August 2009

True Bread of Life ©

When I dedicated my life to Jesus, I began to get fat. I know that sounds counterintuitive. Research tells us that, on average, people of faith are healthier than the norm. Still, I gained weight.

I am not blaming Jesus, nor am I making this public confession as a form of therapy. I mention this as a kind of metaphor.

Returning to the faith of my youth coincidentally came at mid-life, when many of us begin to cast a wider shadow. For me, much of the weight gain had to do with bad eating habits—eating on the run, skipping meals and then consuming excess quantities of sweet and fatty foods.

A few years ago, I got the message that life in this world is not for ever, contrary to the myth of adolescence and even early adulthood. At the same time, I became more conscious of the importance of nutrition. I also became aware that taking care of myself was perhaps the most direct way of saying thank you to God for life and wellbeing.

But still, I kept gaining weight, and as I got older, it was harder to lose those unsightly handles. So, where is the metaphor?

Our spiritual life is a bit like our physical one. In the prime of life, we are sponges that absorb all the information that surrounds us. The teachings that we learned at home and at church become diluted by the fast-food smorgasbord of the world at large. We voraciously consume ideas and values because they all seem delicious. We do so without reflection or discernment, because it is all happening so fast. Besides, by now we have lost our capacity to know what is healthy or even what will make us unwell.

As if that’s not bad enough, there is even worse news. If we regain the capacity to distinguish between what is good for us and what is not, and the demand for healthy ideas grows, our addiction to bad choices remains.

We see this all the time among the faithful. We welcome the word of God but welcome at the same time opportunities to snack on other influences. We say yes to God but cannot say no to the world. We cannot deny our curiosity for exotic ideas, even manifestly dangerous ones, and we cannot break our patterns of compulsive behaviour.

Our condition clearly points to the need for constant prayer and for God’s grace to heal our woundedness and compensate for our weakness. But it is even more an argument for becoming more aware of how vulnerable we are when we assume that all ideas can coexist and live coherently in one person. Like the body, the mind can contain toxins that destroy vital nutrients.

The Gospel of Saint John contains a long passage on the bread of life. This is where the two parts of my long introduction come together. We all need bread to live. For that reason, bread is also a symbol of what the human spirit needs to survive and thrive.

Crowds would gather to hear what Jesus had to say. His speech was compelling. His message, although sometime disturbing, was immediately understood to be important. People did not tire of listening and sought him out even while he rested in order to absorb more of his good news.

The crowds, the disciples and the apostles were right to pay attention to his message. Jesus confessed, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever lives in me will never be thirsty.” The question for us today is this, “Do we believe that to be true?”

I can only speak for myself. And I readily admit that I have behaved most of my life as though I said yes in prayer but was not so sure the rest of the time. I have spoken of my love for this bread. I have tasted and seen the goodness of it. And I do so today with deep conviction.

But I have also binged on other food as though somehow I could not resist its temptation or even that I did not trust that this bread is sufficient. The hunger of which Jesus speaks is truth and the thirst is for love, both vital for the survival of eternal life.

“Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (Jn 6: 32-33)

In this gospel, Jesus asks—in effect—“Do you trust me? Do you truly believe that what I say and what I do are all that you need?” How would you answer this question? Make no mistake, he is asking.

The problem is that we find it hard to trust. Our woundedness and vulnerability frighten us and expose us to grave danger. They cause us to hoard power, possessions and a chaotic mixture of ideas—just in case. Our closets are full to overflowing, and our attic and garage too, and so are our mind and our heart.

A theologian that I really like wrote a book a few years ago in which he introduces the term “the split soul.” He deals with this very issue in writing about two worlds, secular and religious. As he points out, we have two worlds, two languages and two minds.

No wonder we find it hard to be coherent. No wonder we avoid thinking things through because we would face a profound dilemma each time.

Not only are the values and ideas different but so are the styles. In the secular world, for example, competition, even confrontation, are seen as virtues, because they somehow help us to make better decisions about policies, products and projects. Winners and losers are part of the natural order. In the religious world, we presumably are more collegial, loving and forgiving—well, that’s the theory at least.

So to cope with this ambivalence, we form sub-personalities, behaving according to different norms in different circumstances. In other words, we come to act as though the bread that Jesus offers—indeed that he embodies—is perfect in some environments but quite inadequate and even embarrassing in others.

So our world is split and so is our soul. The problem is even more acute than that. The fact is that the world is much more powerful in influencing our attitude and behaviour than the word of God. God can wait until our next trip to church, but the world won’t wait.

For this reason, we must be aware of this imbalance in our lives, more aware of God’s word to provide a healthy diet, and sometimes the incompatibility of secular and religious views. Sometimes the facts force us to make hard choices.

Hear again the words of the Apostle Paul, “Brothers and sisters…you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. That is not the way you learned Christ!…You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the sprit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the New Man, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

We all have choices to make. Either the good news that Jesus speaks to us every week is true or it is not. If it is, it calls us to act accordingly. To do so, we must reflect on our lives, on our priorities, on our attitudes and on our behaviour.

You may ask, why go to the effort and grief. The answer is very simple. True bread brings true joy. It is the building block of a healthy body, mind and heart. Whoever meditates upon the word of God will never hunger for truth; whoever lives by the word of God will never thirst for love.