There is an account of some poor man with nothing to say for himself, nonetheless begging Alexander the Great for a pittance, only to be astonished when the king handed him more than a few gold coins. “Why gold when copper would suffice?” asked one of his officers, to which the royal voice answered, “He asked as a beggar for copper coins, but I gave him as a king coins of gold.” Our Lord’s kingdom is not of this world, and so when men who are only of this earth ask for what would sustain them temporarily, he gives graces that will last forever.
The royal generosity of Christ is called his mercy, and it is given for a purpose. That became clear when at his bidding the apostles caught so many fish that the nets almost broke. Almost. But there never is too much for the Lord. It was something the apostles had to learn, and they never forgot it: after the Risen Lord had vanished, they even remembered that the fish numbered 153.
In the sixteenth century, the brilliant scholar and reformer, John Colet, started a school in London that provided scholarships for poor boys, specifically 153 each year to make the point that to obey the Lord ensures a great catch. St. Paul’s School flourished and ornamented culture with hundreds of thousands of boys grown to men, and it continues to do so. Just a few of them include the poet Milton, the diarist Pepys, the victor duke Churchill, the wit of wits Johnson, the Revolutionary spy André, whom Washington regretted having to hang, the happy genius Chesterton, the testy Field Marshall Montgomery, and so far three holders of the Victoria Cross. The list goes on, in tribute to the confidence Dean Colet had, that God’s grace would make 153 a lot more.
It was not irrelevant that the Apostles had fished all night and caught nothing. Working hard may seem useless and discouraging, but once the voice of God is heeded, there will be a great catch. Even in the Church there are micromanagers and Dickensian clerks scratching away at their balance sheets, producing little as they ignore the voice from the shore asking with a certain heavenly whimsy, “Have you caught anything?”
God’s generosity is available to all who are generous enough to accept it. In the life of grace, that means opening the soul to him. That is what Confession is for. The scrupulous will doubt that we can make enough room for him, and the presumptuous will assume that we do not have to. Recently a kindly but ill-informed clergyman said in an interview that God’s mercy is unmerited, and so there is no need to be sorry for one’s sins. The fact that it is unmerited should all the more move its recipient to contrition. Alexander gave as a king, but only after the beggar begged as beggar.
- FATHER GEORGE W. RUTLER