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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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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Living Authentic Desires

What if I lived how I truly wanted to live rather than how I wanted to live right now?

Maybe there doesn’t seem to be a difference in those two versions, but in my life, sadly, there is.  I’m a bit dense.  It takes a while for things to sink into this head of mine.  While I often know what would be best for me, I take the easier path and attempt to satisfy deeper desires with more superficial things.

St. Paul understands this little heart of mine.  Perhaps it is simply a condition of humanity.  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  (Romans 7:15)  Even if what I’m doing isn’t sinful, it isn’t living up to the calling God has for my life.  I settle for mediocrity when I am called to be extraordinary.

Examples needed?  My life yields plenty of material.

I truly want to go pray.  I’ve thought about it several times in a given day and I know it would bring peace.  But I’m tired.  So I scroll through Facebook.

I want to go for a run.  But I’m tired.  So I take a nap instead, planning to go for a run the next day.

I want to spend some time reading a book.  But I’m tired.  So I watch a movie instead.

There are a couple trends that should be noted.
1. I’m tired so often.
2. While I know what I should do (and what would actually satisfy the desires of my heart more), I tend to opt for the path that requires far less of me.

Yet when I actually put aside my momentary desires and do what requires a little more effort or discipline, I am always amazed at the internal peace that occurs.

Instead of mindlessly scrolling through the internet, I go to adoration.  I’m far more pleased with myself (because even as I’m wasting time on my computer, there is a nagging feeling that I am not doing what I ought) and I feel a deeper peace because I did what my soul needed, I did what I actually wanted to do.

Sometimes what I want to do, isn’t what I actually want to do.  And sometimes what I don’t want to do, is actually what I really want to do.

It makes me wonder why following my own heart’s desires is so difficult.  Sadly, it is far too easy for the true desires to get overlooked by far more superficial, temporary wants.  On the drive home from the church, I was thinking, “What if I always lived so that I was actually doing what I wanted to do and what was best for me?”  My internal response?  “Huh.”  As though following my authentic desires was a novel concept.

Yet this is what the saints did.  They lived!  As saints they fulfilled the deepest, authentic desires of their hearts and did not succumb to the lazy wants that surfaced.

I could be such a better person if I followed my true desires (at times, genuine promptings of the Holy Spirit) instead of what I felt like doing in the moment.  I could be a saint if I did now what I knew I should do, instead of waiting for a later, more convenient time.

The path to sanctity is now.  And it is truly what I want.  So why not start?

“Do now- Do Now- what you’ll wish you had done when your moment comes to die.”   -St. Angela Merici

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Priestly Inspiration

A middle-aged man strode down the center aisle of the church minutes before Mass was to begin.  He was wearing dark blue jeans, a collared shirt, and a sweater tossed over his shoulders and the arms, in a loose knot, lay on his chest.  I was a bit surprised when a few minutes later the same man emerged from the sacristy dressed in priestly vestments.

For several days on the Camino we encountered priests who didn’t wear clerics.  Inside the church they were in vestments, but right after Mass they were indistinguishable from other men of the town.  Some looked like businessmen with black dress pants and collared shirts.  Others looked more like they were out for a holiday themselves.

Perhaps I am simply blessed to live in the diocese that I do where many of the priests are found wearing their clerics.  It was the ninth day of walking before I encountered a priest wearing his clerics.  And this priest renewed in me the hope that Spain wasn’t a lost cause.

We were in Santo Domingo de la Calzada.  The larger church was open for paid tours (because of its great beauty) but Mass was held in a small chapel nearby.  Arriving at the chapel, we found the priest sitting in the confessional at the back of the church.  This was another first on the Camino–a priest hearing confessions.  We were filled with great joy, however, simply when we prayed Mass with this priest.  I don’t understand much Spanish, but the very way that he pronounced the words of consecration called all of us to become holy.  He elevated the host and the chalice and each time, the chapel was suspended in a rich silence.  The kind of silence that makes your heart ache and fills you to the brim with irrepressible joy.  Although I didn’t understand all of the homily, I understood that he was reminding the people to practice silence in their lives.  He encouraged them to pray after Mass or to leave the church so as to allow others the chance to pray.  He brought this peace to all of the faithful gathered there.  He was showing his flock the pathway to holiness by following it himself.

After Mass the church was not immediately closed, as had been the case in nearly every other town.  Instead, the priest himself came out and prayed for a while.  So much of me wanted to stay in this town for a longer period of time just out of the hope that this priest knew English and we could speak to him.  I just wanted to be near him.  The other priests that we encountered weren’t necessarily bad priests.  But this was the first priest who inspired me.  He was young and deeply in love with the Lord.  It was ridiculously attractive.

I don’t know much about the life of St. Josemaria Escriva.  All I know is that he wrote books that can comfort yet also be a spiritual slap in the face.  This priest reminded me of what St. Josemaria Escriva may have been like.  He was traditional, used Latin, prayed the Mass with great fervor, spoke homilies to encourage and challenge his people, provided opportunities for the sacraments, and allowed the church to be open for prayer.  This priest, simply by following the Lord, filled us all with a great joy.  Much of that evening and into the next day we gushed about him.  How he had given us the pilgrim blessing during Mass without making all of the pilgrims come to the front of the church.  We spoke of how he wore his clerics.  We recalled how he seemed to inspire holiness in his people.

This priest did nothing intentionally to inspire us.  He simply followed the Lord’s will for his life and that caused peace and joy to emanate from him.  The question all of this brought to the forefront of my mind was, “What does it mean to follow the Lord?”  I want those inspirational qualities that my beloved priest from Santo Domingo de la Calzada has and I want to follow the Lord as fully as he does.

