Fish On Friday

To thousands of our fellow Americans we Catholics are known merely as the people who eat fish on Friday It amuses us (up to a point) to be thought of in this way, as some queer sort of “Sixth Day Adventists” waiting with outstretched frying pans for the weekly arrival of the fishmonger, or rushing periodically to market and calling for halibut or clamoring for clams in order to fulfill a strange religious superstition.

It is a pity so little is known about us. We now number twenty millions in this country, and sooner or later we are bound to be reckoned with as a Christian body in terms of something more substantial than our Friday fare. For it never fails to happen that people who know only a little about us get that little wrong. As a matter of fact we do NOT eat fish on Friday. That is to say, not unless we like fish and want to eat it of our own accord. I am one of those many moderately good Catholics in whom the persuasive power of Canon Law has not developed a taste for fish either on Friday or any other day, and stands no chance of doing so. It is true I do not eat meat on Friday, but the distinction between abstaining from meat and partaking of fish is not too difficult to comprehend, and ought to offer food for thought.

Oddly enough, the learned explanations of why we eat fish on Friday are more stupid than the stupid ones. The ordinary friendly Protestant who sits beside us in restaurants and notices our hebdomadal horror of meat, puts us down as “just a little bit queer on that point,” somewhat in the manner of the orthodox Jews, who are “a little bit queer” on the subject of ham all the year round.

We like this simple explanation of our Friday observance best of all those which do not explain it. A misunderstanding is never unpleasant provided it is straightforward and uninvolved. What drives us to desperation is a treatise on the subject of “Catholics and Friday Fish” by a savant, a theological psychologist, or a student of “comparative religion.”

We are amazed to learn from Professor Puffles that the practice of eating fish was introduced into the Christian ritual because the Apostles were fishermen; or to be informed by more erudite authorities that, whereas pictures of little fishes were enscrolled on the walls of the Catacombs, the early Christians became gradually devoted to fish worship, which aroused in them intermittently a religious symptom known as “an icthophagus esophagus.”

What annoys us in the theories of these polysyllablists is not what they say, but what they imply. They imply, of course, that the Christian tradition is merely a superior form of myth, and if archeologists and other diggers had time to go into the matter, it could probably be shown that the Roman Pontiff is a development of the god Neptune, and that the Holy virgins of the Litanies were originally a school of mermaids.

The true explanation of the ICTHUS inscribed as a devotional rebus in the Catacombs, has no more to do with our practice of eating fish than the presence of an embroidered pelican on the back of a Benediction vestment has to do with our failure to eat pelicans, whether embroidered or otherwise. If our religious development followed the psychological rules which professors of religion imagine, we would most certainly be consuming lambs and devouring doves on Friday, instead of avoiding them in favor of fish, because, of all the animal symbols employed by Christians in their sacred liturgy, unquestionably the commonest and most pronounced have been the lamb and the dove.

In my younger days, when our adversaries were the good old (and thoroughly honorable) Protestant Evangelicals, who had sense enough to see that what we were doing on Friday was not eating fish but abstaining from meat, there was often quoted against us the text from Saint Matthew: “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man”; and I remember the great flurry which occurred in the “Question Box Departments” of Catholic magazines in trying to answer this difficulty.

What a pity the Catholic apologete of those days had not tact enough to be less apologetic! Instead of trying to belabor the exegesis of a Scriptural text to nobody’s satisfaction, not even our own — he could have pointed out the enormous compliment we were paying to meat by considering its absence from our table to be a hardship. One does not offer God, by way of penance, what one thinks is bad but what one thinks is good. And nobody really understands how good meat is until he tries going without it one day a week. And why has it not been noticed that whenever a big feast of the Church — let us say Christmas — falls on Friday, we become joyously carnivorous out of schedule, openly abandon our loyalty to fish and transfer it to roast turkey? Indeed, the truth of the matter is, if we dared tell non-Catholics the number of reasons which will legitimately permit us to eat meat on Friday, they would be scandalized. And I have always considered this a most amusing situation, namely, the constant danger we are in of giving scandal to those outside our Faith, should we neglect to do what they would think it absurd for us to do, even if we did it.

There is, in view of these considerations, a resolution we ought to make. And it is this: not to waste our time and the time of unbelievers in discussing our religion with them any longer in terms of its nonessentials. There is no use trying to explain Friday fish, devotional prayers, incense, holy water, candles, relics, medals and such incidentals to anyone who has not studied the Catholic Faith “from the ground up.” We only beget confusion of mind in those who question us, and arouse inordinately our own risibilities.

I remember once being asked by a very ponderous Protestant Divine: “When you read Matins in your Breviary, do you believe everything that is written in the lessons of the Second Nocturne concerning the lives of the Saints?”

“Well,” I replied, “that all depends on what you mean by the word ‘believe.’ I do not BELIEVE them as part of the Christian Revelation. Nevertheless I credit them with some authority, let us say as the best record of a saint’s life available when an account of it was being prepared for recitation in the Divine Office.”

