The Triumph of Failure

"I'm going out to fish," Simon Peter told them, and they said, "We'll go with you." So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" (John 21, 3-5)

The young man approached Abba and asked him : "Show me how I can find God." "How great is this desire of yours?" asked the saintly man. "More than anything in the world," came the reply. The Abba took the young man to the shore of a lake and they waded into the water until it was up to their necks. Then the holy man put his hand on the other's head and pushed him under water. The young man struggled desperately, but the Abba did not release him until he was about to drown. When they returned to the shore, the old man asked, "Son, when you were under water, what did you want more than anything in the world?" "Air," he replied without hesitation. 'Well, then, when you want to find God as much as you just then wanted air, your eyes will be opened to the wonder of God."

A strange story. Very much like God! He is so foreign to our two-centimeters-brain! He has His own pedagogy. His own way of approaching us and convince us of His love.

John finishes his Gospel with an apparition of the Risen Christ. He appears to seven of his disciples - Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples. He starts his story so : "Afterwards Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias" John 21, 1. That word "again" is highly significant. There is an urgency in everything Jesus is doing. He wants to convince us that He is alive with power over all our problems. He wants to convince is that we are not alone in our life' struggles. "God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior", as Peter states to the high council in Acts 5, and He is eager to make us understand this. In this way, He knows, we can taste heaven now!

What is difficult to understand many times is His timing. He works on a different schedule. He waited until Abraham was seventy five years old, without children, without land and without hope, before He came to His rescue. He waited four hundred years before He intervened in Egypt in favor of His people. He walked for forty years in the desert with His chosen race before He let them taste the "milk and honey" of the promised land. He let His people experience the bitterness of the exile for many years before He brought them back home.

Why? So urgent and yet so slow! Why does He many times let us hit rock bottom before He intervenes?!

The pedagogy of God

John 21 can be eye-opener. Peter was utterly dejected and disappointed, "I am going fishing" he tells his companions. "I am going back to my former life style." It was good as long as it lasted. But now it is over. Another dream broken. Another illusion which melted in thin air. He had hoped really that this Jesus will make a breakthrough. He believed He was the Messiah. But then He died. A tragic death. The powers of evil always have the upper hand in this world of ours. And so Peter went again fishing... Disillusioned. "Let me return to my daily humdrum life". And that night he caught nothing. Nothing. No fish. They were all expert fishermen, they were working at night when it is the best time to catch fish and yet ... nothing. Failure after failure.

It is then, and only then, that the Master approaches. "Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach : but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them : "Friends, you have no fish?... Cast the net to the right side of the boat...."

We live in a society which has no place for drop outs. No one likes failing. Failure is a very demoralizing thing. All of us have had that experience. Broken relationships, financial mishaps, flunking a class in school, treating our children or parents, or co-workers poorly. You try, you spend so much energy, you utilize all the resources available but you gain nothing. Good intentions but yet...

Yet in God's infinite wisdom, failure is a privileged place. It can become the place where Jesus meets us. Many saints met God in the cross roads of failure. Because... failure makes us humble; it makes us conscious of our limits. Failure can give us the enormous grace to strip off our false and clumsy conceit and put on virtue and comeliness. It is in failure that a man begins to think, to wonder about life and perhaps, to look upwards to Him who can turn failure into a glorious achievement.

In life we can do worse than fail. We can succeed and be proud of our success. Success - yes, even spiritual success - can be a snare and a ruin, while failure can be an unspeakable benefit.

The beauty of failure

God is interested in us. And He sees how sometimes we are so stupid that we do not realize that it is to our own advantage if the man of the flesh dies. It is to our own advantage if the man who is always wimpy, grumbling, never satisfied, always craving for more gratification... if he is killed. We are the one to gain if he dies. The quicker He dies, the better it is for us and for all those around us!

And so sometimes God forces our limits on us. He intervenes with strength. He is forceful. .... A son runs away from home, the doctor diagnoses cancer, your daughter breaks to you the news that she is pregnant and she is only sixteen, you fail to get the promotion which you deserve, you fall into some serious sin... these are not mistakes. Through events He makes us realize who we are - human beings, not gods, sinners not saints. We may like to be gods, we may think we are gods. But we are not! We are so awkward constantly wearing shoes which are not ours! Wearing the shoes of a god when we are just creatures!

These events which He forces on us are part of the pedagogy of God to wake us up from our alienation. To put us on our knees. To start yelling. To start looking beyond our nose.. To start catching real fish.

In fact, look what happened. "So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish....So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. "


Why does the Gospel reports that there were exactly 153 fish caught in the net? The early Church always saw the image of getting fish out of the seas - which symbolize problems, darkness, the world - as a sign of evangelization : Jesus Christ saving us from the hell of suffering. That is why Saint Jerome, one of the early church father and a Biblical scholar himself, said that among the Greeks it was widely regarded that there were 153 kinds of fish in the sea. Hence John wanted to stress the universality of the good news. Jesus Christ came to save everyone. Even us! No matter what kind of fish we may be dealing with, all can be caught by the gospel net!

