In our Gospel for this weekend we have what may very well be the most insincere prayer recorded in Sacred Scripture. I do not mean that the person praying it is insincere. On the contrary, St. Peter is one of the most sincere followers Christ encountered on this earth. Yet the plea he offers to Christ in St. Luke’s Gospel this morning is one that he, in his heart of hearts, would never, ever, have wanted Christ to answer.
The scene is compelling. Peter and his confreres have been fishing all night; they have caught nothing and they are tired. Christ urges them on nonetheless: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). Peter heeds that call…perhaps reluctantly…and then suddenly upon seeing such a miraculous return, and finding both boats filled with fish, he begins to understand: this is no ordinary teacher, no mere prophet. This is the Christ, the Lord!
His reaction is understandable and not at all surprising as he recognizes Who this man is and how very unworthy he himself is. And then he prays:
Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.
Now how realistic is that prayer? Remember, this is before St. Peter has seen Jesus walking on the water. They are in a boat! Where does he expect Christ to depart to? All he knows, in the immediacy of the moment, is that he is in the middle of the sea, in a boat, with God! He is overwhelmed by the recognition of his own sinfulness and the splendor and majesty of Christ. His voice pleads with Christ to leave him alone but we know, deep inside, what Peter is really thinking: Lord, please do not ever leave me! Please, Lord, do not ever go away!
It is, in many ways, one of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life: the closer we get to Christ the more we come to realize our own sin and unworthiness before Him…and the more we long, deep in our hearts, to never, ever be separated from Him, even for an instant.
Thank God that not all our prayers are answered! Christ has no intention of answering St. Peter’s request for even the slightest bit of distance or a single moment of time. He does not move one millimeter away from the fisherman from Galilee, but instead draws him into a life that will be intimately connected to Himself from that day forward.
But how do we react when our desire to be close to Christ, and the fruits of our growth in the spiritual life, reveal our sinfulness and how very far we are from the perfection God is calling us to? Do we perhaps, like St. Peter, respond by a withdrawal on the surface level? How very important that we “put out into deep water,” and go deeper with Christ so that He can reveal in us what is deep within the human heart: that innate longing we have for intimacy with Him.
St. John of the Cross, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, talks about the soul’s union with God and beautifully describes it as light coming in through a window (Ascent, Book II, Chapter 5, #6-8). The cleaner and clearer the window, he says, the more complete the transformation of that soul will be in God.
Think about what it is like to look out into your back yard early in the morning or late in the day, with the sun shining on the grass or on the trees outside. The window looks clean enough. But let that same sunlight shine directly into that window at just the right angle and you can see all too clearly the smudges and streaks that have been there all along.
That is what it is like when Jesus Christ shines His light into our souls. The closer we get to the Light the more we can see all the smudges. But that is not the final goal of the spiritual life! We are not supposed to see all the faults and failings in our lives and then pull down the window shade in shame and disappointment (“Depart from me, O Lord!”). No, we are called to clean the window:
A soul makes room for God by wiping away all the smudges and smears of creatures, by uniting it’s will perfectly to God’s; for to love is to labor to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God.
When this is done the soul will be illumined by and transformed in God. And God will so communicate His supernatural being to the soul that it will appear to be God Himself and will possess what God Himself possesses…Yet truly, it’s being (even though transformed) is naturally as distinct from God’s as it was before, just as the window, although illumined by the ray, has being distinct from the ray’s.
—The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Ch. 5, #7
Is not this what we have always longed for deep within our heart of hearts? To be fully illumined and enlightened by the merciful love of God? To be totally transformed in Him? This is the Light that St. Peter longed for, even on that boat in Galilee, despite the words that came from his lips on that miraculous and meaningful encounter with Christ.
The same Christ is calling out to each of us today. He calls us to “put out into deep water” to go deeper with Him than ever in the spiritual life. Will we cling to Him in this coming week? Will we allow Him to clean our windows through prayer, the Eucharist, perhaps through a thorough and heartfelt sacramental confession? The light is shining on us this day. May it transform us into His very likeness and lead us on to the radiance of Christ.