eat the fish (spit out the bones)



I had a philosophy professor once who used to use this expression all the time: “Eat the fish and spit out the bones.” I find myself using that phrase a lot. He of course meant it primarily about philosophy, even as regards the hallowed ancient Greek philosophy: not everything is compatible with the gospels! (I’ve been picking through Gilson’s Spirit of Medieval Philosophy recently, and run into this all the time as he elucidates where Christianity parts ways with Plato and Aristotle, for instance, in spite of their being used brilliantly, though discriminately, by Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure.) This philosophy professor was an ardent Catholic (I think a former priest, actually) though he taught philosophy in a public college. I took classes from him there and afterward I would stay after class and ask him questions, trying to understand the Christian point of view. Often he would say, “Well, you gotta eat the fish and spit out the bones.” I heard him use this phrase in regular conversation too, once at the dining room table. It’s true; in our ordinary day-to-day life we run into all kinds of wisdom––beauty, truth and goodness. It may be something unfamiliar to us––odd, strange, foreign––and our first reaction might be to push it away because it upsets our ordered little universe. But when we’re really comfortable in our own skin, and if we have an open, adventurous and optimistic (hopeful) view of the world we can receive and welcome something new, give it the benefit of the doubt, assume benevolence first, then practice discernment––and eat the fish and spit out the bones.

We heard the end of Chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew today, the last of the seven parables about the reign of God that we’ve been hearing all week: the sower and the seed, the weeds and the wheat, the mustard seed, the yeast in the dough, the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price (notice how many of these are nature images), and today the dragnet. I was reminded of this stance––that’s what I like to think of it as, a stance that we take in the world––by the phrase that Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of heaven being like a net thrown into the sea that caught fish of every kind, and then fisherfolk the discern and discriminate (in the good sense of the word) between the good and the bad fish. So that means there are two sides to this: first of all an attitude of openness and acceptance, adventure and excitement on the one hand; but then some discernment and discrimination on the other. I used this phrase that threw our Italian visitors off completely a few weeks ago––“undigested glop.” I think that often our life is made up of undigested glop, unexamined assumptions. We swallow the bones too.

Jesus then adds another line about the scribe taking out of the storehouse both old and the new. What is the old and the new? At first glance it could seem to be the Jewish covenant and the Gospel of Jesus. Some scholars think that it also be what lies ahead for Jesus (and thus for us): the cross and resurrection! I like to think of it very existentially: the new and the old could be our own experience and all the newness that comes to us each day as we evolve and grow. The Jerome Biblical Commentary had a great little sentence about these last lines. It says that it is “a parable about making parables, a metaparable that invites the hearer to enter the parabolic process through creating new parables… (JBC, 657).” What is the parable of our lives?

The same thing applies to the old and the new that applies to the dragnet of fish. We have to keep examining the old, to make sure it is still relevant, as well as make sure that our consciousness has continued to evolve and that our spirituality has continued to mature. Panikkar recalls the ancient Buddhist saying about the moon: the ancient traditions are fingers pointing at the moon. First of all we shouldn’t mistake the finger for the moon, but we also have to make sure that those fingers are actually still pointing at the moon––because the moon has moved!

On the other hand we also don’t swallow everything whole just because it’s new and novel. I’m reminded again of the Letter to the Bishops on Meditation from the CDF in 1989, which I have quoted so many times now! Just as “the Catholic church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in [other] religions,”[1] neither should the ways and methods that they have found to achieve union with God be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian. “On the contrary, one can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured. It is within the context of all of this that these bits and pieces should be taken up and expressed anew.”[2] That’s our discernment––is this in keeping with what I have learned from my experience living the gospel, from my relationship with Jesus?

So we throw out our net into the world, we take up all kinds of fish, we examine the ancient wisdom and new scintillating thoughts, we remember who we are, our own concept of prayer, our understanding of God revealed through scripture and the tradition, and we process them through our own experience too, old and new. Then we can take up these various beautiful bits and pieces, ancient and modern, and express them anew, entering into the parabolic process to create a new parable, the parable of my life; and then perhaps be able to experience and express our own faith, as John Paul II called for with the new evangelization, with “a new ardor, new methods, and new expressions”––and new parables!


[1]Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Nostra Aetate, no. 2, in Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, OP (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992).

[2] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter to the Bishops,” no. 16.

Share Button

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *