Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Assumption of Mary

Dear Friends,

Monday is the feast of the Assumption of Mary. If you Google images of the Assumption, what comes up are images of a beautiful Mary, most often by herself, being taken up gracefully into heaven.

What follows is a spiritual, meditative, imaginative look at what might have happened and what Mary’s Assumption might mean for us.

One day,
Mary, the Mother of God, died.
        Her friends and
        the disciples of Jesus
        had seen it coming.
        Her heart, which had suffered so much
        during the life of Jesus,
        was slowing down.
        Her energy no longer prevailed.
        Maybe her memory became fuzzy, and
        her hands were marked by arthritis.
        We don’t know.

What we know is this:
one day, Mary, the Mother of God,
did not get up to meet the day.
        Her friends and the disciples of Jesus
        prepared her tomb,
        her body for burial,
        applying precious spices
        and unguents that would enhance
        the fragrance of her body.
        They gathered around her still body,
        and looked upon her face one last time
        before covering it.
        They finished their ministrations.
        They prayed,
        and all withdrew.

But God the Father who chose her to be
Mother of the Word Incarnate, did not withdraw,
nor the Spirit
who had overshadowed Mary,
two other times in her life,
nor did her Son, the Word made flesh, withdraw.
He was there.
Jesus reached out His hands,
marked by the wounds of His Passion,
and scooped up
the fragrant body of
His fragile, aged mother in His arms.
Holding her close as she had held Him
so often in life,
        Jesus bore her
        into eternal life.

Mary, the Mother of God,
hadn’t even known
she was on her way.
Death was already a memory.
Now, she was there.
Now, Mary’s body seemed young and vigorous once more.
Now, she was transformed,
restored to her original beauty.
        “Yes. Let it be so, “
        she had said once.
        “Yes,” she repeated throughout her life.
        And now,
        beyond death,
        her life-song had not changed,
        “Yes. Let it be so.”

Those of us left behind,
Mary’s friends and
the disciples of Jesus,
are wordless in the face of this moment.

And when words are finally restored,
we dare to say:
        Mary, our Mother, our friend
        and disciple of Jesus,
        we honor all you became in life,
        without spending your energy on
        your own becoming.
        You became, through sheer belief, love
        and generosity,
        the Mother of Jesus, the Son of God, and
        our mother, our friend, our companion.

        All that was in you expanded/flowed/flowered into
        forever – an endless day.

It is irrepressible joy to us
that you, Mary, are whole and forever
with God.
We ask that
with you,
as we look ahead
to our own forever,
we may likewise say
on this side of eternity:
        “Yes. Let it be so.”

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, August 5, 2022

Moving Toward the Horizon

Dear Friends,

Abraham, we are told in the Letter to the Hebrews today, travelled to a horizon beyond which he could not see. “Abraham…went out, not knowing where he was to go.” (Heb.11.8) All he could do was to have faith and trust in the God who told him to go forth.

What began with Abraham reached its high point in Jesus, who taught his followers to be daring in faith. In today’s Gospel, the servants had a limited horizon. They thought they knew what was required of them.

To their surprise, the master in today’s Gospel story was so delighted to see his servants awaiting him in the night that he kicked off his sandals, put on an apron and served them a meal – frankly eccentric behavior from an employer and certainly not what the servant expected.

In this story, Jesus tells us that over the horizon of the servants’ waiting to serve was the friendship of God – not promotion, not praise, but friendship with God, which is unseen from the vantage point of the long night of waiting.

            So much of life which is beyond our horizon
                    Is the unexpected gift of God.

Every one of us gathered around the Word today has a horizon, the limit of our thinking, interest, experience, or outlook. Consider your own personal God-story about first jobs, college, successes and disappointments, and relationships that worked or didn’t work. In every moment and movement, God is at the horizon.

We move toward a horizon both personally and as communities.

The community we call Church, for example, is always present, always moving toward the horizon. Some of us remember how the Second Vatican Council opened for us new horizons…
    … a new sense of belonging
    … a valuing of each other’s gifts of the spirit
    … new ways of celebrating the sacraments
    … understandable liturgical language
    … the companionship of our ecumenical and interfaith sisters and brothers.

