July 26, 2009
17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
I’ve been thinking about the boy in the Gospel today, the one with the five loaves and the two fishes. Jesus could have made it rain fishes and loaves that day, but he didn’t.
He used what was there, in that ordinary moment. He took that one meager basket and that one unsuspecting boy and made them both miraculous.
We keep thinking that spiritual things have to be purely spiritual in some sort of extraordinary, unearthly way, and that we do, too. Choirs of angels all the time. Constant self-denial. But grace builds on nature. It begins in the world. As Thomas Merton puts it, most of us are “warped by the idea that everything spontaneous is ‘merely natural’ and that for a work to be supernatural it has to go against the grain, it has to frustrate and disgust us.” But the truth is quite different. We have to overcome our selfish desires. But once we do, Merton says, “we set free our interior, Godlike self,” and we are able to love God and others just as we are.
We are not called to be monks. We are not called to be spiritual athletes. We don’t have to spend all our time in Church doing Churchy things. Our call is to be the best dental hygienists we can be, the best store managers, the best engineers. “What good” are these fishes and loaves, the disciples ask? What good are the ordinary things of our lives? And Jesus says: they are good and they are very good.
The other day when it was so hot Barb and I took our two new grandsons to the Aquatic Center, to the outdoor pool. We were pretty tired, and we’re still a little nervous about being grandparents, but it was tremendous fun. There were hundreds of people there, and the sun was pouring down, and the water was beautiful and blue. The kids swam and we swam, and sitting in a chair drying off and reading a book, I was for a moment filled with the gentle presence of God.
I hadn’t journeyed to some shrine. I hadn’t performed some tremendous spiritual feat. I’d just put on my swimsuit. Gotten in my Honda.
We don’t go to mass to be made holy but to be shown that we already are, or can be. We are all the little boy, we are all carrying the little basket, and the fishes and the loaves are the things of our lives. And we bring them up the aisle, and they are taken up to the altar, and we are made to know what they are inside: holy and beautiful and good.
But there’s a flip side to this, a paradox. On the one hand we are good enough and more than enough. But on the other, we aren’t and never will be. Our baskets are meager, they’ll never be enough, and we just have to accept that.
I know that all the numbers in the gospel today have symbolic significance--the five loaves, the two fishes, the five thousand men, the twelve wicker baskets. But what strikes me is just that they are numbers. What they represent to me is how we all try to control our lives. We count and we measure and we add things up as if by just trying we can earn God’s grace. But we can’t.
It happens a lot in the spiritual life. A person starts out experiencing sweetness and consolation in prayer, and that’s good and to be trusted. But a kind of spiritual pride can also creep in. We can start to think that we’re really hot stuff spiritually. And then the desert happens. It inevitably happens. It always does. The well runs dry. The person enters a period of desolation, a long period, a period that can last for years, and after a while she drops out and gives up.
But really the desolation is a grace, it’s a gift, because it shows us that we’re not the ones who make things happen. We’re not in charge. What desolation demonstrates, St. Ignatius says, is that “it is not within our power to acquire or retain great devotion, ardent love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all of this is a gift and grace of God our Lord.” What desolation demonstrates is that we shouldn’t “claim as our own what belongs to another, allowing our intellect to rise up in a spirit of pride or vainglory, attributing to ourselves the devotion or other aspects of spiritual consolation.”
When I did the thirty day Ignatian retreat a few years ago, on the coast, I read scripture and prayed in silence all day. You should have seen me. I was pretty hot stuff myself for a while, a real spiritual athlete, conversing with the angels. But then I crashed and burned, nothing was working, I was starting to go a little crazy, and my director said, take a break, go into town.
And sitting in an empty multiplex in Lincoln City, watching Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, I was suddenly flooded with joy. Giant alien machines were destroying the earth, creatures from another planet were sucking the blood out of everyone, and there I was, blissfully happy, eating popcorn. In the midst of all the explosions and special effects, the Lord was with me, he was powerfully present. There in the multiplex. In Lincoln City.
And that’s the point and that’s the proof.
Think of it: how do we know that we’re not making all this up? How do we know that it’s God we’re encountering? Exactly because grace comes and goes. As Thomas Green puts it, paraphrasing St. John of the Cross: “the best proof that it is really God is that he is often absent when we seek him, and present when we are not seeking him.”
If religion were just the opiate of the masses, if I were just manufacturing God to make myself feel better, I’d produce him on the spot.
But it doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t.
And isn’t that marvelous? Isn’t it wonderful?
Desolation shouldn’t just humble us. It should exalt us. It should lift us up. Because then, when the joy comes, when the sun pours down and the kids are shouting in the pool, when the alien machines start destroying the earth, we can simply rejoice and be glad. Because we know: it’s not us! It’s not us! We’re just a boy with a basket. We just happen to be here, on the mountain. We didn’t plan anything. We didn’t do anything. And so when there’s this peace and this joy, we know, we know, it’s the Lord who is sending it, it’s the Lord who is with us. He lives! He is real!
And suddenly there’s enough and more than enough. Suddenly we are overflowing. Suddenly where there was scarcity there’s abundance, where there was fear there is hope, there is grace, there is grace abounding.