What needs to happen in our lives before we can hear and respond to a sense of call? As Luke introduces characters, he often hints at their backstories. Zechariah and Elizabeth are given a fairly elaborate backstory, and their lives provide the backstory to John the Baptist. The Annunciation and the Visitation give backstory to the Incarnation, telling us how this young girl came to give birth to the savior of the world. When we meet the apostles, we are also given backstory, although sometimes it’s shaded and less elaborate.
Peter’s backstory manages to be both subtle and extravagant all at the same time. We meet his mother-in-law before we meet him – Jesus heals her at the end of chapter four. So even before the scene on the Lake of Gennesaret (also called the Sea of Galilee), we have some inkling of what Peter is like. He’s married, he owns a house, his mother-in-law lives with him, and he’s been hanging out with Jesus, and was probably among the congregants at the synagogue in Capernaum when Jesus preached there. In a way he’s primed to hear and respond to a sense of call, because he already know something about Jesus (this is not true in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew). In another way, he’s primed to resist the call, because he’s a married person with clear responsibilities. Maybe it’s because of this that Luke makes his actual moment of call so big and dramatic – a miraculous catch of fish after providing Jesus with a floating pulpit, sitting right in Jesus’s shadow as the crowds on the shore stared at the both of them. Peter is already singled out as special before his call, and the abundance of his catch probably helped assuage any anxiety he had about providing for his family if he were to go off and follow Jesus for real.
But what about our own sense of call? When I use that term, I’m not talking about discovering a sense of vocation, which is how we often talk about call when it comes to work or family. I’m talking about the call to enter seriously into the spiritual life, the first step on a spiritual journey that ends in resurrection. Adyashanti describes a sense of call as “that moment when the trajectory of your life begins to turn toward the mystery of life…that transcendent aspect of life that shines through the world of time and space.” If we’ve experienced that sense of call – and most people who start attending a place of worship have – what is the backstory that prepared us to hear it?
For me it was Holy Hill, a monastery outside of Milwaukee that my parents took us to when we were children. I was raised Methodist, so entering the basilica at the top of the hill filled me with a sense of wonder and mystery. I remember it as being dark and gloomy, with cavernous side chapels and a bank of votive lights that shimmered against the wall. People moved and spoke differently in that space, whispering from their knees, and there was something strangely intimate about the shush and the darkness. There was an odd machine in the Undercroft, a mechanism that you put coins into, and when you did music would start playing, and a diorama of the halt and the lame, set on a turntable behind glass, would begin to operate, leading the little ceramic people on a continuous circle through the doors of a church and out of them again, into a slow passage through the world. But the most powerful aspect of Holy Hill was the Stations of the Cross, which you walked by following a wooded path across the topography of the hill itself. The stations were larger than life size, made of carved granite and protected by grottos of piled stones. We would walk there in all seasons, sliding down icy stairs in winter, walking over damp leaves in autumn, or beneath flowering trees in spring and summer.
This was the backstory for my own sense of call. Holy Hill provided a chance to gaze beneath the surface of things, to be moved by wonder and joy. Not the kind of joy that can simply be confused for happiness, but the kind of joy that creates sharp and distinct memory, an experience of the divine that prepared me to recognize God in other experiences when they came. Holy Hill was my own miraculous catch of fish. What was yours?