Now that we have finished the celebration of the Holy Cross, we come to a sort of new beginning in the cycle of the Sunday Gospels. We begin the cycle of St Luke, and today we begin with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as He calls his first disciples to follow Him (Lk. 5:1-11).
The theme of Christ calling his disciples recurs often during the liturgical year. Today’s epistle (2Cor. 4:6-15) may help to shed some light on this theme, as it directs us not only to the God who calls people to serve Him, but who calls the very creation into being.
St Paul describes Him as “the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness.’” He goes on to say that the One who called the universe into being by his creative Word is the same One who shines in our hearts to reveal his glory through his Son Jesus Christ.
It is not a small thing to understand God as He who said, “Let light shine out of darkness.” And it means much more than that primordial act of creation whereby God brought order into chaos and designed the universe in all its fascinating complexity and beauty. It is an even greater miracle for God to call human souls out of the darkness of unbelief and sin into the light of his grace and truth. The material universe is subject to dissolution and destruction, but human souls are immortal and are created in God’s image, so we are more precious to Him than all the stars and galaxies and wonders of the universe.
I recently read an interesting conversion story, in which God used a manner of calling that we wouldn’t normally expect. Usually God calls us by revealing his presence in some way, but in this case He called a certain woman by letting her feel his absence. Thus she realized that the absence of God is Hell, and so the presence of God is Heaven, and she accepted the grace to change her life in accordance with what she learned in that experience. God enlightened her by showing her what the darkness is like. I will now share with you her own account of it. (You can read the whole story here. It’s long, but worth reading.)
She begins by telling the story of how she fell away from Christian faith and morality, mainly through the lies of radical feminists. She accepted the lies and began living an immoral life, even though deep down she knew there was something rotten at the core of it. She says:
“Nothing changed. I just kept finding better excuses for what I kept doing. Sure, my conscience was getting louder and louder… but I still refused to change my life.
“Then one night, everything changed. That night, in the middle of the night, I had a powerful experience that still remains a vivid memory. I am sure that it was a warning from God. He must have taken pity on my tortured conscience and seen some potential in a soul wounded by so much sin, indifference, and lies. I remember experiencing, for a dark moment that seemed like an hour, true agony and despair. In that moment, I felt what it was to be unloved by God. I felt a separation between me and God that was irreversible. Forget fire and brimstone, this is what Hell was like. I felt like I was a hole, surrounded by nothing. Something was missing from within me and something was missing around me… something central and irreplaceable… something I needed. I felt like I was trapped in some void. I don’t remember if my eyes were open or closed for this moment, but I remember seeing nothing but blackness. There was no color. There was no light. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. I felt nothing. I felt detached from the world, detached from my boyfriend sleeping beside me. I felt detached from everything, and yet, I felt an intense longing for what I was missing. This yearning would have destroyed me had it lasted longer. I knew instantly that God was that central element missing from that moment.”
So God called her out of darkness by showing her that life without Him, life in disobedience to his commandments and in rejection of his love, would lead to utter, eternal darkness, the black hole of separation from God, who is the Source of all life, love, blessing, goodness, beauty, fulfillment, and joy. Well, she heard that call, all right, and she immediately repented and changed her life.
God calls each of us uniquely, for we are unique individuals with different capacities and experiences and temperaments. He knows what will reach us, what will stir our hearts, what will open our minds to his truth. For St Peter in today’s Gospel it was the miracle of the enormous catch of fish after a long night of catching nothing that revealed to him God to him in the person of Jesus, before whom he then confessed his sinfulness. Immediately after that, he became his disciple, along with two others who also witnessed the miracle.
One thing I find amazing about this account is that after the miracle, Peter, James, and John, left everything and followed Jesus. We shouldn’t pass over this sentence lightly, for it is rich in meaning. We can use an modern analogy for what happened in the Gospel account. Suppose you were in the habit of buying lottery tickets, hoping to win the jackpot someday. You never did win it, and just now you bought a whole batch of tickets, and all of them turned out to be losers. Then someone comes to you and says, “Here, buy this one.” And you say, “But I’ve been buying them for years, and just now I bought a bunch of losing tickets once again, but at your word I will buy this one you suggest.” This ticket turns out to be the big winner, and you collect ten million dollars. But here’s the amazing thing. As soon as you get the money, you give every bit of it away and then attach yourself to the man who told you to buy the ticket, happy to live in poverty if only you can be with Him all the time.
