A Fish Story
“I think your destiny is pretty much set”, my brother-in-law said with a laugh. We were taking care of the twins for the weekend to give the parents a break at the beach. It was last Saturday, a uncharacteristically bright, clear fall day under the trees. The alders and maples had not turned yet, there was only the sleepy light of the weakening sun on the leaves and the long shadows across the fields that hinted at the gray rain and wind that was coming. He had asked me why I didn’t buy a new car, after seeing that my truck looks every bit of the 300,000 miles it has on it: the bumper is tied on, my passenger door is tied closed and just about every side has a dent to remind me of every narrow miss in the dark I’ve had commuting up and down the mountain in the last 7 years. I told him I didn’t want to make any major purchases because I was still holding out to join the Carmelites in the next year and wanted to be truly mendicant: poor, light on my feet, ready to follow the call, and beg for my bread. I smiled when he dismissed my vocation, even through it turned like a white hot shank of iron in my belly. I don’t blame him for laughing; he was just articulating what was obvious to anyone. With thousands of dollars of school loan debt, personal debt, and what seems like a baker’s dozen of family members that need me in one way or another as as a provider, baby sitter, crisis counselor, and social worker; I am not exactly the most likely candidate for religious priesthood in the next year, or in any year for that matter. In fact, my last blog essentially the same thing he did–that I felt like the current of my life was pushing me downstream, away from religious priesthood and toward another life entirely.
Needless to say, on Sunday I was feeling pretty hopeless. When my brother and his wife got home to take over the kids, I went to my praying spot by the creek that borders the backside of our farm. Looking up at the canopy of leaves over the water, I asked God to show me His will: whether to keep on trying to find my way to the Carmelites or to let go and find another life and not fight so hard to keep my vocation alive. Not long after I sat down, I heard a thrashing in the water. I went to investigate and saw a huge salmon working its long, lithe body over some rocks in the creek. It was that time of year again, when the salmon make their way back to their spawning beds, swimming from the Pacific Ocean upstream for 70, 80, or 100 miles to get back to their source. This fish probably came in from the Nehalem River about 80 miles to the southwest as the crow flies, following the winding course of the river until it reached Rock Creek, where it had to drive itself over dry beds and exposed rocks and up shallow waterfalls for most of the seven miles to reach the spot where I was sitting.I walked out into the 3 inch deep water to watch its powerful, shining body arch in the setting sun and to see what it is I was supposed to see. Whenever I think of salmon swimming upstream, I always picture the National Geographic footage of the fish throwing themselves up steep waterfalls, defying gravity and death to reproduce. But, in reality, this is only a dramatic moment in a long journey that is mostly slow, grueling, and methodical. As the salmon moved closer to me in the shallow water, I saw its battered body, torn fins, and labored breathing as it picked its way through rivulets of water. As I watched it make its way, I realized that the salmon never wastes its movements; it conserves its energy and uses the eddies and reverse currents under the water to move it along with a minimum of effort. It lets the current do the work whenever it can, but it never lets the stream turn it back away from its goal: that shaded, nondescript shallow of silt and pebbles that has been locked deep in its internal compass since the moment of its birth.
Watching the salmon’s serene struggle, I realized that I need to respect the current of my life, but not let it take me downstream. Rather than stubbornly fight the current or simply give in to it, I should be conserving my energy, letting the undertow of my life guide me and propel me toward my call, even if at its surface my life appears to be pulling me away from it. There will be a time that I will have to drive myself over the dry beds and up over the waterfalls, but that day is not today. Today, I watch and I wait and let the current do the work. Today, I do the methodical, hidden work of the journey; I pick through the mundane maze of stones and pools that form me as a Carmelite and a priest, always keeping myself turned toward the destination that God has put in my heart as a sign and a promise and a call since the moment of my birth.