Have you ever seen a nest of baby birds waiting to be fed? They open their beaks so wide, they become nothing but mouth. The frantic parents fly back and forth without resting, and there’s no elegance or poetry to their method. All they have to do is cram as much wriggling protein as possible into those squawking holes until the sun goes down, and then tomorrow, they do it again.
In case you forgot, you are worth more than many sparrows. And so, when your heavenly father nourishes you, He is more careful than those parent birds, more discerning—and sometimes less prompt and direct than we would like Him to be, with our hungry, wide-open beaks.
What does it mean to be spiritually nourished? I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that we’re going to walk away from the table feeling cozily stuffed and satisfied. Whether or not we’ve actually been nourished isn’t a matter of feeling, at all.
Feelings aren’t bad; they are, in fact, part of the intellect, and can give us information that we sometimes can’t get through any other means. It’s not virtuous or mature to learn to ignore our feelings. But we should recognize them for what they are, and not judge everything based on what our emotions tell us, and that includes our emotions about how well we’re being fed.
I’ve left Mass feeling horrible. Feeling bereft. Feeling exultant. Feeling confused. Feeling abashed. Feeling courageous. Feeling annoyed. And occasionally feeling like it was the last place on earth I belonged. None of those feelings had anything to do with whether I had actually been spiritually nourished or not.
When I’ve had a literal, physical meal, I sometimes walk away feeling a little bit unsatisfied—but then half an hour later, I realize I actually had plenty to eat, and have sufficient fuel to take on the task ahead of me. Same thing with spiritual nourishment. Sometimes you don’t realize how well you’ve been fed until you are faced with a job, and you suddenly realize you’re accomplishing it easily—and you recall that food is to strengthen you, not just to make a party in your tummy.
Sometimes we eat up a yummy meal and walk away feeling tip top, razzle dazzle, super great—only to crash a few hours later, sapped of strength, weary and disgusted and enervated, because we went and made a meal out of mostly sugar, and now we feel ten times worse than if we had skipped eating altogether.
Oh, this happens in our spiritual lives, too. It’s so appealing to gorge on heavily emotional spiritual experiences. They feel so intense and so uplifting while we’re in the middle of them, but once the music ends, the crowd moves on, the folding chairs get put away, and you have to go back to your regular life of tiresome coworkers, family members, and those horribly unphotogenic poor people who aren’t all that into singing hosannahs and whatnot, the whole Gospel thing feels weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. Because it wasn’t the Gospel at all; it was mostly sugar.
Sometimes we’re doing our best to eat a balanced diet, but because of some medical condition or trauma in our past, we’re dreadfully deficient in some vitamin or mineral, and we have to get supplements in pill form—maybe in IV form. It’s not nearly as much fun to swallow a capsule as it is to sit down before a plate of braised meat and savory gravy, but if the only way you’ll get enough iron is through a capsule, then capsule it is.
Likewise, there are all sorts of ways God delivers the spiritual vitamins and minerals we’re deficient in, and not all of them are super fun. Daily rosary springs to mind. Frequent confession. Maybe a book or encyclical you read just because you feel you ought to, as a well-rounded Catholic, and not because it’s more interesting than the novel you’d rather curl up with. These disciplinary, prosaic practices are very often the things that give us the spiritual boost we need to grow and develop in the Faith.
Sometimes, our entire idea of what food is for is entirely out of whack. People with eating disorders may use food to punish themselves for some perceived worthlessness, and obese people might seek after food not to be nourished at all, but because they’re starving for love or affirmation or comfort that no human being has ever offered them.
And we’ve all encountered people whose idea of God and religion is so tortuously skewed that it has nothing in common with the loving, life-giving Christ and Church we know. There must be a long period of untangling and healing before anything resembling a normal, healthy relationship with God can be established.
Sometimes we’ve developed such a strong taste for unhealthy, unnatural foods that good, plain ingredients taste bland and pointless to us. We have to retrain our palates before we can enjoy or even tolerate the things our tongues were designed to delight in.
And the same is true for the words of God. If the Gospel sounds dull, if the laws of God seem stodgy and arbitrary, if prayer always feels tiresome—well, there could be many reasons for this, but one common reason is that maybe you’ve ruined your spiritual palate by training it only to respond to cheap thrills and passing pleasures. Time to retrain.
And I could go on. So the next time you walk out of church and think, “Humph. That was hardly spiritually nourishing,” think again. There’s a reason God uses physical food as a sign and symbol of his loving care for us. It’s partly because food is something we all understand—and maybe also partly because it’s something we all know can be more complicated than it looks. So it is with God’s care for us. Yummy, cozy, satisfying? Well, sometimes! But don’t rely on feeling that way. Open your beak wide, and let God decide how best to feed you.