This is something like what it means to be called by Jesus. He reveals something marvelous to us, maybe works a miracle or grants us some extraordinary gift. But the gift just leads us to the Giver. If Peter had merely thanked Jesus for the miraculous catch, and then went home counting his profits, he never would have become a saint, and Jesus would have had to find someone else to feed his sheep and be the rock of his Church. But the gift only served to enlighten Peter enough to follow the Giver.
I was once talking to someone who was considering religious life, and one of the concerns expressed was that God had given certain gifts, and would they be able to be used in the context of religious life? But that is the wrong question. Suppose the only reason God gave the gifts was to reveal Himself as the Giver of gifts? Suppose they were just a means of drawing that person to Himself? Sometimes we have to set aside certain talents or skills in order to serve God in the way He wants us to. Sometimes we just have to leave everything and follow Him.
This means more than simply leaving our material possessions, as in the case of the rich young man. There are more difficult things to leave behind when we decide to follow God’s call. Jesus’ words, “Go out into the deep and let down your nets” can be a metaphor for this. To go out into the deep is to take a leap of faith, to let go of merely human securities, to take the risk of what entering the mysteries of God might cost you. Similarly, to let down your nets can mean to let down your defenses, your ego supports, your rationalizations and self-deceptions—everything that keeps you from freely following Jesus.
There something in the human psyche, damaged as it is by original sin and further deranged by personal sins, that is akin to what is known as the self-preservation instinct. That refers mainly to bodily survival, but what I’m talking about is more a psychological or even spiritual phenomenon. We have to ask ourselves why we become defensive if someone criticizes us, why we try to justify or make excuses for ourselves, why we brood—even for years—over real or perceived hurts from others, why we indulge in self-pity if we think others are not treating us the way we want to be treated. But all of this is self-absorption and has nothing to do with following Jesus. In fact, these things are a large part of the “everything” we have to leave behind if we are to become disciples of Christ. We must launch out into the deep and let down our nets if we want to follow the Lord. We have to realize that to serve Jesus requires a radical dying to self—there is no place for crybabies in the Kingdom of God!
Look at the greatest disciples of Christ: Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her soul; Jesus told Peter that he would be led where he did not wish to go; Jesus told Paul how much he would have to suffer for his name’s sake, and He told all of us that the path to the Kingdom of Heaven is narrow and hard, and that the only way to get there is by self-denial and bearing our crosses.
So we need to acquire, by God’s grace, a certain greatness of soul, a willingness to transcend all pettiness and selfish concern. We need to see the great panorama of God’s plan and where our individual vocations fit into it. When God calls us, He expects something from us: a response, a sacrifice, a leaving all behind because we recognize, in St Paul’s words, “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8).
If we don’t “get it,” the Lord might have to show us what He showed the woman I mentioned earlier: that without Him all is darkness, emptiness, unfulfilled longing, the dreadful, despairing agony of separation from our only hope of lasting love and happiness.
I might want to say, “Well, that doesn’t apply to me; I’m doing all right. I’m not an evildoer; I go to church and I say my prayers.” But this is not enough to become a saint, and it may not even be enough to be saved. Every time I choose my own will over God’s will, I take one step closer to that black hole of eternal isolation and misery. Every time I choose the way of self-protection, self-preservation, self-justification, self-defense—you see the key word in all these: “self”—I cease to follow Jesus, I go back to my boat and start fishing for things that make me feel good or that nurse my bruised ego.
But God is the One who says: “Let light shine out of darkness!” He’s the one who calls us out of the darkness of self-absorption into the marvelous light of sacrificial love and service. He is the one who calls us to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, to leave all our unwieldy baggage behind and to begin the pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Heaven.
So let us be willing to leave everything, go out into the deep, let down our nets, hear the call of God and run to Him, not counting the cost. As the Apostle says, we carry the death of Jesus within us so that his life may be manifested in us. Thus grace will abound, to the glory of God. And oh, how we will give thanks when we are delivered from the dominion of darkness and brought into the Kingdom of his beloved Son! Let us then press on, that we may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has laid hold of us.