Hearing The Word in Pressured Times (Lk. 5:1-11)
Here are some things to note in this Gospel about Jesus getting himself involved in a fishing expedition with Peter and his friends.
For one thing, there’s Peter’s state of mind. He’s exhausted. All night on the lake, working in the dark, back-breaking labor until the sun comes up — and in the end nothing to show for it. If I came home from a hard night of non-productive work, I wouldn’t be in the best frame of mind to listen to the words of someone standing on the shore who just got up. Still less would I be open to that person’s request that I get back in the boat and row out once more. For another, here’s Jesus, a carpenter, giving Peter and friends, professional fishermen, advice on how to fish!
But, Peter listens and responds, anyhow.
It’s that listening and responding under stress that suggest some connections between Peter’s situation and our own.
Who doesn’t live a too-busy life these days? Emails, tax deadlines, Super Bowl parties, Mardi Gras festivities, CNN and the Presidential run-up, family – and that’s not even to mention the 8 to 10 hour work day. And so the issue Peter’s story raises: Can I hear the words being spoken to me in the hectic craziness of it all? That is to say, can I hear any of the deeper words, the ones that underlie life — or as the Gospel of John would have it, can I hear any of the Words of Eternal Life?
A speaker once likened his day to going through one of those car washes where you’re hooked onto a pulley as you drive in and then get pulled through the spraying water and the brushes until you’re out – and you don’t even notice what’s happening til you see daylight at the other end. “My day is just like that,” he said, “the constant demands in it numbing me up to that fact that I’m even going through it. Going at this pace, how could I ever listen to anything deeper?”
Even the Pope has weighed in on this same phenomenon. In one of his talks he observes how the 24/7 demand for “connectivity” in electronic media leads people to live most of their day on the surface of things and prevents them from picking up on the more profound elements running through reality.
Many of Mary Oliver’s poems describe the “steps-back” she takes from the rush modern life so as to let the underlying things rise to awareness. On the occasion of someone asking her to “Freshen the Flowers,” she writes this.
“So I put them in the sink, for the cool porcelain was tender,
and took out the tattered and cut each stem on a slant,
trimmed the black and raggy leaves, and set them all — roses, delphiniums,
daisies, iris, lilies, and more whose names I don’t know,
in bright new water – Gave them
a bounce upward at the end, to let them take
their own choice of position, the wheels, the spurs, the little sheds of the buds.
It took, to do this, perhaps fifteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes of music,
with nothing playing.”
(Why I Wake Early, p. 7)
She pauses for a moment to arrange the flowers and in the pausing lets underlying “music” in that simple act sound through to the surface. In the terms of the gospel story, you might say she took the time to “listen for the words.” And I use just that phrase because it’s got so much to do with what’s involved in being a follower of Jesus.
For one thing, there’s Peter who, at the end of a long and hectic night, is able to hear the words Jesus is speaks right there in the midst of work. He hears, and then he also responds.
For another, there are all disciples through the ages who were able to read between the lines of everyday life, and hear God’s word sounding there. So for instance a Vincent de Paul who could hear in the wealth inequality of his day not just a social issue but also Gospel summons to go out and feed the hungry in Jesus’ name. And so for another Pope Francis who reads the ecological crisis not just as a political problem but as a call to respond in gratitude to the bounty of God’s creation by taking better care of it. They and so many others stop to listen for God’s Word as it’s lodged in the events of everyday life.
Then there’s listening better God’s explicit Word, as it comes in the Scriptures and in the celebration of the sacraments. Can I do more of that stepping back so as to hear the fuller resonances in these words (better, in The Word)? Can I pause to listen more expectantly, attend with more openness, and tune in with that more listening ear? In Mary Oliver’s expression, can I take the time to “hear the music” that flows through these sacred Words?
One more case is this Lent just coming up. Among other things it’s meant to be a special “step-back” time in the Church year, a season for inserting those “slow-downs” into a busy life so I can not only taste what’s going on, but step back and more deeply savor it.
And so for instance, Lenten fasting. It’s something that goes against a lot of conventional wisdom and 21st century common sense. Isn’t it a left-over from my youth when the real pay-off of giving up candy was that it made me feel better on Holy Saturday when I could eat it again? Doesn’t it have this other more adult pay-off of making me feel superior to those who don’t give up?
These things are true enough. But what about the deeper-rooted things that can come from the practice of fasting, experiences I can’t have by reading about them but only by doing what it takes to have them?
Things like the hunger rising in me as a reminder, (now coming from the inside) of the hungers of others, all the hungers physical, spiritual, and emotional in the world around me. Can’t that experience bring me into more solidarity with the other members of Christ’s body? Can’t it bring home to me some more of that oneness with the sister and brother that St. Paul keeps underlining? Can’t it make me feel some more of the interconnectedness of all creation that Pope Francis writes about? Can’t the stomach-emptiness I feel in fasting be a prod to some spiritual emptying out of my cluttered days and nights so as to make space for the the Lord to enter in more easily?
These are seasonal applications of what Peter does in today’s story. After working all night and feeling like he just wants to go home and go to bed, he somehow steps back and listens anyhow. He not only hears but he responds. He and his compatriots in the boat listen to the word coming from the mouth of God’s person, Jesus. And even against their better judgment they go with it; they row out and drop their tired nets once again.
May this Lenten season ahead, and especially its time-proven practices, be a time of some stepping back to listen for and respond to the deeper things to be found in God’s Word, both as it’s spoken in the Eucharistic Assembly and indeed as it resounds through all of life.
Thanks, Fr. Tom, for your powerful and insightful reflection on being open to hear Christ’s call in the “hectic craziness” of life. Your words on the deeper meaning of fasting as a call to solidarity, oneness, interconnectedness, and emptying out the clutter of overfull lives, especially hit home with me. Stepping back …what a great Lenten and Vincentian practice!