White Pebbles

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.

 

 

Pebble-Path resized

Image Credit:

Michel Matton [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Hiding in Paradise

A two-year-old niece makes many things more fun, but Hide-And-Go-Seek is not one of them.  Zippy thinks that if she closes her eyes and can’t see me, then I can’t see her either.   Sometimes, to make it more challenging, she puts something over her face as if for a prolonged game of Peak-A-Boo.  Or, once I’ve really hidden—behind the refrigerator, or the door, or under the bed—she will hide there herself.  Again, and again, and again.  Each time, I am supposed to play surprised.

When Adam and Eve hide in the garden after eating the forbidden fruit, God asks “’Where are you?” Surely the omnipotent God already knows.  So why does God ask?  And why does He follow Adam’s answer with still another question: “Who told you that you were naked?”  God wants them to see them as they are, naked and hiding from Him.

In my last reflection I wrote about the strategies of the Opposition Voice, whose goal it is to separate the Father from His children.  He does this first by getting them to reject God.  His next strategy is to get them to believe that God will reject them.

In tempting them with the forbidden fruit, the Opposition had begun to sow doubt in God’s goodness, and thereby to instill a fear of dependence on God.  Adam and Eve are initially tempted to choose self-sufficiency—achieving God-like status on their own, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Once they have eaten the fruit, the voice continues to promote self-sufficiency versus dependence on God.  They seek to cover their nakedness and dependence, and to hide from God rather than trust in His goodness.

As they lose sight of the God in whose image they are, they lose sight of His image in themselves.  “Guilt says you made a mistake; shame says you are a mistake” notes Gregory Cleveland, OMV.  And so to cover the mistake that they think they have become, Adam and Eve dress themselves in fig leaves.

It is an obvious strategy of the Opposition to make sin appear good, or perhaps necessary, or at the very least, not a big deal.  In a more subtle strategy, after our sin, the Opposition seeks to make our sin bigger than God.

After Genesis 3, we don’t get a visual on the serpent again until the Book of Revelation, when the seven-headed ten-horned dragon is at war with the Woman and Her Offspring.  But the Opposition Voice echoes through the books in between, spoken sometimes from without, and sometimes from within.  The first sin is for man to try to become like God on their own.  The second (and all subsequent) sins is to try to become like God on our own.

This is the mistake of the Pharisees, whom Jesus warns against in today’s Gospel.  “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” He tells His disciples.   The disciples are confused, thinking He has rebuked their forgetfulness (once again, they don’t have enough bread).  He recalls to them to the multiplication of the loaves, and asks “Do you still not understand?”

He is bringing them back not just to a previous lack, but to God’s providence in that lack.  It is God who provides everything.  He provides the grace to avoid sin, but also the grace to repent and to return once we have sinned.  He is the source of good, and the source of mercy when we are not good.

The Pharisees wish to adhere to a system of goodness based in the Law and traditions; to systematize a way to heaven with ritual and righteousness.  They cover themselves with the fig leaves of outer conformity to the Law, but like small children with their eyes closed, they presume that God cannot see the truth within them.

It is not the good deeds of the Pharisees that upsets Jesus; it is their reliance on them, versus reliance on God.  At its heart, it is still denial of God’s Fatherhood.

“Where are you?… Who told you that you were naked?”  Because man is now afraid and unable to approach and depend on God, God comes to earth as a naked baby, completely dependent on us.  And He shows us what dependence on humanity alone will lead to, when He is once again naked, stretched out on the Cross.

 

 

 

 

Other Paradise Trees

 

 

 

“Daughter!”

Two-year-old Zippy has recently discovered FaceTime.  She loves to talk to Nonna and “A’Reece” (Aunt Grace), but is sometimes a bit confused as to how the technology works.  She will giggle with delight when we answer and our faces appear on the screen, as though we have come to visit her.  “Hi Zippy! Hi Honey!” we say.  “Hi Zippy, Hi Honey!” she says in happy reply.  

She is dismayed however if we don’t share our snacks; she is always generous with hers, trying to put them through the phone (her mother’s turn to be dismayed).  She waves the phone around to show us her dinner or her dolls, and we try not to get dizzy.  Sometimes she will sit and “talk” for awhile—sometimes not saying anything, sometimes chattering away, while we get a steady view of her eyebrows and the top of her head.

