Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIX, No. 2
30th Anniversary Issue
by the Reverend Jerry J. Pokorsky
In the Gospel of Matthew (14:13-22) the Lord miraculously multiplies the loaves to feed the multitude. There is an obvious echo of the feeding of the Israelites in the Old Testament with manna, “the bread from heaven.” More apparent, in light of the Last Supper and the Paschal mystery, is the foreshadowing of the Blessed Eucharist, the “the Bread that comes down from heaven” to satisfy man’s spiritual hunger in the new and everlasting covenant. However, there is also some revelation here of the necessity and dignity of basic human physical hunger.
It is occasionally observed that the reason there hasn’t been any serious or chronic civil unrest in the United States is because of the continuing abundance of relatively inexpensive and good food. In the main, hunger in America is normal and cyclical in our lives, like the sunrise and sunset. Only in exceptional — and usually dysfunctional — situations is hunger chronic and a problem in America. And even here the problem is more of a nutritional dysfunction, a “hidden hunger” often resulting in problems like obesity rather than that of debilitating hunger and starvation — as found in many other countries. Today we sometimes pervert the natural impulses of hunger with our obsessions with diets and our too-hasty acceptance of the latest fashionable food taboos. Even at the physical level we respond to the same food very differently when we’re really hungry than when languidly munching out of boredom.
But the natural cycle of hunger is a very useful sensation for many reasons, including a sign of spiritual hunger in need of fulfillment. Hunger directs our attention to immediate needs: nourishment and bonding. God has given a newborn a remarkably piercing cry that cannot fail to get attention. An infant’s nighttime squawking is designed to awaken (usually) mom (as dad rolls over and puts a pillow over his head). As a result the child not only gets fed, but begins a lifetime of precious bonding with mom and, eventually, dad. Hence the demands of hunger are indispensable in forming a proper life, living in community as intended by God (cf. first two chapters of Genesis).
Normal hunger should have the effect of promoting a sense of healthy dependence upon others. After all, Jesus Himself says, “Give them some food yourselves.” The delivery of food doesn’t just happen. The food chain extends from farm to grocery store to the household, for food preparation. An infant depends upon mom to deliver the goods; children gather around the supper table expecting to be fed, dependent but feeling entitled to their meals, as mom and dad provide for them.
A generous and joyous spirit responds to these demands. Even a master chef at a five star restaurant (know any?) must be generously attentive in responding to the demands of human hunger — not only to be successful, but for his own self-respect and self-worth.
Contrary to the mythology of “rugged American individualism,” a sense of dependence on others — honest, proportional, and reasonable — is necessary for the cultivation of virtue. (Perhaps this is the reason human childhood is so long compared with other species. And maybe it’s partly to give self-centered new parents the opportunity to grow up and grow out of their self-centeredness too.)
Hunger, when satiated, should also give rise to the virtue of gratitude in those being fed. This is evident when family members thank mom for a delicious meal, or when a restaurant customer sends a message, “My compliments to the chef.” It’s hard to judge the exact state of mind of a relaxed baby in the arms of mom after a feeding, but there seems to be a hint of gratitude in its tiny demeanor (at least mother can be grateful for the child’s sleepy eyes). Wise parents teach their children gratitude for a nice meal by reinforcing a need to say, “Thank you!” And good parents never neglect the recitation of the prayers before meals and after meals expressing a recognition of dependency and thanks for “these Thy gifts.”
Such is the natural cycle of hunger having profound spiritual effects: dependency, community, generosity and thanksgiving. A true self-giving generous spirit based on a sense of gratitude (sublimely, “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”) is the result of the normal cycle of human hunger. Christ in the Blessed Eucharist, after all, satisfies a hungry heart as we rejoice in thanksgiving and respond in generosity. So turn off the television (for good?), wash up, say your prayers, and come to the family supper. And don’t miss Sunday Mass — under penalty of mortal sin unless you have a good and sufficient reason. Without the cultivation of gratitude, a dangerous and all too common entitlement mentality becomes entrenched and stunts true moral development.
It’s that basic.
Father Pokorsky is pastor of St. Michael Church in Annandale, Virginia. He is a member of the executive board of our “sister” organization, Adoremus Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy.
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