"Sanctity is not a work done, it is a life lived."

 Ronald Knox

Father Ronald Knox, c. 1928, National Portrait Gallery


INTRODUCTION

In spite of tremendous academic and literary achievements, Mgsr. Knox is best known and loved as a preacher. He delivered sermons from the most famous pulpits in England, was frequently heard on the radio and travelled all over the country to give retreats. Msgr.Knox's profound knowledge of Scripture, elegant style, poignant wit, and tender heart make his sermons still relevant and enjoyable today.

PASTORAL AND OCCASIONAL SERMONS is the largest collection of Ronald Knox's sermons and was republished in 2002 by Ignatius Press in a beautiful hardcover edition. It covers a wide variety of sermons on Christian themes as well as the feasts of the Church year, sermons for special occasions and panegyrics. In his introduction to the original edition Father Caraman, S.J. comments, "Only after I had read the sermons in this volume a second time, with the purpose of giving the references to Scriptural and other quotations, did I realize that this collection formed perhaps the most impressive body of pastoral teaching of our time. In scope and brilliance it appeared an achievement comparable only with Newman's Oxford sermons; yet more valuable because the idiom and message belonged to our own generation."

It includes 31 sermons on the Eucharist, 26 of which were originally delivered at Maiden Lane, London, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, from 1926-1956, and published under the title The Window in the Wall. "How many a priest, reading The Window in the Wall, has been filled with a kind of holy envy at the mastery of his exposition of eucharistic doctrine and at the fertility of mind which, year after year, in the same church and to much the same congregation, could find something not merely new but absolutely penetrating and enriching to say on this subject! Most priests have two or three sermons on the Blessed Sacrament; here we have close on two score of them, redolent of the preacher's own devotion, and challenging us to a fuller realization of the wealth at our disposal." (from Ronald Knox, the Priest by Thomas Corbishley, S.J., 1965 Sheed & Ward)

RETREAT FOR LAY PEOPLE (1955), THE LAYMAN AND HIS CONSCIENCE (1961), RETREAT FOR PRIESTS (1946), THE PRIESTLY LIFE (1959) and RETREAT IN SLOW MOTION (1960) are ever-popular collections of retreat meditations. In retreat Msgr.Knox was even more intimate with his audience; everyone felt as if he were being addressed personally, that this was really a tete-a-tete. "No one who listened to him as he preached could doubt that here was a man who was setting out an ideal not just for his listeners, but for himself. His capacity for affecting others, by probing into the secret places where we try to hide from ourselves, arose from his own self-knowledge, from his own genuine humility. His effectiveness as a preacher came in the end, not from his skill in language but from his knowledge of the human heart." (from Ronald Knox, the Priest by Thomas Corbishley, S.J., 1965 Sheed & Ward)

STIMULI (1951) and LIGHTNING MEDITATIONS (1959) contain shorter meditations, such as those written for newspapers.

IN SOFT GARMENTS (1942) contain sermons delivered to Oxford undergraduates while Msgr.Knox was their chaplain and THE HIDDEN STREAM (1952) those he delivered to them by invitation after his chaplaincy came to an end.

UNIVERSITY SERMONS (1963) is sometimes referred to as Volume III of Knox's collected sermons. Edited by Fr. Caraman, it contains In Soft Garments, The Hidden Stream, 28 sermons which Fr. Caraman discovered only after the publication of Pastoral and Occasional Sermons (Volumes I & II), and 14 sermons delivered by Knox as an Anglican before his reception into the Church. 

THE MASS IN SLOW MOTION (1948), THE CREED IN SLOW MOTION (1949) and THE GOSPEL IN SLOW MOTION (1950) are sermons delivered to the schoolgirls at Aldenham Park during World War II. RETREAT IN SLOW MOTION (1960) was added to this collection posthumously.

