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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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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Two Bearers of Hope

Two Bearers of Hope

So often I find that when I am teaching my students, I am actually teaching myself. I listen to the words come out of my mouth and find that I am convicted to live in a new way. It isn’t as though I talk about the Gospel and the Lord all day long and pat myself on the back. Rather, I find myself over and over having to admit that I am falling short of living the Good News fully.

One of my classes is finishing up a section on martyrs. They researched fairly recent martyrs with most of them living at some point during the 1900s. Then I showed two videos from Chris Stefanick about two priests who lived boldly during times of war. One priest was Fr. Emil Kapaun and the other was Fr. Vincent Capodanno, both of whom are at various stages of the canonization process.

Each video revealed how these men offered hope in situations that seemed hopeless. Fr. Kapaun became a POW during the Korean War and Fr. Capodanno died in a battle in the Vietnam War. In spite of persecution, Fr. Kapaun encouraged the men, leading them in prayer and risking his own safety to help them survive. As a war raged, Fr. Capodanno ran across the battlefield, offering last rites to wounded soldiers and bringing tangible peace with his presence and words. Their ability to provide hope in war changed the people they encountered. For some, it saved their lives and for others, it brought a calm in the midst of the storm.

As we reflected on these priests in class, I found myself inviting them (and by extension myself) to be hope-bearers in this world. High school can be such a difficult place for them, but the frustrations they experience are often carried into life beyond high school. What if they were people that others found hope in? What if we were able to provide a calm in the midst of the storm? A battle rages around us: wouldn’t it be beautiful if others found a place to rest when they were in our presence?

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I’m Busy

“No, I can’t.  I’m too busy.”

I’m a bit surprised to hear these words uttered by my three year old nephew.  I don’t think he really knows what those words mean.  I asked if he had given a hug to his grandma and he said he was too busy, as he tiredly walked away from me. He has heard this phrase but he doesn’t understand how to properly apply it.  My brain thinks briefly of The Princess Bride and the misuse of the word “inconceivable.”

Then I think about my conversations with my relatives and I realize that I am very quick to fall back on, “Life is busy.”  It is a nice conversation filler but it doesn’t really tell one anything.  Which is partially the point–life is filled with many things but I don’t want to fully articulate them right now.  Life is either busy or nothing is going on.

Somewhere along the line I began to think of busy as success or as the necessary answer for how my life is going.  Because I can’t say I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.  I can’t admit in casual conversations that I’m at times frustrated with the Lord and myself.  Or that I want to sit in my classroom and cry some days while other days fill me with over-the-moon excitement and joy.

“I’m busy.”

Oh the contradiction!  Here we are at the “busy” part of the year that revolves in essence around a quiet manger scene. The God of the Universe enters into our chaos, confusion, and hurt and the world for a moment seems to be still.  We are enraptured by the glint in the newborn’s eye, in the soft giggle, in the squirm of chubby arms and legs.

I need to come up with a better response than, “I’m busy.”  I’m present.  I have time for you.

I Desire a Heavenly Mindset

Last night, with the adventures of homecoming safely a week behind me, I found myself reminiscing about my own high school homecoming week.  It was quite easy to slip into romanticizing that time in my life because there is no risk that I will be caused to repeat it again.  My memories centered on the competition of the week, the class rivalries that emerged in full force, the class skits performed in which each teacher was fair game, and the exhilaration that filled the entire school for one precious week.  Throughout the week we would have games each day and the competition was fierce.  Seniors almost always won but it was the goal of each grade to produce an upset, one in which only obnoxious cheating would result in the triumph of the seniors.  My junior year was probably the most competitive.  The skits were hilarious and all of our favorite (and not-so-favorite) teachers were impersonated and analyzed.  (Note: As a teacher now, this is always a fear of mine when the students are given the chance to make fun of the teachers.  I sit in the gym, waiting anxiously, hoping that I wasn’t memorable enough or disliked enough to become the focus of students’ laughter.)  My junior year we won the “Olympics” and the triumph was palpable.  We gathered in our class sections in the gym bleachers and would chant our anthems. “J-U-N I-O-R…Junior, Junior, Junior!!!”  “0-8 0-8 0008”  The shouting echoed off the walls of the gym.  That memory is one of my favorites–the class anthems, the school spirit, the energy, the competition. 

