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Friday, 19 January 2018 17:41

The normal experiences of life don't have to be a threat to faith

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Br Julian McDonald cfcReflection on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

This Sunday's Gospel gives us a very real example of how the normal, everyday, concrete experiences of life don’t have to be a threat to faith.  Sometimes faith is an extension of those experiences, writes Brother Julian McDonald.

As he was walking along by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net in the lake  -  for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them:  “Follow me and I will make you into fishers of men.”  And at once they left their nets and followed him.         Mark 1, 14-20

Back in 1653, the political magazine Mercurius Politicus carried the following advertisement:

There is newly extant a book of 18d (That’s 18 pence, for those who know only decimal currency), called The Compleat Angler or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation, being a discourse of fish and fishing not unworthy the perusal of most anglers.”  Though Izaak Walton gets most of the credit for this extraordinary treatise on the art and recreation of fishing, it was jointly written by him and Charles Cotton, and sold from a bookshop in London.  Since then it has gone through countless editions, and can still be bought in paperback for about $10.

I was prompted to make reference to this book by today’s second reading from Corinthians and the gospel story of Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets behind and join him as “fishers of men”.  Both readings are about faith  -  something we all experience, but often find difficult to put into words.

Faith and trust are almost interchangeable in our spoken language and in our day-to-day experience.  Just look for a few moments at some of the things we say and do as we go about relating to the people who come into and go out of our lives.  For instance, have you ever heard yourself say to someone:  “I trust you implicitly”, when it might have been more accurate to have said:  “I trust you explicitly”?  Or have you ever found yourself wondering if you really trust so-and-so fully or just trust the image you have projected onto that person, hoping that he or she will deliver in accord with the image you have created of him or her?  And I’m sure there have been times when you've placed your faith and trust in someone, and then found yourself beginning to doubt because some of that person’s behaviour doesn’t square with the expectations you have created in your imagination.

Is the faith and trust we say we have in God any different?  While we might claim that it is based on certainty, if we’re honest, we have to admit that we sometimes have doubts and even find that our faith in God is a bit blurred around the edges.  Yet, if we have never had doubts about our faith in God, we are not fully human.  Even Jesus dying on the Cross struggled with his faith in God and wondered if God had abandoned him.

In today’s second reading, Paul offers some advice to the Christian community in Corinth on some of the practical matters that impacted on their everyday lives.  The context in which Paul offers his advice is important.  He and his fellow Christians were convinced that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner.  So he offers his listeners a technique for looking at some of the practical matters of their lives in the light of their faith.  He really invites them to downplay the importance of some very practical aspects of their lives:  “From now onwards, married men should live as though they were not married (Even then, it seems that women had no voice, and wives were not consulted); those who weep, as though they were not sad; those who laugh, as though they were not happy; those who buy, as though they did not own what they bought; those who deal in material goods, as though they were not fully occupied with them.  For this world, as it is now, will not last much longer” (1 Corinthians 7, 29-31).  Things like marriage, crying, celebrating, buying and selling and generally running our own lives are substantial, tangible experiences.  By contrast, faith seems to be an experience that we find difficult to get hold of; it’s intangible and elusive.  So Paul suggests to his audience, that they might do well to play down the things that preoccupy them and give more attention to their religious faith and trust.  I wonder if this was Paul’s way of saying that satisfaction of the three most powerful human urges  -  for possessions, sex and the desire to be in charge of our lives  -  can distract us from putting our faith and trust in God.  I leave that to you to decide.  But, at the very least, he is offering a technique to help his listeners to stop and reflect on the quality and shape of their faith in God.  And that prompts me to ask myself what my faith in God is like.

But the normal, everyday, concrete experiences of life don’t have to be a threat to faith.  Sometimes faith is an extension of those experiences.  Today’s gospel gives us a very real example of that.  Note that Jesus doesn’t belittle or criticise what those first disciples were doing with their lives.  Rather, he capitalises on the fact that they were fishermen, telling them that he will build on the skills they already have, as he teaches them to be fishers of men.  They already have the flexibility required to be patient as they go about their trade, waiting for the right conditions to play out their nets, experimenting with different kinds of gear and lures, resigning themselves to the fact that a good catch won’t come every day.  These are skills and attitudes that are transferable to working with people. When it comes to inviting others to change their attitudes and behaviours, one has to be patient and able to judge when the circumstances are right for them to be able to hear the message.   Jesus knew that the journey ahead would not be without its challenges.  He therefore chose helpers who would know how to rough it, who would have a capacity to endure resistance, who would be able to adapt to different circumstances.  Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler was still 1600 years away, but those first disciples had an affinity with nature, with seas and waterways; they knew tides and currents; they knew the experience of having to wait patiently for the right conditions for catching fish.  Jesus seems to think that experiences from their daily work would stand them in good stead when it came to dealing with people. 

John Henry Cardinal Newman once said: “Belief engenders belief,” suggesting that, in our day-to-day lives, we have a far greater experience of faith than we actually realize  -  faith in other people and in what they say and do.  And all this, before we even begin to consider our faith in God!  In the long run, if our faith in God isn’t a bit fuzzy or uncertain, it probably isn’t faith at all.  But it grows out of the ordinary experiences of our living, working and relating.