A Reflection of Authenticity

A Reflection of Authenticity
A Reflection written in France

Among the swarms of people, residents and visitors, that bustle through Paris, I am merely a face.  Living in a city causes people to think and act in different ways.  Just being with the people, riding in the Metro with them, traversing their streets, I began to feel how closed off they are to the world.  Everyone is wearing a mask–to protect themselves, to not let others see their true selves.

At one point, I was deeply frustrated with it.  I feel like the quest of the last few months has been to learn authenticity.  Who am I really?  Who is God really?  How is our relationship doing?  It has been all about not staying on the surface but delving deeper.  “Become who you are!”  I was in Paris meeting peoples’ eyes and smiling, but then I remembered city people don’t do that and it could send a message I don’t want.
Riding on the Metro I knew I stood out with my large hiking backpack, but I felt like I fit in more when I acted bored, had a blank look on my face, and appeared to care little about the stops.  We encountered young ladies near the Eiffel Tower who wanted signatures to help the deaf and the mute.  I’m not entirely sure how their attempt to target only English-speakers would actually help the deaf and the mute of France, but that was their mission.  The beggars at the churches–are they actually poor or is it all a ruse?
It bothered me to be living in a world of masks when I was striving for authenticity.  I hate trying to evaluate people’s motives when my innate desire is to trust.  I want to believe in people.  At one point I looked at the crowd and thought of how each person is a well, their depths cannot be plumbed.  Yet if we cut off the deeper parts of ourselves, if we live as masks instead of just hiding behind them, if we live so long in the superficial and shallow, we will begin to lose our ability to go deep, we will lose our belief that we even have depth.  We will become the masks we wear.
Perhaps this is why the faith appears to be dying.  People are tired of masks of holiness.  They, whether they know it or not, crave authenticity.  And the pagan world presents at least one thing authentically–I want to live without rules or morals but simply in the pursuit of pleasure.

How does one live authenticity in a world of masks?  I don’t know exactly but I have some ideas.  Don’t feign indifference when you actually care.  Care less about appearance and more about actuality.  Live deeply.  Penetrate the inner depths you have and seek to know others at a deeper level, too.  Refuse to be content with living in the shallow end, but rather put out into the deep!

Entering the Mission Field

I never realized how controversial the simple truth could be until I stepped foot into my classroom.  Prior to this I knew in theory that some truths people didn’t like but I was awakened to a whole new realm of this in one of my classes.  The truth is offensive.  I told my students that the Catholic Church had the fullness of the Truth and I didn’t expect the firestorm that would follow.  It wasn’t always a verbal defense that they provided but I could tell that they were mad at me or mad at the Church.  And I’m not certain if I ever really solved the problem.  Because I am realizing more fully that I cannot make anyone believe.  If only I could pray them into accepting the truth.  Yet all I can do is pray for them and strive to present the Truth in the best possible way.  I find myself desiring to protect the Church against any assaults they might hurl at Her.  In the midst of the moment I forget that the Church can defend Herself adequately and I need have no concerns about Her being found lacking.  I look at their lack of love for the Church and I am bewildered.  It takes a while for me to remind myself that I did not always harbor this love for the Church that I do now.

I desired a mission and the Lord has placed me in the missionary field of a classroom in a Catholic high school.  My idealistic view of teaching is not completely gone, although the past couple months has tempered it.  How do I give the love I have to them?  How do I take their skepticism and help it become belief?  It is not because of me that any of their hearts will be converted.  I am convinced of this.  My beautiful lessons seem to be less than impressive to them.  The very things that fill me with joy can put them to sleep.  Despite the resistance that some of them put up to the Church, to the Truth, to me, I know that these hours that they spend in my classroom will impact them in some way unforseen to anyone.  Initially, I was glad to see them write the correct answers on the paper, knowing that even if they didn’t believe the answer they had to memorize it for the test.  Now, I want much more from them.  I find myself desiring rebuttal rather than the perfectly formulated answer that they could care less about.  I want them to care deeply one way or the other.  In some ways it is hard to rouse this generation to action or to convince them to be totally committed to something even though in their core that is what they desire.  But then again my own heart is so slow to be awakened and called to action.

How the heart of Our Lord must ache for us, His beloved ones!  My desire for them to accept the truth is not as firmly rooted as is the Lord’s desire for them to become what they are called to be.  My love for them wavers and changes based on the day.  But the Lord’s love remains firm and unyielding.  I pray to have His heart for them so that I may love them as I ought.  How far I have to go.  Where I see battle lines to be drawn, Our Lord sees lost sheep to find and craddle in His arms.  Where I see rebellion, Our Lord sees the pain and hurt that they have experienced.  Teaching one of my classes about David I was struck again by the call to be a woman after God’s own heart.  I am called to become more and more like God and by doing so to become the saint that He desires me to be, that He needs me to be.  Because only a saint can fulfill the call that the Lord has placed upon my heart, upon the heart of each person.

While my title may be “teacher” I am striving to embrace more fully the title of “missionary” so that I may remember that every place needs to be evangelized and that this is not my home.  For now, my mission field is the classroom and my students are the ones who need to hear the Gospel proclaimed to them.  Regardless of how small or large the task appears to me, I must remember that because the Lord wills this of me in this present moment, this task is the most important thing for me.  This is my mission, this is my street, this is my life.

“Do not be afraid to go out onto the streets and into public places like the first apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns, and villages.”   Bl. Pope John Paul II (WYD 1993)