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”

A Sacrifice of the Will

A Sacrifice of the Will

I purchased it several years ago, but this Lent I decided to start reading Hinds’ Feet On High Places by Hannah Hurnard. While I don’t want to give too much away for those who may be interested in reading it, I do want to focus on one point that has struck me repeatedly throughout the book.

Several times, Much-Afraid, the character followed in the story, is called to sacrifice her will for the Shepherd’s will. This story is an allegory of the Christian life, but the repeated need to make altars upon which to lay one’s own will, is rather striking. Each time, she assembles an altar from whatever materials lie close at hand and then she places her own will on the altar. A fire alights from somewhere and consumes the sacrifice, making a burnt offering of her very will.

There Much-Afraid built her first altar on the mountains, a little pile of broken rocks, and then, with the Shepherd standing close beside her, she laid down on the altar her trembling, rebelling will. A little spurt of flame came from somewhere, and in an instant nothing but a heap of ashes was laying on the altar.

Hinds’ Feet on High Places, pp. 71-72

In the midst of reading this book, the coronavirus has swept the nation and world. It felt very real when my bishop suspended all Masses. Suddenly, I was in a similar position to the people I ministered in Honduras, who go without Mass for undetermined periods of time. It was something I never considered happening here. During the season of Lent, I suddenly felt like a tremendous sacrifice was being asked of me. Yet the end probably won’t come at Easter, with the beautiful Triduum marking the end of the wandering in the desert. Who knows how long we will be left to wander in this sacramental desert.

The Lord asked us to place our wills upon the altar and to accept them being made into a burnt offering, a living sacrifice for the Lord. Arguments about what ought to be done aside, I am confident the Lord can use this time to shape us, to pull us out of the normal and help us see the miraculous in what we mistook for ordinary.

Continue reading “A Sacrifice of the Will”

Peace Not From the World

Peace Not From the World

Peace is my farewell to you, my peace is my gift to you; I do not give it to you as the world gives peace. Do not be distressed or fearful.

John 14:27

I feel obliged to keep somewhat informed about the spread of COVID-19 (the coronavirus) and as I was looking on a news website, I saw a link that said “Should I be panicking?” My students, naturally, are buzzing with news about the spreading virus and beneath the nervous excitement, some are truly concerned about getting sick. It is understand that fear should start to set in when it seems like very little time passes between various people mentioning something else about the coronavirus.

Apart from practical common sense attempts to not get sick, there isn’t much I can do. Yet similar to how listening endlessly to political news reports can fill me with unrest, countless stories and updates about the virus can begin to make me stressed. Jesus, despite showing concern for the poor and the suffering, doesn’t want us to be pools of despair, overcome with anxiety and worry about what may happen. We have an intellect that we ought to use, but He doesn’t want us to be frozen in isolating fear. Christ came to set us free, even from the slavery to fear.

Continue reading “Peace Not From the World”

The Rich Man and Lazarus

The Rich Man and Lazarus

If you don’t often feel uncomfortable when reading the Gospel, you might be reading it wrong.

Between a Monday evening Bible Study and Friday classes, I have the great gift of looking at the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel at least six times during a typical week. Sometimes, I’m a little dense, though. It took until Friday afternoon or Saturday before I genuinely started applying it to me.

This past Sunday the Gospel was about the rich man and Lazarus from Luke’s Gospel. It is clearly a rebuke of the rich man’s lack of compassion for the suffering of Lazarus. Also, it emphasized the finality of death and the subsequent judgement.

At first glance, I felt pretty comfortable. I do not look at the suffering of my fellow man with zero compassion. Yet I was prompted to wonder: perhaps the rich man did see Lazarus, did see his suffering, did feel moved–just not enough. Maybe the idea of reaching out made him feel uncomfortable. Or he didn’t know what to do. Or he was nervous that the suffering of Lazarus would be too disturbing to experience up close.

The Gospel suddenly became something I could apply to my life as I remembered a situation where I saw someone suffering, felt bad for them, and then did nothing. There were about three times when I had witnessed a man sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the sidewalk, well past a time when he should have been home or in a shelter. It was an arresting scene: the sun had set, it was a bit blustery, and there he sat in a wheelchair on the sidewalk with a blanket stretched over his entire body, from his feet to over his head. I saw it and I kept driving, every single time.

