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.

Continue reading “Five Loaves and Two Fish”

From My Heart to Yours: A Lenten Devotional

From My Heart to Yours: A Lenten Devotional

Lent is fast approaching.

Even though I’ve been consistently thinking about Lent over the past few weeks and prepping my students and small group for it, I still haven’t fully decided what I will be giving up/adding to my life for the next 40 days. Many ideas are swirling around, but I haven’t landed on specifics yet. This morning, I was talking with one of the prisoners and after I explained a little about Lent, he asked what I would be doing for it. Great question, friend, I thought, I’m not quite certain yet.

However, there is still time to decide. Time to prayerfully consider how we can draw nearer to the Lord’s heart as we wander into the desert so that He may speak to our hearts more intentionally.

To that end, I created a Lenten devotional for you (and me)! I’m excited about this little project and I hope that it will enable us to have a more fruitful Lent. (Click picture below for the pdf)

Continue reading “From My Heart to Yours: A Lenten Devotional”

Maybe I’ll Climb Into My Classroom Through the Ceiling From Another Teacher’s Room

Maybe I’ll Climb Into My Classroom Through the Ceiling From Another Teacher’s Room

GK Chesterton wrote Manalive, a novel that revealed his desire to gaze at the world through a life-giving haze of wonder and awe. I was reminded of this recently at a talk and it made me reflect on the stories that he speaks of taking place in the fictional life of Innocent Smith.

(If you haven’t read the book and want to, you should probably stop here because I need to ruin a few points in order to reveal what is so attractive about his life. This is your warning. Stop here! Proceed no further. Or, if you don’t care, carry on.)

Continue reading “Maybe I’ll Climb Into My Classroom Through the Ceiling From Another Teacher’s Room”

A Law of Freedom, Not Oppression

A Law of Freedom, Not Oppression

The culture seems to indicate that I should feel a bit like an oppressed victim.  Partly because I am a woman and even more so because I am a young, Catholic woman.  The “male-dominated hierarchy” that imposes a radical ban on my sex from becoming a cleric is meant to be railed against.  And yet I do not imagine myself to be oppressed or a victim.  Instead, I feel genuinely free.

Recently, I started reading Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves and I’ve found it to be quite enjoyable.  The stories are from women who embrace the fullness of the teachings the Church has to offer, finding within the precepts a path to freedom and joy.  In the news and social media, many take it on themselves to speak for Catholic women and how we must feel.  Breaking Through makes the bold claim that Catholic women do not need anyone to speak for them; rather, Catholic women have the ability and intellect to speak for themselves.  Instead of writing us off for actually embracing the Church’s teachings, others are encouraged to listen to the personal experiences women have had as they have grappled with and eventually embraced the wisdom of the Church. Continue reading “A Law of Freedom, Not Oppression”

Potent

Don’t judge a book based on the cover.

It is a true sentiment, but sometimes I do it.  While strolling through a bookshop, I am innately drawn to the beautiful, leather-bound books, particularly if they look old or have a bookmark sewn into the spine.  Gold etching adorns the spine of the book and I cannot help but think there are few joys I hold more closely to my heart than the book I excitedly cradle in my arms.

There is power in the printed word.  I’ve been told this and have experienced the truth of it.  I’ve discovered that writing fills a longing and desire in me that cannot be met in any other way.  My ability to express myself is best if I can write the words rather than speak them.  At times I am jealous of the way other art forms can express themselves.  One can admire a painting for several minutes, incline an ear to an intricate selection of music, gaze at a photograph with delight, or take in the rapture of a play.  But the written word must be read and unless one is including pictures, there is little to call extra attention to the black words on white paper.  The words, to be sure, speak for themselves, but there must be time and attention given to them.  Quite often, the words are overlooked.

At times I speak too little and other times I speak too much.  If you don’t know me well, I can come off as quiet, standoffish, and serious.  More time can reveal different qualities or attributes, ones not readily ascertained by a quick appraisal of the cover.

The words used matter.  I have a difficult time convincing my students that using the appropriate and precise words theologically are crucial.  To them, saying nearly the same thing is close enough.  Even when they are explaining concepts and ideas verbally, they find themselves slipping very easily into something nearly true, yet in the end still wrong.  With a barrage of words surrounding them, they seem to find it difficult to say what they mean and mean what they say.

A closely related problem is honesty.  It has been a long time since I’ve consciously lied.  Sometimes I say things that are false out of ignorance or misinformation and other times I mean what I say but forget to follow through or am prevented from doing so.  Yet it seems as a culture that we find it too easy to say something false.  What is perhaps worse is that we are quick to defend ourselves or to minimize the seriousness of the situation.  It wasn’t a serious matter that we lied about or it was simply easier to say a lie than to explain the truth.  We absolve ourselves before we’ve contemplated our error.  If one insists upon the truth, one can be seen as being too scrupulous or moralistic.