During the recent government shutdown, her father came up to visit us and help out for a bit while he was out of work.  When we called to FaceTime, Zippy was ecstatic to suddenly see Daddy on the phone as well.

Shortly after he had returned home to Maryland, the whole family called on FaceTime.  My brother passed the phone to Zippy, who was excited to talk to us, but unhappy that we wouldn’t show her Daddy.  “Zippy see Daddy!” she implored. “I am right here!” my brother laughed behind her.  But Zippy was not placated until Daddy moved around so that she could see his face in the small screen she was holding.  “Daddy! Dere you are!”  she laughed delightedly.

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel a woman is seeking Jesus.  She has had a flow of blood for twelve years; doctors have only made things worse.  And this flow of blood has in turn made her “unclean”—a spiritual outcast, barred from the temple and the touch of other people.

She has heard great things about Jesus and thinks that if she could but touch the hem of His garment, she would be cured.  She moves quietly through the crowd, comes behind Him, and touches His clothing.  Immediately, she realizes she is healed.

Jesus, however, recognizes a deeper desire for connection.  He knows that healing power has gone out of Him, and asks the confused crowd “Who touched me?” 

The woman must then confess; she comes forward, revealing herself and tells what has happened.

“Daughter,” Jesus replies, “Your faith has made you well.”

She had sought merely the restoration of her health. Jesus restores her identity, her relationship with her Father.  “Daughter…”

This deep desire—was it only on the part of the woman? 

It is a central mystery of Christianity that our love, desire, and faith actually begin as God’s initiative toward us.  It is He who first loves us; He who calls us to prayer, who plants the desire in our hearts, who is the source of both our longing and its fulfillment.

 

 

Adam

Photo Credit: Michelangelo, Public Domain

Last Minute–Why?

Growing up, I did not know that Don Bosco was a saint; I thought he was a family friend.  I would hear things like “Don Bosco got Daddy a job” or “Don Bosco helped us pay that bill.”  Friends’ parents shared similar names: Ron, John and my father, Don, gathered together regularly for coffee.  When I heard “Don Bosco” I just added him to the mix.

Saint John Bosco (known popularly as Don Bosco) first came to our attention before my parents were particularly religious.  They were having financial troubles, and his intercession was sought as a “patron saint of unpaid bills.”  I was just a child at the time and so the precise details were hazy, but there was a medical bill that my parents were unable to pay.  As it went to collection with no resources in sight, my grandmother proposed a novena to Saint John Bosco.  Figuring “What can it hurt?” my parents prayed to Don Bosco for nine days.  But on the last day of the novena, an envelope arrived from a mail order contest for the exact amount of the bill!

Answers like this appeared throughout my childhood, and then into adulthood.  Time after time, Saint John Bosco came through, often at the very last minute.  This followed the pattern of his own lifetime, of last-minute miracles.  He started an Oratory for troubled boys in Turin, but there was not often an excess of funds.  More than once, he sat the boys down for dinner with nothing to feed them with.  Then, suddenly, there would be a knock on the door with a last-minute donation of food.

Other times Don Bosco seems to have been granted miracles of multiplication.  One such story is recounted by Francis Dalmazzo, who had decided after just a few days to leave the Oratory, and had even sent for his mother to come and get him.  But that morning, he witnessed a few rolls become enough to feed the four hundred boys.  As each boy received his roll, there was another in its place for the next boy, until all had eaten—and in the basket Francis saw the original few rolls still there.  He told his mother that he had decided to stay after all. 1

Last-minute miracles took many forms.  There were death-bed conversions, including that of the man who had spent his life in opposition to Don Bosco’s work.  There was the time when St. John Bosco seemed too late—a boy in the Oratory had died without making a good Confession.  Don Bosco raised him from the dead, and the boy received the sacraments.  There was the time he wanted to build a basilica to Mary Help of Christians—to whom he had entrusted all his needs and work.  He gave the astonished architect a down payment of eight cents, promising that “Mary would build her own basilica.”2  We visited that Basilica on a Frassati pilgrimage in 2010.

