What my first fishing trip taught me about the Gospels, evangelization, and the spiritual life

Fr. Edward Looney with a salmon he caught. Photo courtesy of Fr. Edward Looney

The parishes I serve in southern Door and Kewaunee counties in Wisconsin are surrounded by bodies of water. One is close to the Bay of Green Bay, off which, many of my parishioners live. The other is situated closer to Lake Michigan. In my two-plus years at the parishes, many of my parishioners have shared their fish tales and offered to take me out one night. That happened a few weeks ago.

Even though it was a recreational experience, with the eyes of faith because of who I am, I experienced fishing through a spiritual lens, opening up new insights about the Gospels and the spiritual life.

A time to reflect and wonder

Many thoughts occupied my mind the night I went fishing. Thinking about the past and the future, and all that was ahead of me. I had some decisions I needed to make and things to process. Even though I was with a group of people, there were moments for solitude for me to mull over my thoughts as I looked out at the vastness of the water and watched the sun set. My time on the boat provided ample time for personal reflection and to be in awe of the beauty of creation. In one sense, on that night, it’s all I really required: time to think, pray, ponder, and be in awe.

Meditating about Jesus and the fisherman apostles

When Jesus called some of his disciples, he did so from the shore of the sea. Peter and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, left their nets and followed Jesus. They didn’t quit fishing or boating altogether though.

The apostles were with Jesus on a boat when the waters became rough and Jesus commanded the storm and the sea. They traversed the waters to get to the other side and bring the Gospel to another area of Judea. Jesus helped the apostles with their miraculous catch after catching nothing all night. After the Resurrection, Peter declared to the apostles that he was going fishing, and it was out on the water that he recognized Jesus and jumped out of the boat to go toward him.

Fishing in the 21st century is not as austere as it was in the time of Jesus or his apostles. We had 12 lines cast. Devices told us the depth of water and when fish were nearby. The apostles didn’t have hi-tech equipment and the bait we had. They were simple men in a simple boat, with a fishing net. It was hard to imagine what that was like for them. In my thinking and pondering, my imagination was led into meditating about Jesus and the apostles fishing on the water and all that might entail.

“The Miraculous Draught” by Henri-Pierre Picou, 1850s. Photo: Public Domain

Fishing requires patience and hard work

It took over an hour, maybe even longer, for our first bite. But once the line jerked, excitement erupted on the boat and everyone got up on their feet. They tried reeling the fish in, but unfortunately lost it. The night I went out, we reeled in three of the six bites. As we patiently waited for bites and enthusiastically to reel them in, I couldn’t help but see a connection to the Church’s mission of evangelization and discipleship.

There are lots of people who we want to accept the fullness of truth and to believe in Jesus, the Eucharist, and the Church. These people might be your family members, friends, neighbors, or co-workers. Maybe you’ve tried to evangelize and convert them for years. Just as in fishing, it takes patience. The bite won’t come immediately.

You put out the bait. And just wait. And one day, maybe there is that bite. Something happens in their heart and soul and they are curious. So you begin to reel them in. I reeled my first large fish in. I’ve caught basses on small lakes before, but never a 10-pound salmon. It was hard work. I must have reeled for five minutes or longer. My arm tired. Evangelization and discipleship is tiring, too.

Just as in fishing, we might get a bite, and think that we caught one, only to have them get away. But that fish might come back. Or the fish we have been waiting for finally bites and we reel and reel and reel. It’s important not to give up. Prayer after prayer, conversation after conversation, can be tiring when you don’t think the person is ready. But sooner or later, your work will pay off. You will make the catch, and you will be quite pleased at what God has done in your work as an evangelist.

Something happens in their heart and soul and they are curious.

You need a guide

I don’t own a boat. But I have parishioners that do, and they weren’t afraid to take me out. I had no idea how to fish. But they do. And they wanted me to experience it. They explained what they were doing. They taught me how to reel in the fish. They helped me gain experience.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t rent a boat and go out fishing all by myself. I still need a guide in order to know how to fish. And when we returned to harbor it was already dark, so we required the guidance of a light to guide us to where we needed to dock.

The same is true in the spiritual life. We need guides. People we can talk to about what God is doing in our life. We turn to the spiritual masters for guidance. We can do so by reading the works of the saints or other spiritual authors. They can help us maneuver the waters of the spiritual life. A trusted priest, religious sister, or faith-filled Catholic can do the same. It’s good for us to talk about faith and the movements of our heart. You need a spiritual guide to help you navigate the murky waters of life.

Fr. Edward Looney with a salmon he caught. Photo courtesy of Fr. Edward Looney

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