Beauty from Ashes
"No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, But You can restore a conscience turned to ashes; You can restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With You, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. You are Love; You are Creator and Redeemer. We praise You, singing: Alleluia!” These lines come from a prayer called the ‘Akathist of Thanksgiving,’ which was written in a Soviet prison camp by the priest Fr. Gregory Petrov. He was sent to prison when he refused to renounce his faith in Christ, and spent the rest of his life behind bars. After his death in 1940, his body was searched and on him was found this prayer. Line after line, it pours out thanks to God for all the good things in life, for the wonder of nature, for the genius of inspired artists and scientists, and even for the beauty in the glimpse of light seen through the prison window. In order to get the full weight of the prayer, you have to imagine the world in which Fr. Petrov lived and died. Within his lifetime, he had seen a Christian nation change into one of the most diabolical nations in history. Christianity had become illegal, churches were bombed, priests were executed, and morality was capsized. He himself was left to shrivel up in rags in the most inhumane conditions. And yet, in that suffering, he was able to pray: “No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but You can restore a conscience turned to ashes. You can restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope.” Today, we read from the Gospel of Luke, of that morning when Christ came to the lake of Gennesaret. There on the shore were a group of fishermen washing their nets. They had fished all night and had come back empty handed. Every time I read this, I remember the summers I spent fishing in Alaska. Some days we’d return to shore with a boat so full of salmon that it would barely stay above water. At those times, cleaning the nets was easy, because we were so excited about our luck. But on other days we’d pull up to the dock without a single catch, and, nevertheless, still have to untangle and wash the nets. It’s bad enough to work all night without anything to show, but to have to clean up afterwards was wretched. The disciples’ livelihood depended on their catch of fish. And so you can imagine how they felt when our Lord approached them. So Christ, the gospel tells us, starts teaching the fishermen, and afterwards approaches Simon. “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Lk. 5:4). If I were Simon, I’d probably laugh and walk off angrier than ever. But Simon must have seen something in Christ worth listening to. He obeyed the teacher. He gathered his men and set off again in their boats. This time, they caught more fish than they’d ever seen. You can find, in this short story, a microcosm of our walk with God. The fishermen had spent all night casting nets with nothing to show in the end. Can you relate? Our lives, without God, are no different. Everyone experiences this in his or her own way. Some seem to be born into the world with more talent, money, or better circumstances than others, and they do find success for a while. Others seem to be less fortunate, and barely hang on from the start. Regardless, everyone who runs on his or her own fuel hits rock bottom at some point. Then what? That’s where Simon was on that dreary morning. He was worn out and had enough. When Christ approached him, He gave the man a choice: will you keep on keeping on, on your own, or will you give yourself to God? The message is simple. Our God is the God who makes beauty out of ashes. The Apostles changed history. It’s no coincidence that their career began after a long night of drudgery. In fact, we can only guess what would have happened if it weren’t for that night. Imagine if Simon had caught, by his own efforts, all the fishes he could want. Were Christ to come to him in the morning, could we assume Simon would follow? Most likely, he’d feel pretty confident in himself. Why should he listen to a passing carpenter? Why rely on God? It was because of Simon’s failure that he was able to turn to heaven. And so it is with us. The fifth century ascetic, St. Mark of Athens, comments on this passage: “If Peter had not failed to catch anything during the night’s fishing (Luke 5:5), he would not have caught anything during the day. And if Paul had not suffered physical blindness (Acts 9:8), he would have not been given spiritual sight. And if Stephen had not been slandered as a blasphemer, he would not have seen the heavens opened and have looked on God (Acts 6:15; 7:56).” Sometimes, we look at the losses in our lives and feel that they’re crushing us. Maybe you keep trying to find a job and can’t, maybe your health keeps giving out, maybe you’ve lost a loved one, or simply can’t find purpose in anything. Somehow, it’s in our failures that God best draws us to Him. We can never know while we’re suffering how God is working in our hearts, but He is. Our God is the God who makes beauty out of ashes.