THE FISHER OF MEN
And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him. And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.
The Gospel narrative of Jesus calling together disciples at the beginning of his ministry represents the universal and archetypal call of wisdom to conflicted hearts and ignorant minds. From the very start Jesus shows interest not merely in teaching, but in the training of future teachers. He not only wishes to catch men, but to transform them into “fishers” in turn. Perhaps this emphasis in the Gospel narrative is partly responsible for the zealous missionary spirit that has characterized centuries of Christendom. But as Jesus wisely prophesied, many sounding his name would not necessarily know him. True conversion, the penetration of the heart by wisdom-light, differs from mere lip-persuasion, just as prayer of the heart differs from lip-prayer. While some of his sayings emphasize the spread of his gospel, Jesus warned of hypocrites who perform religious gestures only for show. Their prayers are not heard, for “they already have their reward”—the attention of others. Contrary to external, formal ritual, Jesus preached the integrity and inwardness of individual worship. “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Jesus was not advocating here the solicitation of favors from a personal God. Rather he was indicating the spiritual law of inward cultivation. The “rewards” are not the circumstances and possessions that flatter the personality, but the virtues that naturally flourish through progress towards stabilizing the mind and purifying the heart. Before his ministry, Jesus retired to solitude and fasting in the desert for forty days. Without inward self-culture one has nothing of real value to offer to others, nor can one distinguish the true from the false in the “wisdoms” proffered in church, temple or marketplace.
Many are the saints and sages who refuse to keep wisdom to themselves, but accept the risks and difficulties of teaching. At the ripe time, they bring forth a harvest from the inward life that feeds the hungry. Theosophy teaches that the appearance of influential teachers is governed by the law of cycles. At critical stages of growth, cultures and civilizations need specialized infusions of wisdom, and an individual appears to address that need. These stages may extend for very long periods, and the living influence of the teacher far outlasts his or her personal life. Only a small circle of persons actually lived with Jesus, yet vast is his light through history because of the living impression he affected in the hearts of his followers.
Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:
She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying,
How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge?
Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you.
Mass movements frequently persuade with superficial, and sometimes dire, methods and intentions. The original message of Jesus has been morphed to maximize social and political leverage. What is passed down is not the living light of the candle of vision, but dark theologies that confuse and further aggravate egotism. In his essay “Worship”, Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped, “Heaven deals with us on no representative system. Souls are not saved in bundles.” Yet Christian missionary work has often focused on just such mass conversion. Today there are hopeful signs, due especially to the mindfulness movement and the spread of Buddhist teachings in the West, of a wider recognition that religion is not merely a profession but a discipline. As non-sectarian spirituality is proving relevant and empowering for spiritually hungry seekers, Christianity must either doubled-down on dogma, or open its chapel doors to wisdom, updating and making relevant contemplative practices within its own traditions.
Theosophy teaches that true religion must be wisdom-religion. Wisdom discerns the root problem of life and indicates the solution, although that solution can never be entirely spelled out, as it must be discovered by each aspirant. “Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself.” The Buddha’s ministry began on an existential note with The Four Noble Truths, which explained that human suffering is rooted in futile grasping after impermanent phenomena, and that through detachment and love enlightenment could be achieved. Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount invited listeners to participate in the ever-present Kingdom of Heaven based on love and forgiveness of one’s fellow-man. Where religion becomes exclusive and self-referential, arguably the case with much of Christianity, the wisdom-light grows dim and superstition proliferates.
A theosophical critique of Christian Church history might cite over-zealous fishing with too much hook and poor quality bait. The unenlightened human mind is weak, greedy, and insecure. It seeks control over human beings through exploiting weakness and fear. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It is easy – terribly easy – to shake a man’s faith in himself. To take advantage of that to break a man’s spirit is devil’s work.” H.P.Blavatsky characterized the doctrine of hell as a psychological Archimedean lever, terrorizing generations of Christians—a most un-Christ-like way to secure followers, and a guaranteed way to distort the significance of the non-violent, compassionate Prince of Peace. Furthermore, the Christianized West has navigated the divide between God and Mammon by delegating separate spheres to the world and religion—Wall Street for six days a week, and Church Street on the seventh. The glaring contradiction between militant and commercial empire-building, christened with blood in the name of Christ, and the all-forgiving, non-violent brotherhood taught by Jesus could not be greater. The very fact that this hypocrisy is widely accepted without qualm speaks volumes about the ignorant obstruction of the wisdom of Jesus, and the failure of generations of “fisherman” to live out and transmit his teaching. The diminishing of this wisdom light coincides with the rise of theologies that obscure the existential relevance of Jesus’s teaching, while concentrating on supposed rewards and punishments in the afterlife. The spiritual, psychological and social needs that Jesus addresses in his sayings are thus downplayed, ignored, or theologically reinterpreted. Believers are further hampered by the doctrine of original sin, which subverts the confidence needed to think critically and act on truth.
