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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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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I Had a Slow Childhood

I Had a Slow Childhood

School was called off for today before I even went to bed last night. It meant that my sister and I leisurely watched a movie and then talked for a while before curling up to fall asleep. This morning, the snow hadn’t started yet so I went out of the house for a couple of hours, returning as the snow began to lie thick on the roads. Ideally, though, I would have been still tucked away in my bed or perhaps snuggled on the couch with a cup of coffee as I turned through my latest book.

In high school, I was surprised when I heard that on snow days kids went to go hang out at the mall. For me, it was an unthinkable action. Why would I go out into the blustery weather when that was the exact reason I wasn’t at school? I also was gifted with a father who would have unquestionably smacked me with a hearty dose of common sense if I would have even asked to drive to town despite the weather. Being at home was actually what I wanted to do anyway. While I liked school, I didn’t mind a day of sleeping in and being home. The same still holds true as an adult.

I grew up slow.

By that, I mean, as I grew up, we moved slowly.

I look at the schedules my students have or the schedules of kids and it looks so different from my youth. In elementary school, I usually rode the bus home and I was there until the next day when I left for school. My mom made supper and we all ate together. Sometimes the older siblings were running off to practice or games, but we almost always ate supper around our dining room table.

My summers were quiet, too. Sometimes we explored the farm or watched too much TV or read book after book. But it was slow, with plenty of time and space for us to play in the hay loft or read through book lists with forty to fifty titles. It wasn’t perfection, although my memory tends to cast an overly rosy hue on the days of my childhood. However, it had the great beauty of not being rushed.

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The Fire of Drift-wood

The Fire of Drift-wood

As my sister can attest, I have been on a poetry purchasing kick. There is something so lovely about flipping through books of poems and entering into the world of another–or seeing how easily they enter into mine.

“The Daily Poem” podcast has born another poem into my life; this one by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. As said before, I’m a melancholic, and the theme of the poem fits that mood as it presents a tale of sitting and talking about times that have passed and things that have been altered by time. I present to you: The Fire of Drift-wood.

We sat within the farm-house old,
      Whose windows, looking o’er the bay,
Gave to the sea-breeze damp and cold,
      An easy entrance, night and day.

Not far away we saw the port,
      The strange, old-fashioned, silent town,
The lighthouse, the dismantled fort,
      The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

We sat and talked until the night,
      Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
      Our voices only broke the gloom.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
      Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
      And who was changed, and who was dead;

And all that fills the hearts of friends,
      When first they feel, with secret pain,
Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,
      And never can be one again;

The first slight swerving of the heart,
      That words are powerless to express,
And leave it still unsaid in part,
      Or say it in too great excess.

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To Begin

To Begin

You’ve got to start somewhere.

When I was little, I remember looking at the Minesweeper game on my family’s computer but having no idea how to play it.  (Kind of similar to the Risk computer game…except I’ve never taken the time to figure Risk out.)  I would click random boxes and then numbers would appear until, eventually, everything would explode.  Not knowing the purpose or goal of the game meant success was unlikely to happen.

However, even now that I know the game, I still find it slightly frustrating that there is no perfect way to start it.  Usually you don’t end up selecting a mine right away but sometimes you do.  And there is no foolproof way to avoid it.  You simply need to begin in a random place.

Sometimes I feel that way with life.  Transformations that I desire to happen or significant projects I would like to complete often baffle me by providing no clear entry point.  Where does one begin?  What is the correct way to start?

For years, I’ve wanted to write a book.  When I was younger, it was simply the broad idea of desiring to write a book.  Now I know the topic, the title, and the general idea, but I still lack the plan I believe I need to be successful in the endeavor.  I want some clear outline or step-by-step process that will enable me to have a fail proof starting point.  However, the perfect beginning eludes me.  Continue reading “To Begin”

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”

Lent: When You’re Little Enough that No Virtual Window Shopping is a Sacrifice

Lent: When You’re Little Enough that No Virtual Window Shopping is a Sacrifice

Something I gave up for Lent this year is online shopping.  Yet I’ve come to realize in the past week that buying too much stuff isn’t the most prevalent problem.  Yes, I could probably fill a six-foot bookshelf with the stacks of books piled around my room.  The thing that is harder than not buying things is not even looking for them.

