Where did I find you, that I came to know you? You were not within my memory before I learned of you. Where, then, did I find you before I came to know you, if not within yourself, far above me? We come to you and go from you, but no place is involved in this process. In every place, O Truth, you are present to those who seek your help, and at one and the same time you answer all, though they seek your counsel on different matters.
You respond clearly, but not everyone hears clearly. All ask what they wish, but do not always hear the answer they wish. Your best servant is he who is intent not so much on hearing his petition answered, as rather on willing whatever he hears from you.
Late have I loved you, O beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you; now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
When once I shall be united to you with my whole being, I shall at last be free of sorrow and toil. Then my life will be alive, filled entirely with you. When you fill someone, you relieve him of his burden, but because I am not yet filled with you, I am a burden to myself. My joy when I should be weeping struggles with my sorrows when I should be rejoicing. I know not where victory lies. Woe is me! Lord, have mercy on me! My evil sorrows and good joys are at war with one another. I know not where victory lies. Woe is me! Lord, have mercy! Woe is me! I make no effort to conceal my wounds. You are my physician, I your patient. you are merciful; I stand in need of mercy.
Is not the life of man upon earth a trial? Who would want troubles and difficulties? You command us to endure them, not to love them. No person loves what he endures, though he may love the act of enduring. For even if he is happy to endure his own burden, he would still prefer that the burden not exist. I long for prosperity in times of adversity, and I fear adversity when times are good. Yet what middle ground is there between these two extremes where the life of man would be other than trial? Pity the prosperity of this world, pity it once and again, for it corrupts joy and brings the fear of adversity. Pity the adversity of this world, pity it again, then a third time; for it fills men with a longing for prosperity, and because adversity itself is hard for them to bear and can even break their endurance. Is not the life of man upon earth a trial, a continuous trial?
All my hope lies only in your great mercy.
By Deacon Keith Fournier
St. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, died in the year 155 AD, while in his eighties. He was a disciple of St. John, the Evangelist, who walked with the Lord Jesus and authored the fourth Gospel which bears his name.
The Bishops Letter to the Phillipians is a beautiful exposition of the early Christian faith. It also witnesses to the earliest New Testament writings. The account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp gives witness to his heroic death. The Christian Tradition is replete with testimony to his holy life. His Feast is now celbrated in the Roman Canon on February 23d.
Here is an excerpt for the Letter on the Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp by the Church of Smyrna entitled ‘A rich and pleasing sacrifice’:
“When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his clothes and loosened his under-garment. He made an effort also to remove his shoes, though he had been unaccustomed to this, for the faithful always vied with each other in their haste to touch his body. Even before his martyrdom he had received every mark of honour in tribute to his holiness of life.
“There and then he was surrounded by the material for the pyre. When they tried to fasten him also with nails, he said: “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.”
“So they did not fix him to the pyre with nails but only fastened him instead. Bound as he was, with hands behind his back, he stood like a mighty ram, chosen out for sacrifice from a great flock, a worthy victim made ready to be offered to God.
“Looking up to heaven, he said: “Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of powers, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ, your anointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body, immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit.
“May I be received among the martyrs in your presence today as a rich and pleasing sacrifice. God of truth, stranger to falsehood, you have prepared this and revealed it to me and now you have fulfilled your promise. I praise you for all things, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal priest of heaven, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. Through him be glory to you, together with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.”
“When he had said “Amen” and finished the prayer, the officials at the pyre lit it. But, when a great flame burst out, those of us privileged to see it witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. Indeed, we have been spared in order to tell the story to others.”
“Like a ship’s sail swelling in the wind, the flame became as it were a dome encircling the martyr’s body. Surrounded by the fire, his body was like bread that is baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace, not like flesh that has been burnt. So sweet a fragrance came to us that it was like that of burning incense or some other costly and sweet-smelling gum.”
The early martys of the Christian church, beginning with the Deacon Stephen, were so conformed to Jesus Christ that they revealed His Risen life – both in their holy lives of service and in their sacrificial offering of their last breath for the One whom they followed in both life and death. The Greek word translated martyr means witness. We are all called to follow their example as witnesses in every age.
