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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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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Salt and Light

Salt and Light

This past Sunday, the Gospel spoke of how we ought to be the salt and light the world needs. It concluded with this line:

Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

Matthew 5:16

After we read it in class, we spent time on Friday discussing it. Near the end of our conversation, I pointed to the reaction that we should desire from others. As we strive to live as salt and light, we should desire that people give praise to God for what they see instead of praising us.

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A Strength To Find Rest In

A Strength To Find Rest In

It was a late meal and before too long, my niece was soon battling sleep. Eventually, it overtook her and she laid with her head on the restaurant table while everyone else chatted and finished their meal. Then, my brother picked her up and carried her to the vehicle to go home. I don’t know if she slept through the entire trip home or if she simply acted like it, exhaustion keeping her calm and still.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the next day that I found myself pondering that scene. The similarities made me think of how my parents would often carry me from the car into the house after a drive home from somewhere. At times, I was really in a deep sleep and other times I just wanted to act like it. I would be partially awake as I heard the vehicle turn off, but I wanted to be effortlessly transported into the house. Once I reached a certain age, my parents would wake me up and I would need to enter the house on my own two feet.

What was so nice about being carried? Perhaps it was the sense of being cradled tenderly or the chance to be lovingly provided for even as reaching ages of independence. I’m sure sometimes it was just laziness, but it was probably most often the joy of resting in the strength of another. At six or seven, I wouldn’t have phrased it that way, of course. Yet if I look at the desires of the human heart, I am certain that was a central focus.

As an adult, we have to re-learn the art of resting in the strength of another. We often don’t want to be carried, physically or emotionally. The ease that comes with being carried in childhood often vanishes as we become adults. The sense of being carried starts to feel awkward and uncomfortable, like how it would feel if someone picked us up and carried us over their shoulder like happened when we were kids. We need to find anew the gift of resting in the Lord’s strength.

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Quit Striving: You Are Already Valuable

Quit Striving: You Are Already Valuable

For the past few semesters, I give something called ‘The Preference Test‘ as a way to lead into the Argument from Desire when speaking of God’s existence. This test gives a series of would-you-rather questions but proposed in a slightly different way. I understand why the students sometimes find it silly because it pits options like You are loved against You are not loved. It seems easy enough to be clear about what you would truly prefer, but so many times the students struggle to admit that they desire something when intellectually they are convinced it doesn’t exist or isn’t real.

One question asked if they would rather have their value be innate or dependent on their abilities. This one is always interesting, because the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality comes out in full force even if it isn’t really what anyone would truly want. I asked what they preferred. Did they prefer to be worth something just because they exist or did they prefer to strive for worthiness?

So many of them argued that culturally our value is based on our net worth or the skills we’ve acquired or how gifted we are. I told them I understood that, but asked how do you want your value to be determined? Still some insisted that they would prefer that measuring rod of value.

Interestingly, some seemed to fear nobody would work hard if they just knew they were valuable. I wonder if it is because they work hard to be good and then they wonder what it would be like if everyone had value regardless of their skills. Perhaps it is because they feel validated by meeting certain expectations and don’t know what it would mean if those measuring rods were broken and thrown away. Who would they be without grades or athletic giftedness or money or determination?

And it just made my heart ache to see them striving so much. So many of our problems seem to stem from not knowing our true worth or identity. If we all fully understood it, perhaps we wouldn’t be compelled to step on other people or gossip or give up or lie or do whatever we do to get ahead. Or whatever we do to numb the feeling that we aren’t worth anything or can never amount to much. People suffer from not knowing their own true value more than being too full of their own giftedness. I’m quite confident that the ones who seem the most full of themselves are so because they recognize within themselves a radical insufficiency.

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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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Babies Teach Us How to Love Better

Babies Teach Us How to Love Better

I was recently able to spend a few days with my newest goddaughter who is only a few months old. As I spent time with her and her parents, I was reminded of a realization I had a few years ago. Babies are the easiest to shower in all five “love languages.”

The five love languages are words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, gifts, and quality time. Simply by nature, normal parents will be quite generous with each of these toward their children, particularly babies.

My friend Maria was continually cooing over her daughter, affirming how good and beautiful she was. It wasn’t something that she had to earn–her parents were quite taken with her as she did everyday things like eat, sleep, and giggle. And, what is more, they told her how pleased they were.

Babies are often fought over, as people will stand in line to take a turn holding the baby. At times, beyond needing a diaper changed or food given, babies will cry simply because they desire to be held close to someone.

Acts of service are a pure necessity with babies because, unlike most other animals, humans are born in a state of vulnerability that lasts quite a long time. They must be carried for several months, feed, bathed, and attended to in many other ways.

While often of a practical nature, babies have gifts showered upon them in the form of clothes, accessories, almost entirely frivolous shoes, and toys.

Finally, by their very being, babies require quality time. In part, because so many things must be done for them, but also because they need to be held, to hear a loving voice, and to be consoled.

Despite the ease of loving babies well, I find it quite difficult for that to transfer to the rest of humanity. With my students and co-workers, it is far harder to shower such generous love in all five ways. But recalling that this overflowing of love is necessary for the little ones made me wonder: what would happen if it was attempted in small ways for the more mature? What might happen if I daily affirmed my students in small ways, just for being them?

