Today it was my turn to be principal celebrant at Mass. I've come to hold such days precious in my current circumstances. When I was in the parish I would preside at Mass once a day at least; here, in a community of many priests without an external ministry, my turn only comes around once or twice a month. I treasure it even more when it falls on a Sunday. After all, Sunday is, as the Office of Readings reminds us today in the passage from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, "the first and greatest festival...the foundation and the kernel of the whole liturgical year."
On a Sunday, of course I also get to preach. (I tend to give a homily here only on days when the brethren have a right to one, namely on Sundays, other solemnities, and feasts. I sense that the brethren appreciate this discretion.) The gospel for today is Matthew 4:12-23, Jesus' move from Nazareth to Capernaum and the call of Peter and Andrew, James and John. Because of the limits of my Italian, I have to preach very simply, though I did play a little bit on 'fishers,' pescatori
, and 'fished,' pescati
. Pity I didn't think to mix peccatori
, 'sinners' and 'sins,' into my Italian word salad.
I think the forced simplicity is a good thing spiritually; it makes me pay attention to what is essential, to what is the simple good news of the Scripture and how it can be communicated simply. But this also leaves my own personal reflection free of any demand that it be pointed toward the pastoral or even the communicable.
"I will make you fishers of men," says Jesus to Peter and Andrew. I think about myself in that context, as someone fished out of the world by the apostolic preaching, that is, by the New Testament and Sacred Tradition. Ever since I was little I've had a mysterious attraction to Jesus Christ and him crucified, and for this I stand in grateful awe before God in my prayer because I firmly believe what our Seraphic Doctor St. Bonaventure teaches us, that there is no way except through the burning love of the crucified
. But at the time of my exterior conversion, it was the apostolic preaching that hooked me. I read the New Testament and decided that I wanted to be a Christian. I studied, thought--and finally prayed--to know which sort of Christian I ought to become. I finally decided that it had to be one of the apostolic Churches, which for me at the time meant Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Considering myself a Westerner, "rehearsed in the rigors of Western thought" as we used to think of ourselves back in college (in our vainglory) I decided to become a Roman Catholic.
And what of me, as one thus fished? What happens to a fish when it comes to be fished? It struggles, it flops around in the hopes of returning to the sea, it dies, and is turned into food.
When you convert, at first it seems like a smooth and glorious thing to be thus fished, to be "saved from immersion in the sea of lies and passions which is called 'the world'" (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
) But soon you struggle because the worldliness and the lies within begin to have trouble breathing. So in their panic they make us flop about, here falling into doubt, there slipping into sin. But eventually they die, buried in baptism, and you find yourself free to be turned into food, into nourishment for your sister and brother sinners. In this regard I think of an ordination homily I once heard from Seán O'Malley. The Cardinal remarked that each day, when a priest consecrates the offered bread saying, for this is my body
, which will be given up for you
, he is also talking about himself, his own body, his own life, united to the sacrifice of Christ, handed over to be broken in the nourishment of the People of God and the world.
Struggle, death, nourishment for others. So our being fished offers us a description of stages of the spiritual life, not unlike many others. Purgative, illuminative, unitive. Selfishness to self-oblation. Death to life. When I was younger I used to read about such plans and stages of the spiritual life with great delight, and the more steps the better. I would imagine myself reaching the highest stages of prayer and contemplation, of sanctity and self-abnegation before too long, without a lot of effort, and along a bright and consoling path. But years later I realize that spiritual things are not conformed to the time we measure in the passing days and years. It is not a neat progression from one stage to another, such that the flesh might feel a sense of advancement through some set of grades or ranks. The truth is that I am always flailing around as the selfishness and attachment in me panics and suffocates, hoping to catch, just one more time, a couple nasty breaths of the dirty air of sin. I am always entering the peace that comes with the death of this person I thought was me but is unknown to the Creator. I am always discovering the delight that the very brokenness that results from this process leaves me broken open for others, for nourishing my fellow sufferers.