Five Loaves and Two Fish

Five Loaves and Two Fish

Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận spent thirteen years imprisoned in Communist Vietnam without receiving a trial. Of those thirteen years, nine were spent in solitary confinement. The prison conditions he suffered in makes the prison I go to for prison ministry look like a luxurious hotel. From his cell being so humid that mushrooms grew on his sleeping mat to his cell light being left on (or off) for days at a time, Venerable Francis suffered in ways I cannot fathom.

Yet from this suffering emerges a life shaped and formed in the crucible of humiliation. Despite the hatred of his persecutors, he continued to seek after the Lord. Years after being released from prison, Venerable Francis wrote Five Loaves and Two Fish, a simple yet profound book based on his experiences in prison. While most of us cannot relate to the particulars of his life, the truths that emerge are ones that ought to resonate deeply with each of us.

The general theme of his book, as you may have guessed, is based on the Gospel where the little boy offers the little he has (five loaves and two fish) to feed the multitudes present. The boy doesn’t know how it will be enough, but he trusts that offering it to the Lord is what he is called to do. Venerable Francis focuses on the little that we can do to offer ourselves to the Lord. He went from an active ministry as a bishop, serving God’s people with energy and zeal to a life imprisoned, unable to speak to his flock or do the work God was allowing him to do before. Yet even in this lack, or perhaps especially in this lack, he finds that God is still working, just not as he expected.

The book is short and beautiful, so I recommend getting a copy and pouring over the simple truths found in it. But I wanted to highlight two points that stood out to me.

The first truth Francis shares is to live in the present moment. Honestly, if I were confined to a cell for nine years, I might be inclined to live in anywhere but the present moment. The perspective Francis has is, “If I spend my time waiting, perhaps the things I look forward to will never happen. The only thing certain to come is death.” Keeping in mind where he found himself when he considered those words, it was reasonable for Francis to assume he would not survive prison. He chose to embrace the moment and do what he could with what he had.

Through the smuggling efforts of a seven-year-old, Francis sent out messages of hope that he composed during the night. He focused on filling each moment to the brim with love, concentrating on each gesture toward the guards being as loving as possible. The fruit of this was the conversion of many guards. Initially, they rotated the guards often so that he wouldn’t convert them, but then they decided to keep the same ones with him so he would convert as few as possible.

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Home Away From Home

Home Away From Home

Every time I go to the ocean or sea I think of where I grew up. Mountains in their majestic reaching for the heavens are beautiful. Forests brimming with greenery and a thick growth of trees are lovely. Sprawling canyons surrounded by arid, desert bloom have a foreign intrigue. But water, rolling and churning as far as the eye can see, makes me think of home.

Some consider that odd since I grew up on the prairie. But I find it necessary every now and then to get somewhere I am able to breathe. When I stand by the water and am able to look until the earth curves, I feel a sense of freedom, a deep breath builds interiorly that needs to be exhaled as all that confines falls away. And though the ocean and sea embody an exotic newness that I’ve never fully explored, they also contain within them a sense of home.

The other day I was driving and spent a long time marveling at how the tall prairie grasses rolled so wave-like under the ever-present prairie wind. The pliant bending of the grasses followed by their rebounding over and over again was simple yet lovely. It made me want to tell my neighbors that the reason I mow so infrequently is because I love our prairie heritage and would love to see the oceanic movements in my own backyard. Instead, I drove on as I gratefully took in the ebb and flow of the grass, resilient and fierce despite the slender bowing.

This need to breathe and to have the space to do so is one of the reasons I couldn’t last long in a big city. As it is, the city I live in causes me to feel slightly suffocated, something I don’t realize until I’m driving into the country and feel myself unconsciously breathing deeper and freer. I thrive on the flat prairie, a gaze that goes on and on with a vastness that yearns to be appreciated.

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For Such a Time as This

For Such a Time as This

I was listening to one of the first podcasts released by Brandon Vogt and Fr. Blake Britton on their new podcast called “The Burrowshire Podcast.” It was about the call to be saints and they spoke about how although at times they both find themselves desiring to live in different time periods, they were created with souls for now. In fact, it is God’s desire that they be saints right now, in the midst of everything good and bad that surrounds them.

As someone who often feels old (not age-wise, but like from a different era), I resonate with the lingering desire to be alive at a different point in human history. Yet God isn’t mistaken in placing me in this very particular point in time, complete with my longings and desires for things of bygone eras. I suppose many of the saints felt the same way, too. But to consider that I have a soul that is crafted for this point in history is something I hadn’t yet considered.

What does that even mean?

I appreciate the intentionality that this reveals about the Lord’s actions. With our own unique gifts and talents, we were fashioned to be alive today. Instead of misfits from a different age, we are exactly where (and when) we ought to be. Which means holiness is possible now. In fact, for us, holiness in the present is the only option. Despite my feelings to the contrary, I wasn’t fashioned to be holy in a different time period. With all of my intricacies, failings, and strengths, I was created to be holy here and now.

