The Miraculous Pitcher

Barbara Rohde

During the hot Nebraska summers of my childhood, I spent hours, high in my treehouse, devouring the books I found in the small collection my parents had acquired from the estates of various relatives.

One of my favorites was A Wonder Book, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s retelling of classical myths. My favorite of those stories was “The Miraculous Pitcher,” the story of Baucis and Philemon. This elderly, poor, but generous-hearted couple invite two gods, disguised as beggars, to come into their cottage to rest and eat. The gods keep asking that their bowls be replenished, and the old couple become sad and embarrassed because they know the pitcher is empty. But the gods show them otherwise. No matter how often they pour from the pitcher, it is always full.

I suppose that as a child, what I liked was the thought of possessing such a pitcher. Much later I realized that in some sense I did. The story of the miraculous pitcher seems to be telling us that in the realm of the spirit there is no such thing as a non-renewable resource.

That is an important concept. Most of us have it backward. For centuries we have had it backward. We have believed that material resources are infinite but the resources of the spirit need to be hoarded with care. We act as if the supply of oil can go on forever but that there are limits to the amount of love we can give away. How often I have found myself closing off from people in need because I was afraid of being spiritually drained, only to find myself in the driest of deserts.

We have arrived at a time in our history when we are beginning to realize that this planet is our only home; we can no longer make a mess of the place where we are and then move on. A species can come to an end. Resources can be used up. All growth is not a sign of health.

But I suspect we doubt more than ever the truth in the story of the miraculous pitcher—or the loaves and the fishes. We find it hard to believe that we will find the spiritual nourishment to meet the needs of this chaotic age.

The wisdom of the centuries and our own experience tell us otherwise. If we do not let our fears have dominion, we may discover that in the midst of pain we find inner strength, in the midst of bewilderment we find inner clarity, in the midst of nourishing another we find ourselves nourished.