Sitting in the confessional or sacristy at the appointed confession times, waiting for penitents, is one of my least favourite activities.
Time slows. Seconds pass like minutes. Minutes feel like hours. If I bring a book – my Breviary maybe, or some spiritual reading – it’s invariably tedious, if not repugnant. Important tasks – urgent tasks – flood my consciousness. “I really should do that now. As in right now.”
It’s a real battle of the will to stay put for the appointed time, on the off chance that a penitent shows up. Often, there are no penitents. But sometimes penitents do show up, and I’ve discerned a pattern. If the temptation to abandon my post is especially strong, and if a penitent then shows up at the very last minute, they are almost always a “big fish.”
“Grois poisson,” or “big fish,” is a term St Jean-Marie Vianney applied to penitents who made a good confession after years or even decades of inveterate sin.
Inveterate sinners, Vianney said, are like deep water fish who swim around in the dark for a long time, impervious to the fishermen’s nets. It’s a resonant metaphor.
“Duc in altem,” Jesus said to the apostles in Luke’s Gospel:
“Stand out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.”
Simon answered him, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and caught nothing; but at thy word I will let down the net.”
And when they had done this, they took a great quantity of fish, so that the net was near breaking.
Duc in altem. Launch out into the deep.
Chesterton may have had Vianney’s big fish metaphor in mind, when he imagined Father Brown catching a criminal, hearing his confession, and letting him go. Says Fr Brown:
“I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
Evelyn Waugh composed an entire novel around that image. Brideshead Revisited (which is to my mind Waugh’s masterpiece and the best English novel of the twentieth century) relates the operation of divine grace – especially the grace of conversion – on a host of inveterate sinners of varying wickedness. Waugh’s characters wander freely and widely, until they become receptive to God’s grace and return like the prodigal son. A “twitch upon the thread.”
Australia is a nation of amateur fisherman, so I hardly need tell my readers that big fish put up a great struggle before they are landed. It’s especially apt, then, that confessors should experience a spiritual struggle before hearing “big fish confessions.” I can only imagine it’s nothing compared to the struggle ensuing within the penitents themselves.
I think important lessons can be gleaned from this. There is a spiritual battle raging all around us, and within us. It is invisible, but it’s real and it’s powerful. Sacramental confession plays an important part in this battle, which is why it is targeted.
I think we receive “windows in time” during which we are not only especially encouraged, but also especially empowered, to go to confession and sacramentalise our conversion from sin. The enemy place obstacles in front of these windows, so that we pass them by. The enemy’s attacks are double edged: the penitent is discouraged, and so is the minister of the sacrament. How easy it is for penitents to pluck up the courage to make a good confession, note the schedule, show up resolutely, but abandon the plan all together when they meet a dark and empty confessional! I know, because I’ve been there and done that.
So be warned. If you resolve to go to confession – be it frequently or after a long absence – the enemy will discourage you and try to prevent you. Don’t allow it.
St Michael the Archangel, defend us in the hour of battle.