for a video of this homily, click here
February 6, 2022
Lately I’ve been working on a writing project, but for a while it seemed that the harder I tried, the less progress I made. I’d work all night and not catch a thing.
And then one day I lowered my nets and pulled up all these ideas. My mind was full of them, and it wasn’t anything I did exactly. I just let go a little. I just put out to slightly deeper water.
It was that way when I was teaching. One day I’d go in there and no matter what I did I just couldn’t get the students to respond. Then another day I’d go in, and I’d relax a little, just wait to see what might happen, and gradually the class began to open up. Ideas started flying, and there weren’t coming from me.
It’s that way in prayer. Praying is like letting down our nets. We sit in the morning in our favorite chair and wait for what might come, and sometimes nothing does. There’s just emptiness. And sometimes something does come. There’s a fullness, an abundance. Deep down in our lives, in what happens every day, there’s great energy and creativity and love, and sometimes we’re given an awareness of that.
The other day the thought of one of my oldest friends came into my mind as I was praying, and it had a different texture or quality than the usual random things that come to me. It wasn’t overwhelming—it wasn’t like a great bulging net of fish. It was more like a single fish I’d pulled out of the water. It was like I was fly-fishing. But that slight sweetness, that brief clarity: that’s what we have to be alert to, because that’s a sure sign of the presence of Christ.
I think it’s always like this, up and down and back and forth—this is how we’re called—and the dark nights are just as important in this as the fullness and the gift.
It’s curious: Simon and the others make this tremendous haul, they’ve caught enough fish to support them for months, and then Jesus asks them to walk away from it, to give it all up.
And think of what happened to the disciples in the rest of the gospels and into Acts, the hardships and struggle. The journey doesn’t end on that one glorious morning. There’s the next day and the next—and not everyone is called to walk away from their jobs. Someone has to stay and do the fishing, and that’s a vocation, too.
Mary and Martha, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus—they are all called, but they are called in place.
The other day a former student got in touch with me, a wonderful young woman, in her late thirties now and living in Portland. She’s a gifted writer, but she and her husband are struggling to make ends meet and she’s taken a nine-to-five job. She’s been trying to write in the evenings and on the weekends but she doesn’t have the energy, and she’s depressed and wondering what’s happened to her life.
I tried to counsel her to do what I find so hard to do, to trust, to let go, even to let go of the writing for now, and to give it all to God, because without God, none of this makes sense. None of this is worth it. I know this woman doesn’t go to church anymore, though she was raised Catholic, and I thought she might be touchy about that, so I just suggested, as gently as I could, that she might think of the journaling she does every morning not just as self-reflection but also as a dialog, that she turn it slightly in her mind so that she sees the events of her life, even the ordinary things that happen in her job, as coming from God, and to reflect on what God might be saying to her in those moments.
There’s this wonderful prayer about the Eucharist by the German Jesuit Karl Rahner. When we receive the Eucharist, he says, we receive the heart of a man who took upon himself what Rahner calls “a slow and toilsome life in a single corner of the world.” And we receive our own lives, too:
When we receive you [Rahner says] we accept our everyday just as it is. We do not need to have any lofty feelings in our hearts to recount to you. We can lay our everyday before you just as it is, for we receive it from you yourself, the everyday and its inward light, the everyday and its meaning, the everyday and the power to endure it.
The call isn’t to do any particular thing. It’s to pray, to let down our nets and see what comes, and even the emptiness when it comes is revelatory. “We have to trust it utterly to God,” Ruth Burrows says. “We must be ready to believe that ‘nothingness’ is the presence of divine reality; emptiness is a holy void that Divine Love is filling.” In fact, Burrows says, it’s only in our emptiness “that we really experience that we need Jesus,” and everything depends on this,
on letting go of the controls, handing them over to him and accepting that we have no holiness, no achievement of our own, to be before God as nothing. This is to die so that Jesus becomes our all.
And not just the emptiness. Not just the nights. The days, too, and the light and the flow and all the lovely things. All the lovely, ordinary things.
We don’t have to stop living our lives. We don’t have to stop being human. We do live our lives, but more deeply.
Maybe to surrender to God just means to walk down the street with a clear mind. Maybe to surrender to God just means to be alert and aware. To feel the sidewalk beneath our feet. To feel the sun on our faces. Maybe to surrender to God—to say, your grace and your love are wealth enough for me—maybe that just means, Lord, give me this moment. Lord, help me be myself.
God created all these things in Christ, God loves all these things in Christ, in Christ all these things continue in being. In him we continue to be.
We are walking down the street. We are looking at the clouds. We are looking at the faces of the people as they pass.
We are surrendering ourselves to Christ. He has given us his grace and his love. He has given us this day. He has given us our lives. We ask for nothing more, and we need nothing more, because this is everything. This is the fullness. This is the bulging net. This is life and love beyond all telling.