BRIDEGROOM AND BRIDE (1957) is a collection of wedding sermons. "Here, again, the sacramental, theological, incarnational aspect of the occasion is always beautifully blended with the tender humanity of a man who, it seemed, could enter into the very hearts of those listening to him at this, the most solemn and the most personal moment in their lives." (from Ronald Knox, the Priest by Thomas Corbishley, S.J., 1965 Sheed & Ward)


THE SACRED HEART

Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you and learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart, and you shall find rest to your souls. – Matthew 11. 28-9

Come – it is not enough to stand still; the movement will not be all on God’s side. Christ stretches out his arms, as if the gesture of crucifixion had become habitual even to the glorified body; it is your part to respond to the invitation, to come to him, though your steps be weak and tottering, like the first steps of a child. The Sacred Heart of the Crucified would draw all men to him, yet draws them, not by any chain of necessity, but with cords of love; it must be a free choice of your will by which you step forward from the ranks that waver and hang back, to consecrate yourself to him. True, in this devotion we consecrate ourselves as a family, but it is the individual surrender he prizes, not the mere herd-instinct that bids us, to avoid singularity, associate ourselves in a public act of homage: the word is addressed to each soul individually – Come unto me.

Come unto me – other voices, maybe, in later years will endeavour to distract us, the false religious systems of yesterday, the world with its easy standards, ambition with its insistent call for action, or money, the hardest master of them all: their prizes will seem more ready to our hand, their voices closer in our ear, but none will woo so gently or so patiently as the Sacred Heart, the Heart that loves so much and is loved so little in return, no one else dares to ask or claims to offer as he does. Unto me – not as if your devotion to the Sacred Heart could rival or replace your devotion to Almighty God: for that Heart is the life-centre of the Sacred Humanity, wherein, not by some overshadowing influence, as in Mary and the saints, but by a real and personal union, the fullness of revealed Godhead dwells. Unto me – not to some abstract idea, some expressive image, some memory of a dead past, but a Human Heart, real, concrete, living as your own, living now amid the splendours of the glorified Humanity in heaven.

All you that labour – it is a fashion, a pose you affect among your friends, to despise anything that comes to you openly under the name of work: but labour is rightly measured not by the distastefulness of the occupation or by the value of the results achieved, but by what it costs you, the strain that tells on you, the disturbance and distraction it sets up in your thoughts. At this moment, ask yourself if there is not some day-dream or some project humming in your brain, distracting your attention or ready to do so the instant your vigilance is relaxed. That day-dream, that project, however trivial and however distant, though it be only some scheme for your enjoyment, innocent or misapplied, some affection, some grievance, some grudge, is the labour with which you labour under the sun, the prisoner of your own brooding thoughts. You know that at times when these worries and distractions interfere with your sleep, or when you feel dull and jaded after long hours of them. You that labour, leave here on one side for a moment the petty cares which tyrannize over you: be still, and see that I am God.

Come to me, all you that are burdened – labour distracts the mind; it is sin that weighs upon the shoulders and clogs the feet. That burden, too, we must lay down for a little, if we are to lift up our eyes to the tabernacle. Last time we kept the first Friday, there was some resolution, an occasion of sin to be avoided, a bad habit to be checked, an improvement to be made in our rule of prayer. Nothing very much has come of it, and conscience feels uneasy at this reminder. Put it aside just for the moment; we must turn our faces towards the future and consecrate ourselves anew.

And I will refresh you – this is to be a breathing-space from the dusty business of life, the daily, common round of earthly occupations in which we seldom catch a glimpse of the supernatural. We are to draw ourselves up, breathe deep in the fresh air of grace, stretch the cramped muscles of the soul and rejoice to find them still responsive to the will. We shall forget for a while the work that lies at our feet as our cheek catches the cooling influence of grace that comes from Him.

Take my yoke upon you – not the yoke of a conqueror, imposed on his unwilling vassal, but the yoke which eases your burden by distributing the weight so that all but all of it rests on him. It is not servitude he offers, but partnership. Oh, if we could believe what we see so often in lives which have greatly devoted themselves to him, that, in proportion as we resign ourselves to his love, care and sorrow and all the burden of mortality lies lightly on us, till we have to ask for suffering lest we should lose the sense of the privilege that partnership bestows! We will make an offering here of all the work and all the suffering God will have us undergo, in union with the merits of the Sacred Heart, Fountain of all Consolation.