Not everyone ran toward this horizon, but many of us did.

Fifty-five years later, we find our American Church…
    … 22% of the US population (the same in 2022 as in 2014)
    … full of people and bishops some of whom treasure the mission and words of Pope Francis, while others cling to the teachings of Popes Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II
    … divided by the June overturn of Roe vs. Wade
    … led by fewer clergy and experiencing emptying pews.

What can we say about the church horizon before us?

There will always be a horizon of Christian identity.

As a church, we will always be striving, growing, becoming. It’s not over. Even in our weakened state, we can confidently say, not only is God our horizon, but God is also here to accompany us to our horizon. Will we find God here? There?

Sometimes, we get closer to the horizon of our Christian identity by our own choice.

This happens when we, as the servants in the Gospel who waited into the night, stay the course, probe the Scriptures and the Church’s living tradition, and find them life – giving, transformative. This happens when we shape ourselves and our communities as disciples of Jesus, the Holy One.

Yet, we know that the future is not solely of our own making.

The horizon holds unexpected and sometimes even unwanted developments. Think about being downsized at work. Think about the school you didn’t get into. These are not personal choices, yet some of the unexpected developments are serendipitous. So too with our Church: we meet new companions, shape new ministries, find new insights into faith, and deep value in the sacraments when we dare to go where we go where we do not want to go.

The poet Stephen Vincent Benet gives us these thoughts to spur us on our way toward the horizon:
God pity us indeed, for we are human
And do not always see
The vision when it come, the shining change,
Or if we see it, do not follow it.
Because it is too hard,
Too strange, too new,
Too unbelievable, too difficult,
Warring too much with common, easy ways…
Always, and always, life can be
lost without vision, but not lost by death.
Lost by not daring, willing, going beyond
Beyond the ragged edge of fortitude
To something more, something yet unseen.

Rather than stand still/mark time, let’s move together toward the horizon. God will accompany us and paradoxically, meet us there.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Breathing Deeply

Dear Friends,

One of the recommended practices for leading a long and healthy life is to breathe deeply. Many of us don’t do so. Our breathing is shallow. If we were presented with a spirometer (a breath-measuring device – see picture above), shallow breathers might not be able to move the ball very high.

Teachers of yoga and contemplative forms of prayer instruct beginners to breathe deeply. Breathe in. Hold it. Breathe out slowly. Pause. Do it over and over again. ”Sometimes the best thing you can do is not think, not wonder, not imagine, not obsess. Just breathe.” (Love Wish

If we are true to our God, we create prayer anew all of our life. If you haven’t tried it, create a pattern of praying with your breath. Breathe in slowly. Breathe out slowly. Pause. Do it over and over again. God is in the breathing. God is in the silence. Don’t be afraid to try it or try it again.

Prayer doesn’t change God. Prayer changes us. We know we have mastered a soul lesson when the circumstance has not changed but the way we respond to life has changed.”

Here are some ways that we can carry in our being as we try to pray in fresh ways.

Believe that “the more” is imminent.

Resist trying to end the endless.

Evoke softness where harshness rules.

Adapt our thinking to adopt the unexpected.

Thirst for the Spirit’s sweetness.

Hold fast to connectedness with the Holy.

Eliminate yesterday’s failures from our heart.

Be Open to God, who never disappoints our yearnings and our needs. Breathe deeply.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Our Relationship with God

Dear Friends,

Today’s readings about prayer are rooted in one’s relationship with God. That relationship comes long before whatever that prayer we lift up to God.

Take Abraham, for example. Abraham and God are not strangers to one another at the beginning of today’s first reading. They had known each other in the deepest sense for many long years. God was Abraham’s constant companion, his challenge and his comfort. Abraham dared to haggle with God because they knew and loved each other well.

In the Gospel, the disciples did not ask Jesus to teach them to pray as soon as they became His followers. They experienced Jesus for a while. They witnessed His cures and listened to His parables. Throughout their time with Him, they drank in who He was and came to realize that Jesus had a strong abiding relationship with his Abba, His Daddy.

