Maurine Proctor’s column appears on Tuesdays on Meridian.
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Years ago my husband Scot and I stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee waiting for morning’s first light and for the men who had spent their night fishing to come in with their catch. There in the gray morning we saw the small figure of a boat begin to emerge, as it made its way to shore, where we stood with a camera, hoping to catch a photograph of Galilean fish.
A burly fisherman, who centuries earlier could have been Peter himself, came onto the dock, a man large in stature and presence. His face drooped with exhaustion after his long night’s toil, his eyes weary and bagged. Seeing our camera, he said, his voice robust, “If you want picture of fisherman, you can have. If you want picture of fish, you cannot, for we have none.”
The Sea of Galilee was high that year, and night after night they got no fish for their labor. After their best, most intent labor, they came up empty.
It reminded us of another scene near that same place. After Christ’s resurrection, Peter said “I go a fishing.” Toiling, that night they, too, caught nothing, and when they returned, Jesus stood on the shore with this kind question, “Children, have ye any meat?” How kind to be called with the loving term, “Children.” When they answered no, he simply told them to cast their nets on the other and “ye shall find” (John 21:6).
Then they could not draw out the net for the multitude of fish.
Coming up empty after giving great effort and passionate engagement is not uncommon in our experience as mortals in a fallen world. The law of the harvest seems sometimes unreliable. We know we have worked and dedicated ourselves beyond all convenience, labored until it hurt on some things only to have our nets empty.
When certain kinds of success, specific and dreamed for outcomes elude us, we cry out, “I am trying. I am trying. What more could I do?” I have labored. I have planned. I have dreamed. I have hoped. I have been dashed.
Currently the economy is leaving many with empty nets. College graduates, even with shiny, graduate degrees, can find no work. Investments accrued over a lifetime are suddenly depleted. Bills come that can’t be paid.
Others have empty nets when children who have been lovingly reared with gospel principles abandon their faith.
There are so many ways to come up empty. The marriage of our youth fails. We are overlooked for an opportunity we wanted. Health is fragile and loved ones die. For many reasons there are times when empty nets abound where we hoped to draw in fullness.
However, what look to us as empty nets may not be as empty as they appear.
Coming up empty has its purpose for it arrests our attention as little else can. It is a message that says “look.” We are stopped cold. Some of us just try harder with the net on the same side of the boat and end up bitterly disappointed that there are still so few fish. We insist that we must do things as we have always done, be who we have always been.
Yet, in reality, this dangling empty net is really the kindest invitation to look up from our trouble to the One on the shore who has been waiting there to greet us all along. We are being invited not just to come to Him, but to come to ourselves. We are being invited to a new awareness.
The world we live in is not the real thing. It never has been. We have adjusted because we had to. In fact we have put great energies around constructing what we think is reality and finding our place here. Our deepest, eternal self is layered with assumptions that are not true, perceptions that are skewed, expectations that are wrong. We have told our own story to ourselves in ways that are distorted. Though we try to do better, we are indeed looking through a glass darkly.
We do the best we can on earth, but we get it wrong. Try as we may, we cannot always act in our own best interest, let alone the best interest of anyone else. We are asleep to the actual world, which is closer to us than we know and full of light and truth.
Behind these empty nets is a smiling reality, a divine world lit by light that flows from the bosom of God himself that we often cannot feel.
In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare asks:
Are you sure
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream.
The answer to this is, of course, that we are not sure that we are awake to the actual world, the world our eternal spirit knew and understood. C.S. Lewis comments that it is not so much that we find our place in the world, but that the world finds its place in us.
The scriptures advise us to awake as if we are in the drowsiest, most unaware slumber, raising our heads from the pillow in a twilight, only to sink back down again to sleep. “Awake, awake, put on thy strength,” we are told. “Awake and arise.”
This is repeated with some urgency in scripture for if we are to journey to that expanded world of light, the actual world, we must begin by understanding that our way of thinking must be transformed. The deep sleep must be penetrated. Grace for grace we must grow in our mind and awareness, letting the false things fall away, shedding the shadow props that we have created to make sense of the world and our place in it.
It is utterly true that to be with the Lord and like him, we cannot do things the way we have always done them. We cannot be who we have always been. We cannot be glued to see as we have always seen.
Thus, in his kindness, God gives us experiences that reveal to us our limitations, the short-sightedness of our personally-constructed worldview. It is as if life is a perfect play, scene by scene, to reveal our flaws, to move us right up against our glass ceiling, to trip us up when we would fly.
Why did I have this experience we might ask with lament. The answer is simple, to reveal yourself to you.
What kindness this is for otherwise we should become content and think we got it right, like the blind child who really believes the whole world is dark. Or like the Masai who, when put in prison, die, because they believe that is all there is and cannot envision freedom. We would be robbed of our thirst for God and feel no need to cast our nets on the other side. We would miss the catch that was so great we could not draw it in. We would not yearn to respond to his instructions.
In our minds and hearts we embrace charity and courage and devotion, and think that because we love them, we exhibit them, that we have become them.
Then how disappointing it is in the rough and tumble of real life to find we are protective of our ego and self-image just at the moment we should have been charitable.
How difficult to see that we seek to control and dominate things through the exercise of our own pride and will because we are frightened that things won’t work out for us. How devastating it is to see that too often we take the short cut of trying to look good instead of actually being good.
As he did in the Sermon the Mount, the Lord gives us commandments whose level of difficulty make them impossible. Love your enemies? Bless them that curse you? Turn the other cheek? If someone sues you and takes your coat, give them your cloak also? Truly, how can he ask this? Those who try to develop these attributes without the strengthening and enabling power of the atonement and the Spirit of God will be bitterly disappointed.
Instead, he is asking us to move to a new world where we cast our nets on the other side and he, the generous and abundant giver, fills them, fills them to overflowing.
These are not do-it-yourself projects. Your soul is not a do-it-yourself project. There must come a day on this journey called mortality that we arrive at the place where we finally confess, “I cannot do this alone.” By taking thought on my own, I cannot add one cubit to my height.
In reality, in the spiritual journey we come to this realization again and again. We are his project and he will not come up empty, if we will just be willing to look to him and cast our nets on the other side.
Only he can take us from where we are to where he is with our mind becoming open to this new world of light. We must give up our resistance toward him, even that small piece of resistance that we think is nearly invisible. We must follow Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane, and under our own small stress, learn to pray “more intently.” We must be willing to have our very core transformed, the identity we have built piece by piece remodeled, even painfully so. We must cry unto him for all our support, because after all we can do, we will find it wasn’t very much.
This requires a leap of trust. It means we must let go of some of our frantic need for control, our measuring and evaluating, our carefully-constructed strategies, our comfort in the status quo of our being, our frenetic, repetitive efforts to fish from the boat where we are and cry to the Lord for something more.
He stands willing to give it, so much that we will not be able to draw in our nets.