I don’t know about you, but I love food. I love cooking a great meal for family and friends, but I love eating good food more than just about any other blessing that this life has to offer. During times when I have fasted, I have a hard time abstaining from food. Going without food for even half a day is a challenge for a lot of us, because we feel the effects of low blood sugar, we get cranky, our stomach aches for nourishment and eventually we just give in and feed ourselves. There are other times, however, when we are spiritually hungry for much longer than a day, much longer than a year in some cases.
Spiritual food is as much a necessity of life as meat or vegetables, or coffee (speaking for myself). By spiritual food, I mean anything that fulfills us spiritually, heals us emotionally, fuels us psychologically, or otherwise keeps us alive to God and to others and to the abundance surrounding us. For example, if someone tells you they want to be just like you when they grow up, or if someone writes you a thank you note from the heart—those are examples of spiritual food. Sometimes we are nourished in the warm embrace of a friend, or the smile of someone who cares, or even in the tears of someone who can relate to what we are experiencing.
Good books are spiritual food and having friends reading the same book at the same time, sharing insights and ideas makes the reading even more efficacious and nourishing. And of course, whenever we open ourselves to God in prayer; whenever we set aside quiet time to meditate, to speak to God and listen to God—that’s spiritual food. Even to sit in a beautiful garden and drink in the beauty of the flora and hear the birds singing can be very refreshing.
Of course, our primary spiritual meal of the week is Sunday Mass, and a good worship experience is a combination of both the sacrificial and the sacramental. We come together as community because we are not individuals struggling to find God on our own, we are the family of Christ. We bring everything we are: our brokenness, our joys, our praise, needs and offerings—all of it as a gift to God. We receive sacramental things such as the presence of God’s word in the readings, the sharing of the peace, and the Body and Blood of Jesus. All of this is meant to be our spiritual food.
The only reason people go church shopping is because they are spiritually hungry. Many acknowledge an emptiness they feel within, a sense that they aren’t being fed in some important way. Some search for a long time before they find a spiritual home where they feel fed.
There is a lot of research that seems to indicate that one of the most important things people hunger for in churches is strong friendships. I met with a Roman Catholic man not too long ago and he told me he had a attended a local Catholic parish for 3 years and not once did anyone greet him, ask him his name or invite him to lector or participate in any way in the life of the parish. He left that parish in search of something better.
Other people, like myself, are fed by church music, and will go to a church because of the choir or the hymn-singing; others are looking for praise music with rhythm and clapping and body movement. Others are uplifted by extended periods of quiet, or directed meditation, and that, to them, is wonderful spiritual food.
The question to ask ourselves is: “Am I being fed? Am I getting what I need to stay alive and thrive spiritually? And if not, why not?”
Jesus miraculously helps Peter and the others to find an abundant supply of fish, and although Jesus is the locus through which the miracle occurs, he is only manifesting for them the abundance of God. After Jesus feeds the men, he tells them to do the same, telling Peter, “Feed my sheep.” The message is so important that he makes the statement three times. It’s not enough to simply seek nourishment for ourselves, we are called to step outside ourselves and share God’s abundance with others.
This poses a potential problem: If we are expected to feed others, how can we make sure that we are receiving enough for ourselves so that we have something to share? It is obvious that in helping others on their spiritual journey, we can only share the road to the point where we ourselves have arrived. We can’t reasonably expect to guide someone into territory where we have never been.
So there must be a balance, within each of us, between input and output. Not enough spiritual input, and we will have nothing to give; if we try to keep giving and giving, without replenishing ourselves, we’ll end up burned out and resentful and we will lose our way. So it’s okay for those of us who want to be helpful to others to take some time for ourselves. We need a break sometimes. We need to seek out refreshment and nourishment. Others of us may be unbalanced in the other direction: too much input and not enough output. We fill ourselves with Word and Sacrament, good books and workshops, but then we neglect to share our gifts with others around us. We don’t want to commit to anything outside ourselves and in our pride, we fool ourselves into thinking we have arrived at this place all on our own, so others can just do the same.
So we come back to the question: “Am I being fed?” As the miracle of the fishing expedition shows us, there is always abundant nourishment available. Isn’t it also interesting that the disciples themselves, although they have seen exactly what Jesus can do, are constantly amazed when he comes through for them? They cry out that they are lacking in some way and he always provides them with God’s abundance—until the next crisis, when they cry out about not having enough! They don’t get it! They don’t fully trust him, and that’s why they are constantly amazed when he comes through for them. Of course, you and I can relate to that lack of trust in God. We often doubt that God will really provide, so we try to play it safe, try to maintain tight control over our resources and our time, and as a result, we miss out on spiritual sustenance.
Perhaps the most difficult life-lesson we have to learn, is that God consistently provides–no matter what. When we finally stop running from our responsibilities to our sisters and brothers and learn to trust that God will provide, all will be well, according to Divine Order. I’ve known people who, for years, have complained that they don’t know God’s plan for them, they don’t know what they believe about God and faith and church, and when I ask them what they’ve done to try and resolve their questions, they just look at me with a blank stare. Suddenly, I understand the problem. They have nothing to say because they’ve elected to do nothing to feed themselves or to answer their questions. They’re waiting for some Aging White Dude to get off his throne, come down from the clouds, knock on their door, and hand them the equivalent of a teacher’s edition textbook—the one with all the answers printed in the margins. So their blank stare is an admission that they are more comfortable being unhappy and unfulfilled than taking responsibility for their own lives and answers. It makes as much sense as a starving person standing outside a restaurant serving food, refusing to go in because they not only want food, but they want someone to chew it for them before they put it in their mouth.
For our part, we at Holy Redeemer, offer many ways for people to answer these questions: retreats, prayer services, Masses, sacramental confession and healing, book studies and small group meetings. People who come here are well aware of what we have to offer and, if a person with questions were to speak to any of these people s/he would learn that everyone has the same questions, but that as we process and work through things together, we find answers. That’s the core of our mission. That’s why the parish exists.
When we commit once more to follow Christ more authentically, to embrace God’s abundance created for us, and to share that abundance with all those whom God places in our path, we find others like ourselves. We are all so much the same on a fundamental level, and yet so many of us isolate ourselves from others, thinking that we are surely an exception. Jesus calls us to feed ourselves and to feed others. Uncertainty is part of life, so the next time it appears, let’s remember all those who share this journey with us and reach out to them. Answers are here for the asking, and sometimes we just have to trust that God has not brought us this far just to drop us on our heads.