As Simon Peter and his brother Andrew toss their nets early in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus appears and says that if they follow him, he will make them “fishers of men.” That they immediately forsake their work and go with him is usually seen as proof of their faith, but I have my doubts about the account. Belief doesn’t come this easily; despair does. I suspect the Sea of Galilee had been overfished and these men were so desperate they were willing to give anything a try. This feeling I know, though in my case the fault was never in the sea, but in myself.
My brother has footage of me whipping a calm brook with a fly-line, effectively scaring away any trout in range and justifying my family’s recollection that I was an awful fisherman. In fairness, the home movie was filmed when I was six, and the father who shot it could have given me some pointers instead of documenting my ineptitude. I think he assumed the skill would come gradually if I imitated the older brothers he’d actually taught; this, after all, was how I learned to throw a baseball. But my fishing was following the path of my spiritual life, instruction in which ended that same year when Dad, in his lawerly way, convinced Mom of the speciousness of the religious argument, clearing the way for me to drop out of Sunday School. After that I flailed in both fishing and faith.
When I tried fly casting again over the next few years at my grandmother’s pond, I rushed the rhythm or released into a wind, and the line either snagged a bush behind me or fell half way to the spot I targeted. I watched my brother Dan work his way up to the F clef curl of a perfect cast, but my imitation was a twisted G clef, the line doubling over itself and bunching near my feet like the pair of oversized shorts he tugged off me when ridicule wasn’t sufficiently entertaining.
Slightly less humbling was my return to the pond in future years with hook, sinker, and the sure knowledge that a worm fisherman is a lower life form, a worm among men—this reinforced by the rule that I was allowed to catch no more than two trout this way and by Dan’s warning that I’d be disowned if I resorted to a bobber. More welcoming was my Great-Uncle Frank, who often fished from the granite slabs of the dam and would always stop long enough to wave a meaty hand and give a smile that reduced his eyes to a squint. A cousin had told me that decades earlier one of Frank’s sons drowned in the pond after falling through the ice, so I was surprised Frank could do something as light as fishing there. Maybe something in the metronomic rhythm of fly casting let him escape bad memories. Or maybe the cast itself—recoil, pause, stroke, release—let him flow through all the motions of grief, not as a penance, but as a daily necessity. He’d pull the line back in a cane-shaped loop behind him, pause long enough to let it re-load, roll it forward, and then repeat the whole sequence until he was ready to unfurl. After the line hit the water, he’d wait a bit, giving the trout a chance to hit his fly, but eventually he was at it again: another cast, another moment behind him, another moment closer to a further shore I preferred not to think about.
Having plopped my worm near the middle of the pond, I sat and waited. As I smelled the wet grass and felt the gathering warmth of the morning, I’d watch water skim over the dam and hear it trickle distantly on the rocks below, and if the gnats weren’t biting, I’d sit there long enough to imagine the stream’s sinuous course through the pasture and down the valley. Nowadays, I credit myself with a worm fisherman’s meditative silence, but my stillness was only possible because of the conviction that I’d catch something. Two trout, to be exact. And to make myself feel like a real fisherman afterward, I’d clean out the offal and wrap the rest in wax paper for my grandmother to freeze and later eat, though I recall seeing some of them behind the ice cream when we came back for Thanksgiving. It didn’t matter. There, gathering frost, was tangible proof of a faith that had been rewarded, which is more than Peter and his brother have before they hand their lives over to a stranger in Mark and Matthew’s accounts.
The fishermen apostles in the Gospel of Luke have more reason to believe right from the start. Peter and Andrew can see at least that Jesus has a following, and they can hear him speak when he borrows Peter’s boat to separate himself from the pressing crowd on the shore; so presumably the brothers have some basis for faith by the time Jesus tells them to launch out again after a bad day. Though they have to push through some disappointment and fatigue, their trust is soon rewarded, or so it seems. The fish keep coming, not only breaking the nets Peter and Andrew had been mending but also threatening to sink their boat, and then James and John’s when they come to help. For a moment they all seem worse off than when they were catching nothing, but they right their ships and bring their catch to shore.
