The winds of the Gospel do not only lead us out to waters from which we can contemplate the coastlines of love and death, but these winds also send us to clues that help us think about vocation.
Initially this scene seems to describe the performance of a great show. We have the exceptional abundance of fish drawn from the sea, the nets stretched to breaking point, the boats so full they almost capsize, and the great astonishment of Peter and the other fishermen.
These few verses easily match any episode of Patrick SÃ©bastien’s “Le plus grand cabaret du monde” (“The World’s Biggest Cabaret”). When all the stops are pulled out in the Gospel, there is just as much magic and spectacle as the cabaret show.
An alternative, less “miraculous” reading, and one that is closer to the whisper that breathes through the scene, illuminates the story’s three-part movement. In the first verse, Jesus “stands by the Sea of Galilee.” Shortly thereafter, he gets into the boat and asks Simon to “push out a little from the shore.”
Then he speaks to the people from the boat, after which he asks Simon to “row out into deep water.”
The Gospels trace the amazing journey of the “announcement:” being close, moving away, diving deep, in just four verses. It is as if the narrative takes us from where we are able to touch the bottom with our feet, to where we are out of our depth.
I received two letters recently that led me out to deep waters.
On reading the first, I was invited to contemplate the coastlines of love. My correspondent recounted her tribulations from the boat to the hospital: investigations, PET-scans, the surgeon’s knifeâ€¦
“I have been resuscitated with to a strong dose of cortisone,” she writes, and thanks to the “immense kindness” of a fellow traveller who died from exhaustion on the same crossing. “The last few months have proved to me that helping one another and mutual assistance is one of the strongest aspects of love.”
The second letter required me to contemplate the coastlines of death. A mother describes the death of her 18-year-old son, and confesses that she has been hoping for “a miracle” for years.
She also spoke with great tenderness of the injury he carried with him, a fracture through which “a little light” shone through. Living alongside the “immense emptiness” of his absence, she thinks of her son as a “great lord” whom she will “bring to life again.”
In my understanding of the story of the “miraculous catch of fish,” the winds of the Gospel do not only lead us to contemplate the coastlines of love and of death, but also move us towards an understanding of vocation: “from now on you will fish for people.”
Some translations relay Jesus’ words as “you shall take the living,” and others remain closer to the activity of fishing: “you shall fish for people.”
To make sure we do not to fall into the wrong vocational net, we have to interrogate the meaning of the imperative “row out into deep water.” I love the depths of vocation, and those who feel the call must dare to move in deep waters.
In the long-term, one needs to cultivate patience and loyalty. And along with depth, we also need height, which is the very essence of spiritual life. But above all we must not forget the depths.
To be “out at sea” in French is “au large,” which comes from the old French “larc” and the Latin “largus” meaning “abundant,” “generous,” like the fish caught in the Sea of Galilee.
The definition of “large” in the French dictionary is “with an expanse that is bigger than average.” A large river, for example, and also a large stature.
Large also carries the meaning of “openness,” “not mean or skimpy,” “not blinkered or bound.”
The notion of “vastness” is also part of the meaning of “large,” which surely cannot but make us think of “freedom.”
This is a brilliant and moving portrait of the disciple, and portends his capacity to help illuminate and liberate the people that he will go on to fish.