And learn of me – not the lessons we learn in class, not Christian doctrine or apologetics, nothing that tires the brain and wrinkles the forehead, not the dreary formulas that seem only intended to catch us out by being so difficult to remember. In this lesson it is not mind that speaks to mind, but heart to heart, no elaborate considerations are necessary, no theological subtleties. You have only to stand still and contemplate the Sacred Heart, bruised for our sins and made obedient unto death; only to remember one simple formula – how easy to remember, how difficult to mean: “Heart of Jesus, full of love for us, make our hearts like thy Sacred Heart”.

Because I am meek and humble of heart – meekness that will not be driven to resentment even by ill-usage, humility that will not be puffed up even where there is cause for self-congratulation. Meekness that in our case – not in his – sees its own sinfulness and acknowledges that the discomforts and reverses of life are only its lawful due; not assuming that the word which wounded you was aimed with intent, that you were right when you quarreled, unfairly hampered where you failed to come off; not for ever engaged in drawing up that long list of grievances against your fellow-men which leaves behind it no satisfaction, but only a character soured and blasé, a nature suspicious and difficult to please. Humility that in our case – not in his – realizes its own insignificance; humility that will not let you stand on your dignity, or lose your peace of mind when you are criticized and held up to ridicule; humility that, above all, approaches God with infinite reverence, and does not seek either to search out his hidden counsels or to presume on the graces he bestows.

And you shall find rest to your souls; rest in this life, when the wayward passions of your heart have been calmed and regulated by learning to beat in time with his; rest in the world to come, when you shall contemplate openly the Heart from which those graces used to flow, and, as you have been faithful yoke-fellows and docile scholars of your Lord below, be made partakers of his eternal glory in heaven.


OUR DEVOTION TO ST JOHN THE BAPTIST

He that hath the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom’s voice. – John 3. 29

I sometimes wonder whether it isn’t time for us to start reviving, in the Catholic Church, our forgotten devotion to St John the Baptist. On paper, of course, nobody would contest that he is one of the very greatest of saints, distinguished by high privileges even among the ranks of heaven’s citizens. He was sanctified by the Holy Ghost from his birth to fulfill a special mission. He stands in a unique relation to our Blessed Lord. Our Lord himself tells us that among men born of women no greater has ever arisen. At every turn in the Gospels you will meet the mention of him; he seems to haunt the imagination of the four Evangelists. And so in the older prayers of Holy Church you will find that his name comes after our Lady’s, and before those of St Peter and St Paul; so highly was he honoured. Now compare the position which St John held in mediaeval devotion, and the position which he holds in our devotion today. How often do you see his picture in the Old Masters! How seldom in the pious cards of the modern Catholic depot! How frequent a dedication-title is his name in our old, pre-Reformation churches; how uncommon in the churches of the restored hierarchy! He seems to have suffered an eclipse. You will remember what he said of our Blessed Lord and of himself: “He must increase, but I must decrease”. Substitute for our Lord’s name the name of St Joseph, and you can almost say the same of the history of Christian devotion. St Joseph has increased and St John decreased accordingly. God forbid that we should grudge to St Joseph those public honours which the Church has only gradually learned to bestow upon him. But it would be poor gratitude in us if we came to forget our Lord’s fore-runner in our eagerness to honour his foster-father.

Their greatest title to the blessing of posterity is the same, and it is the one in which they share with our Lady herself. We delight to honour them precisely because in life they were distinguished by their self-effacement, their hatred of prominence. In St John’s case, you could almost say that the hatred of prominence was born in him. You know nowadays these people who talk about psychology will tell you that pre-natal influences have a very large part to play in the forming of our characters. I don’t know if that is true about us all, but it certainly seems to be true of St John. His whole life, you may say, was marked out for him before his birth; marked out for him by that visit of our Lady to St Elizabeth. “Whence is this to me”, says St Elizabeth, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” and the child in her womb, as if the spirit of the mother’s salutation had passed into him, had only one thought all his life, to make way for another who was greater than himself. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness” – that is his account of himself: don’t listen to the voice, then; listen to what it says. “He was a burning and shining light”, our Lord says of him; don’t look at the light, then, look at him on whom its rays are cast. Always we see St John is pointing, always away from himself. “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world” – there, don’t look at me, look at him; don’t ask who I am, ask who he is. There comes one after me, who is greater than I, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose. Everyone is crowded round St John, everyone wanting to know who he is, and he will let them see nothing but the finger that points to a greater than himself, let them hear nothing but the voice of the fore-runner who preaches a gospel not his own.