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Eyeliner and Reality

Eyeliner and Reality

I was expecting a lot of things for my retreat, but I wasn’t expecting that not wearing eyeliner would be one of them.

By most standards, I don’t wear much makeup. Despite the fact that my mother has sold it for my entire life, I don’t like even really talking about it or experimenting with it or purchasing it. I utilize it, but I don’t really care about it. On retreat, I eliminated it from my morning routine for a few practical reasons: I wasn’t going “out” anywhere and it seemed it would only look worse when I would inevitably cry as the Lord worked through different matters within me.

The second or third day of not wearing eyeliner, I found myself looking in the mirror, slightly bewildered. That is what my eyes actually look like? My fair complexion and light hair is exactly why someone created eyeliner and mascara. Without it, my eyes aren’t as emphasized and everything looks a little paler.

Since I was on a silent retreat, I leaned into the discomfort rather than away from it. It wasn’t about vanity so much. I would look in the mirror and I would remind myself: these are your eyes. This is what they actually look like. And as the days passed, they seemed more mine. It stopped seeming like I was missing something that ought to be there, but rather that I was seeing reality. When I left retreat, I found that I wanted to keep seeing those eyes that are really mine and in the way they actually are.

(Stick with me, guys, I promise this is not an entire post about makeup!)

I’m not swearing off eyeliner: it does what it is supposed to do–it makes my eyes stand out. But I realized on retreat that I never want to forget what my eyes actually look like. It was a perfect physical takeaway from the tremendous interior work that the Lord was doing during that time of silence. The entire retreat was one of re-crafting my eyes to see me how the Lord actually sees me.

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Basic, but Beautiful

Basic, but Beautiful

I have a feeling that for the rest of my life when I return from a retreat, I will only be able to speak of graces and revelations that are profound in their magnitude but elementary in their complexity. This doesn’t bother me, but it was a bit surprising when I came to this conclusion a few years ago. While I’m not saying the Lord can’t reveal anything new to me, I think the revelations will primarily be a deepened understanding and solidifying of truths I already know, albeit superficially.

This understanding came about when I returned from a beautiful retreat. It was enlightening and life giving. Yet the main take-away was nothing new: God loves me. In fact, it seemed laughably basic. Didn’t I already know God loved me? Yes, of course. But after that retreat, I knew it in a deeper, more significant way. I experienced the love of God and it left behind a smattering of old truths seen with new eyes.

Sometimes, the students insist we all keep teaching them the same things. Sometimes, it is true that unnecessary repetition happens. But, it is also true that learning something as a child is quite different than learning about it as a high schooler or an adult. They believe that since they have heard the words before, they know it. Knowledge, however, is something that can be known with the head yet not known with the heart. It is often important to repeat well-known truths because they haven’t journeyed yet from words the mind understands to a reality the heart lives from.

High school students are far from the only ones to do this. The familiar sometimes seems uninteresting when actually we just haven’t plumbed the depths of it yet.

Jesus loves me.
God became man.
The Lord is faithful.
Trust in the Lord.
Jesus rose from the dead.

All of these truths have been heard by Christians innumerable times. Yet how many of these truths have fully penetrated our hearts? How deep of an understanding of the Lord’s love do we actually have? Do we really know and experience the faithfulness of the Lord or do we simply parrot the words? We can stay on the surface with these realities or we can bore down deep and imprint these words on our hearts. Like the circles within a tree, each experience with a particular truth can be packed in deeper and deeper, each additional layer increasing the beauty and profundity of the simple reality.

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Rome’s Concreteness

Rome’s Concreteness

The following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage. For just as you have borne witness to my cause in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.’

Acts 23: 11

The readings for our pilgrimage to Rome were rather perfect. For a few days, they focused on Paul’s arrest and subsequent journey to Rome to stand trial. As we visited the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and walked old cobblestone roads, the Scripture readings came alive. Here was the place Paul had come in chains, insisted on preaching the Gospel, spoke to the Christian community, and later died for Christ. It felt more real, more alive when in the place where so many important things happened.

When he entered Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.

Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had gathered he said to them, ‘My brothers, although I had done nothing against our people or our ancestral customs, I was handed over to the Romans as a prisoner from Jerusalem. After trying my case the Romans wanted to release me, because they found nothing against me deserving the death penalty. But when the Jews objected, I was obliged to appeal to Caesar, even though I had no accusation to make against my own nation. This is the reason, then, I have requested to see you and to speak with you, for it is on account of the hope of Israel that I wear these chains.’ 

He remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Acts 28:16-20, 30-31

In excavated catacombs, in the ruins of the Roman Forum, and in the expanse of the Colosseum, the reality of what had transpired in this ancient city rang clear. We prayed before Paul’s chains, momentarily visited the area where he was believed to have been beheaded, and stood near where Peter was crucified. Traversing beneath the current basilica, we stood before the bones of St. Peter, our first pope, and experienced the feast of Pentecost in the square just above. Everywhere we turned we were encountering concrete reminders that the apostles had visited this place.

I love several particular verses in Romans, but I couldn’t help but be struck anew that this was a letter written to the Roman people. And as a girl from the plains of South Dakota, where anything from the early 1800s feels old, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous that little Roman girls and boys get to grow up reading a letter written to them by St. Paul. How loved that letter must be! How beautiful to read: To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then to read at the end of Romans as Paul lists numerous people to greet for him, real people who were working in the vineyard of the Lord and who knew Paul.

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