I can almost trick myself into believing that that experience was high school.  It was not.  High school wasn’t traumatizing for me, but it wasn’t the best experience of my life.  I liked school and I was involved in numerous activities: choir, band, volleyball, track statistician, plays, oral interp, and TATU to name some.  It was a great time of development…but it wasn’t perfect.

That is one of my problems.  I am excellent at romanticizing the past and thinking of it in the best ways.  This doesn’t hold true for everything but for many things it does.  I think back (way back!) to college and I am able to make it free from any trials or difficulties.  I think, “Trish, do you remember that time that your job was to read theology books and write papers?  When you hung out with friends several times each week?  When you felt like you were changing the world by being in the pro-life movement?  Remember when you went to New Mexico and twice to Honduras for mission trips?  Remember traveling around Europe?  Wasn’t that the absolute best time of your life?”  And looking at all of those adventures and blessings, I am convinced that I should be there and not here.  What is very easy to overlook is the fatigue, the stress of completing two theses in one semester (even if that was my fault entirely), trying to finish the endless stream of homework, wanting to hang out with friends but not being able to, worrying that we wouldn’t fundraise enough for the mission trips, the excessive tiredness.  All of that is easy to forget in the quest to make college “the best years of my life.” 

The point is this: the past is easy to love because we don’t face its challenges in the present.  Of course there are difficulties in my present life but those are more keenly felt because they are the present.  In high school I was left with this feeling that nobody understood me.  The friendships I had weren’t rooted in Christ and therefore often seemed shallow.  In college I had the blessing of making those friendships and seeing how quickly they blossomed simply because we were rooted in the same soil.  Now I am able to see the beauty of those friendships even though I don’t find myself immediately surrounded by them anymore.  Instead I see from afar those friends continue to grow and impact the world.  They are getting married, they are having babies, they are continuing on with their lives.  As for myself, I am growing and changing, even if at a slower pace than I would like.  The past was necessary to make me who I am today, but now I need to live in today.  I need to live in today with all of its trials and difficulties–with the sophomores that won’t listen to me, with the seniors that are quick to roll their eyes at my statements, with the other teachers that don’t quite know how to take me, with the desire to live out my vocation yet being caught in a seemingly indefinite waiting place. 

Perhaps instead of gazing jealously at the past, I should look with anticipation to the future.  Imagine Heaven.  All of the beautiful people I know, all of the gorgeous places I’ve seen, and all of the lovely experiences I’ve been blessed with, all rolled into one and magnified greatly–this is Heaven.  When I focus on that goal, the end prize, the eternal life with God in Heaven, then the pains and irritations of today seem to pale in significance. 

“The Glory of the Lord, therefore, is the super eminently luminous beauty of divinity beyond all experience and all descriptions, all categories, a beauty before which all earthly splendors, marvelous as they are, pale into insignificance.”  The Evidential Power of Beauty

Living in God’s Will

Last Saturday I really missed college.  Perhaps it was the fact that my sister just headed back to school or maybe it was due to a longing for good community.  Or because I would like to be the student again and not the teacher, despite the satisfaction I get from job at times.  Every now and then I have to stop and remind myself that I am not on a break from college but that I will never go back to college, at least I will never return to where I was before.  I’ve tossed around the idea several times of getting my Master’s degree but I know it won’t be the same as my undergrad.  There is a sadness that comes with that repeated realization.  That phase of my life is completed and it is a place to which I can never return.

