The stories of the saints are chock full of inspiration, so when I had the chance to speak to more than 400 Catholic school teachers recently, I decided to share one of my favorite stories, attributed to an event in the life of St. Anthony, a powerful preacher and insightful teacher.
When preaching in a town near Padua, where there were heretics in great numbers, St. Anthony became frustrated that his words and teaching about Christ were falling on deaf ears. So, after a prayerful discussion with God, he made his way to the shore to preach to the fish.
“"Listen to the word of God, O ye fishes of the sea and of the river, seeing that the faithless heretics refuse to do so," St. Anthony proclaimed.
No sooner had he spoken these words than a great multitude of fishes, both large and small, swam to the bank where St. Anthony stood. All the fish held their heads out of the water and seemed to be keeping their attention on St Anthony's face.
St. Anthony began to preach to them, saying: "My brothers the fishes, you are bound, as much as is in your power, to return thanks to your Creator, who has given you so noble an element for your dwelling; for you have at your choice both sweet water and salt; you have many places of refuge from the tempest; you have likewise a pure and transparent element for your nourishment.
“God, your bountiful and kind Creator, when he made you, ordered you to increase and multiply, and gave you his blessing. In the universal deluge, all other creatures perished; you alone did God preserve from all harm.
“He has given you fins to enable you to go where you will. To you was it granted, according to the commandment of God, to keep the prophet Jonah, and after three days to throw him safe and sound on dry land. … Because of all these things you are bound to praise and bless the Lord, who has given you blessings so many and so much greater than to other creatures."
At these words the fish began to open their mouths, and bow their heads, expressing reverence and praise for God in their own way.
There is more to the story, of course, and it turns out well for the heretics, as you might expect. But what resonated with me the most, at least the first time I read the story, is the honor and praise of the fish, offered out of gratitude for the many blessings of God.
But the image that will stay with me from my recent presentation came from a creative group of teachers who pointed out that fish come to the surface of the water when they are being fed. It was an observation and a lesson powerful in its simplicity, which good teaching most often is. I know I will never look at fish in the same way again, especially those in a fish tank or fish bowl.
They will always be a symbol and a reminder of the need to come up to the surface from the deep recesses of our lives to be fed by the Word of God. They will bring to mind the many blessings that call us to gratitude, especially those we have failed to consider. And they will help me to remember that we are unique, among God’s creatures and among our sisters and brothers.
Just as a fish will not sing God’s praise with the voice of a sparrow, we must offer our love and gratitude to God in our own voice, with our unique gifts through the work of our own hands and hearts.
May the New Year be a time of imitating the fishes – being grateful, being ourselves and praising our God.
"Blessed be the eternal God; for the fishes of the sea honor him more than men without faith, and animals without reason listen to his word with greater attention than sinful heretics." St. Anthony