The metaphor of the fisherman suggests one who can ‘catch’ others by persuasion. Whatever other connotations the term carried in Jesus’s time, a consideration of the power and use of persuasion today is revealing. The modern person must arm herself psychologically against a constant assault of persuasive tactics endemic to a commercial culture. Today the fishing metaphor connotes negative suggestions: lured into corruption; hooked by a habit; caught in another’s net. ‘Gullibility’ is an etymological kin to ‘gullet’ and literally means indiscriminate swallowing. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the subtle and sophisticated tactics of Madison Avenue border on gray magic—the psychological manipulation of millions of human beings for the sake of selfish profit. The ordinary person today must develop blinders and evasive reflexes merely to dodge advertisements on any ordinary day. The more the consumer tunes out, the louder the onslaught. Even pumping gas in your car today is no longer a reprieve—TV screens run advertisement loops at obnoxious volumes! In this context of advertisement fatigue, it is no wonder that religious proselytizing is suspect and annoying.
Clearly there was an irresistible charisma about Jesus that shone through skillful oratory. One telling phrase repeated in the gospels is, “He opened his mouth.” The Word Incarnate was also master of the word. The gnostic gospel of Valentinus describes Jesus as “a living book.” The opening of John’s Gospel reads, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” The Logos (word) is the manifest expression of the unmanifest Nous (mind). As the unknown thought of a person may be disclosed through speech, so the divine compassion of the universal Christos finds focus through an inwardly evolved human being, who as an avatar becomes the type for an evolutionary advance of the race. Jesus often displayed sly and skillful rhetoric, but his speech was only one aspect of the radiance “of grace and truth” that pervaded his being. His followers and enemies alike were startled by his skill and power. Matthew concludes his account of the Sermon on the Mount with these words, “And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
The passionate persuasion of Jesus was not an act of personal salesmanship. Our understanding today is clouded by the whole personal idea. We cannot see that it is the impersonal nature of wisdom to radiate, just as light automatically exudes from a candle or a star. This radiance is within each of us, an aspect of the immortal man, deeper than the personal man. At the same time, each of us inherits a karmically bound, weak, fearful, myopic personality. But deeper than this dwells the latent spiritual Will which may be released for the sake of universal enlightenment. This is the Will of the spiritual Father spoken of by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Will be done.” It is also suggested by Paul’s affirmation, “Not I, but Christ in me.” In his essay “The Hero in Man” the Irish mystic AE linked this release to the cultivation of unconditional love as taught by the Buddha.
He lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of Love, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, and everywhere, does he continue to pervade with heart of Love far-reaching, grown great and beyond measure.
AE then goes on to suggest that this Love-Wisdom has a life of its own, and far transcends the will and schemes of the personal man.
To make clearer how it seems to me to act, I say that love, Eros, is a being. It is more than a power of the soul, though it is that also; it has universal life of its own. . .. That Living Light, having found a way into the being of any one person, does not rest there, but sends its rays and extends its influence on and on to illumine the darkness of another nature.
“The Hero in Man”
This divine restlessness is how we ought to think about the missionary work of Jesus and Buddha. In both cases, the desire to teach was indissolubly wed to compassion, a spontaneous response to the spectacle of human woe. In the Gospel of Matthew we read:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
This bears resemblance to a moment in Prince Siddhartha’s life, as described in Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia. Having confronted the reality, universality and inevitability of physical death, the future Buddha did not withdraw in fear “like the shy turtle within the carapace of selfhood,” but, with open heart, lit the thunderbolt of resolve:
But lo! Siddhartha turned
Eyes gleaming with divine tears to the sky,
Eyes lit with heavenly pity to the earth;
From sky to earth he looked, from earth to sky,
As if his spirit sought in lonely flight
Some far-off vision, linking this and that,
Lost, past, but searchable, but seen, but known.
