by Benedict Augustine
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass recounts many brutal events about his life as a slave. He endures the worst humiliation and receives countless beatings, and as he writes he gives these events all the gruesome attention they deserve. However, out of the many abuses to which his masters subject him, he saves his most vicious resentment for something unexpected, particularly for a modern reader: hunger. When, in one episode, one master who had a cruel habit of starving his slaves sends Douglass to Mr. Covey, a notorious slave owner who “broke” slaves with relentless scourging, Douglass actually saw that as an improvement, for it at least mean that he could eat.
Living during culture of material prosperity, people today have a difficult time understanding the hardship of physical hunger. Those of us who fasted on the prescribed days of Lent might have a small modicum of what it entails, but not the constant gnawing that afflicts the very poor. Real hunger brings multiple dimensions of suffering, changing a person's whole condition: it weakens him; it depresses him; it silences him. So much of a person's peace of mind rests on how full he feels. When the appetite rages unabated, the hungry man can become utterly desperate, eating anything in sight, or utterly despondent, exerting no effort and choosing to wither away. For this reason, among others, the Church will prescribe fasting as a way to grow in holiness: fasting often exposes what little discipline we have when we have had nothing to eat, and how much of our charity stems from God and not mere comfort. Like most people, I feel quite generous on a full stomach—I even have a habit of singing as I wash the dishes after a good meal—but this ebullience vanishes in the state of hunger. On an empty stomach, my mind drifts; my compassion falters; my hope degenerates into cynical dismissal of everything. Fasting reveals what lurks in my heart, and how much more I need God.
Jesus tells a physically hungry people that he will feed them with spiritual food and slake their thirst with spiritual drink. One can imagine the dismay the crowd must feel at this, especially when they just witnessed him multiplying loaves and fish just the other day. Sensing an opportunity, He uses their hunger to teach a lesson about the soul and its need for sustenance. Jesus insists that they should transcend their physical appetites and instead feed their souls. His miracle of the multiplying the loaves, like his other miracles, was to serve as a symbol of what he does for his disciples on a spiritual level. Yes, a man must eat physical food to sustain his body, but he also must eat spiritual food to sustain his soul. In other words, Jesus desires to move all of us from the worldly diet to the spiritual diet. As it stood, the people whom he addresses, and the world at large, suffered from widespread spiritual malnourishment. They needed the bread of life.
Without Jesus, all men are spiritually hungry, and just as a physically hungry man becomes desperate or despondent, a spiritually hungry man suffers something analogous. In desperation, he may try to consume anything that can fill his soul for a moment, some form of pleasure, some ideology, some elaborate unsustainable lie. He will cling viciously to this spiritual junk food and make it his form of idolatry, carelessly leaving his soul perpetually restless and unsatisfied. Otherwise, he may become despondent, welcoming the emptiness and nihilism that he thinks constitutes reality. He will refuse the bread of life and let his doubt consume him since he decided to consume nothing. Either way, the malnourished soul faces the same end: spiritual starvation.
Jesus tells the hungry disciple that his Father sent Him so “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.” God wants Jesus, His Son, to feed His people, and he wants His people to eat and drink. If they do this, they will have eternal life; if not, they will have eternal death. To eat spiritually, one must come to Him, and to drink spiritually, one must believe in Him. Using the language of food, one could say that cherishing the idols of pride, vanity, and sensuality spoils the spiritual appetite and delays necessary nourishment. We must come to Jesus, the Eucharist, for our meal. In the same way, those who do not believe, those who adopt materialism and skepticism as their mode of life, will grow parched and dry up. Thus, we must believe in Jesus, the living water, to slake our thirst for meaning and purpose.
If we satisfy the hunger and thirst of our souls, we can find joy that one attains after a great meal, except we feel this in an infinitely deeper way. To be physically fed means to bring peace to one's body for a few hours, and to allow for another day of life. To be spiritually fed means to bring peace to one's heart and mind for a lifetime, and to allow for eternal life.
This meditation was written by Benedict Augustine, an English teacher who works in the DFW area. He has taken on the pseudonym, Benedict Augustine, to honor his two favorite Catholic thinkers: St. Augustine and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.