From here, it seems to me, a range of reactions is possible. Blend some egotism with a selective memory, and Peter might convince himself he’s a great fisherman after all, hitting it big when everybody else had a bad day. Mix humility with a touch of literalism, and he might conclude that this Jesus guy could really make a go of it with a boat of his own—Jesus doesn’t walk on water in Luke’s gospel, so he’d actually need one. Harder to fathom is what Peter does. Dropping to his knees and citing his unworthiness, he asks Jesus to leave. I think Peter misses the point. I’m not worthy, either, but that’s exactly why I wouldn’t let a fishing guide like Jesus leave my sight. I need all the help I can get, and when I see proof of what works, I stick with it.
The belief in what’s seen or touched is treated as a flimsy kind of faith in the Gospel of John. When the resurrected Jesus appears to some of his disciples, Thomas refuses to believe until he can put his own fingers into Jesus’ wounds, and Peter seems just as dubious, failing to recognize the risen Jesus until after a miracle. Granted, Peter is devastated by the crucifixion, and probably ashamed of having denied his affiliation with Jesus three times in one night. Though his name means “stone” in Greek and Aramaic, Peter is hardly a rock of faith; Jesus was being ironic when he re-named him.
To fight his despair, Peter decides to “go a-fishing” with his friends, which is something I could imagine doing if I lost someone important to me; it fits a mourning mood. Jesus appears and tells them where to drop their nets, and they listen even though they don’t recognize him initially. Soon, there are so many fish in this spot that they can’t make the haul. One of the disciples concludes that the stranger must be Jesus, and upon hearing this, Peter “girt his fisher’s coat unto him and did cast himself into the sea.”
This is problematic. Why has he been fishing in the nude? Granted, he isn’t using any hooks, but net fishing has its own hazards for a naked man. Plus, he should be taking clothes off before jumping into the water, not putting them on. Unless he’s jumping from a bridge or a cliff, of course. I learned this the hard way.
But in spite of these perplexing decisions, it all turns out well. Another boat of disciples shows up to help, and later they have a feast on the shore, all of them laughing, no doubt, about Peter’s odd reaction. During the meal Jesus reminds them to feed the flock, presumably with the Gospel since they won’t be fishing much any more. Then he hints at something ominous, asking each of them to contemplate “by what death he should glorify God.”
The noblest of my guiding questions entails a more modest goal: I’m more likely to ask by what choices I should dignify the life I’ve been given, and this presents itself in some unremarkable situations, like when I’m fishing. I once visited the State of Connecticut display at the Eastern States Exposition and was given a chance to fish for trout in a tub. I did the moral calculus and decided this was below even a worm fisherman like me. On the other hand, I had no problem fishing for snapper blues with a bamboo pole—no reel required—two hundred feet off the Connecticut shore, at one point pulling them in so fast that my father must have felt like Peter when his boat was running over, the blessing of a good day of fishing quickly turning into something else. But for me it was easy sport, and if it remained that way I wouldn’t see many connections now between fishing and faith. I know Jesus celebrated the simple belief of children, but their angling—the trout in a barrel, the baited hooks, the father removing the catch—makes it easy for them to conceive of an effortless boon.
Even easier than hooking snappers, yet more mysterious, was the ritual of scooping baitfish the night before. As two men pulled a dragnet in a sweeping arc through shallow water at dusk, they were blind to what bellied out their net, so they had to wait like the rest of us—seagulls perched on the dark pilings of an old jetty, pipe smokers listening to the Red Sox on a white transistor radio, older brothers ready to pounce on an eel or a flounder that might be mixed in with the shiners.
Occasionally, there would be something more exotic in the net, a skate or a ray or a barking sea robin; sometimes there would be nothing at all, not even minnows. Even more than an unusual catch, it was the possibility of nothingness that added a measure of wonder, and the realization of it that gave me my first taste of adult fishing and faith. Sometimes we wait in vain.
This was what my daughters learned when we went crabbing off a dock in Maine. We’d wrap fishing line around half-shells of cracked mussels, lower them into the water, and pull them up periodically to check. A couple times we caught nothing but a few hermits. The girls would manage to get a rock crab to the surface, but it would release the mussel as soon as it was out of its element. On other days, though, the crabs would stay on the line, their faith that they’d be filled intact until we shook them into a bucket. We brought them home to race like Ben Hur around Mom’s deck, and later we released them in front of the house. Though around a peninsula from where they started, something in them must have been drawn to their native shore because they always turned that way when we poured them onto the seaweed.
