Sister Simone on Loaves and Fish

 (Sister Simone Campbell speaking in lower Manhattan | Thomas Altfather Good)

 (Sister Simone Campbell speaking in lower Manhattan | Thomas Altfather Good)

"I can’t do everything. And so I don’t do anything. But that’s the mistake. Community is about just doing my part."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

One of my favorite Zen contemplatives, believe it or not, happens to be a Catholic nun, Sister Simone Campbell. She's a lawyer, poet, feminist, lobbyist, and activist. Most famous for her work on social justice and the Nuns on the Bus project — her focus is on bridging the "wealth gap" and making reforms that benefit the "100%."

There is a very old story many of us know, but it's the version by Sister Simone Campbell that really resonates in today's context. It's a mix of humor, poignancy, and the power of storytelling:

Those of you in the Christian tradition know the story of Jesus and the loaves and fish. For those of you who don’t, I think it is probably in the culture too, so you might not have had to have read Matthew in the Gospels to know it. Jesus is out in the wilderness, and the Apostles are getting nervous because the people have not eaten all day, and they will get grumpy pretty soon. The Apostles say to Jesus, ‘Send them back to town, please send them back so they can get something to eat.’ What Jesus says to the Apostles is, “Feed them yourselves.’

The Apostles being the men that they are go, ‘We just have five loaves and two stinky fish. I do not know what we are going to do.’ Jesus blesses it and says, ‘It is enough.’ They pass it out and to their surprise, there are baskets left over.

At the end of Matthew’s story in the Gospel of Matthew, he writes ‘5000.’ 5000 men were fed, to say nothing of the women and children. Now that made me mad. I said, what are we? Chopped liver? You know. But when I get mad like that, I pray about it. What does it mean? Here is what I think it means. It means they just counted the people who thought it was a miracle. The women — the women knew they brought food from home. Don’t you hear it all the time? Women pull out food — and here is some crackers and cheese and here is this and that. The guys always say, ‘Wow, a meal! What a miracle!’

Anyway, that is the scripture. But it is also about us, because sometimes we can feel so small and so few and so little. But we are making a difference for the 100%.
(The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes | Tintoretto 1518–1594)

(The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes | Tintoretto 1518–1594)

"Loaves and Fish," a poem by Sister Simone Campbell:

I always joked that the miracle of loaves and fish was sharing
The women always knew this
But in this moment of media notoriety
I ache, tremble, almost weep at folks so hungry, malnourished, faced with spiritual famine of epic proportions
My heart aches with their need
apostle-like, I whine, ‘What are we among so many?’
The consistent, 2000-year-old, ever-new response is this:
’Blessed and broken, you are enough’
I savor the blessed, cower at the broken, and pray to be enough.

So, what can we do when we so easily become overwhelmed. On this, Sister Simone said:

I sometimes think we, in the United States, think we ought to do something about everything and that it’s my job to fix everything. Well it’s not. That’s way beyond us. It’s more important, I think, that we listen deeply to our stories and then see where it leads. And that’s the piece. If we all do our part ... whatever our part is. Just do one thing. That’s all we have to do. But the guilt of the — or the curse of the progressive, the liberal, the whatever is that we think we have to do it all. And then we get overwhelmed. And I get all those solicitations in the mail. And I can’t do everything. And so I don’t do anything. But that’s the mistake. Community is about just doing my part.

On her spiritual combination of community, Zen, and Christianity, she interprets the scripture in this helpful way:

I decided — you know how in the scripture it — Paul says how we’re one body? Not everybody is an ear; not everybody is an eye. So one day I was meditating, and I was trying to figure out what part of the Body of Christ I am. So I came up with this insight that I think I’m stomach acid, I think that’s my job. It’s really important for metabolizing food. You don’t need a large quantity of it. And it needs to be contained. And if it runs amok, that’s called illness. But, see, it’s doing ... It generates energy and heat. And it does all kinds of good stuff, but it’s a very specific small piece that depends on a whole system to be healthy and effective. We all have a piece of it. And we can do this.

"We can do this." I think there is enough for people from all religious and spiritual faiths, or no faiths, to come together with community as the common ground. Not only in the East, Sister Simone reminds us that contemplation and meditation is also deeply embedded in traditional Western culture. The Bible after all is a book of poetic verses. When we stonewall categories and think, that's only for those others in that different belief system, we miss out on so much togetherness and intrinsic value.

When we focus on the differences and disconnect ourselves — as separate bodies — this group will not talk to that group, that group will hate this group. And what we are left with is war and isolation. Community is the shedding of those walls. On this, all of us must reflect.

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