It is easy to admire a saint for such radical trust in God.  Real-time waiting and last-minute rescues, however, do not make for an anxiety-free life.  I often wished that as an intercessor, Don Bosco would not wait until that last minute.  And sometimes it seemed that his idea of last-minute went well beyond mine.  Other times he didn’t seem to answer my prayers at all.

I am not going to lie—there have been times when I was tempted to move Saint John Bosco to my other listSaint.Joseph for one, is a lot more prompt… And then I wonder just why John Bosco is in my life to begin with.  What does this saint have to teach me, in particular about last-minute answers?  About trusting in Providence?  About waiting?

In the Gospels Jesus tells the strange story of a persistent widow, who hounds a judge until he gives her justice.  Jesus tells us to imitate her tenacity when asking favors of God.  He also tells the story of a man who wakes up his friend in the middle of the night to ask for bread for a visitor.  The friend responds, not out of friendship, but because he wants the knocking to stop.

These are not appealing images.  Most of us go out of our way NOT to be a nuisance, not to impose on others.  Yet Jesus tells us to keep asking past the point of feeling comfortable about continuing.

The vision of God that this parable proposes does not seem at first to be any more appealing.  Why would He insist that we ask, repeatedly, when as Jesus tells us, He already knows what we need?  Does He really demand that our petitions reach critical mass before deigning to reply?  Is it only when we’ve worn ourselves (and Him) out like the judge that He is reluctantly persuaded to give us what we ask? 

We know theologically that God is good.  We know from Scripture that “it is your Father’s desire to give you the kingdom.”  But from the first sin in the Garden, our lived faith in His goodness is shaky.  But Jesus wants us to call on and trust the Father.

Don Bosco was a father to the boys in Turin, and later to the Salesian order.   He first attracted the boys by performing magic tricks to get their attention, but ultimately they stayed because they experienced his personal love and care for each of them.  They learned first to trust in him, and in his fatherly love for them.  His fatherly care and provision of their earthly needs pointed always and ultimately to the heavenly Father.

 

Saint John Bosco
Feast Day January 31st

 

Notes:

1 http://www.salesians.org.za/index.php/bi-centenary/25-don-bosco-miracles-in-his-life

2 http://www.donboscowest.org/saints/donbosco

Image credit: Unspecified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Holding Heaven

“I’m holding heaven in my arms tonight!” the lyrics of an old country song came unbidden, as I gazed down at the little one cradled softly in my arms. The afternoon sun highlighted the perfect features of a tiny face, illuminating like a halo the downy hair peaking from beneath a newborn cap.  The baby girl’s name was Caeli, from the Latin word for heavens.

*            *            *

Her mother Regina and I were born just eleven days apart, and were best friends from the age of seven, when I convinced her to walk home with me from school one day.  I had her wait outside while I asked my mother if she could come over to play.  “Who is Regina?” my mother asked.  “The girl standing in our driveway…!”  She wouldn’t have to ask again, as Regina quickly became a permanent fixture in my life.

Three decades later, we were still the best of friends, but no longer shared a school or a zip code.  I was single, with my New York City work and shoebox apartment.  Regina and her husband had a house in the country, shared with eight young children.  I visited when I could, to entertain them with stories and give them sugar highs.

As I had every other time, I shared Regina’s enthusiasm when she announced that she was expecting again, due in the summer of 2014.  But then I shared her devastation, when, as the pregnancy progressed, there came sobering news.

Tests showed signs of anomalies, and more tests were suggested, followed by more doctor visits and somber consultations.  Eventually the fears were given a name: it was believed that the baby, to be named Caeli, had both Trisomy 18 and spina bifida. 

While spina bifida brought challenges that could be reduced or corrected by surgery, Trisomy 18 was more serious and life threatening.  An extra chromosome 18 brought with it high risk factors—only half of these babies live to be born, and only ten percent of those live past the first year.  Those who survived often had heart defects and/or damage to other organs, and ongoing health risks.  In fact, the specialist to which Regina and her husband Erik went for help refused to treat them, saying that there was no point. 