And gradually, as our Lord more and more allowed this attention to be directed towards himself, he, instead of his fore-runner, became the centre of interest. “The pupil is outstripping the master”, people will have said; for I think it’s fairly certain that our Lord, at the opening of his ministry, was regarded as the disciple of St John, the man who had baptized him. And one by one the little groups that listened to the Baptist on the rocky hills by the Jordan melted away, and he knew that they had gone off to follow the new Teacher, who, travelling from village to village, was more easy of access. Perhaps they even thought that in so transferring their allegiance from the stern prophet of the desert with his wild clothes and rough manner to the Friend of publicans and sinners, they were taking an easier yoke upon themselves. Anyhow, the followers of John became fewer, the audiences of the Galilean Prophet more numerous. And I want you to see that if St John had been a smaller man, if he had looked upon his winning popularity in the way in which you and I would look upon such a thing if it were to happen to ourselves, it would have been impossible for him not to feel a pang of jealousy at having been obeyed so well, at having been so successful in diverting attention from himself to his Master. “He might have left me just a little work to do, just a few souls to deal with; he might have given me some part to play in his mission”; it’s not difficult to imagine St John feeling like that. But that was not St John’s way. “He must increase, and I must decrease”, so he assures the little band that still remain faithful to him, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And again, “The friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom’s voice”. Our Lord has come to claim his affianced Bride, the Church, and St John is content with the humble, the almost undignified role of what we call the “best man”. And it’s easy to see what St John is thinking of when he makes this comparison.

It is for him to sink his own claims, his own personality, and rejoice in the triumph of another. No one has ever stood in the background more loyally. But observe, his tragedy is not yet over. I don’t know why one always imagines St John as a good deal older than our Lord: if you come to think of it there was less than a year’s difference between them. He is still, then, at the prime of life when his mission as fore-runner comes to an end. What would be more natural than that this man, who has already proved such a success as a missionary preacher,  who is so intimate a witness of our Lord’s life and doings, should be spared to preach the Gospel with his other disciples after the Crucifixion? Here surely, you say to yourself, is an instrument which divine Providence cannot afford to overlook. If St Peter is to be head of the Church, St John is to be the great propagator of the Faith.

Only Providence had other plans, other resources. The future propagator of the Faith is doing his studies at Tarsus, learning to be a fanatical Pharisee; St John is to meet his death before his Master. And for what a cause! The tragedy of St John is not that he was persecuted, nor that he met a violent death: people built as he was do get persecuted, do meet a violent death: but that he died too soon to witness the glories of the Resurrection, too soon to strengthen and promote the faith of the infant Church. “There hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist; yet he that is the lesser in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” So said our Lord, meaning, as usual, the Church, when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven. The crown of St John’s whole career of self-effacement is that, because he rebuked an unheeding tyrant for his loose morals, because he earned a woman’s hatred, because a girl danced and an oath was taken in a hurry, the Church of Christ was destined to lose its first, its most obvious missionary. In him is summed up that long line of prophets and patriarchs who lived for the sake of the promises they were never to see fulfilled, dwelling in tents as strangers upon earth, because they looked for the recompense of the reward. “Prophets and kings desired it long, and died before the sight”, God having provided some better thing for us, that without us they should not be perfected. The greatest of mankind and yet not destined to hear the full Gospel preached: the friend of the Bridegroom, doomed to perish before he claimed his bride and took her to himself.