Then cried he, while his lifted countenance
Glowed with the burning passion of a love
Unspeakable, the ardour of a hope
Boundless, insatiate: “Oh! suffering world,
Oh! known and unknown of my common flesh,
Caught in this common net of death and woe,
And life which binds to both! I see, I feel
The vastness of the agony of earth,
The vainness of its joys, the mockery
Of all its best, the anguish of its worst;
The veil is rent
Which blinded me! I am as all these men
Who cry upon their gods and are not heard
Or are not heeded — yet there must be aid!
For them and me and all there must be help!
Perchance the gods have need of help themselves
Being so feeble that when sad lips cry
They cannot save! I would not let one cry
Whom I could save!
The Light of Asia
The Teacher of Wisdom does not speak on his own behalf. His teaching fulfills one step in the long progressive awakening of the human race. The Teacher-Reformer’s life is often characterized as ‘sacrificial’ because the ‘Turning of the Wheel of the Law’ means challenging entrenched prejudices and disclosing new ideas, both of which provoke fear, and often retaliation. The work of a Great Teacher is never fulfilled in a single life. The personal life of a Christ or a Buddha is only the inception of an impulse that must be shepherded for many hundreds of generations. At one time it flourishes, later it seems to die back, only to flower again and again. The impulse climbs uphill, constantly fighting materializing tendencies—social, political and economic. It is truly wonderful to contemplate the awesome spiritual and ethical light cast upon the future by Jesus, that began with calling out to a few fishermen on an ordinary day.
One of the laws of discipleship referred to in Light on the Path reads, “Before the voice can speak in the presence of the Masters it must have lost the power to wound.” Comment III on that rule speaks of “a stage of development towards the absolute God or Good” when the disciple “finds himself becoming part of what might be roughly described as a layer of human consciousness.” This is symbolized by the term “Masters”, and ‘to speak in their presence’ means “he has the right to demand contact with the divinest element of that state of consciousness into which he has entered.” The disciple finds that this “speech” has a two-fold power, and a two-fold responsibility. “He cannot send his voice up to the heights where sit the gods till he has penetrated to the deep places where their light shines not at all.” The Voice of the Silence expresses beautifully the humble disciple’s power to make a difference through speech.
Point out the “Way” — however dimly, and lost among the host — as does the evening star to those who tread their path in darkness. … Give light and comfort to the toiling pilgrim, and seek out him who knows still less than thou; who in his wretched desolation sits starving for the bread of Wisdom and the bread which feeds the shadow, without a Teacher, hope or consolation, and — let him hear the Law.
If it is the disciple’s privilege to use speech to invoke the highest within himself, it is his duty to share speech to shed light in the darkness. “His first act of service is to give some of that knowledge to those who are not yet fit to stand where he stands.”
In claiming the power of speech, as it is called, the Neophyte cries out to the Great One who stands foremost in the ray of knowledge on which he has entered, to give him guidance. When he does this, his voice is hurled back by the power he has approached, and echoes down to the deep recesses of human ignorance. In some confused and blurred manner the news that there is knowledge and a beneficent power which teaches is carried to as many men as will listen to it. No disciple can cross the threshold without communicating this news, and placing it on record in some fashion or other.
Light on the Path
This ‘confused and blurred manner’ of sharing the teaching is perhaps as awkward as a child’s first steps in learning to walk. But the experience of dissatisfaction is essential to generate the will to perfection. This is not the personal pain of looking foolish in the eyes of others, but sadness at the pain that ignorance causes others. “He stands horror-struck at the imperfect and unprepared manner in which he has done this; and then comes the desire to do it well, and with the desire thus to help others comes the power.”
In her letter to the 1888 American Theosophical Convention, H.P. Blavatsky describes succinctly the natural evolution of true soul-fishermen.
… [E]ach man should strive to be a center of work in himself. When his inner development has reached a certain point, he will naturally draw those with whom he is in contact under the same influence; a nucleus will be formed, round which other people will gather, forming a center from which information and spiritual influence radiate, and towards which higher influences are directed.
Spiritual wisdom may be likened to light, which warms, spreads, unites people, and makes self-knowledge possible. In the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ Jesus says,
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.