Words appear simple and unassuming.  We can judge them to be of little value or worth when we tell a lie or do not care to put in the effort to be precise.  Yet we are also well aware of the power of words when we hear a moving talk, listen to sharp criticism, or hear someone say “I love you” for the first time.  Words have a potency, a vibrancy that is found within the way they are paired with one another and printed on the page or spoken out loud.  Do not be fooled by the humility of the written or spoken word.  Though they be small, they have power.  Use them well.  

Mr. Knightley and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati

I feel very ready to fall in love.  As a bonus, I’ve seen all of the movies, so I know exactly how it should happen.  My eyes are keenly on the look-out for anything that looks like what I think love is.  I’ve yet to find it, though.  Probably because my love will come disguised as something else, as something other than the period drama/romances I’ve steadily consumed over the past decade.

My housemates and I have watched Emma and I have essentially fallen in love with Mr. Knightley.  Of all of the male leads in Jane Austen’s novels, I believe he is my favorite.  Sensible and kind, he is persistent in loving Emma and seeking after her own good.  He is firm in his corrections of her behavior yet has a tender place in his heart for her.  He is everything a young man ought to be.  While not entirely, wildly consumed by his emotions for her, he admits in his proposal that if he loved her less he might be able to talk about it more.  I melt inside as I watch the relationship unfold.  His pure, disinterested love for her is arresting.  At points he is jealous of her attachments to others, but he always seeks after her best.  Faith isn’t mentioned much in his lifestyle, yet he embodies so many of the works of mercy every Christian ought.

I’m sold.  I’m in raptures about the fictional creation of Jane Austen’s mind.  He seems to be the perfect composite of all things good.  The only matter that is left unresolved is the simple thing of willing him into existence.

Despite the manifold attractions of Mr. Knightley, I have also recently fallen in love with another man.  However, this one is real although deceased.  Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati has been pulling at my heart lately.  This is largely because I’ve been reading a biography about him (written by his sister) and teaching a unit on him for a new class this semester.

So many things I find on Bl. Pier Giorgio trumpet him as the “ordinary Christian” and one who shows that all are called to holiness.  When I examine his life, however, I find much that seems beyond me, much that seems to be very extraordinary.  He is full of joy and vivacity but also contemplative and compassionate.  While born into a family of affluence and influence, he desires to give his money to the poor, to live his faith ardently, and to devote his short life to service.  Generosity overflows from his person as he gives his very coat and shoes to those who go without.  Wealth had no hold on him and the poor were not even aware that he was wealthy.  Thousands of people come out at his funeral, people that his family had no idea he helped.

There is so much about Bl. Pier Giorgio that I long to imitate.  I have felt a particular desire to imitate, to a degree, his great service to others.  Pier Giorgio was my age when he died.  It makes me wonder how I have used my time so poorly while he was spending with gusto every moment of his short life.  Of course, I am not called to be just like Pier Giorgio, but as a blessed in the Church, he is held out as an example of the lay faithful life.

This love I have for Bl. Pier Giorgio is more than simple admiration.  He is weedling his way into my heart, pointing out areas that need growth.  Talking or thinking about him fills me with a great joy.  I want to be like Bl. Pier Giorgio.  If I had lived during his time, I would have wanted to marry him.  As it is, I want him to be my particular friend.  I want him to be someone in Heaven who is interceding for me, petitioning Christ for the graces I need to live the Beatitudes radically.

Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us.

One Little Success for the Holy Spirit

It is the little things that seem to make a world of difference.  I remember reading a quote by a saint that essentially critiqued the readers for allowing their emotions to control them so much.  That we allow ourselves to become unduly happy when things go well and inordinately depressed when things go badly.  Instead, we are to remain more constant, trusting everything to the Lord.

I do not do that very well.  Nevertheless, today is one of those days that I am perhaps unduly happy.  I’ll take it.  There were a couple moments today that I felt a beautiful joy.  The simple thing of placing in the classroom another tissue box decorated by a student in a Theological theme.  Silly, perhaps.  I just loved the idea that even my tissue boxes are decorated with Scripture and pictures of saints.  The little things.

Today I felt elated as I won a victory when I didn’t even know I was in a battle.  A couple weeks ago I was perusing an online Catholic bookstore.  I love books.  I love to buy books.  I wish I could buy more books.  I saw that Delivered was being sold, a book that gives testimonies of people who have fought and conquered, with God’s grace, an addiction to pornography.  I looked at the cover, read a snippet of the book, and was intrigued.  The price was $8-9 for one copy.  However, one could purchase 20 books at only $2 per book.  I love a good deal.  Good deals and good books make one of the most irresistible combinations.

