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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Try, Try Again

Try, Try Again

One day, during the upheaval of school from home, I was helping my niece with her homework. While smart and a quick learner, she didn’t appreciate the corrections I was offering as I critiqued the direction of her 2s or her S. I encouraged her to try again, despite the initial frustration of getting it wrong.

As she was begrudgingly doing it again, I thought about how so much of a child’s life is learning how to do things. Naturally, that involves a lot of trial and error as they learn to walk, read, write, ride a bike, hit a softball, do a cartwheel, snap their fingers, and the list goes on and on. Children have to start so often from a place of humble acceptance of their inability to do something they want to do.

I think I could learn a lot from that disposition.

In my life, it is easy to stay safe and do the things I know how to do or think I can do well. When it comes to looking like a fool, I’ve never been much of a risk-taker. I much prefer to watch and see how others do it before attempting something on my own. Yet some things can only be learned by trying, failing, and trying again.

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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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The Gift of a Slower Pace

The Gift of a Slower Pace

Of course there was some stress involved, but the school year ended with fairly little fanfare and at a much slower pace than usual. No massive liturgies to plan for hundreds of people, no finals to prepare, no feeling like everything needs to happen right now. I fully understand that this pandemic is causing suffering for many people, but I can’t help but consider the blessings found in the midst of the difficulties.

For a variety of reasons, this school year was difficult in different ways. I found myself stressed and in continual need of a break. Many life-giving things were happening in my life, yet the breaks from school were never long enough, the time to relax never quite rejuvenating enough, my grasp on responsibilities never quite firm enough. After overcoming the initial stress of the transition, I slid into an indefinite period of teaching from home….relieved.

The time gave me the gift of reading a little more, enjoying the comforts of home much more, and the unchosen halt of many ministries. Things I could never say “no” to before (and I don’t generally have a problem saying no), like some work responsibilities, and things I enjoy, like prison ministry, were suddenly over or put on a long pause. While there was a sadness in missing some things, I mostly found the break to be good for me. And as a definite introvert, I was really okay with hours spent alone at home. With nine weeks of teaching from home wrapping up, I can honestly say I never got very sick of being at home. Sometimes staring at a computer screen was painful or the endless assignments that needed grading were unwelcomed. Despite all of that, the pandemic provided the opportunity to come up for a breath of much needed air.

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Is the Good News Good?

Is the Good News Good?

St. Peter says to “be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) but sometimes it seems the hope can get lost in a parade of rules. I asked my students what is the cause of our hope and after throwing out several answers, someone finally said the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was the source of our hope.

“Do you feel like the Good News is good?”

They paused for a moment, almost seeming to sense there was a trick question they needed to skirt.

“Yes,” one student said.

“Why?”

This simple question seemed difficult for them. Someone replied, “Because it seemed like the right answer.” In fact, when I asked a later question (“Why does the Good News not seem good?”) they were able to respond with more answers.

When I go into the prison, so many of the men that come to the Catholic bible study or Mass are able to clearly point to their lives and say, “When I do my own will, I am not free.” It is a profound gift that the men in prison have that I think so many outside prison lack. The doctor, the teacher, the student, the politician, the bus driver, the plumber, the painter, the whatever can look like they have it together because they have some worldly success and their struggles might not be so apparent. The reality, however, is that we are all in great need of being saved. This crashes into the truth that the Good News is profoundly good, but it does require an acknowledgement that I cannot do it on my own.

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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 Gift of Self-Knowledge: The Good and The Bad

The Gift of Self-Knowledge: The Good and The Bad

Seeing a list of my strengths is a vastly different experience than seeing a list of my weaknesses. That being said, I am incredibly aware that I have a great many flaws. There are probably areas I overlook, but as a melancholic, I am pretty introspective alongside possessing a generally critical nature.

I had my seniors take a temperament quiz at the beginning of the semester, partly for fun and partly so I can get to know them better. As they read through the descriptions they gave for their temperament, I was surprised to hear many of the lamenting the list of weaknesses for their particular temperament. Some commented that they were pretty harsh in the assessment of weaknesses and others were a bit more defensive as they said they didn’t have a bad temperament or were a bad person. Nobody, however, complained that they had an excessive list of strengths.

It made me wonder why they were so bothered by an impersonal test telling them which weaknesses they might possess. I wasn’t bothered by it. It was easy enough to read through the list and admit that I lacked in that area or recognize that I didn’t struggle with that particular flaw. Had they never considered what weaknesses they had? Were they bothered even considering that they might have weaknesses? What moved them to pull back as though someone had specifically told them where they fell short?

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. I’m not sure if the weaknesses rang a little too true or if they all felt wrong based on the person they knew. It seemed, however, that they needed to be reminded that we all have areas to work on, things that are just a little more difficult for us based on our personality. And so, having never made this connection before, I connected their temperament to the faculties of the human soul, to our intellect and our will.

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Trading Frustration for Affection

Trading Frustration for Affection

It was either annoying or endearing.

The student said “hi” at the end of class, as he looked over my podium to casually glance at my computer screen. Then, he went to a stack of books, picked them up and looked at them, despite the fact that it seemed like they were not in a place where students should peruse. It was either annoying because he clearly didn’t know boundaries, didn’t respect my space as a teacher, and appeared to not know what should be private.

Or it was endearing because his attitude indicated the great comfort he felt in my classroom. Something about the way he was performing these actions seemed innocent and naive. Like a child who glances at a parent’s phone with interest rather than intrigue. Or a teen who roots through the cupboard looking for food to consume.

“You seem at home,” I said after he placed the books back on the stack.

“Yeah, I feel pretty comfortable,” he replied, most likely oblivious to what his actions could have meant.

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It isn’t unpleasant

It isn’t unpleasant

I don’t usually watch the weather on TV. If I want to know what is headed my way, I check the weather app on my phone or I look up one of the local TV stations websites to see what is forecasted. But this past weekend, as I visited my parents at their house, we watched the beginning of the news to catch the weather report.

It is winter in South Dakota and so high temps and bright sunshine aren’t always in the forecast. Over Thanksgiving weekend, we had snow, rain, sleet, and the typical gusty wind on the prairie. Yet when the news announced the weather, they told us to brace for unpleasant weather. That ordinarily wouldn’t have seemed so striking, but for some reason, that word unpleasant struck a chord.

Already, before the weather has even hit, they are telling me how I ought to feel about it.

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