We began to pray a 54-day rosary novena for a miracle.  The miracle was Doctor Elvira Parravicini.    Dr. Parravicini was a Catholic neonatologist working at Columbia Hospital, who had begun a program especially for families in such situations.  She had come to New York at the suggestion of Monsignor Guissani, founder of Communion and Liberation

For her, to follow Christ in such a situation was to “follow” the child: that is, to respond to the needs of the child, including not only medical needs but also the need to be welcomed and loved, even if for a painfully short while.  In Caeli’s case, Dr. Parravicini met with the parents to provide good prenatal care, and to be prepared for surgery (necessary within 72 hours) should the baby require it.  She also arranged for the other children, Caeli’s siblings, to be at the hospital the day of delivery, so that they could meet and welcome her. 

Early on the morning of June 18th, Regina began procedures to induce labor, with Erik at her side.  Her brother, a priest, brought her mother and the other children awhile later, and staff provided activities for them while they awaited Caeli’s arrival. 

Across the city I waited anxiously, begging God for a miracle, that Caeli be healed and be allowed to live.  I don’t know that I have ever prayed harder for a miracle, as if I could move heaven with intensity alone.

Regina had gone into labor early that morning, but hours later I had heard nothing.  I tried to work, but was too distracted.  Finally, I sought refuge in the Church of St. Monica nearby.  I prayed to every saint I could think of.  And then out of desperation, I prayed to the future St. Caeli.  I knew that God is outside of time, and that Caeli was likely be a saint soon and always, and so I implored her help, too.

Just then, kneeling there in the front of the church, I was surprised by a peal of girlish laughter.  I felt this laughter rather than heard it—it is hard to explain what I even mean by that.  It was too real to deny, and yet beyond the realm of the normal.  But I was simultaneously sure of two things: that is was Caeli’s laughter, and that it was a laugh of perfect joy.  At once my anxieties fled and I knew that all was well; I couldn’t contain my own joy.

Later I would wonder at the timing.  It was shortly thereafter that I received the waited-for text, and I crossed town to Columbia as fast as city traffic would allow. 

But the little girl that they placed in my arms was too still.  There was no movement of breath; no tiny heartbeat as I held her close.  I saw Regina’s face etched with pain, as she lay in her hospital bed. 

Little Caeli had lived for just under half an hour.  She had been baptized by Dr. Parravicini, and then confirmed by her uncle, and all her siblings were gathered around singing the Regina Caeli as she moved from our world to the next.

If I was surprised by my earlier joy, I was more surprised by the magnitude of my grief.  Why?  I knew that even though it wasn’t the answer I wanted, that Caeli was in heaven, in perfect joy.  So why such pain?   As I prayed once again, I realized that my grief too was a gift.

I stood with Jesus at the side of the tomb where Lazarus was buried.  He too, knew the ending—better than I.  But He wept.  Not because of the power of death—which He would defeat; but rather, because of the power of life, which He gave and so loved.

And I found myself back further, at the dawn of time, when God looked over creation and said, “It is good.”  Then when He created humanity, He said: “It is very good.”  This pronouncement came before any human activity or achievements; before love could be earned or reciprocated.  It was God’s delight and love for human life itself.

“You can’t explain beauty, but your heart recognizes it, intercepts it…” said Dr. Parravicini.1  For a few minutes we were invited to heaven.  Invited to see with the eyes of a Father, to love with a Father’s heart, the matchless beauty of a human person.

Caeli was loved into existence.  The love which she received and mirrored was already perfect.  God had nothing more to ask of her, no further mission to accomplish than to witness to heaven. 

St. Caeli, pray for us.

Caeli Philomena June 18, 2014

 

Notes:

1From a 2012 blog post by Rev. Robert O’Connor on Dr. Parravicini.  The formatting has since become compromised but I strongly recommend reading it in its entirety—it may well be one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.

Two Minutes

We were thrilled when my little niece Zippy first began to speak in words we could understand.  From baby babble emerged the first recognizable vocabulary: “Mamma”; “Dadda”; “’nanna (banana)” and “shoes.”  However, when she said, early and audibly, “Two minutes!” we were both greatly surprised and greatly amused.

