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.
Ten years ago, I saw The Hollow Crown when it was touring in Melbourne.
The Hollow Crown basically consists of four stage actors sitting on stools and reciting historical speeches, proclamations and diary entries about the Kings and Queens of England. It sounds boring, but it’s not. It’s captivating theatre which makes history come alive.
Several years later, I saw the idea adapted to the lives of the saints in a stage production called Saints Alive. Three actors sat on stage and recited extracts from hagiographies, testimonies and spiritual diaries relating to dozens of saints. Saints Alive was every bit as as captivating as The Hollow Crown, and true to its name, it brought the saints to life.
I was reminded of these simple but compelling productions when I came across a one-man play about one of my favourite saints:
Leonardo Defilippis’s latest one-man stage production, Vianney, opens amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, a time which mirrors the secularization, materialism and anti-religious sentiment of our own day. Against this dramatic backdrop, a simple ignorant peasant priest enters the backwater town of Ars, a place where no one cares much about their faith, or sees the Church as particularly relevant. They don’t expect much out of Fr Vianney. But then the impossible begins to happen through this unlikely shepherd – his example, his love, and his sacrifice stir the townspeople to change: they start to listen, and they start to pray.
Today is St Jean-Marie Vianney’s feast day. “The Holy Curé of Ars” is patron saint of parish priests, and his spirituality and example have always nourished my own priestly vocation.
The Youtube trailer provides a good introduction to anyone who is unfamiliar with St Jean-Marie, but apart from that it has convinced me to order the screen adaption of the play! I’ll let you know what it’s like.
Bloggers clerical and lay can attract pedantic and unwanted attention. It’s not all that different to the sort of attention priests encounter in the parish from aggrieved faithful.
Even the saintly Curé of Ars was frequently confronted by parishioners demanding he reform his ways. His typical response included a gracious apology and a plea for prayers for his conversion. But bystanders who knew Vianney well noticed that at such times, he often wrung his hands until his knuckles were white – a sign, they said, that his patience was tested, and he was making every effort not to reply with a reasoned explanation and a curt dismissal.
Fr James Martin has supplied us with the digital equivalent! He does a good job satirizing the provocative and often willful misinterpretations some commenters attach to blog posts. Here’s a sample:
Me: I love Jesus.
Father Martin, with all due respect, I don’t mean to be critical, particularly to a priest, but I am compelled to point out that in your most recent post, you didn’t say “Jesus Christ.” As you know, Christ, from the Greek word Christos, meaning the Anointed One (years ago, all Jesuits understood Greek, but perhaps no longer), is the nomenclature that Holy Mother Church uses to signify Our Lord’s divinity. Father, do you somehow not believe in the divinity of Our Blessed Lord?
And on it goes, to hilarious effect.
(I hasten to add that my personal experience is quite different. I’ve received the odd comment which misrepresents me, or personally attacks me, but I have found in every case that if I send a personal email with a conciliatory tone, differences are quickly resolved.)