I find myself missing things that I didn’t plan on missing along with things I knew I would miss.  Now I live in a house but I find myself missing the dorms and being able to walk across the hall to talk to someone.  I didn’t love going to the abortion clinic on Saturday mornings, yet I find myself missing that mission field and the people that I prayed alongside.  I miss beautiful lectures by brilliant professors that just feed my soul.  While I don’t miss paying for them, I miss the feeling of picking of a new stack of books at the beginning of the semester.  Perhaps I miss writing papers and I try to live vicariously through my students by assigning frequent 1-page papers.  I miss campus and walking around through the changing seasons.  Oddly enough, I miss the adult-like feeling I had of going to Mass off-campus.  It made me feel so grown-up to be going to Mass with adults who have jobs.  The odd factor is that I do this now but I think it is because I am going to parishes I went to before college that I don’t feel so adult-like.  My heart misses the adoration chapel and the beautiful peace found there.  I miss my schedule and the mode of college life.  Yeah, I miss many things.  I didn’t realize this so much the first semester because I felt so overwhelmed with work.  But now I am able to look up a little bit more and I find myself looking into the future, wondering what else could be in store.

What beautiful plan does God have for me?  And what is He doing with me in the meantime?  He has never failed me but I am so quick to fall back into fear.  I miss college and that is natural because it was an important part of my life in which I grew substantially.  Yet I would be amiss to spend this next phase mourning over the last one.  My goal is to recommit to live in the present with joy, embracing as fully as I am able every aspect of my present life.  God is loving me in so many ways right now.  Right here is living in God’s will.   

Thy Will Be Done

Perhaps I am not alone in feeling this way, but I desire a great mission for my life.  I want to do big things and transform society.  When I look at the different passions in my life, I wonder how I will ever be able to use them all, how will God be the fulfillment of all of my desires.  Taking a look at where I am at the present moment can cause me to feel impatient and claustrophobic.  I want to travel, to live life, to have adventures, to be incandescently happy.  There are moments, like on Thursday, when I look at my life as a teacher and I wonder what in the world I am doing.  Some people are able to say that every day they go to work they are filled with a desire to go to work and that because of that, they never feel like it is work.  Unfortunately, I cannot say that the same is always true with me.  There have been several times over the past few months that I didn’t want to go to work, that the thing I wanted most was to extend the weekend.  My heart desires something grand and beautiful.  Yet when I look at where I am in my life, I begin to wonder if it is ever possible to attain that.  Am I simply missing God’s will in my life?  Will I be my own worst enemy?  Everyone desires a great love and a great adventure and too quickly I begin to wonder where mine is.  I’ve spent half of the past semester longing to live life fully and the other half praying to enter into eternal life.  At times I am filled with a passion for teaching and with gratitude that I am able to do what I wanted to do right out of college.  Nevertheless, I wonder what else there is for me and how the plan will unfold. 

Maybe much of this is natural–the transition years after college, the quest to find stable footing, the desire to be a saint, the longings to be fulfilled.  Yet some of this is perhaps the temptation of the evil one.  If he can make God’s will for me now seem to be unimportant or too little, then he is winning in a sense.  God could have a grand mission for me next year but His will for me is to be a teacher now.  If I focus on the future grandeur and fail to do my duty in the present moment, then I am effectively not doing God’s will out of a misappropriated desire to do His will in the future.  I need to learn patience without succumbing to passivity.  How will I know if God is asking me to step out in faith or if it is my own desire for the grand that will cause me to run contrary to the will of God.  I have this desire to be a saint and although I know there are many saints of the ordinary, I don’t want to be ordinary.  While I don’t want to stand out especially, I long for a great mission, something where all of my desires are fulfilled.  Maybe this is just my melancholic nature coming out and longing for the ideals that can only truly be found in Heaven.  All I know is that I long for a beautiful adventure that will be personally transforming and will transform others.  A little daisy wants to be a bouquet of roses.

What a different view of me my students would have if they read this blog.  I know they don’t think I’m perfect but I like to think I look generally put together and collected.  At times I wish I could tell them how ridiculous and confused I truly am.  The facade would be destroyed.  What does God want me to do now?  He has placed me here for a reason.  I forget that reason, though, in moments of frantic worry and a desire for my will to be done.  So, Lord, if Your desire is for me to be here now, please teach me how to do Your will in the present moment–and to love doing it.