On Two Drops of Oil
(Isa.55:1-3; Rom.8:35, 37-39; Mt.14:13-21)
In his bestselling book, The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho tells the story of a boy sent by his father to learn the secret of happiness. He travels to a castle, high atop a mountain, to see the wisest man in the world.
The wise man is busy, however. He says he doesn’t have the time to share the secret of happiness, but he encourages the boy to explore the palace and return in two hours. He then hands the boy a teaspoon holding two drops of oil, saying, ‘As you walk around, carry this spoon with you without spilling any oil.’
The boy wanders all around the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returns to the wise man.
‘Well,’ asks the wise man, ‘did you see the Persian tapestries or the garden? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?’
The boy is embarrassed; he saw nothing. He was too busy minding the oil.
‘Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,’ says the wise man. ‘You cannot trust a man if you don’t know his house.’
The boy takes the spoon and again explores the palace, this time observing all the fine artworks and the beautiful gardens, mountains and flowers. Returning to the wise man, he explains all he has seen.
‘But where are the drops of oil?’ the wise man asks.
The boy looks down at the empty spoon.
‘Well, there’s only one piece of advice I can give you,’ says the wisest of wise men. ‘The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.’ [i]
It was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who famously said that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. Coelho’s story reminds us that we often lose sight of our spiritual selves in the busyness of our daily lives. We get so caught up in our worldly pursuits that we forget what really matters in life.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes with his disciples to a quiet place to pray and to mourn the death of his cousin John the Baptist, however a huge crowd appears. The disciples are annoyed, but Jesus responds with compassion.
Now, many people today are quick to dismiss the Feeding of the 5,000 as yet another nice thing Jesus did. But it’s so much more than that.
This is a miracle so filled with mystery and symbol that it appears six times in Scripture and it’s in all four Gospels. It’s full of allusions to the Old Testament, and it points to the fulfilment of ancient prophecy (Is.25:6-8; 40:10-11).
This event presents Jesus as the new Moses (Ex.16:1-36) and as the Son of David who leads his flock to green pastures (Ps.23). And like the prophet Elisha, he feeds his flock with only a few loaves, but has plenty left over (2Kgs.4:42-44).
Now, it’s significant that Jesus begins with 7 items of food (5 loaves and 2 fish), because in Scripture the number 7 symbolises completion or perfection. It also points to the 7 days of Creation and the fact that everything begins with God.
And it’s significant that the gestures and words Jesus uses are the same he uses at the Last Supper when he institutes the Eucharist: He ‘takes the bread… he blesses it… he breaks it and he gives it to them’ (Mt.26:26).
Jesus instructs his 12 Apostles to distribute this food, and the 12 baskets left over indicate that there’s still plenty of his Eucharistic bread available for all 12 tribes of Israel. Indeed, through the Apostles and their successors, Jesus has been nourishing the world with the Bread of Life – his divine self – ever since.
Too many of us today live only on the surface of things. We rarely plumb the depths of who we are and we ignore the movement of God in our lives. Not surprisingly, we struggle to recognise the fundamental truth, beauty and meaning of life.
The secret of happiness, the wisest of wise men says, is to see all the marvels of the world, without forgetting the two drops of oil on the spoon.
In other words, we need to start seeing beyond the superficial (1Sam.16:7), by maintaining a constant balance between our spiritual and human selves. We need to develop spiritual insight.
Spirituality is wisdom of the spirit; it provides a kind of sixth sense which helps us to intuitively see and appreciate the movement of God in our ordinary human lives. [ii]
How might we achieve that?
By cultivating a life of prayer and meditation.
[i] Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist. HarperOne, NY. 1998:30-32 (adapted).
[ii] Dom Hubert van Zeller, And So to God, published on Universalis, 28 July 2020.