“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “we have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to have, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples who gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” (Matthew 14:13-21)

multiplication-of-loaves-and-fishes-c-osseman

We live in a world driven by the constant pressure to be “enough”—successful enough, attractive enough, smart enough, athletic enough…the list is endless and can easily be tailored to fit any particular lifestyle.

Much of this pressure is felt externally, as we strive to live up to the ideals imposed on us by society and sometimes even by our loved ones. But it is also felt internally, as we navigate our own personal expectations for the ways we imagine our lives should play out.

It even subtly affects the ways in which we approach God and the spiritual life, as we look to the saints that live among us and have gone before us, and strive to live up to the example set by their lives.

MaximilianKolbe

St. Maximillian Kolbe, who gave his life for a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz August 14, 1941

Of course, this is not all negative. We all need examples and standards towards which we continually strive and against which gauge our own growth. I, for one, need to be  constantly reminded of the Mother Teresa’s, the John Paul II’s and the Maximilian Kolbe’s of the world who continually gave themselves in courageous, self-less love or of the Polycarp’s and Ignatius of Loyola’s, who surrendered themselves wholly and completely to God in trust of his goodness and faithfulness.  Their lives remind me of the woman I am called to become and how urgently I need to continue striving towards this ideal.

But even this striving can become a stumbling block and occasion for sin if it causes us to rely too heavily on our own inner-strength or to despair when that strength proves insufficient. One thing is certain: no one ever became a saint by his or her own will power. To the contrary, self-sufficiency is one thing that absolutely precludes growth in holiness and sanctification. Even St. John of the Cross, who challenges us to strengthen our will to do what is repugnant to nature for the sake of detachment saw in austerities a potential occasion for the sins of self-reliance and pride that ultimately wreck the spiritual life (Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D.).

At the end of the day, holiness is not ultimately about being good enough, strong enough or smart enough to attain to the joys of heaven. It is about surrendering all that we are, all that we have to the Lord, knowing that it cannot help but ben an insufficient offering—both for His glory and our salvation—but trusting all the same that in all things, His grace is sufficient.

This past Sunday’s Gospel reading touches on precisely this theme as in it we find Jesus and his disciples surrounded by thousands of men, women and children who are ravenously hungry after a long day of following Jesus and witnessing his healing. The disciples’ store of food is barely enough to stave off their own hunger, let alone sate the voracious appetite of the massive crowd before them. The people should be sent away, they suggest, so that they might obtain their own food.  There is nothing inherently uncharitable or unkind in their suggestion; it simply makes the best sense of the situation at hand. The crowds face no apparent obstacle in obtaining their own food. Why not let them do so?

Jesus, however, challenges them to deeper place of surrender and trust:  “Bring them here to me,” he says, referring to their paltry resources of fish and bread that will now be offered up for the good of the crowd. He not only calls them to continue serving in the face of their  almost certain exhaustion, but also to give the very little bit they had reserved for themselves in order that the crowds might be fed.

the-miracle-of-the-bread-and-fish-by-giovanni-lanfranco-1620-23The result, as we well know, is miraculous. The five loaves and two fish that would have barely satisfied the hunger of the disciples are transformed to exceed the hunger of the thousands there, yielding twelve baskets full of scraps once all have been satisfied. God, we see, is able to take our offerings—however feeble—and make of them an abundance that redounds not only to his glory, but also to our blessing.

But look carefully and you will find that an even deeper, more beautiful truth is being presented here. Underlying this account is an undeniable Eucharistic theme evident not only in the miraculous provision of bread, but also in the very language used to describe Jesus’ actions. It is the language of the Last Supper: He takes the bread, looks up to heaven, blesses it, breaks and gives it to those who are there.

Could Jesus have provided miraculously for the crowds there without the food of the disciples? Undoubtedly. But the sacrificial participation of the disciples through that provision was vital for their own sake. The surrender of their paltry portion exemplifies the very detachment to which Logan enjoined us last Friday. They gave up their small, coveted sustenance in surrender to Him, simply because He asked them to do so.

However the ultimate value of that surrender lay not in the sacrifice itself, nor even in the detachment by which it was offered, but rather in what the Lord was able to do through it in their own lives and those of the people there. He was able to make of it an abundance that far exceeded the expectations of even the most faithful and nourished not only the people there, but also Christians throughout the ages, for we feed on it spiritually even today.

In this light we see that the disciples’ apparently paltry offering prefigures our own participation in the paschal mysteries celebrated the Eucharist.  In every Mass we not only offer the timeless sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, which alone is sufficient for our salvation, but we also join with it the sacrifice of our own lives that we might become an acceptable sacrifice to our Lord, “for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and  the good of all His Holy Church.”

In the words of Fr. Johannes Emminghaus: “In the Eucharist the Church enters into this total self-giving of Christ, and we individually attempt to enter into it as fully as possible.”

Ironically, as we do this we become more painfully aware of the fact that all that we have to offer is insufficient—not only for ourselves and our salvation, but also for His glory and for the good all those around us. We, quite simply, are not enough.

It is the last thing we want to hear, precisely because we live in a world that constantly demands that we be “enough”. But it is a vital step to sanctification, knowing that our hope lies not in our own strength or ability, but in God’s and His abundant and unfailing love. “My grace is sufficient for you,” the Lord told St. Paul, “for power is made perfect in weakness.”

“If we cannot, and should not, expect to reach sanctity by our own power, we should hope to reach it through the strength of Him who is omnipotent, through the infinite mercy of Him who loves to bend over souls aware of their frailty, who loves, as our Blessed Lady said, “to exalt the humble and to fill the hungry with good things” (cf. Lk 1:52, 53). The knowledge of our weakness ought to make us keenly aware of our need for God; indeed, our weakness itself ought to be an incessant cry, begging with complete confidence for His all-powerful aid. The more our soul expands with hope and trust in God, the wider it will open to His sanctifying action. God’s mercy is waiting to come to us, to purify and sanctify us, but it will not come until we open the doors of our heart by an act of complete confidence.” (Dan Burke, Boundless Hope at Spiritual Direction.com)

 

 

Kathleen Durham is a Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author, editor and speaker.