I presume there was an architect. Even a modest parochial school, in the middle of 1920s Kansas, needed a designer. Someone had to decide on the front door flourish. Instead of a flat front of four rooms, facing the street, two on each floor, the building juts out in front, and in the back, to create foyers for double staircases, which access the upper and lower floors. Somebody wanted large windows over the doors, a tiny touch of grandeur.
They’re there on the outside of the building, but you won’t see them from the inside. They’re in closets, which pass over the foyers, connecting the cloakrooms of the classrooms on each side of the entrances. As I remember it—and that’s the issue: the roll these nooks play in memory and musing—they create two, four by ten foot, storage rooms.
The doors to these rooms were locked. I would have rarely been in them, sent with a key to retrieve something. In the lower grades, at the back of school, it might have board games on rainy days. In junior high, in the front, perhaps a stand with world maps.
In the 7th and 8th grades, the front closet began to intrigue me. Have you ever met anyone who describes junior high as the best time of life? Not likely. You go back to school one autumn, and the girls aren’t just the dumb girls. They’re the opposite sex. No one told you that was scheduled to occur over the summer. And suddenly you’re worried that the guys in your class are larger, stronger. You suspect some of them know how to dance, one more expectation whose advent you missed. Where were you supposed to have learned how to hustle?
In those years, sitting in class, my mind would sometimes wander to that secret room. Especially after our class performed a little play based on The Diary of Anne Frank. I wondered. Could one hide Jews in there? Were there Jews who might need someone to sneak-in food for them? Were there any Jews in Kansas?
Sometimes I thought about myself hiding in there, looking out the windows at the front of school. From whom did I want to hide? The world, I guess. It seemed a wonderful, secret spot, where one could retreat, if one wanted to. No one would know you were there, but there you would be, looking out at the world.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand is recorded by all four evangelists. The next day, Saint John follows the fest with the Bread of Life discourse, but, first, there’s a curious withdrawal on the part of Christ.
Is the mountain his secret spot? The place where Christ retreats?
There’s a tension in this version of the feeding that’s fundamental to the Fourth Gospel. The multitude has been fed. The crowd has seen the wonder. To them, this seems to be the very place where God would be revealed: in a miraculous overturning of nature. Not unlike a church road-sign, which I passed this week, saying “Christ, the only real superhero.”
Yet Jesus flees from this understanding of the event: he meets their needs; they will make him king. He returns the next day to speak of himself as the Bread of Life. The wonder, the mystery, isn’t a miraculous feeding. It runs deeper than that. It’s the presence of Jesus, moving in our midst, God in the woof and weave of personal relationship.
Once, in explaining the distinctive disciplines of science and theology, Pope Benedict XVI said, “God is not an object for human experimentation. He is the Subject and manifests himself solely in the relationship of person to person: this is part of the person’s essence.” Put another way, God is more than an impersonal force, sometimes altering the laws of nature but normally lying deep within them. God is more than a mystery that eludes us. God comes to us, manifests himself to us, in our personhood, in our fundamental character of being oriented outside ourselves, towards others in the world.
The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple says the same. A wonder of nature only confounds us until we understand it. The wonder of personhood grows as we come to know the other. The more we know the other, the deeper the call to find there, in the other, our completion.
Look into your life. It’s rife with concerns about others: what does he want of me? How am I disappointing her? How can I help? Why won’t the other respond? The deepest burdens, and blessings, of human life don’t derive from nature. They come from our personhood, our yearning for the other.
Yes, sometimes we flee the other; at least, we want to. We wish there were a place of retreat, where one could think, rest, heal. But we only go there to regroup, to reclaim the self before we plunge it again into the mystery of the other.
The ancients understood that nature was a wonder, even when its laws weren’t being overturned. They could see a pattern and a creative intelligence within it. Before his conversion, Saint Augustine knew this notion of the God, but an impersonal deity was powerless to lift the weight of his sin or to satiate the restless desire within him. In the Gospel of Christ, he discovered a God who enters into us, into our personhood. He met the ancient lover of our souls. Outside, studying with a companion, he withdrew into the deep of the garden, a secret place, lest his dear friend see his tears.
Christ is repelled by the depth of a god the crowd wants: a deity who works wonders, who would remove, even for a moment, the hunger of human life. But God comes to us in the hunger, in the desire for the other. When Christ returns from the mountain, this is what he tells the crowd. I am the Bread of Life, that for which you hunger. You were created to feed upon me, to find yourself in the desire that never departs. God does not come to us over, or despite, the thralls of relationship. God comes within them.
That’s not easily seen, especially when others wound us. We may need to hide, to find our secret place and to ponder. But then we’ll see the wonder: not the God beyond nature; no, the God within personhood.
2 Kings 4: 42-44 Ephesian 4: 1-6 John 6: 1-15