Words of Jesus from the gospel: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” And then later, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Straightaway there’s a connection with the reading from Exodus, with the Israelites hungry and grumbling in the wilderness after escaping from slavery in Egypt. First they get to feast on quail meat, when a flock of quail settles right there in their camp. And then God provides manna for them to gather daily – this fine flaky substance that comes down like dew. In one Jewish tradition it was said that to children the manna tasted like honey, to youth it was like bread, and to the elderly it was like oil. In other words, this mysterious “bread from heaven” was pleasing and satisfying to each according to their needs.
But, and this was important, the manna didn’t last. You couldn’t store it. If you gathered a lot but didn’t eat it all that day, the leftovers would go off and get wormy. It was “daily bread” in that sense. Only on the day before the Sabbath could you gather enough to last another day, so that you could rest on the Sabbath. Other than that, it was “food that perishes,” daily bread, food for one day at a time.
God’s grace is our daily bread that doesn’t perish. And that’s partly the meaning behind our petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Grace for today, one day at a time. Grace for the present moment.
We often do a good job of worrying about the future, getting upset and anxious about it, and we rightly plan for it and work for a good future. But the grace to accomplish it is given day by day, moment by moment. God is with us in each moment: we don’t need to bank God’s presence in case it’s not there in the future. It’s here now, and now, and now. The bread of life doesn’t perish, it’s new every morning, as the hymn says. We just need to seek it and find it.
Whenever I read this gospel passage about Jesus as the bread of life I think of a lovely, simple book about prayer called Sleeping with Bread. It was written by a Jesuit, Dennis Linn, and his brother Matthew Linn and Matthew’s wife Sheila Fabricant Linn. This trio have worked together for decades as chaplains, therapists, retreat leaders and spiritual directors. And they’ve written many books about prayer and healing, especially recovery from abuse and addictions.
The subtitle of their book Sleeping with Bread is “Holding What Gives You Life,” and this is the story they tell at the beginning to explain it:
During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”
The authors go on to teach a very simple prayer that helps you identify what is life-giving for you, what to hold close metaphorically, just as those children held their bread close through the night, so that you can build your life more and more on the reality of God’s grace in your life, as you identify it and trust it more and more.
The prayer is called the examen, or the examination of consciousness, which sounds a bit like something painful from the Spanish Inquisition. But in fact it’s an awareness practice, a way of looking back and asking yourself a basic question like this: When did I feel most alive today, and when did I feel life draining out of me? Or, for what am I most grateful today, and for what am I least grateful? Or, when did my heart feel open and soft, and when did it feel hard and closed down?
Ideally, you get into the habit of ending the day by using this prayer. You might light a candle and pray for God to guide your thoughts first, then you quietly review the day and notice those moments of feeling alive with your heart open, those moments for which you’re most grateful, those moments of feeling closest to God, and the moments of feeling the opposite.
It’s a bit more subtle than just identifying the best bits and the worst bits of the day, because you might have experienced something hard and heartbreaking, yet nevertheless you felt alive and with your heart wide open. Or you might have done something enjoyable, like going on a spending spree, yet it left you with a knot in your heart and an empty feeling afterwards.
The purpose of this practice is to gradually become more and more aware of what brings you life and draws you closer to God and the way of Jesus. Matt writes in the book about how he’s a pessimist by nature, and a perfectionist, so he often dwells on the things that went wrong, the person who was critical, and so on. But the prayer practice gets him first to identify the gifts in the day, the moments he’s grateful for. So he finds them and he gives thanks to God for them, and then he also acknowledges the negatives, instead of denying them. He writes:
In this way I honestly acknowledge pain and I take in love. Then I can usually fall asleep with a grateful heart... If I go to bed grateful… the gratitude bathes my unconscious, and I awaken more grateful… The longer I sleep with a grateful heart, the more I heal my unconscious.
Matt’s brother Dennis describes himself an optimist and a people-pleaser, who is addicted to always appearing happy and positive. His practice of this prayer helps him acknowledge the difficult emotions and situations that he tends to run away from, and instead of denying them, to see how God is speaking through them.
My own practice with this prayer over many years has led me to understand better what is “food that perishes” and what is “bread of life.” I like achieving things and people thinking well of me, but I know that isn’t what gives me life. In fact it can be the opposite: it can lead me down a road of focusing too much on what other people think, and trying to be successful at any cost, often by my own powers not God’s. What I’ve come to know as life-giving is being humble, letting go, trusting God to be at the centre, not myself.
This awareness of what brings you life and draws you closer to God can then inform how you make major life decisions. I know someone who is considering a major change in her career, because despite the large salary, the financial security and the high profile it gives her, she is craving a simpler life, with work that more directly contributes to the earth’s wellbeing. As she’s come to know herself better, and to trust God working in her life, she’s found the confidence to take this big step.
Someone else whom I got to know in my early years here was facing his own mortality, with an incurable illness that would take his life at a young age. He courageously faced the grief and terror of that, while at the same time becoming crystal clear about what mattered most, what was joyful and life-giving in the present. I saw his heart open wide to God and to love, and he held on day by day to what was truly precious.
Bread of heaven. Holding what gives you life.
In each eucharist that we celebrate – even these Zoom ones, when we can only share symbolically the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation – we remind ourselves again of what gives us life, and who gives us life: Jesus, the true bread. As we ground our lives more and more in his life and his grace, becoming aware of what gets in the way and what helps us move forward into love and trust, so his words become more real to us:
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
May you come to know the truth and the freedom of that, and may you hold what gives you life. Amen.