We have been promised that “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is”. By these words, the tongue has done its best; now we must apply the meditation of the heart. Although they are the words of Saint John, what are they in comparison with the divine reality?
And how can we, so greatly inferior to John in merit, add anything of our own? Yet we have received, as John has told us, an anointing by the Holy One which teaches us inwardly more than our tongue can speak. Let us turn to this source of knowledge, and because at present you cannot see, make it your business to desire the divine vision.
The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.
Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room.
By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.
So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Take note of Saint Paul stretching as it were his ability to receive what is to come: Not that I have already obtained this, he said, or am made perfect. Brethren, I do not consider that I have already obtained it. We might ask him, “If you have not yet obtained it, what are you doing in this life?”
“This one thing I do”, answers Paul, “forgetting what lies behind, and stretching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize to which I am called in the life above”. Not only did Paul say he stretched forward, but he also declared that he pressed on toward a chosen goal. He realised in fact that he was still short of receiving what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.
Such is our Christian life. By desiring heaven we exercise the powers of our soul. Now this exercise will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from desires leading to infatuation with this world. Let me return to the example I have already used, of filling an empty container.
God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed. Yes, it must be cleansed even if you have to work hard and scour it. It must be made fit for the new thing, whatever it may be.
We may go on speaking figuratively of honey, gold or wine – but whatever we say we cannot express the reality we are to receive. The name of that reality is God. But who will claim that in that one syllable we utter the full expanse of our heart’s desire? Therefore, whatever we say is necessarily less than the full truth. We must extend ourselves toward the measure of Christ so that when he comes he may fill us with his presence. Then we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
“People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.
When he disembarked and 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. By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.” So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass.
The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to (his) disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate (of the loaves) were five thousand men.
Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake.
He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (St. Mark 6:31-52)
By Deacon Keith Fournier
The first story in this biblical account is familiar, the feeding of the five thousand. It is recorded in all four gospels, emphasizing its significance. The second account immediately follows the feeding of the five thousand in the Gospel of St. Mark.
During the account of the miracle in Mark’s Gospel we are told that the disciples had encouraged Jesus to dismiss the crowd because – from their perspective – they simply could not feed these hungry people, even with two hundred days wages. They did not see the situation with the eyes of living faith. However, Jesus did – and He wants all who bear His name to learn to walk by the light of that faith.
In His Sacred Humanity, Jesus was moved with compassion for the crowd. The Greek root of the word means “to suffer with”. The disciples viewed the matter as a “problem”. They approached it through a lens of economic scarcity. Jesus understood the economy of heaven. The question He asks of all of us is – do we?
Jesus asked the disciples a simple question: “what do you have?” They did not understand. They had been invited to participate in God’s work by simply giving what they had in a Holy Exchange. When they finally did, Jesus used the matter given by men, five loaves and two fish, to manifest the manna of heaven.
The next day the instruction and the experience continued. We find them in the boat fishing. We find Jesus praying. Their placement in the “boat” in the story was a favorite image for the early church fathers, seen as a figure of the ark of the Old Covenant and the ark of the New Covenant, which is the Church.
It is this Church, this communion of persons joined in Jesus through Baptism, that He came to found and over which He would later install these men. Through them He would continue His redemptive mission. But first they had to “understand about the loaves”. This kind of understanding only comes from “communion” with the Father. It is the fruit of a living, dynamic and authentic faith.
Jesus invited the disciples to believe that when they have Him, they have everything. Yet, here in a storm, they fled to the familiar, the fear of the circumstances. So powerful were their fears that they prevented them from even recognizing God Incarnate as He passed right before them! They thought He was a ghost!
How crippling our own fears can become when we do not commune in prayer but rely on ourselves and our mere human effort. They had not “understood about the loaves”. Do we? We will live the way we love.
Faith is a light that is to preside over our entire lives, even during those storms that inevitably come. When it does, we see Jesus right there in the midst of the storm. We come to experience authentic peace, even in apparent turmoil and we learn to navigate the waters of daily life.
The Lord heard the cry of the poor as it issued from the mouths of his own disciples and He spoke these beautiful words: “Take Courage it is I: Don’t Be Afraid”. Today, let us hear these words and come to “understand the loaves”.