Saint Augustine is even more sharp : if you add through the numbers from 1 through 17, you will get 153, he says. Why seventeen? Because seventeen is made up of TEN which represent the Law, and SEVEN which represent the Holy Spirit. The Christian is the one who fulfills the Law with the power and the strength of the Holy Spirit. The Christian is the one who "shares in the grace of the Spirit, by which grace harmony is established with the law of God, as with an adversary; so that through the life-giving Spirit the letter no longer kills, but what is commanded by the letter is fulfilled by the help of the Spirit, and if there is any deficiency it is pardoned. All therefore who are sharers in such grace are symbolically represented" (Saint Augustine).

Jesus Christ is so tender. He prepares a breakfast for them. Breakfast by the sea! Beside a charcoal fire - remember that it was while Peter was warming himself over a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest that he denied his Lord - he gives a mission to Peter. Instead of reprimanding the one who betrayed him in front of a woman he answers to his three betrayals with a three questions and affirmations of His love. That is God. He answers evil with good. If only we discover this love early in our life... Everything is impossible. But God exists.

We can be very shortsighted. We believe that life is what we see, what we have in our hands. We forget heaven so easily. We are here for a short time. We shall be there for ever. The vision is enormous. And so God many times snatches the world from our hands so that we are forced to open our arms and snatch at heaven. The Book of Revelations is so full of victory which can be ours...

We see failures as a problem. God sees them as a blessing. Robert Wise, in his book The Churning Place tells the story of a friend who used to call him every Monday morning, and the conversation would go something like this: "Hello. This is God. I have a gift for you today. I want to give you the gift of failing. Today you do not have to succeed. I grant that to you." And then the friend would hang up. Wise commented, "The first time, I couldn't believe it. It was really the Gospel. God's love means it's even o.k. to fail. You don't have to be the greatest thing in the world. You can just be you."

God is so good and so powerful and so caring that He transforms even these setbacks into springs of graces for us and for those whom we love.

What an deal!

A friend from New Zealand just sent me this story. The cheerful girl with bouncy golden curls was almost five. Waiting with her mother at the checkout stand, she saw them: a circle of glistening white pearls in a pink foil box. "Oh please, Mommy. Can I have them? Please, Mommy, please!" Quickly the mother checked the back of the little foil box and then looked back into the pleading blue eyes of her little girl's upturned face. "A dollar ninety-five. That's almost $2.00. If you really want them, I'll think of some extra chores for you and in no time you can save enough money to buy them for yourself. Your birthday's only a week away and you might get another crisp dollar bill from Grandma."

As soon as Jenny got home, she emptied her penny bank and counted out 17 pennies. After dinner, she did more than her share of chores and she went to the neighbor and asked Mrs. McJames if she could pick dandelions for ten cents. On her birthday, Grandma did give her another new dollar bill and at last she had enough money to buy the necklace.

Jenny loved her pearls. They made her feel dressed up and grown up. She wore them everywhere - Church, kindergarten, even to bed. The only time she took them off was when she went swimming or had a bubble bath. Mother said if they got wet, they might turn her neck green.

Jenny had a very loving daddy and every night when she was ready for bed, he would stop whatever he was doing and come upstairs to read her a story. One night when he finished the story, he asked Jenny, "Do you love me?" "Oh yes, Daddy. You know that I love you." "Then give me your pearls." "Oh, Daddy, not my pearls. But you can have Princess - the white horse from my collection. The one with the pink tail. Remember, Daddy? The one you gave me. She's my favorite." "That's okay, Honey. Daddy loves you. Good night." And he brushed her cheek with a kiss. About a week later, after the story time, Jenny's daddy asked again, "Do you love me?" "Daddy, you know I love you." "Then give me your pearls." "Oh Daddy, not my pearls. But you can have my baby doll. The brand new one I got for my birthday. She is so beautiful and you can have the yellow blanket that matches her sleeper." "That's okay. Sleep well. God bless you, little one. Daddy loves you." And as always, he brushed her cheek with a gentle kiss.

A few nights later when her daddy came in, Jenny was sitting on her bed with her legs crossed Indian-style. As he came close, he noticed her chin was trembling and one silent tear rolled down her cheek. "What is it, Jenny? What's the matter?" Jenny didn't say anything but lifted her little hand up to her daddy. And when she opened it, there was her little pearl necklace. With a little quiver, she finally said, "Here, Daddy. It's for you." With tears gathering in his own eyes, Jenny's kind daddy reached out with one hand to take the dime-store necklace, and with the other hand he reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue velvet case with a strand of genuine pearls and gave them to Jenny. He had them all the time. He was just waiting for her to give up the dime-store stuff so he could give her genuine treasure.

It's so like God.

(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.