“You know,” he added, paying not the slightest attention to the explanation I had given, “the French pay compliment to a skillful liar by saying, ‘He can lie like a Second Nocturne.”

I laughed out loud. But my reverend adversary, strange to say, did not laugh at all. He looked very serious.

Now why did I laugh, and why did he not laugh, at a joke which was entirely on me? For the simple reason that I have , in common with those of my Faith, a sense of humor radically different from that of an outsider. There are — let there be no mistake about it — Catholic quips and drolleries which no one but a Catholic can tell, and no one but a Catholic can see the point of. I hate to analyze a joke, but let me do so for once, in order to illustrate what I mean.

Every Catholic knows that our Church sometimes speaks directly in the name of God. To each phrase of God’s revelation we attach a sacredness that would not warrant our making a joke about it. If anyone (even a Frenchman) should say about a liar, “He can lie like the Apostles’ Creed,” I should not only resent the remark, I should not only think it not in the least funny, but I should promptly wither my opponent with one of the retorts I keep at hand for just such a situation.

But the lessons of the Second Nocturne do not always come to us directly from God. Many of them were written not by inspired writers, but by some holy old monks whose purposes were not historical but panegyrical, who were trying to compose not chronicles but eulogies. Now there is between a good panegyrist and a good prevaricator an apparent similarity, in that both over-tell their story, the former to delight, the latter to deceive. That is why a comparison of the two is so funny. But the universal law of all humor achieved by comparison demands that underneath an apparent similarity there be a real difference. And if one doesn’t see the real difference, one doesn’t see the joke.

Furthermore, every authentic Christian joke is at once humorous and pathetic. One smiles not in ridicule but in tenderness at the poor old scribe who wrote lessons for the Second Nocturne in order to commemorate a saint whom he loved, and who tried so hard to tell the truth, he told it too well. For charity is the most childlike of all the virtues, and it thinks sometimes, in its innocence, it can do service for every other virtue besides itself, even for the virtue of veracity.

This idea as it exists in the minds of simple Christian folk was brought home to me strikingly on a certain lovely morning in Galway, when I went for a walk, and asked an Irish peasant to tell me how far it was to — let us call the place, for I forget it — Corofin.

“Good morning! How far is it to Corofin?”

He was sitting on a wall. He raised his hat and gave me a bow.

“About a half mile down the road, Father. And God speed you!”

“Thank you.”

I walked a half mile. I walked another half mile, examining sign-posts as I went. And another half mile. And another. And not until I had duplicated this distance twelve times did I arrive at Corofin, for it was six full miles away.

When I returned in the late afternoon, I met the same Irishman sitting on the wall. I went up to him indignantly.

“What did you mean by telling me Corofin was only a half mile away?” I shouted. “It was six miles away! You knew that when I spoke to you! Why didn’t you tell me the truth?”

“Well, you poor man,” he answered quietly and with great seriousness, “I didn’t want to knock the heart out of you, and you looking so tired in the early morning. I gave you a half mile to Corofin. That got you started. Somebody else gave you another half mile. That drove you on a bit further. In Ireland we do be always wanting to soften the journey of a stranger by giving him little dribbles of encouragement. Sure, there’d be nobody going any place here on a hot day, if people knew how far they had to go to get there.”

“Now listen,” I said, refusing to smile, “I don’t think that’s really funny It may be Irish, but it isn’t honest. I just came from England. In England one doesn’t get fooled that way. An Englishman takes great care in giving any information that is asked of him, and he takes great pride in giving it truthfully.”

“Do you know the trouble with the English, Father?” he replied vehemently, as he pounded the wall with his fist. “Do you know the trouble with the English? They wouldn’t think enough of you to tell you a lie!”

I am not defending the naïveté of this Galway playboy, nor holding it up as either a convincing or authentic example of Christian perfection. To be an ideal Catholic, it is not enough to be a Celt. One needs also to be a saint. But surely there can be detected in him a thorough sense of self-forgetfulness not found in any save the children of the Faith, whose failing it is to love a person more than a thing and a man more than a measurement. Undisciplined Christian generosity of this sort has its drawbacks, I admit, but I prefer it greatly to the cold exactitudes of post-Reformation skeptics, whose social courtesies are governed solely by an undistracted interest in their own good breeding. True, they are pleasant people to meet on a short walk, especially when one is in need more of information than of affection, but in the long run give me “a half mile down the road to Corofin” any day, and I’ll walk the rest of the way myself.

It can be seen from this homely example, that one source of Catholic humor is human nature itself in the act of being transformed (with all its absurdities, stupidities, scruples and superstitions) into something serene and noble. For a religion as universal as ours embraces all classes, and patiently tolerates among its members even the most ridiculous types, provided they be men of good will.

But this is to take Catholic humor in its passive sense. This is not what makes a Catholic laugh. It is what makes him laughable. I am anxious to discover, in some fashion or other, what is the inner secret of our joy, and what it is that makes us laugh by ourselves, and within ourselves, even when we are alone.