At age two Zippy still says “Two minutes!” and it is clear that while she has mastered the pronunciation, the actual meaning of the phrase still eludes her.  At times, she recognizes it as a stall tactic.  “Zippy, can I please have my phone back?” I ask.  “Two minutes!” Zippy replies, meaning I must wait.  However,  “Zippy talk two minutes!” means “Zippy wants the phone, NOW, this minute.”  She will ask to hear a song: “One!” by which she means, “One after another,” and listening for “Two minutes!” in that situation translates as “indefinitely…”

In general, the concept of time is confusing if not meaningless to two year-olds.  “I will be back tomorrow” does not console her; she throws herself on the floor, bereft.  (Yes, I am that cool).  “Later” is just a code word for “no.”  And she certainly doesn’t understand “this is not the time to sing” when she breaks out into “Baby Shark” during the Christmas homily, particularly when such a large crowd has gathered to hear her performance.

If the concept of human time is puzzling to toddlers, the concept of God’s timing is equally puzzling to us, even as adults.  I confess that when God says “Wait!” I do not always react well. 

I remember in college that God promised that a particular prayer intention would be answered, but that I must wait.  I thought, “Okay, I have a few minutes.”  Eighteen years later, His answer exceeded my expectations, but I learned the hard way that His time-frame did too.

Even now, I too am tempted to tantrums when God says, “Wait.”  I find myself bereft when He seems absent, wondering if I will ever seem Him again.  And when I pray for solutions to the problems of life, and they don’t come quickly enough, I wonder if He is listening.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is preaching in a synagogue in Capernaum when he is interrupted by a snarky demon.  “I know who you are…the holy one of God!” declares the demon.  Jesus first silences him, then drives him out.  “Quiet!  Come out of him!”  Jesus commands in Mark 1:24.

Why doesn’t Jesus want the crowd to hear this declaration?  A few verses later, in Mark 1:34, we again hear of Jesus specifically preventing the demons from revealing his identity: “He healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was.”

If Jesus has come to reveal His identity as the Son of God, why silence the demons?  Or perhaps a more interesting question: What would the demons have to gain by revealing it? 

It is the mystery of timing again.  God’s timing is perfect.  Patience is a virtue that we do well to cultivate.  But more importantly, the mystery of timing reveals another mystery: that the Christian life is about relationship, not results.

The answer to Jesus’ identity is not a bit of trivia, or even a theological proposition to answer correctly on an exam.  We come to know Him as He is WITH US (Emmanuel again).  Jesus wants the people to come to know God as revealed by His person, not just as a match to their expectations. 

His healings, His miracles, His teachings, and ultimately His gift of self on the Cross and in the Eucharist, reveal to us the face of God.  It is encounter that teaches us, and encounter that changes us. 

We need to hear Him say, to the leper within, “I do will—be healed.”  We need to experience the gaze of the loving eyes which behold the sinful woman weeping at his feet, to hear him say, as to the woman caught in adultery “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and sin no more.”  We need to watch Him calm the storms without and within; to cast out demons and welcome back outcasts; to feed with a new Manna that is both Presence and Promise.

We want to rush ahead to the solution, to the answer: Who is this guy preaching in the synagogue? What does He plan to do to/for us?  But Jesus wants us to experience His presence.  To walk with Him, to listen, to question, to learn not only His message but His heart.

*            *            *

Over Christmas vacation I take Zippy on a walk to the library.  It is a two-minute walk if one goes directly.  But there is so much to experience along the way: leftover snow to touch, steps to climb up and down, puppies to shriek at delightedly and try to pet.  She wants to see her breath in the air; she wants to see what is in the half-frozen puddle in the driveway; she wants to pick up pebbles and watch them dance as she throws them on the path.  She wants to run and then be carried and then put down so she can meander down the sidewalk.  If we don’t make it all the way to the library; that’s okay.  Life is short.  Just two minutes.

How Many Loaves Do You Have? Go and See!

“Give them some food yourselves.”—Mark 6:37

At the beginning of today’s Gospel, we get a glimpse into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  “When Jesus saw the vast crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.”  As He teaches, their hunger grows, in more ways than one.  And soon it is “late.”