Trish, do you really need 20 copies of a book you have never even read?  I was just about to say “No” when I felt something within that told me to just buy them.  So I did.  And then I impatiently waited 2 weeks for them to arrive at my doorstep.  Last night I opened the box, took off the plastic wrap from one of the books, and began to read through it.  I didn’t read the whole book, but I read a few of the stories and I was taken.  I don’t know much about pornography.  In many ways it seems like it is in a different world than I am in.  I know this crisis affects me because it affects people I interact with, but I don’t typically think of pornography on a daily or weekly basis.

The problem that remained was how would I get them into the hands of my students.  I could have the most life-changing book but unless they were reading it, it wouldn’t make a difference.  So I did what any self-respecting teacher would do.  I offered them extra credit.  The good sign was that neither class asked how much extra credit.  All they have to do is read one of the stories (10-15 pages) and write two paragraphs–one summarizing the story and another speaking about pornography and the effect it has on the world, what they think of it, or other problems that go along with pornography addiction.

Nine students from each class took the book and I was thrilled.  Just having it in their hands is a success I am willing to celebrate.  My hope is that the one story they have to read for extra credit will turn into curiosity about the other stories.  Maybe they will tell another classmate or someone in another class about the book and lend it to them.  The possibilities are endless!

This is a rather small thing considering that maybe none of them will actually follow through.  Yet it seems like a triumph to me.  I will take that triumph, minuscule though it may be, because victories do not come often or easily in this battlefield.  So perhaps the Holy Spirit is doing something great through these little books that my students are being bribed to read.

Now who says that buying an excessive number of books is a bad thing?

(Purchase your own copy of Delivered and spread the truth!  http://shop.catholic.com/catalog/product/view/id/2364/category/44/)    

UPDATE:
After the first day, I am still running on excitement.  One of my students spoke to me after class about something and as I was looking for a paper he quietly asked about the book and how I found it.  I told him I received an e-mail from a place advertising the book and I just decided to buy 20 copies.  Quietly he told me that he wished he had the book 5 years ago.  It took a moment but what he was telling me finally sank in.  He told me he plans to read the whole book.  Deo gratias!  Keep going, Holy Spirit, keep going!

Ex-Puritanical Lover of Books

I used to be a puritan.  Don’t tell my students, though, because I think they have finally stopped believing that I used to be Amish.  If you told them I used to be a puritan, they would think that they could now explain why I tend to wear skirts when the majority of the female population at my school wears slacks.  In truth, it is simply because they make me feel professional and I don’t have a lot of pants to wear.  In their minds, it is because I was Amish but converted to Catholicism. 

Anyway, I used to desire pristine books.  Now I love the underlinings and stars that easily mark the places that I found enlightening or beautiful. 

I love books.  I’m perhaps mildly obsessed with them.  My number one expense this year besides gasoline has been on books, I believe.  Amazon.com is a dangerous thing.  Especially when it saves your credit card number and all I need to do it click “Buy” and the books are being shipped my way. 

I plan to do lots of theological reading this summer and underline and highlight books that I have been intending to read all year.  While I would like to borrow other people’s books, I find myself wanting to embrace them fully and write in them. 

To the casual reader, this might not seem like a very significant thing.  But I need to tell you about this moment of conversion that happened in my life.  When I was younger, I rejoiced in the beauty of pristine books.  I loved when their pages were immaculate with nary a bend or crinkle.  No dog-eared pages for me or an underline to note an interesting passage.  Now typically these weren’t deep and thought-provoking books but it is still interesting that I fiercely opposed anything that made the book look less than a brand new bookstore copy. 

Somewhere in my late high school and college years there was a transformation.  Initially it was just prayer books that I would faintly underline a particularly earth-shaking line, but these were few and far between.  College classes propelled me to full out highlighting and underlining passages while bracketing paragraphs of text at a time.  It was a leap into the next stage.  I looked behind me at untarnished pages and plunged into lengthy side notes and repeated asterisks.  Now I will lovingly flip through the pages of the book and see the carefully placed notes and lines.  It is the sign of knowledge while simultaneously a source of foolish pride, I suppose.

Yet one thing remains: dog-eared pages are out.  I will leave book marks, paper clips, a bit of string, a random lunch receipt, but I will not condescend to insult my book by folding over its page and degrading it in such a way.  Many will denounce this as behind the times or ridiculous but I will hold fast.  You may annotate your books but I will not abide by dog-eared pages. 

I used to be a puritanical book lover.  Now I embrace the life of books that show the wear of time and the branding of deep contemplation.  Read on, dear lovers of paper bound books (forget it if you are “modern” and use Kindles or electronic readers of some sort), and know that I will be joining your illustrious ranks come May 23rd.  Until then, know that my library is beginning to overflow with books ripe for the reading and knowledge free for the imbibing.