“A call is different from a choice,” says the famous author Kathleen Norris in her book, The Cloister Walk. Norris is a Protestant but has spent considerable periods of time as a Benedictine Oblate at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota (the subject of her book). The monks there have an occasional exercise they call, “the path to the monastery” in which they reflect on how they ended up as Benedictine monks. Most of them label the process as a series of “calls” to which one has to respond rather than simply as a firm choice on their part.
The Bible would agree. Our culture prizes being able to make choices—choosing our friends, our clothing, our job, our political party. But the life of the faith seems to work its way in from the outside, something not completely under our control. God’s call seeping into our lives through a multitude of experiences.
That is the point of the gospel story from Luke that we find in today’s readings. Jesus is preaching to a crowd fanned out around a cove along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The people are so eager to hear every word of Jesus that they press forward, so much so that he has to get into a boat moored nearby and preach from that wooden pulpit. It so happens that the boat belongs to Peter and his fishing partners. When Jesus finishes speaking to the crowd, he tells Peter to “put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Peter, obviously frustrated and wary, tells this mysterious intruder that he and his partners have fished all night and caught nothing—but they are willing to try again.
We know the ending…they catch such an abundance of fish that their boats are on the point of sinking. When Peter sees all this, he sinks to his knees and prays, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But Jesus tells him not to be afraid…” from now on you will be catching people.” When they come to shore, Peter and his companions leave everything and follow Jesus.
The Scriptures have other such call stories: Fishermen lured away from their boats and nets; Matthew leaving his toll booth; Bartholomew and Nathaniel mystified by Jesus; Paul dazzled by the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus; Mary of Nazareth told she will bear a son for the life of the world. In the Old Testament, too, leaders like Moses; prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Samuel. All mysteriously called by God to take up a new and often unexpected way of life.
The Scriptures today remind us that we are called by God, too. Called to be followers of Jesus; called incessantly to lead a deeper, more richly spiritual life; called to love, forgiveness and compassion; called to a more profound trust that God is with us no matter where life takes us.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.