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Joy in Everyday Things

Joy in Everyday Things

Marie Kondo advocates asking yourself if the things that fill your house spark joy. While I don’t live her method, there is something intriguing about asking that question about the items that fill our visual landscape. Many things in my home don’t do that (I suppose I find it hard for spoons and forks to greatly spark joy in me—yet they are pretty useful for eating), but it is perhaps more interesting to consider the things that do fall into that category.

During the pandemic, I’ve spent a lot of time at home. But given this abundance of time at home, I notice that my affections continue to be drawn to particular things in my home and I find once again compelled to acknowledge that beautiful, practical (and impractical) items are so helpful for ushering joy into our lives.

For example, I have a wooden serving tray and it is perhaps odd the number of times I stop to admire the varying grains that run across and throughout the wood. Either as I’m arranging food on it or washing it off, I generally am thinking, “This is so beautiful.”

Or I have a serving bowl that was handpainted in Italy that I purchased last summer while in Assisi. The bright colors that fill the interior bring me a thrill of joy every time I fill it with salad or an array of fruit. As I use it, I frequently remember the peace of Assisi, the quiet of the streets during our time there, and the beauty of being in a place so old.

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Try, Try Again

Try, Try Again

One day, during the upheaval of school from home, I was helping my niece with her homework. While smart and a quick learner, she didn’t appreciate the corrections I was offering as I critiqued the direction of her 2s or her S. I encouraged her to try again, despite the initial frustration of getting it wrong.

As she was begrudgingly doing it again, I thought about how so much of a child’s life is learning how to do things. Naturally, that involves a lot of trial and error as they learn to walk, read, write, ride a bike, hit a softball, do a cartwheel, snap their fingers, and the list goes on and on. Children have to start so often from a place of humble acceptance of their inability to do something they want to do.

I think I could learn a lot from that disposition.

In my life, it is easy to stay safe and do the things I know how to do or think I can do well. When it comes to looking like a fool, I’ve never been much of a risk-taker. I much prefer to watch and see how others do it before attempting something on my own. Yet some things can only be learned by trying, failing, and trying again.

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Only to bring him to life

Only to bring him to life

I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him–only to bring him to life.

Innocent Smith in Manalive, GK Chesterton

The priest at Mass the other day posed the question: if it was possible to know, would you want to know when you would die?

As a melancholic, death is never too far from my mind and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While I don’t have strong feelings about the question one way or the other, I was thinking of some of the benefits of knowing when I would die, even if there is wisdom in not knowing. Sometimes, when death is clearly imminent, it compels us to truly embrace living. When our time is definitively short, we can move from passive existence to passionately experiencing life.

Is that type of wholehearted living reserved only for those who know death is at their door? Could I do that now? If people are able to live more when death comes close, could we just do now what we would do if we knew?

It made me consider how I would change my life if I knew the times of other events. Besides death, there are many other things that seem to be unknown yet shape how I live. For example, if I knew within the next year I would meet someone I would marry, would it change how I live? I believed that I would. What if it was five years, would that change how I live now? Yes, it would. What if I knew I would never get married? Again, yes.

And then I asked myself an important question: why?

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The Gift of a Slower Pace

The Gift of a Slower Pace

Of course there was some stress involved, but the school year ended with fairly little fanfare and at a much slower pace than usual. No massive liturgies to plan for hundreds of people, no finals to prepare, no feeling like everything needs to happen right now. I fully understand that this pandemic is causing suffering for many people, but I can’t help but consider the blessings found in the midst of the difficulties.

For a variety of reasons, this school year was difficult in different ways. I found myself stressed and in continual need of a break. Many life-giving things were happening in my life, yet the breaks from school were never long enough, the time to relax never quite rejuvenating enough, my grasp on responsibilities never quite firm enough. After overcoming the initial stress of the transition, I slid into an indefinite period of teaching from home….relieved.

The time gave me the gift of reading a little more, enjoying the comforts of home much more, and the unchosen halt of many ministries. Things I could never say “no” to before (and I don’t generally have a problem saying no), like some work responsibilities, and things I enjoy, like prison ministry, were suddenly over or put on a long pause. While there was a sadness in missing some things, I mostly found the break to be good for me. And as a definite introvert, I was really okay with hours spent alone at home. With nine weeks of teaching from home wrapping up, I can honestly say I never got very sick of being at home. Sometimes staring at a computer screen was painful or the endless assignments that needed grading were unwelcomed. Despite all of that, the pandemic provided the opportunity to come up for a breath of much needed air.

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Noli Me Tangere

Noli Me Tangere

Part of the way through the Easter Vigil Mass I realized something I had subconsciously believed even as I intellectually knew it wasn’t true. I realized that COVID-19 wasn’t confined to Lent. The absence of public Masses wasn’t just a wild Lenten penance. It was a reality that was going to endure for who-knows-how-long. In the midst of a time of penance and sacrifice, it was somewhat understandable to accept and embrace this unasked for restriction. Yet in the time of Easter joy, how did one continue to embrace this cross, even while gesturing toward the empty tomb?

Intellectually, I was fully aware that this was an enduring thing. Yet after passing into the Easter season, I have been pondering this odd cross-section of joy and sacrifice. Of course, it is possible to be joyful in the midst of sacrifice. Love, nearly by definition, involves sacrificing ourselves for the good of the beloved. Yet long, protracted sacrifice in the middle of a liturgical season set aside for rejoicing, feasting, and innumerable alleluias being uttered? How does one do that?

I don’t exactly know, but I am trying.

It helps that I try to often remind my students that we are in the Easter season and should do something special to celebrate this time. At times, I find myself recording videos for them and thinking I need to do this, too.

It has surprised me how I can sometimes enter into prayer when I am praying “remotely.” Like when Pope Francis had some time of adoration during the Urbi et Orbi blessing a few weeks ago. Sitting on my couch in front of my computer and adoring Jesus in Rome seemed kind of silly. Yet as I prayed alone yet communally, I found that I was able to enter into prayer. It wasn’t a perfect scenario, but it worked in that moment. This was a moment of joy, to find myself with Jesus even as I was separated from His Eucharistic presence.

So here we are, fully into the Easter season, steadily working our way through the Easter Octave, filled with joy and yet still experiencing sacrifice. But I guess that makes it a bit like that first Easter Sunday when St. Mary Magdalene encountered Christ at the tomb. In her desire to keep him near, we see Jesus saying to not hold onto Him. Wasn’t this miraculous triumph over death the fullness of joy?

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Relentless Pursuit: How Prison Ministry Causes Me to Stand in Awe Before the Mercy of God

Relentless Pursuit: How Prison Ministry Causes Me to Stand in Awe Before the Mercy of God

I don’t believe I ever had as much gratitude for the generous mercy of God as when I started volunteering at the prison.

Over the years, I have perhaps struggled with accepting that I cannot disappoint God or realizing the unplumbable depths of God’s particular love for me. But, in many ways, I never felt that I strayed too far from God. I never stopped going to Mass or turned away from the faith. In college, I was delving into my faith when many of my peers were shaking the Church’s dust from their feet. So I never really had to confront the question of “Can God forgive me for this?” and I say that without any pride knowing that I fail in many, many ways.

Standing before men in prison, though, I am encountering some men who have committed truly heinous crimes. There are men in for drug charges or robbery or embezzlement. And then I’m with men who committed crimes against women and children, in a variety of circumstances and situations. I also find myself with men who have murdered others or conspired to murder people or have attempted to murder others. Regardless their crimes, I am able to confidently extend the mercy of God to them.

There are times when I am in the disciplinary unit, talking with the men cell-front with a couple of other volunteers, and I find myself filled with profound awe over the gift of salvation. I don’t have to ask what sins they have committed to know if the Lord desires to be in relationship with them. If I find myself repelled by their sins or crimes, I know the Lord still yearns for their soul and to pour His love generously upon them. It causes me to experience again the immensity of the Lord’s love. There is no question about if He loves any person I meet in prison. That expansiveness causes me to stand there and just be awed by how the Lord never stops pursuing our hearts.

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A Thousand Deaths

A Thousand Deaths

When Jesus was confronted with untrue accusations, do you remember what He did? As the Sanhedrin gathered false testimony, as Pilate presented questions given by the chief priests, as Jesus struggled beneath the weight of the cross and the jeers of the people, as Jesus was maligned while on the cross, do you remember what He chose?

Silence.

How hard it is to not rush to our own defense! When situations are misrepresented, when intentions are skewed, when honest questions are left unanswered, it is a tremendous act of the will to not attempt to set all things right. Sometimes, it is necessary to provide clarity and correctness and other times it is completely unnecessary. And sometimes it is necessary to try to show the misunderstandings, but to ultimately fail in convincing them of their skewed view.

We always feel the pains of injustice acutely when it offends our own sense of justice. I look at the lives of the saints and martyrs and I tend to think about how glorious and courageous were their deaths. Yet each of those martyrdoms was preceded by many, many small bloodless deaths. St. Paul didn’t only suffer beheading in Rome. Before that, he was imprisoned, he experienced riot after riot when preaching the Gospel, he was looked upon with distrust by the Jews and the Christians after his striking conversion, and he spent much time in chains for the sake of the Gospel. His final suffering, the death of a martyr, was simply the last death he experienced in a long line of dying to self.

Most of our stories won’t be quite that dramatic. We probably won’t sit unjustly condemned in terrible prisons awaiting our cruel deaths. We will, however, suffer in other ways. And it will be in ways that will be easy to want to reject or feel the need to correct. As Jesus heard false testimony, I am certain He had at least part of a desire to simply say, “I didn’t say that. That isn’t right. You weren’t there. You are intentionally misrepresenting me.” Instead, He suffered in silence with the Lord. He knew that the truth would be revealed and He rested with the Lord in the midst of being misunderstood. He invites us to do the same, in the small and the large sufferings of our daily life.

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