A pilgrimage is an opportunity to swim downstream

In my overly zealous days I remember being inspired by Fr. Groeschel. This holy man was talking about the Christian spiritual life being similar to the life of salmon. To be a Christian was to be a salmon that must constantly swim upstream. He said the only fish that go downstream are dead fish.

Well, I researched the source of that quote. I wanted to know from whence certain preachers and spiritual writers have used it to relate to their view of the Christian life. The earliest source I found was W.C. Fields (1880-1946), an unlikely source. Why? He was an avowed atheist who held all religions in great suspicion. It would be implausible that he was applying these words to the Christian spiritual life. His exact words were, “Remember, a dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream.”

It matters not, however, whether he was an atheist and whether others who used it were Christians. What matters is that they were, in a real sense, wrong. Their thinking was too black and white. It occurred to me just today that, yes, a dead fish cannot swim upstream; but it is equally true that a live fish can float downstream. In fact, one who spends time looking at a lake or a river will see that sometimes the fish swim in all directions.

River fish often look for large obstacles that block the current so that behind these obstacles, they can remain stationary and rest. Imagine these spiritual writers, who in their well-intentioned zeal, can be tempted to pelagianism, suggesting that we actually take a break and remain stationary for a time! Unheard of! For them, a Christian fish cannot remain stationary to be a true Christian fish. It must constantly swim against the current until…? Ahh, until when? A good question indeed. “Until we die,” they may answer. In which case, we end up floating downstream anyway.

Better to swim and rest. We might actually enjoy being Christian fish and not feel guilty about resenting our constant struggle. Jesus did say, “But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” (Lk 21:36). But Jesus also said, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” (Mk 6:31)

Watching and praying does not equate to constantly having to swim upstream. A Christian fish who is resting behind a rock can watch and pray, too. And because he’s not so exhausted, he may even do a better job of it.

This, pilgrim, is your opportunity. Rest a while. And remember, your pilgrimage does not end when we return. This pilgrimage does. Your pilgrimage ends in heaven or hell. Keep finding time to rest.