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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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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There Is Always Hope

There Is Always Hope

I don’t recall exactly what it was about. During parent teacher conferences, I spoke with a parent and it was either about the grade, the student’s faith, or something, but whatever it was, the parent ended with, “So there’s hope?” And I, filled with a conviction that stretched beyond the moment, replied, “Yes. There is always hope.”

I felt the weight of that truth in the moment after the parent left.

Always. Hope endures despite all difficulties.

For someone who often skews toward pessimism, it is helpful to remember that hope persists, even when it seems illogical. I mean, we worship a God who rose from the dead after three days. He chose the most unlikely people to pass on the faith, who continually misunderstood Jesus and ran away when scared. Yet this Church still lasts. In spite of corrupt popes, Church scandals, intense persecutions, harsh dictatorships, and every other difficulty, we see that life can still burst forth from death just as the frozen ground will one day again yield to the gentle strength of new flowers.

The other day in class, I found myself saying, “Death isn’t the worst thing.” For me, it was obvious that this was true. I spent much of my first year of teaching hoping for death. Not in a morbid or depressed way. Rather, I was thoroughly convinced of the glory of the Beatific Vision and I was also thoroughly convinced that I wasn’t yet experiencing it in a room filled with angsty, complaint-filled teens.

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Whatever God Chooses Should Be All the Same to Us

Whatever God Chooses Should Be All the Same to Us

I didn’t expect to feel sadness at a wedding.

Anything near tears, I assumed, would come from the overwhelming joy of seeing a good friend get married. And while I was definitely happy, I was startled by the profound loneliness that pervaded my heart, even as I sat in a pew with beloved friends and was surrounded by many people I knew. Grateful that my friend was receiving that for which she had long prayed, I discovered a sorrow that I didn’t want to find at that time or in that place. The human heart frequently seems inconvenient, but I’ve found that leaning into that is more helpful than ignoring it.

Near the beginning of the liturgy, I heard the priest proclaim a single word in the midst of a longer prayer. He said “home” and I was immediately asking the Lord where my home was. Looking over the priest’s head, I saw the crucifix, arms stretched wide and side pierced, and within myself I heard Him say that my home was there. In His side, opened so that mercy could pour out, was my home, my refuge, the only place I belonged on either side of Heaven.

As my blog slowly moves from being thoroughly unread to something that people I know and don’t know read, I find myself hesitant to ever speak of being single. Some of my former students occasionally look at my blog as do co-workers, and it feels odd to share this particularly deep desire, even if it seems obvious or assumed or commonplace. Yet it also feels odd to share so many other parts of my heart and then withhold speaking of the vocation I feel called to, simply because God hasn’t fully answered that prayer.

I’m a melancholic and as such I am accustomed to longing. One of the most enduring longings has been for marriage and a family. It isn’t my only desire, but it is the one that seems the most fervent. This newly married friend is one I often spoke of this longing with, as we questioned when it would be fulfilled and wondered how it would happen. So I understand to a degree why this wedding also filled my heart with a bit of sadness. It was because my compatriot had what she longed for and I was still waiting, still hoping, still wondering when and if it would happen.

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A Scandalous Mercy

A Scandalous Mercy

“If Hitler repented before he died, after all he had done, would he be able to go to Heaven?”

You know, just some light, casual conversations on a Friday afternoon.

“Yes, if he repented….You don’t like that answer, do you?”
“No, I think he should be in Hell.”

“Let me ask you a question,” I said, knowing that sometimes asking questions is the only way to escort them to the doorstep of truth. “Where do you draw the line? How many people can someone kill or order killed and get to Heaven?”

“Ummm….none.”
“So nobody who has ever killed anyone could have a conversion and go to Heaven?”
“No.”
“Are there any other sins that you think God should be unable to forgive?”
“No.”
“But do you see the problem with choosing what is too much for God to forgive?” And he did, but he still wasn’t convinced that God should forgive Hitler if he repented.

This interaction prompted a much longer conversation than I expected. Our starting point was the Gospel for this upcoming Sunday and it bothered some that the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the wandering son were all received with joy and the ones that remained weren’t so celebrated. The father in Luke’s Gospel extending abundant mercy to the younger son was troublesome and annoying to them. Why does the one who wanders get a party and the one who stays gets nothing?

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Gratitude on a January Day

Gratitude on a January Day

Three things I’m thankful for today:
-The song “Kings and Queens” by Mat Kearney–especially the line “Richer than Solomon with you by my side” as he expertly blends Scripture into his songs
-Weekend food leftovers to power me through the start of another week
-Books: owning them, reading them, and anticipating their arrival

There is something about gratitude that shifts the perspective.  A few years ago, I was in the practice of writing down things for which I was thankful.  They were often small, inconsequential things.  Yet, even now, when I look back at those pages in my notebook, I smile at the glimpse into my heart and life during that time.

A random sampling from my gratitude journal:
3. Principal observation on a movie day
5. Peace after expressing frustration
29. Gusts of wind that make crunchy leaves trip down the road
37. The post-run feeling of health (following the post-run feeling of death)
59. Stretching out in bed at night
69. Eyes crinkled in laughter
80. Heavy hearts sharing the burden through conversation
133. Answered novenas in unhoped for ways
172. Solo supper with Grandma
176. My students telling me which gifts of the Holy Spirit they think I live out
241. Laughter with students instead of going insane

Some of the events I remember.  For others, I’m not quite certain to what I was referring, but there is a beauty in seeing what moved my heart to express gratitude.  Thankfulness is one of those things that doesn’t quite make sense if there is no God.  Who else can I thank for the peace I feel after settling an argument?  Or for the wind that causes leaves to swirl around on the ground?  These would be mere observations or fleeting thoughts unless they could be expressed to someone responsible for them. Continue reading “Gratitude on a January Day”

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”

The Anticipation of New Beginnings

The Anticipation of New Beginnings

“Are you ready for school to start again?”

The short answer is no….but it will happen anyway.  And, although it will be crazy, busy, and a bit stressful, I will be glad when I am back into the “routine” of school.

I am not, however, one of those people for whom breaks are too long and is itching to be back in school.  At my young age, I’m quite certain I would make an excellent retired person…right now.  I enjoy traveling, being at home, reading, sitting in the sun, attending Mass when the rest of the working world works, and whatever else it is that retired people do.  I get a taste of it every summer and I believe I would do quite well with it as a full-time profession.

Yet there is a certain goodness about a new school year.  As a teacher, I have the luck of starting over each year.  There are new students (mostly), new energy (hopefully), and new faculty (always).  Even as I dread a bit of the crazy that comes with a new year, I cannot entirely squelch the excitement of beginning again.

Each beginning offers a new chance to do better than I did before.  And if you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that with me, there is always, always plenty of room for improvement.  I plan for new ways to interest the students, new methods to interact with my staff, and new hope that this year I will be the missionary of the classroom that I deeply desire to be.  The new school year is home to my litany of new year’s resolutions for my teaching life. Continue reading “The Anticipation of New Beginnings”

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”

Build Up the Ancient Ruins

Build Up the Ancient Ruins

After finishing a silent retreat, I opened my Bible to where I had some papers sticking out.  I had marked this section because of the first three verses of Isaiah 61.  They were the Scripture verses my college women’s group considered “our” passage.  While they speak beautifully about the Spirit of the Lord and how it works in us, my attention was attracted to the following verse.

“They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.”
(Isaiah 61:4)

For the first time, I read this verse and realized the great hope attached to it.  I look at the world around me and I see a lot of things falling into ruin.  This isn’t the result of one generation but of many generations over the years, the buildup of human sin over the course of human history.  Yet here in Isaiah, the Lord is promising to re-build that which is ruined.  And Isaiah isn’t saying the Lord is going to do this all apart from us, but rather that He will use us to re-build and raise up new things.

I cannot help but think that this new life will come from the way the Spirit of the Lord will move.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn…

(Isaiah 61:1-2)

When we allow the Spirit of the Lord to work in and through us, He will re-build the broken world in which we live.  I see it already happening in small ways.  On the silent retreat, I was primarily surrounded by moms, several of them visibly pregnant with another child.  It is beautiful to think of how families will be strengthened and renewed simply by their mother’s dedication to her faith.   Continue reading “Build Up the Ancient Ruins”