The disciples see the physical hunger of the crowd as a problem, and want both the problem and the people to go away.  “Dismiss them…so they can go and buy themselves something to eat,” they urge Jesus.

Jesus surprises them, instead saying: “Give them some food yourselves.”  They are stunned.  “Are we to buy 200 days wages worth of food and give them something to eat?”

He asks them, “”How many loaves do you have?  Go and see.”

It is important not to rush past this question.  Having read the spoilers, we know the answer: five loaves and two fish.  And we know what Jesus will do, and how the more than five thousand will be fed that day, and how there will even be twelve baskets of food left over.

But let us ponder for a moment this command and question of Jesus.  It is not enough for Jesus that His disciples hear His words as a message to be learned and taught.  Rather, He wishes for them to share in His heart, in His mission.  Nor can they pray from a safe distance for God to “take care of” the issue.  They are to be an integral part of His work.

First, however, they must come face to face with their inadequacy.  What do they have to offer? “Go and see.”  They are to encounter, concretely, their own inability to provide for the people.  On their own, they do not have what it takes.  They need God to work.  And yet, in the mystery of salvation, God calls them (and us) to cooperate with His work.  Our own experience of poverty does not exempt us from mission.  Humility rather makes room for God to work, but He nonetheless elevates us, drawing us into His divine mission.

The disciples bring the five loaves and two fish to Jesus.  Jesus could have fed the crowd with just one loaf, or with the bread and not the fish.  Or, being God, He could have provided His own loaf and fish.  Instead, He asked that they give what little they had, and all that they had. 

God invites us to experience our poverty, our nothingness—but then asks us to give anyway.  He loves us in our poverty, but doesn’t leave us there: He invites us to make a gift of what we have—all of it.  Sometimes we object because it seems too much.  But just as often, we object because it seems too little.

We prefer grandiose gestures, which make us look or feel good.  When God invites us to give lesser things, we balk.

Caryll Houselander writes of the woman who had a great desire to sacrifice her life to God as missionary martyr to cannibals, and was disgruntled that He never took her up on her offer.  But she was unwilling to offer God the sufferings of her infirmities and old age. 

“I knew once the primmest old invalid lady who could well have offered her helplessness to God, but she had a grievance against Him because He had not permitted her to be eaten by a cannibal for the Faith; she could not accept herself as a sick woman, but she would have achieved heroic virtue as a cutlet!” (Reed of God, p. 50)

We like to think of our saints as superheroes. But Saint Therese of Lisieux was by all accounts so “boring” that her fellow sisters feared there would be nothing to write in her obituary.  Hers was not a life of great deeds, but of great love. She offered to God the smallest of things—and all things—with this love, and in so doing became a great saint.  She was aware of her poverty and weakness and littleness, and so made room for God to act in her life in very big ways.

Father Walter Cizek, on the other hand, lived a life of remarkable strength and courage.  He became a priest, and then went to Russia as a secret missionary.  His daily life there was one of marked suffering, even before he was arrested (accused as a spy) and imprisoned; he was tortured, and later sent the Gulag in Siberia.  The details of his sufferings are astounding, and can only be called heroic.  Yet for Father Cizek, the defining moment of his life, his “conversion,” was a moment of abject failure.

While imprisoned he was subject to routine torture in a effort to get him to make a false confession.  He was determined to resist; determined to outwit his captors; determined if necessary to die for Christ.  Instead he capitulated and signed.

He was devastated; it was a moment of “great darkness” as he confronted his failure, his poverty, the realization that he did not in fact “have what it takes.”  Then suddenly grace gave birth to profound freedom, as he realized that it was precisely his weakness that God was asking of Him.  He had been relying on His own strength; henceforth he would trust completely in God’s will.

Very few of us will be called in the next twenty-four hours to make heroic offerings to God. Yet each of us is invited into the heart of Christ, to give what we have at His asking.  To begin with that first step in trust—to put bread into that first pair of hands, and then another, and then another.  To watch with reverent awe as God multiplies our poverty into abundance.

Image credit: Marten van Valckenborch [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons