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.
The second truth Francis presents is to discern between God and God’s works. Taken from an active ministry, Francis agonized much over what he was no longer able to do for the people of God. Yet even in this little and this lack, the Lord desired to shape and mold Francis. In the midst of unbearable conditions Francis was determined to follow the Lord.
If God wants you to leave all of these works, place them in God’s hands immediately and have confidence in him. God will accomplish things infinitely better than you. He will entrust his works to others who are much more capable than you. You have chosen God alone, not his works!Five Loaves and Two Fish
I have seen the oddity of God’s will in my own life and the lives of others. The way that seems the best or the path that seems to most fulfill what God could want is not actually what He wills. A friend of mine who could be an energetic evangelist or a brilliant teacher or a faithful religious is instead largely bedridden. I don’t know how God is fulfilling His plan through this illness, but I believe that He is. My practical nature is confounded by the mysterious workings of grace, the efficacy of suffering, and the perspective that only God can have from the viewpoint of eternity.
“To choose God and not God’s works: God wants me here and nowhere else….I choose you, your will; I am your missionary here”: these words of Venerable Francis could be ours, applied to our particular crosses that seem to conflict with what we think God wants us to do in this time. Strikingly, Francis writes of a word he receives from the Lord when kneeling before the tabernacle, “Your business is to choose me!” Regardless of the good desire we have to work for the Lord, it is far more necessary to simply choose the Lord, to receive whatever He is offering us in the present moment despite how odd it may seem to us.
The rest of the book continues in the same vein: offer the little we have and expect the Lord to do more with it than we can imagine. Yet regardless of what we desire to happen, we should remain fixed on the Lord and not on the results we want. Like the boy with the bread and fish, we give Jesus the strikingly little that we have and we don’t concern ourselves with what happens next. Who knows what the little boy thought would happen! He played his small part and he let the Lord magnify the offering. The Lord takes the crumbs we offer and He makes a feast.
I am happy, here in this cell, where white mushrooms are growing on my sleeping mat, because you are with me, because you want me to live here with you….So I sing of your mercy in the darkness, in my weakness, in my annihilation. I accept my cross and I plant it, with my own two hands, in my heart. If you were to permit me to choose I would change nothing, because you are with me! I am no longer afraid, I have understood. I am following you in your passion and in your resurrection.Five Loaves and Two Fish, Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận
Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, pray for us!