21 August 2022

Squeezing through the Narrow Gate

21st Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
St. Albert the Great, Irving

Jesus says the entrance to heaven is a Narrow Gate. This makes me nervous. Ample Friars have difficulty navigating through narrow spaces. Had I been present at this morning's Gospel episode, I might have suggested to the Lord that he use a different image – a bridge. I would've told the Lord about Mrs. Ruby Turpin – Flannery O'Connor's fictional paragon of 1950's Southern white rural middle-class Protestant respectability, – and her revelation of heaven: “[Mrs. Turpin] saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” Who's crossing this bridge? Mrs. Turpin is shocked to see “whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black [folks] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.” (I would've quietly added that she saw an Ample Friar as well.) Ruby also sees her own kind, bringing up the rear and alone singing on key. “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” We can imagine that it was a distant relative of Ruby's who asked Jesus, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”

As is his habit, Jesus doesn't answer the question asked. He says instead, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” He follows this cryptic answer with an image of some being inside and some being outside. Some make it through the gate in time. Some don't. To those left outside, the Master of the House says, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” It almost goes w/o saying that this is not the image of heaven we're used to hearing about. God is love. God wants everyone in heaven. No soul left behind! All true. It is God's will that all men and women return to Him after death. But – as Jesus makes clear – it is also His will that each one of us return to Him freely. It is His will that we choose to enter the Narrow Gate; that we freely receive the grace necessary to dwell with Him in heaven. Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the Narrow Gate.” Those strong enough will make it through. Those w/o the strength will not. So, the crucial question now is: from where or whom do we get this necessary strength?

O'Connor tells us that Mrs. Turpin is shocked to see who makes it across the bridge to heaven. She's shocked b/c all her respectable life she's believed that getting to heaven is about being clean, propertied, responsible, and white. Of course, none of that matters when striving to enter through the Narrow Gate. What matters is the strength of our striving. And your striving – to be effective – must be graced. That is, simply working for heaven never works. Working with God for your salvation does. Any priest who's heard confessions for more than ten minutes can tell you that Catholics tend to believe – even if only unconsciously – that they must earn their salvation. That God will love them more if they kneel more, fast more, pray more, give more money to the Church. They see the Narrow Gate and think that passing through is the struggle. That getting narrow enough to squeeze by is the work. False. The struggle, the striving is all about working to rid ourselves of whatever it is that keeps us from fully receiving God's help, His grace. God will pull us through the NG if we chose to be pulled. So, the question is: who or what – if anyone or anything – is keeping you from choosing to be pulled?

Look at the freaks and lunatics on Mrs. Turpin's bridge. They carry none of the social burdens she herself chooses to carry. They have not loaded themselves down with expectations of purity or virtue or progress or any other burden that stands in the way of choosing heaven. They choose heaven and live accordingly. Mrs. Turpin chooses status, middle-class morals, property, and race as her burdens. And lives accordingly. In His love for her, God sends her a revelation: none of that stuff matters. What matters is loving God with your whole heart, mind, body, and soul. And then living that love in the company of friends, family, and neighbors. Being loved by God and loving Him in turn has practical, everyday effects. You become more virtuous. More humble. More merciful. Holier. In the world but not of it. But when we start with the effects of divine love and only then move toward God, we become self-righteous. We become RT. Sure of our rightness with God. Sure of our salvation. Only to be shocked when our virtues are burned away and we find ourselves outside the NG. Our strength to enter heaven comes from God alone. Our strength to receive His help comes from God alone. Therefore, our daily exercise is freely choosing to be helped in Christ. 

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