The city of Riga is the capital of the small country of Latvia, located on the coast of the Baltic Sea in northeastern Europe. Following World War II Latvia was occupied by the Russians, and forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union until finally achieving its independence in 1991. For several decades, under Soviet rule, Christianity was severely persecuted—but that was nothing new for the Latvian people, for in the 16th century there was also an intense persecution of the Catholic Church there. In the year 1535 all the churches, rectories, and convents in the city of Riga were closed, with one exception: a convent where all the sisters were from noble families. As a concession to their upper-class background, the persecutors allowed the convent to remain open, but the nuns were not allowed to have a priest chaplain. Their enemies were sure it would be only a matter of time before this last vestige of Catholicism in Riga died out, for cutting the sisters off from the sacraments was equivalent to starving them spiritually—but they found a way around this problem.
The nearest Catholic priest was in a town forty miles away, so one of the nuns, Sister Otilia, walked that distance to see him. She carried with her the written confessions of all the sisters (since they weren’t able to make their confessions directly). After taking these from her and reading them, the priest gave absolution for all the nuns from a distance. Then he gave Sister the Communion Hosts in a large pyx, or carrying case for the Eucharist—one Host for each sister, plus several more to be kept in the convent tabernacle for Eucharistic devotion. Sister Otilia then returned to her convent. She made this long and dangerous trip by foot two or three times a year . . . for forty-seven years. Each time Sister Otilia returned to the convent, the sisters spent three days in prayer and fasting; after this careful preparation period, they then received Holy Communion with great solemnity and devotion. Sister Otilia herself lived to be 100, and she and the others continued this practice to the very end of their lives (Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 10, #70). The sisters of Riga obviously had a great spiritual hunger, one which only the Eucharistic Lord could satisfy. We too must remember our deepest human needs—needs which Jesus alone can fill.
I believe one of the reasons many people are unhappy, or even end up wasting their lives, is because they don’t take the time to think about why they’re here on earth, what the true purpose of life is, and what they really need and what they must do in order to achieve lasting happiness. Scripture, and the teaching of the Church, provides genuine answers to these questions. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians (4:17, 20-24) calls us to avoid living with empty minds, as do the unbelievers; instead, we’re challenged to “be renewed in the spirit of [our] minds and put on the new self. . . .” This means recognizing that life is not about money, possessions, power, pleasure, or status, but about love, forgiveness, community, spiritual growth, and peace. These things can only be found in Jesus; He is the One Who fills our deepest hunger. This idea is hinted at in the Book of Exodus (16:2-4, 12-15), which describes God as providing manna, or bread from Heaven; it’s made explicit or direct in the Gospel of John (6:24-35), in which Jesus proclaims, “I [Myself] am the bread of life.” In the Gospel of John (6:1-15), Our Lord performed a miracle by multiplying five loaves and two fish, thereby feeding five thousand people. Jesus tells the people not to be overly-concerned with physical food; instead, they should accept the spiritual nourishment He offers and open themselves to the gift of eternal life.
This same challenge faces all of us. Sometimes we might be physically hungry, but we’re too busy to realize it at first. Then, when we do become aware of it, it’s hard to think of anything else but eating. This must also be true for us in a spiritual sense; we should become aware of that inner hunger and need for Our Lord. Is it important to you to have a good family life, relating to your spouse, children, parents, and brothers and sisters in a loving and happy way? If so, let God be the guest of honor in your home. Pray together, discuss religious and moral situations as they arise, and make an effort to be aware of God’s presence. He made us to be part of His family, so it makes sense to say that we can only truly be happy if He’s part of our family.
Are there times when you worry about having enough money to pay your bills, or about finding or keeping a job, or about your health and relationships? If so, place everything in God’s hands; pray with confidence, make a point of being generous to others, and trust in your Father’s care for you. The Lord is always with us in our time of need, so we really have no reason to worry. Is it important to you to have inner peace, meaning, and a sense of purpose in life? Only God can provide these things, but for this to happen, we must give Him room to work within us. Therefore, be sure to pray every day, even if just for a few minutes; read the Bible whenever you can, receive Communion regularly, go to Confession as needed, and take a careful look at your life every now and then to see if God’s been speaking to you in ways you’ve overlooked.
We’re very fortunate: we’re not yet directly persecuted or prevented from practicing our faith; we’re not limited to receiving Holy Communion only two or three times a year. There is one sense, however, in which we’re like the sisters in Riga over four centuries ago, and indeed like all faithful Catholics throughout history: we have a spiritual hunger which only Jesus can fill. He promises, “Whoever comes to Me will never hunger, and whoever believes in Me will never thirst.” Jesus makes this offer; it’s up to us to believe, to accept, and to respond.