The disciples knew that, when He taught them to pray, He would be drawing on that relationship.

If you and I hold God at arms-length and at the same time expect our prayers to be fruitful, we are missing something essential. Prayer is the flowering of our relationship with God.

A second aspect of prayer found in today’s Gospel is, when we pray we are entering into mystery, continually unfolding, never exhausted.

Take Jesus’ encouragement to seek, ask and knock. Most of the time, when we do that we have a very clear idea about what we want, down to the last detail. But then, as time passes and we look back on what we asked for and how it played out, we find that something more has happened than what we asked for.

Whatever happened is what I found I want to happen.
Only that.
But that.

We had received, found and admitted into our lives the unexpected, and valued it. One way of summing up the unexpected is to say: “Things worked out.”… not even realizing that God was in the giver of this new gift.

In our deep prayer, we don’t change God’s mind. Rather, we move into deeper harmony with God. Trust in God and personal effort are found at one and the same time in prayer.

So, the next time we come to God seeking, asking, and knocking, we’d better know for certain that more is happening than meets the eye, especially when we allow the Spirit to lure, sway, and nudge our prayer.

We are being drawn into God who is our comfort, companion, and challenge. We will become different in Spirit because of our heartfelt prayer.

That is the ultimate gift of being one with the mystery of God.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Welcoming Core of Christianity


Dear Friends,

                Like many of you, I have been in and out of many hotels, inns and conference centers over the years. In every place I’ve stayed, the staff made a point of seeing to my comfort. I know this because they have told me so. Hospitality is a commodity that can be bought. We simply don’t go back to a city, hotel or restaurant that has not been hospitable. When we talk about our trips or experiences away, we often tell stories of hospitality offered to us.

                But hospitality is more than an industry or an impulsive kindness to strangers – although it is certainly that.

                Abraham and his wife Sara in today’s first reading, practiced hospitality toward whatever  strangers passed by their tent. In this instance, the strangers were messengers from God who left them with the remarkable news that Sara would bear a son, Sara was well beyond childbearing years, but it was true – and a blessing for all generations to come.

Today’s Gospel is also a story of hospitality. Martha offered Jesus traditional hospitality at the table. Mary offered hospitality to Christ’s message. Most of the interpretations you and I grew up with pitted Martha against Mary. Who did the more important thing? This divisive reading of the story tells the reader there are winners and losers with Jesus.

But Jesus does not chide Martha for her activity but for her anxiety. Anxious people cannot be open and Jesus knows this. In naming Martha’s anxiety, Jesus releases her from it. In the only other story where Martha figures strongly, it is she not Mary who goes out to meet Jesus on the road near Lazarus’ tomb. It is she – Martha – who names Jesus for who he is – the Messiah, the Son of God. Martha has embraced a new discipleship: a new way of thinking and being. We learn from Martha in this incident that hospitality means that not only is the door open. But the heart is open and the mind is open.

The late Dutch psychologist/theologian Henri Nouwen says:” Hospitality is the core of the Christian life.”

Think about the ways  neighboring countries to the north and west welcome Ukrainian refugees from the war with Russia. Hospices welcome the dying so that they may live out their days in a blessed place. Think of children adopted into households where love awaits them.

It’s true that prudence holds up a caution sign when the stranger or even a family member at the door masks the demonic. But prudence does not destroy the need to extend hospitality widely.

Once we become clear that hospitality – openness to the other – in the name of God – is core to our lives, then we can also recognize that we are guests in God’s world, bound to one another by the mystery of God’s own hospitality to us.

May the sharing of hospitality make a profound mark in our lives this summer.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Good Samaritan


Dear Friends,

                The story of Good Samaritan in today’s Gospel cannot be neatly covered up by Jesus’ simple but true summary statement: Love your neighbor. You and I like to think that the priest and the levite should have known better. Of course, they should have come to the aid of the man in the ditch.

                But put these passersby in the context of their own life. If either of them had stopped, they would have broken the law. Each of them was bound by temple discipline not to incur ritual impurity. To touch the bloody body of the man in the ditch would have mad them ritually impure and would have prevented them from carrying out their own official religious functions.