He must increase, but I must decrease; I wonder what St John meant by must? Did he mean “this thing has got to happen”, as when we say, “Death must come to every man”? Or did he mean, “I have got to make this happen”, as when we say: “this letter must go tonight”? I don’t think with St John the Baptist there would be much difference between the two; from his earliest years he had been so distinctly conscious of a mission, felt so certain that he was merely an instrument being used by God to further the ends of his Providence, that he wouldn’t make much distinction between the destiny God had for him and the commands God laid upon him; the whole of his career is one great “must”. One of the Fathers, I think, suggests that St John decreased because he was beheaded, while our Lord increased because he was lifted up upon a cross. I don’t think that we need attach so literal a sense to the words as that, but certainly the manner of St John’s death was characteristic – a murder carried out in hugger-mugger within the walls of a prison; the gossip about it hushed up, as Court gossip is apt to be; the hasty removal and burial of the body by his own disciples. To drop more and more out of view, and let others profit by the beginnings we have made and the experience we have won for them; to make way for our children to succeed in the world better than we did, to see our pupils outshine us, or our rivals outstrip us, or the job we thought we could do so well handed over to another, who makes even a better job of it than we could – what a common experience that is in life, what a natural one, and yet, how hard to sit down under it! How we always want to see our name mentioned, our works recognized, our help indispensable! Every parent, I suppose, has to go through something of that sort when the children grow up, and nearly everybody as years go on, and it is time for us to be laid on the shelf: and, you know, we can make a lot of difference to the happiness and the quietness of the world, according as we determine to make ourselves unpleasant about it or determine to take it in St John the Baptist’s spirit. Let us make him our model, the man who was the prophet of a nation at thirty years old, and died almost unknown, a mere historical memory, a year or so later.

“He must increase, but I must decrease” – there is a more intimate sense in which the words concern us. For the business of our life in this world, after all, is not to leave a mark on it behind us or to take an honoured name away from it with us, but to make our peace with God before he calls us to a better one. And what is it, making our peace with God, but letting the influence of our Lord grow more and more in us, dominating our lives and throwing self into the background? He must increase; whenever he comes to me in Holy Communion, whenever he draws close to me in prayer, what is his purpose but that my will should be more his will, my life more his life? “I must decrease” – this self that struggles so against the supernatural influence of his grace, that makes me so proud, so grasping, so quick to take offense: only as it decreases will he increase; only as he increases will it decrease. Thus would I live, yet now not I, but he in all his power and love henceforth alive in me. May he give us all, in life and death, the spirit of his holy fore-runner.

A sermon printed in Introibo, May-June 1925

University Sermons, 1963 Sheed & Ward


 

THE FISHERMAN

 

We have laboured all the night and have taken nothing, but at thy word I will let down the net. – Luke 5:5

 

We heard these words read in the Gospel only a few Sundays ago; we heard the full account of how St. Peter, whose feast we are celebrating today, was called to his apostleship. Our Lord is passing along the lake shore, and wants to preach to the crowds. Preaching in the open air, you know, isn’t such an easy thing as it looks. If your voice is to carry and to last out, you want to arrange your congregation as far as possible between you and something else; a wall or something of that kind, which will keep in the sound instead of letting it lose itself all over the countryside. And the best background you can possibly have is a cliff or a sloping beach, such as our Lord must have found, easily enough, by the side of the Lake of Galilee. But there’s this difficulty about it – that a large crowd listening to a speaker always tends to edge forwards, the people at the back straining to hear better. And if you are standing with your back to the sea, talking to a crowd like that, you are being edged back yourself all the time towards the sea. Our Lord saw all that; and since he always preferred to use natural means where natural means were forthcoming, he found a practical way out of the difficulty. He climbed on to a boat, and stood on the raised stern of it, as if on a pulpit, and spoke to his audience from there. And the boat he chose was Simon Peter’s.

 

Why he chose Simon Peter’s boat, rather than that of St. James and St. John who were close by, I can’t say. It is very odd, isn’t it; a very curious coincidence, isn’t it, that if one of the apostles is singled out for mention above the others it is always St. Peter? However, that may have been an accident; perhaps his boat was the handiest for the purpose. Only it was a fortunate kind of accident; there it is, our Lord stands preaching in St. Peter’s boat; and it is not surprising that later ages, looking back with the eyes of faith over centuries of history to that first dawn of the Gospel preaching, have seen a mystical appropriateness in the arrangement. Peter’s boat by the Lake of Galilee, or Peter’s Chair at Rome – what difference does it make? From one as from the other Incarnate Truth spoke, and speaks.

