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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Relentless Pursuit: How Prison Ministry Causes Me to Stand in Awe Before the Mercy of God

Relentless Pursuit: How Prison Ministry Causes Me to Stand in Awe Before the Mercy of God

I don’t believe I ever had as much gratitude for the generous mercy of God as when I started volunteering at the prison.

Over the years, I have perhaps struggled with accepting that I cannot disappoint God or realizing the unplumbable depths of God’s particular love for me. But, in many ways, I never felt that I strayed too far from God. I never stopped going to Mass or turned away from the faith. In college, I was delving into my faith when many of my peers were shaking the Church’s dust from their feet. So I never really had to confront the question of “Can God forgive me for this?” and I say that without any pride knowing that I fail in many, many ways.

Standing before men in prison, though, I am encountering some men who have committed truly heinous crimes. There are men in for drug charges or robbery or embezzlement. And then I’m with men who committed crimes against women and children, in a variety of circumstances and situations. I also find myself with men who have murdered others or conspired to murder people or have attempted to murder others. Regardless their crimes, I am able to confidently extend the mercy of God to them.

There are times when I am in the disciplinary unit, talking with the men cell-front with a couple of other volunteers, and I find myself filled with profound awe over the gift of salvation. I don’t have to ask what sins they have committed to know if the Lord desires to be in relationship with them. If I find myself repelled by their sins or crimes, I know the Lord still yearns for their soul and to pour His love generously upon them. It causes me to experience again the immensity of the Lord’s love. There is no question about if He loves any person I meet in prison. That expansiveness causes me to stand there and just be awed by how the Lord never stops pursuing our hearts.

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A Thousand Deaths

A Thousand Deaths

When Jesus was confronted with untrue accusations, do you remember what He did? As the Sanhedrin gathered false testimony, as Pilate presented questions given by the chief priests, as Jesus struggled beneath the weight of the cross and the jeers of the people, as Jesus was maligned while on the cross, do you remember what He chose?

Silence.

How hard it is to not rush to our own defense! When situations are misrepresented, when intentions are skewed, when honest questions are left unanswered, it is a tremendous act of the will to not attempt to set all things right. Sometimes, it is necessary to provide clarity and correctness and other times it is completely unnecessary. And sometimes it is necessary to try to show the misunderstandings, but to ultimately fail in convincing them of their skewed view.

We always feel the pains of injustice acutely when it offends our own sense of justice. I look at the lives of the saints and martyrs and I tend to think about how glorious and courageous were their deaths. Yet each of those martyrdoms was preceded by many, many small bloodless deaths. St. Paul didn’t only suffer beheading in Rome. Before that, he was imprisoned, he experienced riot after riot when preaching the Gospel, he was looked upon with distrust by the Jews and the Christians after his striking conversion, and he spent much time in chains for the sake of the Gospel. His final suffering, the death of a martyr, was simply the last death he experienced in a long line of dying to self.

Most of our stories won’t be quite that dramatic. We probably won’t sit unjustly condemned in terrible prisons awaiting our cruel deaths. We will, however, suffer in other ways. And it will be in ways that will be easy to want to reject or feel the need to correct. As Jesus heard false testimony, I am certain He had at least part of a desire to simply say, “I didn’t say that. That isn’t right. You weren’t there. You are intentionally misrepresenting me.” Instead, He suffered in silence with the Lord. He knew that the truth would be revealed and He rested with the Lord in the midst of being misunderstood. He invites us to do the same, in the small and the large sufferings of our daily life.

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Travel Light

Travel Light

As a way to prepare for walking the Camino de Santiago, I bought a few guidebooks and researched suggestions online. The book that had sparked the desire to complete this pilgrimage was Fr. Dave Pivonka’s Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles With Jesus. Prior to reading this book, I had only a vague interest in the pilgrimage, partly spurred on by a fellow teacher who wanted to make the trek. I read about Fr. Dave’s journey and I was intrigued.

Casually, with little intention of it actually happening, I made the next logical investment: guidebooks. Then, I chatted with my younger sister, pondering if this could really, truly happen. Finally, we booked plane tickets, bought necessary gear, and prepped for a pilgrimage that was largely unknown to us.

Along the Camino, several of the American pilgrims asked if we were on the Camino Facebook page. It wasn’t something I had looked for or uncovered in my searching, but when I returned home, I joined the group. Since then, I’ve read numerous suggestions people have for others about to make this pilgrimage, appreciated pictures from people currently on pilgrimage, and read the questions first-time walkers have for the more experienced.

One thing that has always struck me is how particular some people are about the weight of their pack. It is, understandably, one of the most significant things to consider, but it wasn’t something I spent a great deal of time analyzing. In retrospect, I should have taken less.

At two separate points of the trip, we mailed things either home or ahead to a later stop. Church clothes that we hoped to wear were shipped ahead when we realized Sunday would be a walking day and Mass would be attended in our everyday Camino clothes. Pajamas were mailed as we just slept in the clothes we would wear the following day. The pack I already thought was small was pared down twice. When I finished the Camino, I resolved that if I ever did it again, I would be far more particular about what I brought along.

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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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To Praise You For All Eternity

To Praise You For All Eternity

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.

(Amazing Grace)

When we started singing Amazing Grace, I recalled that this was very moving for me during my first prison retreat. It didn’t seem like it would be the case this time as those gathered sang semi-enthusiastically.

