising and we’ve never allowed them to forget it – or we’ve not let them grow beyond it.

Image result for lukes gospel good samaritan
The Good Samaritan
In Luke’s Gospel, we find the unique story of the Good Samaritan, who could have been so bound in spirit by the undiscriminating hatred of the Jews for the Samaritans that he could have passed by the Jewish man left by the wayside, the remnant of an attack by thieves. After all, the priest and the Levite, fellow countrymen of the victim, passed him by. Perhaps they were in a hurry or didn’t care or couldn’t act on their caring if they had any. But the nameless Samaritan cared, took time to bind the victim’s wounds and got him to a place of safety,

Who then was the neighbor to the victim, Jesus asks pointedly?

In our daily lives, strangers often help bind wounds for us and if we are alert and committed to do good, we bind the wounds of others.

Sometimes, we bind ourselves by people’s perceptions of us . Have you ever felt strangers release the loveable in us, but are bound by our family‘s image of us?

While there are many  notable stories of binding and being bound that Jesus tells, let’s look at only one more. In Mark 3 Jesus tells this story: “No One can make his way into a strong man house and steal from him unless he has first bound the strong man. Only then can he steal the strong man’s property.” Who are the strong man and the thief? Usually, we think of the strong man as the good guy. 

But here’s a twist. The strong man can be any oppressive institution, civic or religious, that prevents individuals or communities from living with dignity and with human rights respected. The thief is the group or individual or the movement that says no to the strong man and finds ways to bind the strong man so that the people can go free. Non-profit  groups that embrace human rights, ecology and a consistent life ethic are among the thieves that reject oppressors and bind them to free the world’s neediest. Who are the good thieves that you know? Will you join them?

As we personally stand in awe, observing the work of Christ in unbinding others, the Lord turns to us to participate in that unbinding.  Here is the wonderful irony: Being bound to Christ is to be truly free.


~Sister Joan Sobala