I would have liked such a sense of direction, such faith in my convictions, but a bad day of fishing has always been enough to make me desperate, even as a kid. If I didn’t catch any trout in the brook down the road, I’d go to a stagnant pond nearby and reel in a few sunfish just to remind myself what it felt like to have something on the line, their nibbles a cheap substitute for real belief. And now I do the same thing for my son. Like Aaron offering up a false idol when Moses took too long on the mountain, I take Aidan to a dock where he can pull up junkfish when the bass aren’t biting. I hope he ends up with something more than a pumpkin seed of faith.
Only slightly more dignified are the Opening Day fishermen who crowd around stocking sites on a Saturday in the middle of April, the dazed fish they catch never imagining they’d be pulled from the place they’d just been dumped. It’s a convenient coincidence that this happens so close to the time Easter Christians perform their annual rite; some years they can satisfy and forget both obligations in the same weekend.
One year there were so many of these posers at the bridge down the road that I couldn’t land a single trout, but that didn’t stop me from entering the Opening Day Derby at Robletts’ Sporting Goods. I cast beyond some bottom-feeding suckers and pulled the line until my hook was beneath the downturned lips of an eighteen incher. This was the angling equivalent of tossing a bubble gum wrapper in front of a vacuum cleaner, but I wasn’t too proud to beatify the ugly fish when Ding Robletts balked at the sight of it, or to collect the second place prize of a net, which I was encouraged to use for trout in the future.
My brother was offended that a fake fisherman would be recognized in that month’s Granby Drummer. Fortunately for me, he became even angrier with the kid who crossed and then cut my line when I went back to the brook that afternoon to redeem myself; only Dan himself had the right to treat me that way. As I grabbed a new hook and sinker from our tackle box, I saw him rigging his line with a treble hook, and he wasn’t bothering with bait. In that moment, I was fairly certain he was going to become a fisher of men, snagging the kid by an arm or a leg to teach him the consequences of his overreaching. So it was a relief to see Dan cast over the line-cutter. He dropped his unbaited hook behind a sucker even bigger than the one I’d caught, tugged until the barbs were beneath it, and yanked straight up as if a marlin had just hit his line. A belly-hooked sucker is not exactly hydrodynamic, so its thrashing scared away the remaining trout, who were now done trying to convince themselves that the friends last seen being drawn toward the light were headed to a better place. When the line-cutter swore at us and started passing under the bridge to a new spot, Dan dropped the eviscerated fish on his shoulder, and the kid stopped complaining.
It was an ugly incident, and it confirmed an intimation from Dan, later reinforced by Ernest Hemingway, that fishing around anybody besides close friends ruins the experience. So I skipped future Opening Days and started exploring upstream from the bridge, eventually finding some good spots a few hundred yards from the road on the far side of the woods. I had to step carefully around skunk cabbage and poison sumac where the brook curved near the base of a hill, but there were sandy banks for sitting and darker water across from them where the brook marbled just enough. I cast my line and settled in to watch the slow drift of floating leaves.
Downstream, a locust had fallen across the brook and gotten hung up in a triune birch. Years later, after Dan was put into a wheelchair by such a hanger while logging, I learned to call these trees “widow-makers,” but aside from possibly losing a hook to it with a bad cast, I didn’t perceive a threat here. What I saw was a helpful gesture, as if some friends had stuck out their arms to prevent a buddy’s hard fall, or as if some powerful being had placed the trunk there to point the way up the hill path behind it.
At the top of that path was a meeting hall for the Jehovah Witnesses, a sect that was always a mystery to me. A friend told me they believed in a coming Armageddon and had all-day services to prepare themselves for it, neither of which I found very appealing, but a girl in the congregation was. She had doe eyes and soft lips and a smile that ravished my heart. I didn’t think someone this beautiful should be forced to contemplate depressing possibilities for so long on such a hot day, so I imagined her leaving, and that my devotional prayer could make it so.