 

And when the sermon is over, our Lord seems to make an apology for turning the boat into a pulpit for so long, and perhaps interfering with the fisherman’s work as he does so. He turns to St. Peter, and suggests that he should put out and try his hand at fishing. Now, in the ordinary way there seems to be no hope in that suggestion; Peter has toiled all night and caught nothing. He has no reason to think that the great Preacher who has been his passenger that morning has any special knowledge of fishing or of the weather. If there was any chance, Peter should know. But Peter has been listening to the sermon. And already something tells him that this Man, who speaks to the crowds as one having authority, is worth obeying without asking questions. It is all against his professional instincts; “nevertheless, at thy word, I will let down the net.”

 

And the net is let down, and the catch, as you will remember, exceeded anything Peter could ever have dreamed of. What do you think happened, exactly, when that miracle took place? I mean, did our Lord then and there create the fish which came into the net? Or were the fish swimming about elsewhere in the lake, and did he attract them to the spot? Or were the fish there all the time in the ordinary course of nature; and was there nothing miraculous about it except our Lord’s miraculous knowledge of their presence/ Well, I think we should all say that the first of those explanations is too elaborate; we don’t want to multiply miracles without necessity. But the third, I think, is equally too simple; our Lord, surely, did more than merely know that the fish were there. Why else did the miracle make such an impression? “Peter was astonished”, says the Gospel, “and all that were with him, at the draught of fishes, and so also were James and John.” That means, clearly, that, even apart from the unfavourable conditions, the catch itself was one you could not have met with, by any natural means, in those waters. Our Lord didn’t merely know that the fish were there, in a position to be caught. He brought the fish there, into a position where St. Peter could catch them.

 

Imagine yourself gifted with some supernatural insight, looking down under the depths of the dark lake that morning. You can see all that moves beneath the waters as clearly as if Genesareth were a vast aquarium. And you can see the fishes moving about here and there in silver shoals, intent upon their silly fish business. How they dart about this way and that, with an important flourish of the tail! And yet the sudden dashes they make seem, after all, to lead nowhere. Sometimes food attracts them, more often something which turns out to be quite uneatable; sometimes the throwing of a stone disturbs them, more often the passing of a harmless shadow. What are they all thinking about, down there? What are the aims, the delights, the tremors, that agitate the fish world below you? So much you can see for yourself, any time you will look into some clear pool in the Thames. But that morning, under the Lake of Genesareth, something else was happening. All of a sudden, a little group of fishes here and there detaches itself from a shoal; and all these turn in one and the same direction, at one and the same moment, towards a particular corner of the lake, and all swim away together. No natural need, no natural alarm, accounts for this unanimous tendency; drawn by some unseen force, they forget their favourite pools and the overhanging rocks that sheltered them, and all head one way. The Lord of Nature has bid them come.

 

Those are you and me, those fish. All the souls that have been brought into the Church of Christ all through the centuries have been brought there because they were drawn by the grace of Christ, not for any other reason.  Without grace, our lives, if we could see them in the true perspective, are all haphazard and purposeless, like the movements of the fish in the lake we were thinking about just now. We play about, in love with our own shadows, darting here and there at our pleasure, excited by a thousand perishable hopes, a thousand imaginary alarms; so brisk, so bustling, so self-important. In the midst of all that, a force that was not of nature drew us, we knew not why, we knew not wither. Drew us into the net the Church had spread for us; yes, it is Peter spreads the net, but it is Christ who draws the fish into it. From our Lady downwards, no soul ever attained the means of salvation unless it were drawn by the grace of Jesus Christ.

 

When the miracle was over, our Lord explained the meaning of it to his apostles. From henceforth, he said, you will be catching men. Our vocation as Christians does not starve or supersede our natural characters, it directs them and consecrates them to the service of God. Peter is a fisherman; very well, then, a fisherman let him remain; only in future let him fish for men. Why did our Lord number so many fishermen among his twelve apostles? Fisherman, after all, have not a very good reputation for telling the truth; and some of them are idle natures into the bargain. What is the quality our Lord saw in them? Once thing, I think, which he prized especially in those who were to be his apostles; an indomitable patience. “In your patience”, he says to them, “you will win souls.” They have toiled all night and have caught nothing; weary hours of waiting, in the hope that the grey light of dawn will bring sport – and it has brought none. What, put out to sea again under the burning sun of midday, when the very hull of the boat must cast shadows that will scare away the fish to right and left? Yes; “at thy word I will let down the net”. There is no limit to Peter’s optimism and Peter’s endurance, so long as he is following his Master’s orders. It is in that patience that he won, and wins, men’s souls.