I am sure the reason lies in our knowing, through the light of Faith, paradoxes too magnificent to be contradictions. And this is the secret not only of our mirth, but of our sorrow as well. There is an empty amusement and an empty sadness that come from a mere knowledge of life’s contradictions. But these are the portion of the skeptic and the stoic, who seldom laugh and seldom weep. But the Christian may look into a world of mystery in which all contradictions are reconciled, even though paradoxes re0main. And the fruit of his wisdom is his gaiety and his tears; for laughter and tears are the safety valves of sanity, and by these beautiful outlets the strain within our nature is relieved.

I may illustrate this animadversion by another little story.

There is a convent not far from where I live, to which I have gone on occasions to give a retreat. At this convent one meets a very nice old lay sister, who has charge of the priest’s dining-room, and whom I may call Sister Mary.

Sister Mary spends half the day indoors and half the day outdoors, for her duties are twofold: to feed the chaplain and to feed the chickens. Now this in itself is a paradoxical situation, and I am sure accounts for the merry twinkle in Sister Mary’s eyes, who, knowing nothing of either Evolution or Relativity, has faith enough to see, apart from apparent similarities, the enormous difference between a chaplain and a chicken. Indeed, I have often thought it would be delightful if Sister Mary should some day get her functions confused, and should walk out to the hen-coop with a cup of coffee, and come clucking into the chaplain’s refectory throwing handfuls of corn.

“Sister Mary,” I said to her one day, as I sat beaming over a splendid dinner which she had just brought in on a tray, “if you were going to order a nice meal for yourself, what dishes would you choose? What would you like best to eat?”

She rubbed her hands on her apron and stood for a while speculating, and then said, finally and decisively: “I think I’d love a nice thick beefsteak!” Whereupon she began to laugh, and laughed and laughed and laughed, until tears streamed from her eyes.

I must confess I was not prepared for such a mirthful explosion, and it puzzled me. I knew, of course, the traditional Christian custom (which nuns observe most scrupulously) of laughing whenever anything pleasant is either spoken of or thought of. But this was sheer hysterics, and seemed unwarranted by anything either Sister Mary or I had said which was so dreadfully funny.

It was only after I returned to my room and had time to meditate on the matter, that I arrived at a solution of my perplexity. I am sure the reason for Sister Mary’s hilarity, even to the point of turning herself into a fountain, was her use of the word “love” in the sentence, “I think I’d love a nice thick beefsteak.”

One begins to see how funny this concept is when one remembers the love employments of Sister Mary’s heart during the rest of the day. My question, I daresay, had distracted her from some holy thought. She is not often asked about the amours of her appetite. But being asked, she must admit that the same heart which loves God and His angels and archangels in her moments of contemplation, has lowlier and less ethereal preferences when she studies a bill of fare. Now it is a shatteringly laughable experience to transfer one’s attachment suddenly from something sublime and eternal to something desperately temporal and comestible, to be loving at one moment a living angel and at another a dead cow. But, because a Seraph is just as real to Sister Mary as a sirloin, she saw the absurdity of their conflict in her heart’s affections, and went into a paroxysm.

It is interesting to notice that in non-Catholic circles, and in Catholic circles which have been influenced by non-Catholic culture, (and many of us have adopted, more than we are willing to admit, the moods of the pagans and the manners of the heretics in whose midst we live) there is no genuine humor of this kind. An honest Christian joke, in which the very roots of one’s being are shaken with laughter, has been supplanted, in this country at least, by what is known as a wise-crack. A wise-crack is a bogus form of humor in which a ridiculous sense of the sublime is combined with a sublime sense of the ridiculous. Its physical reaction is not a laugh but a snicker. Being rarely capable of more than two variations, the one uncharitable, the other unchaste, it is noticeably the most tiresome form of humor ever invented. It will eventually destroy one’s power to laugh altogether, as well as raise havoc with one’s nervous system. There is no reckoning how much mental harm is being done to the amusement audiences of America by reading and listening to professional wise-crackers, to whom their own fun-making is a drudgery, and who, after a short spasm of popularity, inevitably succumb to melancholia, alcoholia and other poisons.

But where am I who, a few pages back, started to write on fish? I am where every Catholic finds himself who undertakes to write on anything. I am writing on everything. For if one is a Catholic, one cannot think without being cosmical, or without being comical either, because the Faith links all realities together and fills the world with surprises.

Nevertheless, in deference to one of the favorite penitential practices of my co-religionists, I feel bound to say something directly favorable about my subject before I conclude. So I shall say this: On that day of the week when meat is forbidden me, I like to go to a Catholic kitchen and listen to little fishes being fried in their skins. Because I think one of the very nicest of all noises is the sound of hot silver sizzling in a pan. But the palatability of these little creatures, when they arrive on my dinner plate, depends upon whatever success I have in obliterating their natural flavor with strong doses of fish-sauce. Which reminds me that I have never yet seen a bottle of fish-sauce which did not claim to have won a medal at the World’s Fair.