She meandered down the hill and made her way to a sandbar just beyond the canopy of the fallen locust. There she stepped from her shoes to cool her feet and cup a drink with two hands. I leaned back to see the spot where she’d do this, and I imagined what else the preaching of last days might compel her to do. After hearing about lakes of burning fire, she’d naturally want to feel more of that coolness on her skin, so she tied up her blouse like Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island and trickled water on her bare arms and belly. Then she hiked up her skirt and started to cool her legs—at which point I felt guilty and turned away to break off the daydream. This was a private moment, almost a holy one. Besides, all I wanted from her was a kiss, which was more than I could handle or expect anyway.
I watched the stream in front of me, hoping for a glimpse of a trout but seeing only the slow glide of brook foam. It was so quiet I could almost hear the whispers of my rationalization assembling itself, intimating that nothing I pictured could defile someone like her in the midst of an imaginary cleansing. So I let myself look around the thicket again, and the vision continued. I saw her kneeling in quarter profile, her face tilted to the sun, basking in the light as she cooled her neck with delicate fingers, and later turning slowly until she was looking over her shoulder. Looking at me.
Just then, in a moment that would have made Dr. Freud sit down and take notes, I felt an electric pull on the end of my rod, and I had the strange impression, after my long wait and reverie, that something was catching me. In the stillness that followed, I thought I might be imagining that nibble, but then it happened again. And again it was tugging not just on my line, but at me, as if the charged filament went into my hands, threaded itself around my nerves, and radiated through me.
The brown trout on the end of my line had a less pleasant experience. It slid sideways, writhed, and slid again, but it had hooked itself well, so there was no escape. It jerked more violently as I reeled in, but after a half minute of thrashing, the struggle was over. I pulled it ashore, broke its neck, and put a stick through the gills into the sand, keeping it fresh in a few inches of water until I was ready to leave.
I re-baited my hook and cast my line, and then I sat on the bank trying to re-start my daydream. No luck. Maybe it was the little plume of blood in the water or the fish slime on my hands, but something kept me from conjuring the girl again; I couldn’t even see her face now. All that was left was a hush so absolute that I could hear it, like the piercing quiet of an open field. I reeled in and cast again to make something new happen, but I only managed to wrap my last hook and sinker around the fallen tree, after which I ended the holy silence with an unholy oath. I was done for the day.
I never worked up the nerve to approach the girl, and the fear that got in the way was typical of me at that age. But while my early romantic life brought me my share of despair, it improved when I stopped fantasizing about girls and started speaking with them. My spiritual life, on the other hand, hasn’t yielded much, and neither has my fishing. I tried surfcasting off the shores of North Carolina, Maine and Massachusetts, hurling big lures until I felt poured out like the water in front of me, but I never caught anything worth mentioning. As I reeled in my untouched line time after time, I felt like Sisyphus watching the boulder he’d pushed up the mountain roll down again, albeit without the filling of the heart that Camus imagined coming from the struggle itself once the hero accepted its absurdity. The problem, I think, is that I haven’t conceded the futility of my effort; I still believe I might catch something, or that something might catch me. Something big.
Not that I’m picturing myself as a Jonah. For one thing, I wouldn’t go to the water to get away from God, as Jonah did, but to get closer to a presence I’ve felt interfused there, the same one I’ve felt on mountaintops and in empty churches in strange towns. Alone at a calm lake, with no floods compassing about me or billows passing over, I wouldn’t need a great fish to save me, and I wouldn’t have to cry out from its insides about my affliction. My life is a good one; I just don’t always feel its repleteness. So I’d sit quietly in the shade of a maple, a swirl of eel grass at my feet, and I’d fish with a worm, not because I’m stubborn about maintaining my own ways, but because I want to be still. Maybe, if I just let everything be, I’ll feel the tug of something vital, faith or fish; and it will hook itself if I keep waiting. And then I’ll see something big emerge from deep waters with a flash, a twist, a sidling turn. I’ll let it run, watching my taut line slice the water, feeling its charge race through my arms, up my neck, and over the crown of my head with a cascading wonder past any I’ve ever known. And if it snaps the line or spits out the hook the way Jonah’s great fish coughed up the reluctant prophet, I won’t mind; I’ll be thankful to whatever it was that took my worm and gave me a moment of belief.
And then I’ll pick another day to go a-fishing.