Casting our net to the other side

A Vietnamese fisherman throws out a net, spring 2014. (Tom Fox)

In one of the post-Resurrection accounts in the Scripture (John 21) some of the disciples went fishing with Peter. All night they caught nothing. Then at daybreak, Jesus — who was standing on the shore, though none of the disciples recognized him — asked if they had caught anything. They answered that they had caught nothing. Jesus then told them to cast their net off the other side. When they did that, they caught so many fish that they could hardly haul the net in.

That image of these seasoned fishermen who knew where and how to fish, taking their net after a night of fishing and turning to the other side to cast it again wouldn't leave me.

It seems simple enough, and yet how profound, since for some reason they had not switched sides all night. They probably thought, most likely based on their history, that where they were fishing was the right spot. They believed that staying there would eventually bring them a catch of fish. But it did not, and instead they responded to an invitation to turn and cast their net to the other side even though they were tired and discouraged having spent all night fishing.

I wondered in how many situations in my life do I cast a net and, through the night and through the years, continue to wait for the "catch" in the same place. I'm becoming aware that I feel as if I have been waiting for "public policies rooted in social justice values" in some old tried and true political waters. And my net is still empty.

I reflect on congregations of women religious who are tirelessly casting out nets into the same waters for new vocations. We faithfully do it over and over and are getting worn out and exasperated wondering why no one joins us. The net continues to be empty.

How many of us stand believing that the one place where we cast our net, where we seek our desire, is where it will happen? It is the place we know and from which we have benefitted in the past. Why should it not continue? Let's just get a few more old friends and stand through the night and see if anything will happen!

Yet, the disciples heard a question — Did you catch anything? They responded honestly: Not a thing. Then an invitation — Cast your net to the other side.

How can I, can we, hear the questions that need to be answered honestly and then have the courage and take the risk to respond to the invitation to do what we never thought of or thought possible?

For me, this is where contemplation comes in — individual and communal. Contemplation opens us to God's presence in us. It helps to clear our busy mind, which knows what to do and why to keep doing it. It awakens in us a space, a fullness which invites us to see differently, to hear differently. Because it is a non-discursive form of prayer, it touches our gut center of knowing, and it strengthens our capacity to respond in new ways to old situations. It awakens us to what is already there but which we have not been able to see. It invites us to experience the unconditional love of God.

I believe a contemplative practice readies us to hear the key questions and to respond not defensively but honestly, opening our own heart to conversion. It prepares us to hear an invitation that might shatter all our old preconceived categories or ways of thinking of things. Rooted in our Divine self, in our Christ self, we begin to free ourselves from our needs for security, control and power. Needs that often keep us stuck in one place believing that this is the way forward.

The disciples needed each other to bring their net across the boat and cast it to the other side. We, too, need each other to share that contemplative space so we might together discern the questions, the invitations and new possibilities. Hauling in the net of old expectations, assumptions and behaviors is arduous and takes all our strength. Honestly responding in our own time to the question Jesus asked, "Did you catch anything?" and casting the net to the other side — freed of our needs for power, security and control but filled with our hopes and love — takes the agility and energy of the whole.

The Gospel surprises me once again in bringing forward that which I would not have thought of. This time in our evolutionary journey is one of great change — fast change and fearful change for many. Too many of us are casting our nets over the same side of our boats that we have been doing for years. The invitation is to turn around and go to the other side and cast our net. Perhaps we will be surprised like the disciples when daybreak comes and our nets are overflowing.

Another reflection you may be interested in reading is Finding Our Balance in the Political Landscape at the ICCD Institute. It too, addresses looking at things in new ways.

[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue iccdinstitute.org since 2002. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.