Treasures of the Faith, Part 6: Duc in Altum, a Microcosm of the Spiritual Life

In this installment of Treasures of the Faith, I would like to continue looking at our Latin maxims, focusing on one that comes directly from the Scriptures: “Duc in altum”(Lk 5:4), a potent phrase that can encapsulate all the major aspects of the spiritual life.

There is an ancient Jewish tradition in which the first line of a psalm is quoted, representing and calling to mind all the rest of the psalm. A perfect example of this is when Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Ps 21:2; Mt 27:46) For the Jewish people of his day, that line would have called to mind spiritual darkness and a deep feeling of abandonment, but also the total and triumphant trust in God with which the psalm ends. Similarly, the phrase, duc in altum represents for us the whole Biblical scene in which it occurs and in a sense the entire spiritual life summarized therein.

Let us begin by looking at that scene from the Scriptures:

“While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water [Duc in altum] and lower your nets for a catch.’ Simon said in reply, ‘Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’ When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”(Lk 5:1-11, NAB)

“We Have Worked Hard All Night and Have Caught Nothing.”

Notice the first part of Peter’s response: “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.” No matter how much we toil, if we are working in the dark, away from “the light of the world”(Jn 8:12) and the illumination of His Will, we will be far from true success. Even if we succeed in what we want, we don’t know that what we want will be what is best for us or for others: for our eternal salvation, what ultimately matters. As Jesus said, “Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted, shall be uprooted.” [Omnis plantatio, quam non plantavit Pater meus caelestis, eradicabitur.](Mt 15:13) Only what is in accord with God’s Will and in union with Him and His grace will remain and will bear good fruit. Again, as Jesus said, “I am the vine: you the branches: he that abides in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.” [Ego sum vitis, vos palmites : qui manet in me, et ego in eo, hic fert fructum multum, quia sine me nihil potestis facere.](Jn 15:5)

“But At Your Command I Will Lower the Nets.”

The command of Christ made no worldly sense to Peter, but He chose to trust in Jesus anyway, even to “launch out into the deep.” For the Jews of the Old Testament and of that time, the deep water was dark, mysterious, and dangerous; it represented death and the unknown, into which people sank, never to return to the land of the living. He had already braved the dark waters all night and had declared it a failure. Still, he did as Jesus said. When we know the command of Christ: of Him Who—unlike us—is all-knowing, and all-loving, willing only what is best for us, far from flailing in the dark, we are walking and acting in “the light.”(Jn 12:35-36) We are doing the Will of God, incarnating it into the physical universe, doing and becoming our own powerful Amen (“meaning yes, may it be so.”)

“When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them.”

Thus, once they knew and faithfully accomplished God’s Will (whether it made complete sense to them or not) their labors were fruitful: miraculously and astoundingly so! And it was not only fruitful for them, but made them channels of God’s blessings to others, touching their lives in ways unforeseen to them, but foreseen and arranged by Almighty God.

“When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’”

At times, a light shines into a church through a stained-glass window, illuminating the dust in the air of which we were previously unaware. Did the air we were breathing become less pure with the light? No, but we became aware of the air’s condition. Similarly, when our souls are illumined by the presence of Christ and His grace, we come to know a bit of the beauty, goodness, and majesty of God and, in contrast, a bit of the truth of the wretchedness of our sins. The immediate result is exactly what we hear in Peter’s typically impulsive yet simple, honest, and pure response: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” How true it is that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”(Prov 1:7) [Timor Domini principium sapientiae.]

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

As good and as important as that awareness is though, Christ does not want to leave us there; we must not be paralyzed by fear, but must be brave enough to “launch out into the deep.” Yes, as St. Mother Teresa said, “Self-knowledge puts us on our knees,” but “knowledge of God produces love.” (See more on that here.) He longs not to obliterate us for our unworthiness, but to see our glory arise from the ashes! The Sacraments are profound personal encounters with Jesus Christ, by which we are transformed and strengthened. As is mirrored in His encounter with Peter, Christ wants to transform us: to mold us into the masterpieces He created us to be, and into the instruments of His grace to others for which He has destined us for all eternity. He won’t do it without us, against our free will, but only with our cooperation. And it is a daily process: a hidden work amidst the tides of life. We Christians are made missionaries by virtue of our Baptism and even more so by our Confirmation. Our daily work (fishing) is important; He can work through it and He wants to, but catching food to fill our bellies and the bellies of others is not enough. We are made for eternal happiness, and so are all our neighbors. Therefore, Jesus says, “Labor not for the food which perishes, but for that which endures unto life everlasting, which the Son of man will give you.”(Jn 6:27) [Operamini non cibum, qui perit, sed qui permanet in vitam aeternam, quem Filius hominis dabit vobis.]

“When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”

Turning from this intense and conscious encounter with Christ, and making contact again with the shore of “the world,” we are faced with a decision on how we will now see things and order our priorities. We must decide how to act anew. The Apostles chose wisely. Jesus would come first. They would trust Him. They would seek to do all things for Him and according to His Will. Perhaps Christ would want them to do the same things, but do them differently, with a deeper purpose (Age quod agis); perhaps this encounter would demand major changes and sacrifices. It mattered not. They had seen and now believed “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”(Jn 20:31) [quia Jesus est Christus Filius Dei.] May we all seek Him out increasingly, accepting His invitations and the grace He offers; may we put Him first, and may we daily pray to know and to fulfill His Will in our lives. “Seek ye the Lord, and be strengthened: seek his face always.”(Ps 104:4) [Quaerite Dominum, et confirmamini; quaerite faciem ejus semper.] Oremus pro invicem.