When we children were not behaving, and my father was beginning to lose his patience but not yet his sense of humor, he would glance at the woods behind our house and say, “It’s time to start gathering white pebbles!”
We knew well the story of Hansel and Gretel, and how the father, pressured by the wicked stepmother, brought his two children into the deep woods, intending to leave them there. However, Hansel had overheard the plans, and filled his pockets with white pebbles. As they walked further into the woods, he dropped the pebbles along the way. When the two children awoke to find themselves abandoned and alone, Hansel reassured Gretel, and told her to wait for the moonrise. Sure enough, when the moon rose, it illuminated a path of the white pebbles, leading them safely home to their rejoicing father.
A few years ago, I was in a Bible Study with Brother John Mary CFR in which he invited us to pray about our story, and write a five-minute testimony. As I prayed, the image that kept coming to my mind was this story and the path of white pebbles.
I realize that in many ways my life is like that path of pebbles, illuminated as I look back, like a reverse treasure hunt. So many moments that seemed random, insignificant, or even tragic and opposed to my good, looking back highlight instead a path leading to God the Father. Small conversations, big obstacles, struggles that seemed senseless, set the way Home. My life was a path of gifts and graces that I only recognized in hindsight.
However, as I sat with the story and the image, I realized something was “off.” The father in that story was not a true image of God the Father. While he was not as ill-intentioned as his wife, he bowed to her pressure to abandon his children, not once, but twice.
The Brothers Grimm tell us that the father was a poor woodcutter “who could no longer procure even daily bread.” He fears for the family, anticipating that they will all die of starvation. His wife’s solution is to get rid of the children. The father balks, but in the end succumbs to her pressure and his fear.
The father is happy when the children return home the first time, but when the wicked step-mother applies pressure again, he capitulates and leads them into the deep woods a second time. This time, Hansel did not have the opportunity to gather pebbles, and so scatters instead a trail of breadcrumbs. But birds eat these, and the moon rises only to show the children that they are truly lost and alone, and this time there is no path home. (It was then that they found the fabled candy cottage, and the witch that forms the heart of that story).
At first, as I considered the weak woodcutter, I thought that I must have misunderstood what I had received in prayer. But as I stayed with it, I realized that the metaphor for my life only deepened. For my story is not just about a path to God, but about coming to know what kind of Father God really is.
For much of my life, I saw myself not unlike Hansel, left to figure things out for himself. I imagined that God would be happy enough if I made it home to heaven—but that it was all up to me to do what it took to get there. While I did not doubt God’s goodness or love in the abstract, I did not recognize it for myself personally and practically. God’s goodness did not seem “enough” to really help me, to overcome my sin, to overcome the difficulties of the world and my life. He would be waiting for me at the end, if I made it, if I became the Girl I Ought to Be, but in the meantime, I was on my own.
If I wanted to come Home to my Father, it was up to me to find the way. It was up to me to figure out how to save myself. It was up to me to be clever enough to outwit evil, to prove my worthiness. The result was a life of spiritual striving, which only left me feeling further lost and unloved.
Jesus comes to tell a different story. The Father is “Our Father”—a Father we have in common with Jesus. He is Son by nature; we are children by adoption, by a gratuitous love. And because our image of Father has been so distorted, Jesus comes to reveal the face of the Father by His life. It is a face of mercy, of healing, of truth, and a love which goes out to “seek and to save the lost.”
Not only is God generous, providing for our daily bread and physical life; He Himself becomes our Bread. He Himself is the path; He walks with us and provides the grace and means to get to heaven. Unlike the woodcutter who chose self-preservation out of fear, Jesus walks the path to the Cross, and shows in Himself the self-giving, self-emptying love that would literally rather die than live without us.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us how to pray. As we pray the Our Father, we are invited to praise and affirm belief in the goodness of God’s Fatherhood, and to pray for the coming of His kingdom—that earth may reflect fully the goodness of heaven. We then remember His promise to take care of us as we then entrust our needs to Him—”Give us this day our daily bread…deliver us from evil.” He is not a Father who abandons us, but rather Emmanuel, God with us.
Michel Matton [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D