Then we approached the final verse and I was overwhelmed with a fierce love for these men and a great desire to spend eternity with them. I gazed around the room and saw the guy who reminded me of some of my students and heard the obnoxious men behind me who were chatting or making noises during parts of the Mass. I thought about the men who struck me as a little creepy in how attentive they were to all the young female volunteers. And I thought of one of my favorite prisoners standing beside me who has grown deeper and more devout since I met him four months ago. Thinking about all of the men–the ones I like and the ones I am uncertain about—I felt a great desire to praise God with them for all of eternity.

My heart had a burning desire to turn to my prison friend next to me and say, “_____________, I want to spend eternity with you!” But it seemed like I’d be coming on a little strong. And although it would maybe weird him out, he would probably just laugh and say, “Okay. Calm down, Trish. But, yeah, I know what you mean.” I didn’t tell him that, but everything in me wanted to do so. Instead, I just looked at these men and imagined all of us in Heaven.

Lord, I want to spend eternity with these prisoners.

I imagined us praising God forever and chatting about past memories. “Remember when you came into the prison and met us for the first time, Trish?” And I would tell them I did. We would laugh—that we met in prison of all places but that God used each of us to help draw the other toward Heaven. “Remember the terrible prison food?” And we would all rejoice that we would never, ever again eat that food.

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I Find God Here

I Find God Here

“Why do you come in here to be with us and teach us about Jesus when you could do that outside?” one prisoner asked during a meal on the prison retreat.

“I do teach about Jesus to people out there.”

“Why do you come in here?”

A few months ago, I would have said it was because my sister started getting involved in prison ministry. Or that I became interested when a priest I had known for a long time became the prison chaplain. Yet neither of those things really answers the question of why I keep coming back.

“Because I find God in here,” I said. “I guess it is actually a selfish reason.”

He looked at me, a bit taken aback. “You find God in prison?”

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Living and Active

Living and Active

It continues to surprise me how extremely relevant Scripture is to the lives of prisoners. Whether I’m reading an Old Testament prophet or the epistles of St. Paul, the circumstances of the imprisoned are never far from any given page. Listening to the readings in prison, as Paul speaks about the chains he bears for the sake of the Gospel or how many times he found himself imprisoned, adds a whole new depth to the readings.

Earlier this week, as my sister and I drove to prison for a bible study, I read the Gospel passage aloud that we were going to discuss. It was something I’ve heard and read dozens of times and yet my eyes were opening in a new way, something that has happened innumerable times since I started going into the prison. The passage for the upcoming Solemnity of Jesus, King of the Universe, was about Jesus on the cross and the conversation He had with the good and bad thief.

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.” Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23: 35-43

I could hardly believe it when I read the passage to my sister. How striking. A passage about how Jesus, the sinless one, who enters into our lives and takes on our sin, dying amongst criminals who were sentenced justly for their crimes. What would it be like to hear this as a prisoner?

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Traffic and cold, bless the Lord

Traffic and cold, bless the Lord

Yesterday, the exit ramp I took on my way home was overflowing with traffic. The lane that veered off the interstate was filled nearly to the point of backing into the lanes of traffic that were continuing north. I was listening to some lovely music, pondering my day, and waiting for my turn. Despite the traffic, it was a peaceful moment.

Looking toward the west, I took in the beauty of the setting sun. Puffy cotton ball clouds blanketed the sky and slowly turned tropical shades despite the freezing temperatures outside. It was a delight to just gaze at the beauty I saw splashed generously across the sky. I couldn’t help but think that if it wasn’t for the obnoxious traffic, I wouldn’t have had the time to just ponder the sky. Closest to the horizon the sky was a fiery orange tinged with pink and further away the clouds took on a more somber hue.

It was cold outside. The sun’s setting seemed far too early. It had been a long day. There was still so much of the week to go. But, Lord, thank You for this moment of beauty, this moment of peace.

It made me think of something I had seen on Facebook one time regarding the snow. The post said, “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but the same amount of snow.” It is simple and yet a needed reminder that gratitude is the appropriate way to approach life. The traffic situation seemed to apply as well. If I choose to not find joy in traffic, I still have the traffic but not joy. So I looked up and saw something to be grateful for as I waited. God was casually displaying beautiful art during the evening commute. And I sought to soak it up this time instead of sink into my own world.

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Break Our Hearts of Stone

Break Our Hearts of Stone

It seems keeping the heart one of flesh, instead of being one of stone, is the continual work of a lifetime. Softening, rather than hardening, requires a strength and intentionality that doesn’t come naturally to me. In the wake of my defensiveness and desire for self-preservation, I repeatedly need to engage in the work of letting my heart be real. The simple act of believing in the goodness of others (and living in that truth) is one that requires me to be soft-hearted over and over again.

As I’ve gone into the prison, I have grown in seeing the goodness in people who have made many mistakes. Many of the men I interact with are easy to find goodness in because they are seeking the Lord, too. Their zeal for the Lord or their desire to love Him or find Him invites me to see how God is moving in their hearts. Others are a little more difficult since they make me feel uncomfortable or continually lie to me. But as a whole, I am able to look at men who have raped, murdered, and committed all sorts of crimes and proclaim their inherent goodness.

For whatever reason, we often look up what crimes the men are in for and how long of a sentence they received. At times, it helps to understand their position: are they in for life or a few years or simply back after breaking parole? We decided to look up one man I’ve talked with several times and see his crime. It was surprising because the kindness and gentleness I’ve experienced from him ran contrary to the crime he was sentenced to serve. Yet, despite the surprise, it didn’t really change how I felt toward him. The goodness and kindness I’ve experienced are real and he is far more than the crimes of his past.

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