August 20, 2016
“Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (Lk 13:24)
When we are young, provided that we are comfortably off, life seems like a cone or a cornet, spreading out exponentially before us. It brings us from infinitesimally small beginnings through physical, intellectual and emotional stages of growth to adulthood. It takes us from the confines of the womb to that of the family and home town, to the wide open possibilities of a world which seems to open its treasure chest before us.
When we grow older, either though aging or sickness or loss or success or failure or pain, or unexpected change, or one of the many other ways that God communicates his grace to us, the image reverses and life appears more like a funnel, becoming ever more contracted and constrained, stretching forward in every deepening darkness to some unseen and unimaginable point of convergence.
Jesus calls this the narrow door, or in another place, the eye of the needle:
“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Lk 18:25)
Imagine that you are boarding a plane. Upon reaching the gangway, you are greeted by the stewardess, who says, “I’m sorry, we are not taking carry-on today. You will have to leave your baggage here.” Reluctantly and with some surprise, you set aside your backpack, tote bag, briefcase, trombone and portable telescope, wondering how you will manage without them. Then the stewardess proceeds to ask for the tube of toothpaste in your pocket, the sunglasses on your head, and the wet wipes you never leave home without. As the situation becomes more surreal, you find yourself handing over your watch, your shoes and socks, the shirt from your back, and indeed, your whole wardrobe. Imagine the demands went further, and you were asked to surrender the flesh from your bones and the fat from your heart.
“It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire.” (Mt 18:8)
But why take the narrow way, why submit to the knife? Who are you, God, who demands this of me? What lies beyond that tiny door?
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” (Jn 14:2)
On the other side lies the unimaginable vastness of a heart in which there is a place for every person who has lived, lives, or will ever live. Endless millions of unique and unrepeatable persons – the babies in the womb, the white-haired ancients, the beggars and the billionaires and everyone in between – each one is desired endlessly by God, molded by his hands, fed, carried and drawn toward him. Whether knowing or unknowing, willing or unwilling, each one is drawn inexorably toward that narrow door, which will at one final moment strip them of everything but the deep, throbbing core of their being, and unite them with the creative, all-embracing love who is the very being of their being.
At once terrifying and consuming, this vision leads some to set their sights on this door as the goal and purpose of their life. Some say that monks are so called because they are monos – single-pointed, focused on one thing, one person, with one desire: to be united with the One. Monks set aside everything in order to strive to pass through the narrow door and enter into the vastness beyond. Striving becomes my life.
This is good, but there is another side to it. We can be like camels, sauntering cluelessly toward the eye of the needle. Somehow we imagine that when we reach it, our honed and well-toned spiritual selves will slip through with inches to spare, like the victorious athlete crossing the finish line, or the expert pole-vaulter sailing over the bar with ease, to cries of adulation from spectators.
Jesus says to people like me: beware, you who call on my name with confidence, you who know me and are close to me, you who are first; the door is narrower than you think! He does not say this to reduce me to a quivering heap of fearful scrupulosity. He says it hoping to sear my complacency with truth – the truth of his sovereign freedom to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, the truth that I am not a different species from the others.
“What is impossible for mortals in possible for God.” (Lk 18:27)
No-one walks through the narrow door. Each one of us is drawn, sooner or later, and perhaps at great length and with staunch resistance, to surrender that last breath of self-reliance to the One who gave it. It may be in an armchair or an electric chair, in the quiet of a nursing home or the chaos of an emergency room, at the point of a gun or of a needle, crouched in some filthy and forgotten corner, or sitting pretty in a Porsche with the top down, between the bridge and the Hudson River, or in a monastery. Then he who made us will carry us over the threshold of the impossible.