Saturday, September 23, 2006

On Fishing and Following

St Paul says in the epistle reading for this Sunday (2Cor. 6:1-10) that now is the acceptable time and the day of salvation. It certainly was so for Peter, James, and John, as they heard the voice of Christ and left everything to follow them (Gospel: Luke 5:1-11). It was the beginning of a marvelous and sometimes harrowing adventure which radically changed their lives and secured for them a high place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul gives a sort of sneak preview of what a disciple of Christ can expect: afflictions, hardships, calamities, labors, hunger, vigils, poverty, etc. Yet he says in the midst of all that we can expect purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, genuine love and truth, the power of the Holy Spirit—and the grace to rejoice even in sorrows, to be spiritually rich even in poverty, to be honorable even when dishonored by others.

The first disciples could not have known all that in advance, but that’s OK. It isn’t the weighing of pros and cons, of advantages and disadvantages, that should be the criterion for the decision about following Christ. The apostles followed Christ because of the grace and wisdom that flowed from Him, because of the irresistible attraction to his very person, and because of the signs that accompanied his words.

Let us see what happened at that first meeting of Jesus with Peter and the others. Jesus wanted to preach from a boat, because the crowds were pressing in on him. Simon Peter was elected for this even though he was very tired. Fishermen usually work the night shift, for that is when the most fish are easily caught. So, after a long night’s work, he was cleaning his nets and getting ready to go home to bed. But Jesus had other ideas. He got into Simon’s boat and taught the people at length. Perhaps then Simon thought, “Now that He’s finished, maybe I can go home and get some rest.” But Jesus wasn’t finished—not with Simon, anyway. If there was one thing Simon didn’t want to hear, it was precisely what Jesus said next: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon gave a two-part answer: the first out of his own human weakness, fatigue, and irritable resistance, and the second out of an admirable respect for, and obedience to, Jesus. “Master, we worked all night and took nothing!” he initially exclaimed. (He may have thought, “Hey, I’m the fisherman, you’re the preacher. I know the sea, and there aren’t any fish around now!”) But then he immediately added, and this is the saving grace, the decision which opened the door to divine blessing: “But at your word, I will let down the net.” At your word, I will do it: this is Peter’s first response to the call of the Lord. There will be more, even one more in this same Gospel, but this first one is indispensable, because he shows that he knows how to hear and obey. If You say so, I will do it. It is an echo of the response of the Israelites after the Lord manifested his power and his law on Sinai: “All that the Lord has said, we will do.”

Jesus knew Peter was tired, but He also knew that if Peter would overcome his fatigue for the sake of obedience, then he would be his chosen and faithful disciple. After his resurrection Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him and then told him to feed his sheep. Here Jesus is saying, in effect, if you love Me, do what I say and go out and catch some fish. So he did, and the result was miraculous—which is a lesson for us that the fruits of hearing the word of the Lord and obeying are always good, always abundant.

Peter then entered into the first stage of a true revelation, a true encounter with God. He fell down before Him in repentance and confessed his sinfulness. Peter must have seen something of the glory of God in the face of Christ, and it filled him with fear—as happened to Isaiah, after his vision of God: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips…and my eyes have seen the Lord!” This is an indispensable stage in our relation with God, for He is a God of truth. We cannot approach Him with sins on our soul, for in that case, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But if we repent and confess, as Peter did, then it is not fearful at all but blessed and consoling. Peter, conscious of his sins, as least had the integrity to want to be removed from the presence of the All-Holy. (People who refuse to confess their sins ought at least to have the integrity to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until they have the good sense to go to confession.) Jesus accepted Peter’s repentance but did not depart, for unworthiness is made worthy through repentance. We can assume that Jesus forgave his sins at that very moment: Peter fell down in fear, confessing his sinfulness and asking Jesus to depart, but since Jesus did not depart, and since Jesus said, “Do not be afraid,” we conclude that there was no longer anything left to alienate Peter from Christ.

Jesus also gave him a mission at that moment, saying that he would henceforth be a fisher of men. This is a development of the initial call, and Peter gives a further response, along with James and John: they left everything and followed Him. They discovered the one thing necessary, the fulfillment of the deepest, inarticulate desire of their hearts, and it would be madness to do anything else but cling to Him henceforth.

We have constantly to be listening for the voice, the call of the Lord, for it is not a once in a lifetime thing, but is meant to be an ongoing dialogue, call and response. If we hear and obey, abundant blessings will be ours, even if accompanied by the trials St Paul wrote about. We can hear his voice in many ways, especially through Scripture and prayer, but I’d like to focus here on prayer, especially contemplative prayer, for to pray in silence and solitude and with an open heart is to put out into the deep. That is, we go to our inner depths where Christ dwells—not to “get in touch with ourselves,” for that usually leads to self-absorption and sterile isolation, but rather to encounter the indwelling God. We put out into the deep and let down our nets, that is, drop our defenses and make ourselves radically open and surrendered to the presence of Christ. Many people do not want to do this. They are terrified that they might actually meet Christ, that He might actually speak to them, might require something of them. So they close their hearts and their ears and say, in effect: depart from me. Maybe they will say their prayers even louder and more vigorously, so as not to hear the voice of God. This is the prayer of the Pharisee. But if we merely say prayers without going deep enough to listen to God, then we are not praying at all—we are merely deluding ourselves that we are devout, creating a pious self-image, which has nothing to do with reality. We are keeping God away from us by means of the very prayers that should be drawing Him near!

So let us be willing to hear the voice of the Lord, for it is, as the psalmist says, “a voice that speaks of peace,” and it is a voice of love and holiness. It is a voice that calls and exhorts as well, but obedience to Him bears fruit unto salvation. Peter at first didn’t want to do what the Lord asked of Him, but now he is thanking God for all eternity that he in fact did what Jesus said. We have to leave everything and follow Him—everything that promotes selfishness or attachments, that hinders us from a free embrace of Christ and the fullness of his Gospel. Let us go to Him, for when He speaks, it is the acceptable time; when He calls, it is the day of salvation.