Continue reading “The Rich Man and Lazarus”

Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings

In the movie Sweet Home Alabama, there is one line that has always stood out to me.  The main characters Jake and Melanie are talking about their past and present, the ways life has changed from when they were high school sweethearts to their current situation of estranged spouses.  Melanie expresses her confusion about loving her life in New York and yet returning home to find that her hometown fits, too.  Jake then says, “You can have roots and wings, Mel.”

So often my own heart is caught in that same clashing of different longings.  I want to fly away and yet I want to be home, grounded and steady.  One moment I’m desiring to be a missionary in a far-away land and the next I want to stay in my cozy bedroom, reading and considering life.  One day, I’m wanting to buy a home and make it my own oasis.  The next day, I am wanting to be detached of all earthly possessions, living simply and being prepared to fly off to wherever whenever.

Roots and wings–the desire to be secure and the desire to be free–mark the desires of the human heart.  We want to be home, but not confined.  We want to be free to wander and yet not be lost.  All of it, flying or remaining, hinges on the longing we have for happiness and contentment.

Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.

Philippians 4:11-12

I am not quite like St. Paul yet, able to find contentment in whatever situation I find myself in.  Perhaps my students would even be surprised with the restlessness that is within my heart.  I am slow to act, yes, making changes at a glacial speed.  And yet…change is what I often long for and deeply desire.  What is the solution? Continue reading “Roots and Wings”

My Little Cross: An Avenue for God

My Little Cross: An Avenue for God

This, I thought, is not the cross I wanted.  Can’t I have something different?

I’ve heard that if everyone could throw their particular struggles and crosses of life into a common pile, we would go through and pick again the one we already have in our lives.  That when we would compare our crosses to what other people are struggling with, we would realize that we didn’t have it too bad the first time.  Or maybe that we would recognize that the cross we have, perhaps oddly and strangely, is one customized for our lives.

It might be true, if I knew the secret things you struggled with, that I would recognize that my cross is far more manageable than I initially thought.  Yet at this particular time, I’m simply wishing I could choose something different.  I survey the struggle and it doesn’t quite seem fair, this thing with which I’m saddled.  Or things, to be more precise.

When I speak of these struggles, I don’t always mean failures or weaknesses.  Sometimes, the cross in our lives is simply a matter of circumstance.  It isn’t anything we can choose to alter, rather it is something we choose to embrace, or at least endure.  The crosses of circumstance might be some of the most difficult ones to bear because we find ourselves unable to fix the recognizable problem.   Continue reading “My Little Cross: An Avenue for God”

Writing: The Success is in the Offering

Writing: The Success is in the Offering

The first blog I started was in the early 2000s.  Way back then, I didn’t call it a blog and neither did anyone who read it.  It was a very short list of distinguished people who read it, but it was there, a precursor to what I would do here and now.

I was imitating my older sister.  She sent emails to her friends about life ponderings that she had during the day.  There were religious reflections, philosophical musings, and simply ideas she had as she went about her ordinary high school life.  Wanting to be like her, I started my own little email list.

While I don’t remember how many emails I sent out, I do recall one topic.  Blue toilet paper.  My mother purchased blue toilet paper and, for some reason, this was the thing I felt most compelled to write about.  I know that I sent at least two emails about it.  The first had an intriguing subject line of “Blue” and the second was titled “Still Blue.”  And then, for one reason or another, I stopped sending the emails.

My next foray into the world of writing was in eighth grade.  Apparently, my English teacher thought I had something to offer the world and contacted the local editor of the town newspaper.  The editor agreed to let me write occasionally for the paper about virtually whatever I wished.  I wrote about my sister entering the convent, the death of a classmate, summer church camps, dream jobs, my dad’s retirement, the holocaust of abortion, and my trip to Ireland and Scotland.  The writing continued sporadically until my graduation.

In college, I wrote a couple of times for a few different campus publications.  I was too busy writing papers to publish many articles just for the enjoyment of it.  College also had the knack of tempering my perceived self-importance.  I’d been told for years that I had a gift for writing, largely from family and friends who are supposed to say those kinds of things.  In college, however, I received authentic criticism from my Honors and English professors.

Admittedly, it took me by surprise. Continue reading “Writing: The Success is in the Offering”

I Need You, Lent

I Need You, Lent

My bedroom is in a similar state as my soul.  Messy, cluttered, and kind of driving me insane.  The thing is both situations are entirely my fault.

Instead of hanging up my clothes, they have become a mountain covering my ottoman.  Generally, I forget I even have an ottoman and I’ve become increasingly convinced that most of the things in there mustn’t be very important if I never need to access them.  Stacks of unopened letters and papers I should file away add a bit of an overwhelming sense to a place I often use for refuge.  Boxes that need to be broken down for recycling, laundry that ought to be done, and stacks upon stacks of books make my bedroom chaotic.

My soul?  Pretty much the same situation.

There is a great deal of clearing out that needs to happen.  Scripture says to make a highway for Our Lord.  But first, I think I need a plow to come through.  So it is with a heart that loves simplicity yet finds itself attached to abundance that I eagerly head into Lent.

I need Lent.   Continue reading “I Need You, Lent”

Is there free will in Heaven?

Is there free will in Heaven?

“Do people in Heaven still have free will?”

Our conversation started with evolution and gradually meandered to angels, free will, and humanity.  I told them that angels had free will and they asked if angels could still rebel.  Explaining that angels will their decision to follow or not follow God with their entire beings, they then asked if people in Heaven could sin.  When I said they wouldn’t, they wondered how free will could be found in a place where there was no sin.

“It seems like free will would just be an illusion,” they said, when I told them that in Heaven we would be purified and would always choose to follow God, even while exercising our free will.

I needed to make a correlation that they would understand.  One student compared it to pizza.  If he said he would eat pizza for the rest of his life, he wouldn’t be free to eat anything other than pizza.  That wasn’t quite the comparison I was looking for in order to explain the situation to them.

I’m not always very quick on my feet.  Sometimes, I want to beg them for more time and to consider than I am a slow thinker, a muller of thoughts and ideas.  Instead, I tried to think of something tangible that they could understand.  How could one make a particular choice that was forever and yet still exercise their free will?

Now that I consider it, I could have referenced Jesus or Mary.  Instead, I used vocations.

“Priests, religious, and married persons make vows that they intend to follow forever and yet they freely choose to will those decisions daily.  Our free will in Heaven is kind of like that, but we are able to perfectly will it always.”

A couple committed to marriage make vows to love the other in a free, total, faithful, and fruitful way.  They still have a free will, but they have publicly voiced their desire to always will the good of the other.  This doesn’t make them less free.  Instead, their commitment allows them to experience the freedom of total gift of self to another.  Yes, they could choose to cheat or leave or lie.  But if they follow the vows, they will freely choose to not do those things. Continue reading “Is there free will in Heaven?”

Unrestricted Access to My Heart

Unrestricted Access to My Heart

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
“You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Mark 10:21

It is because Jesus loves this young man that He challenges him.  By many standards, this man has done all that he has been asked to do.  He has kept the law since his earliest days.  Yet, he comes to Jesus to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Either he wants to be affirmed in how excellently he has kept the law or he feels there is something more to which he is called.

Jesus looks at him with that gaze that pierces through the heart and is filled with a great love for this young man.  The authenticity of His love compels Him to call the young man to something greater.  Jesus tells the young man to put aside everything of this world and to follow Him.  It is out of love that He invites the young man to run with reckless abandon in the race for Heaven.

Yet the man leaves saddened.  Though he follows the law, he is unwilling to set aside everything for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus issues His challenges out of love, but they vary based on the person.  Some He invites to follow Him and they cannot, refusing to leave behind possessions or family.  Others long to follow Him and He tells them to remain home, sharing the Good News among their own people.  When it comes to living in God’s will, there seems to be no one-size-fits-all approach for the Lord.  His will is customized to the individual and it often seems to be contrary to what we want.

This is why the life of contemplation is the boldest and most adventuresome of undertakings, for what could be more radical, more truly earth-shattering, than the willingness to be dismantled and created anew, not once or twice in a lifetime, but day after day?

The Way of the Disciple, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis

He is not satisfied by things done half-way.  Our souls, though we may attempt it often enough, cannot be half His.  The young man wanted to comfortably follow the law and yet Jesus calls him to a life he did not expect.  Sell everything?  Why?  Where is that in the law? 

While I may be tempted to mentally chastise the young man (Jesus was asking you to follow Him!  How could you not?!), I must admit that I am he. Continue reading “Unrestricted Access to My Heart”