Stubbornness, “la terquedad,” is often a hindrance to growth in the spiritual life. Today’s readings give us good examples of this. In the reading from Exodus, the Israelites are journeying in the desert. Having been led out of slavery in Egypt, they are now undergoing a period of trial before they enter the Promised Land. However, rather than rely upon the God who rescued them from bondage so dramatically, they resort instead to grumbling. God is trying to test and deepen their faith, but out of stubbornness for what they knew before, the Israelites only complain.
Something similar is going on in the Gospel. Jesus has been performing miracles all around the region of Galilee, culminating in the one we heard about last week, the multiplication of the loaves and the fish. But despite all the signs that have been given to them, the people are stubborn. Despite just being fed miraculously by him, they ask Jesus again for a sign for why they should believe in him. He chides them for not looking beyond their physical hunger to see what God is doing right in front of their eyes.
|Peter Paul Rubens, The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert (c. 1627)|
What might these readings tell us about ourselves? We face trials, too – perhaps we feel we are being tested right now, in some way specific to ourselves, or just generally with all that is going on around us. When these arise, we can resort to being stubborn in the way that the Israelites and the people of Galilee were. We can grumble and complain, we can focus on what we don’t have or yearn for what we used to have, and we can even demand that God give us some sign for why we should believe in him.
But that’s not really the best response, is it? Not only does it not actually help meet our needs, but that kind of stubborn grumbling usually leads us even further away from God, perhaps forever. The Christian author C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others... In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.” What Lewis recognizes is that we need to cut off at the root that temptation to grumble and be bitter or else it may very well lead to our own damnation.
A better response to any trial or testing is intentional perseverance in faith. In a sense, this is a kind of stubbornness, too, but not one that comes from grumbling or focusing on what we don’t have – or demanding that we be shown proof for why to believe – but rather a remembrance of and reliance upon the goodness of God. Recalling the blessings of God, present or past, can inspire in us a gratitude for what he has given and ward off temptation to abandon hope in a time of current need. Blessed Solanus Casey, a Franciscan priest from Detroit who lived in the first half of the 20th century and whose feast we celebrated this past week, used to give a simple bit of advice to those who were undergoing trials: “Thank God ahead of time.” When we give thanks to God for what we have received, or even (strange as it may seem) for what we have not yet received, we look beyond our present need and become open to what he is doing right in front of us. This sort of stubborn faith – refusing to give into discouragement, rejecting any temptation to complain or become ungrateful – is just the sort of faith that God wants to grow and deepen within us in order to lead us to something greater. In this way, our trials can become little periods in the desert, by which he teaches us to rely upon him as we journey ever closer to his Promised Land.
Friends, in this life, the Lord wants us always to keep learning – not new words of a foreign language, but new ways of trusting in him and seeing what he is doing right in front of our eyes. Let’s ask the Lord to make us all “terco,” stubborn – but stubborn not in our grumbling but in our faith in him. Whatever trial or difficulty we may be facing, let’s take the advice of Fr. Casey and “thank God ahead of time,” even as we keep asking him for what we need. As we prepare to receive the Bread of Life, our Daily Bread, may this Sacrament strengthen our faith and increase our gratitude so that we may never stray from God’s grace.