 

How she has waited, the Church of Christ, all down the centuries, and with how little regard to the maxims of human prudence and human skill! Not seizing her opportunity here and there, where circumstances seemed favourable; not trimming her sails to every passing breeze, but patiently issuing her invitation, and leaving grace to do its work. How many hopes she has seen fail, over how many apostasies has she wept; how she has seen the fashions of the world change about her, old creeds die down and new creeds replace them, the folly of yesterday turned into a the wisdom of today! Should she not by now have become hardened and cynical, her pity for mankind turned into a weary scorn, her ambitious hopes into the dogged persistency of despair? We might have expected it, but we were wrong. What if, here and there, she has toiled long and caught little for her Master? Still at his word she will let down the net; until his grace, bound by no law of proportion to human effort, brings her good fishing again. Despise her as you will, criticize her as you will, but do her the justice to admit that the patience of the fisherman is hers.

 

Will you forgive me if I leave you with this indomitable patience of St. Peter as the lesson of St. Peter’s feast? A trite lesson, perhaps, but a difficult lesson to learn, and in these times especially. After all, we do live – it is time we admitted it to ourselves – in days of great discouragement. Those who are just growing to manhood or womanhood, in a world that seems so shut to honest effort, they will feel it most. We have toiled all night and taken nothing; do we not, inevitably, repeat that complaint as we look around us? Our civilization, so laboriously built up, the fruit of so much noble endeavour – and now it is threatened with collapse by forces not under our direction, perhaps not under our control. The British Empire, so great in its conception, say what you will of it, so wonderfully preserved and organized – and now it is beginning to show signs of breaking up. The Great War, fought and won, so we told ourselves, to save Europe and bring her peace and prosperity – and now we are clinging to peace despairingly, while prosperity has vanished. Have we not toiled through the night, and taken nothing? That sense of public discouragement reflects itself in our individual lives, weighs upon our spirits more than we know, and is making of us disappointed men and women. The indomitable patience I speak of is, believe me, a gift which we all need, or shall need before long.

 

Don’t let us imagine that patience means a tame acceptance of the inevitable, sitting down with folded hands and hoping that somehow better times will turn up. It means action, bestirring ourselves and making the best of things; doing God’s will, not merely submitting to it. At thy word I will let down the net; we are to attempt what seems hopeless, what seems hopeless, when we know it is God’s will, whether he has made it known to us through conscience, or through revelation, or through the outward circumstances of our lives. As long as we are sure that we are obeying him; that no pride of ours, no neglect, no timidity, no human respect, is preventing us from finding out what his will is.

 

We are disheartened, perhaps, over material things; times are less prosperous, and we have to make the best of an income smaller than the income we were accustomed to; some of us can find no work to do, and feel the pinch of poverty nearer to the bone. Some of us are disheartened over spiritual difficulties, temptations against which we have long fought, it seems unsuccessfully, or dryness in prayer, or perpetually falling short of the standard we had set before ourselves. Some of us are disappointed over favours denied to us in prayer; all the harder to endure because those prayers were not selfishly offered, but for the needs of others; there is a son who is turning out badly, there is a friend’s conversion we have long hoped for, there is an invalid for whose sufferings we asked relief. The temptation (in any case) is to throw up our hands in despair; to tell ourselves that we have done enough, and that we shall be running our heads up against a brick wall if we try to persevere; we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing; very well, we will toil no more. That is where we want to remember the great “but” of St. Peter’s utterance, “but” at thy word I will let down the net. Casting all your care upon him, for he hath care of you; so St. Peter wrote when he was an old man, and in prison, and the Church for which he had laboured so hard was being assailed by bitter persecution; he had learned his lesson, that day by the Lake of Galilee, long ago.

 

A sermon published in The Tablet, 24 June 1939.

Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, reprinted 2002, Ignatius Press