My younger sister jokes that for fairly large purchases (like a food processor or an iPhone) I start talking about them six months before I get around to buying them.  I’ve never been much of an impulse buyer.  But this Lent I’m giving up browsing, shopping, and slowly placing items in random online shopping carts.  I have had to catch myself at least two or three times already from following links to Amazon or sites with random household products.

Why am I doing this?  There are two primary reasons: I spend unnecessary time scrolling through websites and I don’t like what looking at so many material things does to my heart.

The first is the lesser of the two.  It is important, though.  Time is a treasure for which it is difficult to account.  The minutes can slip away quickly as I look at what other books will fit nicely into my library.  Or as I scout out birthday presents for family members in advance.  If I am continually feeling like I don’t have enough time, then perhaps I need to evaluate how I invest my time.

But that second reason, that is probably what caused me to stop with the shopping and browsing.  We live in a very materialistic world, but I’ve always felt fairly simple.  That simplicity, though, seems to be more an idea than a practice.  And I don’t like that it seems to be a quality I think I have but actually do not.  Gazing at all of the things I don’t have yet might like to, makes me feel unsatisfied with what I currently have.  Continue reading “Lent: When You’re Little Enough that No Virtual Window Shopping is a Sacrifice”

To Write

To Write

I’ve wanted to write a book for years.  When I was in first grade, I wrote a short story for a contest and I won.  Several years ago, I went back and read the story, expecting it to be mildly phenomenal.  Instead, I was surprised that it wasn’t that good at all.  I basically wrote a story about a typical day in my life, some of it was true and some of it was embellished.  In eighth grade, my English teacher really complimented my writing and encouraged me to start submitting articles for the town paper.  Apparently, there was space to fill, since the next couple editors of the paper allowed me to submit articles periodically for the next few years.

Over the years, I have wondered what the Lord desired to do with this desire of mine to write.  This blog started mostly as a way for me to process the new world of teaching high school students.  Now it is a place where I reflect and share on a number of different thoughts and feelings that come up.  Yet, still, I find a longing to write a book.

When I was younger, I assumed it would be a fictional novel.  Since I lived on a steady diet of novels, I figured my love for them would bring about writing one of them.  As time has passed, I’ve found myself wanting to write something nonfiction, but unable to quite put my finger on what it is I want to write.

This indecision is something that is familiar in my life.  I need only glance around my room to see partially finished books, half-made plans, and a to-do list that goes back months.  My desire to leap forward is tempered by a desire to not fail, to do the right thing at the right moment always.  Yet I read the books or blogs that other people have written and while I enjoy them, I cannot help but think, I could write something like that. Continue reading “To Write”

The Deepest Longing of Our Hearts

The Deepest Longing of Our Hearts

“I guess I don’t like the argument from desire because I’ve never felt a desire for something that can’t be satisfied on earth.”

As a melancholic who has nearly always longed for something beyond this world, I was a bit surprised by this admission.  My class was reviewing arguments for God’s existence and as we went over each one, I would ask a few students to share if they liked or disliked the argument.  Then they needed to voice why, perhaps the most difficult part of it all for them.

I wanted them to reflect on the arguments and see which ones they found personally compelling.  Each person is different and so I wasn’t too concerned if they liked all of the arguments or not.  Yet it is always interesting to me which ones they dislike and why.  Some other students voiced a dislike for the desire argument, but the declaration that they had never desired something beyond this world seemed foreign to me.

Melancholic that I am, I have always longed for perfection.  Ever since high school and college, that has translated into a longing for Heaven.  So as my students were voicing that they have never experienced this unfulfilled desire for something beyond this world, I was left wondering why they don’t have a longing that I never remember being without.

In my first year of teaching, I prayed frequently for death.  Not in a morbid way, but in a longing-for-home-and-yet-knowing-everything-around-me-is-temporary way.  The more I battled with my students over Church teaching, the more I wanted to be in a place of eternal Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  Yet that was far from the first time that I had felt an unfulfilled desire.  Why are my students not experiencing this also? Continue reading “The Deepest Longing of Our Hearts”