                On the other hand, the Samaritan found himself in a bind. In making that split-second decision to aid the battered Jewish traveler, the third man risked quite a bit. Cultural norms – profoundly gripping though unwritten – required that Samaritans had nothing to do with Jews. This Samaritan would, as a result of his action, incur the wrath of his Samaritan relatives and friends or open himself to ridicule, scorn or maybe even shunning.

                These are two separate cultures that created mindsets which hindered mercy. One man followed his intuition, his heart. The other two did not.

                What do we have to build into our life for us to be like the Good Samaritan and follow our God-sent intuition? For one thing, we need to develop a deep-seated belief that God accompanies us in the daily events of life where opportunities for kindness arise? At the same time, we need to grow in consciousness of what’s happening around us? Such awareness takes work.

Most of the time, the person who needs our help is not lying in a ditch. Our co-worker, neighbor, a stranger  or casual acquaintance could need to talk about an illness, a job difficulty, a relationship that has become complicated.

                Finally, in the Samaritan we find the readiness to act – to take a chance, even though he might be misunderstood or his efforts not appreciated, The priest and the levite were aware of the wounded man . That’s why they walked around him. It was the readiness to act that was missing.

                Each of us finds ourself in the Good Samaritan story. We may help or we may be the person in the ditch who finds ourselves the recipient of a great kindness given by one who did not walk away but who could have.

                Whoever we are in this story, God is the companion of our experience.

                It’s clear that our times are fraught with people needing help. Will we have the readiness to give or receive even though it may be costly or poorly regarded? 

                Big-heartedness isn’t easy, but it is God’s call to us.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Contributing to the Movements of Non-Violence

Dear Friends,

Nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus ever advocate violence. In the Garden of Gethsemane, where Peter cuts off the ear of Malchus, Jesus says, “no more” and heals Malchus.

Jesus is a non-violent teacher of non-violence. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus offers two imaginative non-violent responses to violence.

“When someone strikes you on one cheek,” He says, “turn the other cheek.” The theologian Walter Wink offers insight into the meaning of that call. When people in the military would strike their inferiors, it would be with a backhanded slap to the left cheek. To turn the other cheek was, in effect, to say to the violent person: if you hit me on my right cheek, it means you acknowledge I am your equal. This would give the violent person pause.

The second admonition of Jesus was equally clever. “When someone asks you to go a mile with them, go two.” Again, from Walter Wink we learn that the someone in that admonition was actually a Roman soldier. By Roman law, the soldier could press a civilian to carry his ninety pounds of gear for one mile, but not more. For the civilian to carry it more than a mile might sound generous. In fact, the soldier could be found disobedient to the law. The civilian undermined the military in a non-violent way.

A unique characteristic of the 20th Century was the international rise of non-violence to solve problems. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the Mennonites and Quakers were prime proponents of non-violence. Their protegees included the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who told us, “The way to silence error is by truth and not by violence.”

This decade of the 21st century has found Americans descending deeper into violence on our streets, with guns, killing multiple people who are strangers for ideological reasons or out of rage. Abortion, domestic abuse, senseless aggression all arise from and lead to violence.

Are we helpless? Not really, but we do have to exert and discipline ourselves for action.

Training in non-violent ways of problem – solving is necessary at a personal level. So too are learning empathetic listening and assertive, non-judgmental, non-destructive speech. These require a discipline, which we might need to do in tandem with others. If you have a computer, go to several sites to see where groups of people are learning and sharing the practice of non-violence. Braver Angels is a citizens organization uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America. (The term Braver Angels comes from Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural speech in 1861.) Go to the Center for Non-Violence Communication or Global Citizens. On the Global Citizens website, you can read how 100,000 Estonians in 1988 gathered for five nights of group singing to protest Soviet rule. It worked.

As Americans, we can be creators of and joiners in movements of non-violence. The time to do this work is now. Let the peace of Christ which binds us together be the source of our strength as we learn to live in love and peace with one another.

~Sister Joan Sobala