Everyone has a favorite steakhouse or restaurant with the best complimentary bread. My personal favorite is Lucky’s Steakhouse. Time and time again I find myself scarfing down the entire loaf of their warm, moist, delectable bread before it’s even time to order the main entrée. When the waiter or waitress asks me what I’m having for dinner, I find myself thinking, “I’m not even hungry for dinner anymore, I’m already full!”
I thought of this “tradition” of mine the other day as I was reflecting on the readings from the famous Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Last week we heard of the crowds being fed by the multiplication of the loaves and fish. When the crowd pursued Jesus afterwards, he told them in this week’s portion of the discourse: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (Jn. 6:26). Later, at the request that he give them this bread “always,” Jesus added, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger” (Jn. 6:35).
All of this got me thinking about the number of Catholics who have fallen away from the faith and have joined various Protestant communities. There have been multiple surveys done to poll these individuals, asking them why they left the Catholic Church. The results are noteworthy. According to a Pew Study conducted in 2008 (cited in Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples), those who left the Catholic Church and entered a Protestant community were motivated to do so not mainly for reasons related to the Catholic clergy sex-abuse scandal (that made up for about 21% of those surveyed) nor was it due to their dissent on hot-button issues such as the Church’s teaching on birth control (that was a main reason for only 16% of those surveyed). The number one reason was that individuals felt their “spiritual needs were not being met” (71% of the responses). Another way of wording that response, which I have heard people say and have myself experienced, is: “I did not feel I was being fed.”
Before we write off these complaints as being naïve or selfish, it’s important to sympathize with these sentiments. I have some idea of what someone says when they say, “I just don’t feel like I’m being fed at this church.” Objectively, we are fed by the Bread of Life, Jesus Himself, every time we receive the precious gift of the Eucharist. Whoever comes to Him “will never hunger” but will be “filled,” He tells us. Yet we are also human. Our places of worship, if we’re being honest, do not always help facilitate an encounter with the Divine. I know what it’s like to go to Mass and experience dry homilies, God-awful music, a community of believers who resemble the walking dead, in a church building that looks less-than-inspiring. I can’t say I blame someone who grows up in that kind of environment for feeling as though they were not “being fed.”
However, there is an important question to ask ourselves each time we go to Mass regardless of the type of worship environment we find ourselves in. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself every day recently and it’s a question I want to ask people who have left the Church because they felt they weren’t being fed: Have you been coming to Mass hungry?
In my own life (and, I perceive, in the lives of many 21st century middle-class Americans) I can find it difficult to show up to Mass admitting that I am truly hungering for God. Like my steakhouse “tradition,” I can sometimes show up on Sunday (or daily Mass) to the Heavenly Banquet “already full.” The days where I walk away from Mass feeling as though I wasn’t being fed were often the very days I entered into Mass not feeling I needed God- that I was doing and would continue doing just fine on my own. I felt I wasn’t being fed because I wasn’t showing up hungry.
Conversely, some of the times where I’ve felt the most “fed” by the Bread of Life were those moments where I entered into Mass honestly acknowledging that I was hungry for Him. I’m reminded, for instance, of the times I’ve spent doing missionary work in Honduras. Those were some pretty exhausting days. By the evening I’d be physically spent from all the manual labor, mentally drained from trying to keep up with the foreign language, and spiritually hungry for a sense of belonging and familiarity. We would end our evenings with Mass and I found myself looking forward to it in a way I’d never experienced before. I was coming to the Lord out of a place of near desperation, a place where I could genuinely utter the words: “Lord, I need you.” Not a single homily that week sticks with me now. The chapel was cramped, had a dirt floor, and was filled with bugs. There was no music and there was a stray dog that would constantly walk in and out of the chapel. Yet I truly felt fed every time I left that chapel- rather, I felt “filled.”
If we don’t show up to Mass hungry for the Lord, being conscious of our dependence on Him, able to honestly admit “Lord, I need you,” we should not be surprised when we walk away not feeling like we’d been fed. We won’t have room for the Heavenly Banquet because we were already full from the steakhouse bread. We were already full from our self-reliance, pride, addictions, excessive usage of and dependence on material goods, putting our time, trust, and faith in things other than God, etc.
This is why the Gospels (and, consequently, the Church) exhorts disciples of the Lord Jesus to a life of ever-greater simplicity and self-denial. This is so important for those of us who are living fairly comfortable lives. It is in moments when we experience the depths of our own poverty (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) that we begin to taste of the riches of the Bread of Life. It is in having things stripped away that we find ourselves longing for the Constant who remains with us through all we endure. Hospital patients are overjoyed when extraordinary ministers show up with communion because, as one patient once shared with me, “I truly will need Jesus to get through this day.” Our brothers and sisters in the Middle East risk their lives to receive their “daily bread” because they have a greater awareness than we of not knowing whether they will live to see the next day.
What caused the Prodigal Son to journey back to his father? After he’d squandered his inheritance, “a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need.” In the face of utter depravity, “he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed.” “Dying from hunger,” he went back to his father who, upon receiving his son, ordered his servants to “take the fattened calf and slaughter it.” “Then” he commanded, “let us celebrate with a feast” (Lk. 15).
We can have separate conversations about what we can learn from our Protestant brothers and sisters and what kind of reform is needed in our Church to ensure that we are doing our best to facilitate encounters with the Divine at our Eucharistic celebrations. But let’s make sure we begin with the reform needed in our own hearts. You say you do not feel you are “being fed.” I ask you: have you been showing up hungry, or have you been showing up too full to receive with a hungry heart? When you come to Mass do you genuinely acknowledge that you need the Lord, or do you honestly think you’d be fine without Him?
Lucky’s Steakhouse bread is good, but it is pig pods compared to the Bread of Angels.
Stay hungry, my friends.
“O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water…My soul shall be filled as with a banquet.”