Strive to Enter Through the Narrow Gate
by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem., Prior
How many of us have asked, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” The stakes here are enormous. Maybe no one else cares about my salvation, but my eternal destiny sure matters to me! Am I going to be happy forever or in miserable torment world without end? If only a few are saved, then my chances fall drastically, and either I just despair at a hopeless project or I have to work a heck of a lot harder than I am and than I want to. But if many are saved, maybe I can relax a little and not be so tense about it all.
And Jesus replied, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Thank You, Jesus, for not exactly answering the question. Many could be barred entrance and still many be saved…or not. Which is it?
Of course, Christ Jesus, being the perfect teacher, answers us exactly what we meant, more so than what we asked. It’s not a numbers game. He goes on to say that the Jewish patriarchs and prophets, as well as gentiles from all over the world will be saved. Surely the elect in heaven are a very great number.
It’s almost legendary that the JW’s will knock on your door to tell you that only 144,000 will be saved, and show you the passage from the book of Revelation that says so, and do you want to be part of that number by signing on with them? But then they take the page away before you realize the 144,000 refers to Jews…so logically since I’m not Jewish I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell anyway. But moreover, Revelation immediately goes on to say that an innumerable multitude, an uncountable number of gentiles, were clothed in white robes standing before the Lamb. So their original dilemma collapses because the whole thing was taken out of context anyway.
God is not stingy with salvation. There’s plenty of room in heaven for anyone who wants to go there. They’ve got plenty of beds. God wants you to be saved more than you do. And so Christ says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” You have to work at it, and work hard, for many will attempt to enter “but will not be strong enough.”
In the early fifth century, a heretic by the name of Pelagius—may he be forever execrated—Pelagius asserted that we can attain the highest virtue by our own effort aided by asceticism—in other words, without God’s grace. Christ’s salvation was limited to teaching us what we should do and giving us the best example, but did not include giving us grace without which salvation would be impossible. Salvation comes, then, not through Christ but through…me. Sounds like a modern idea. Anyway, Pelagius found a most venomous adversary in St. Jerome, who said he was “stuffed with Scottish porridge,” and a most formidable adversary in our Holy Father St. Augustine, who devoted many works at the end of his life to trouncing the primacy of man’s will over God’s grace.
But because bad Pelagius extolled asceticism and mortification and the struggle for virtue, pious Catholics nowadays, who find all their consolation and spirituality trusting in divine mercy, can look askance at such emphasis on our own efforts. People nowadays who think they can contribute something to their salvation then become neo-Pelagians. And yet Christ says today, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” The One Who provides us the grace we need also tells us we have to work. Why? Because the truth of the matter is that God’s grace inspires us to try in the first place; it assists us while we exercise virtue; and it brings to completion the work we began. And then He crowns what we’ve done with Him, or what He’s done through us, with eternal glory. As usual, the Catholic answer is both-and, not either-or.
And so we’re left facing off with the idea of striving and maybe not being strong enough. The first point to be teased out of this is that there are obstacles opposing us, enemies who want to hinder us. But notice Jesus does not say that many will attempt to enter but others will keep them out; no, “many…will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Our worst enemy, the one who combines all the forces of temptation together and can truly vanquish us is…ourselves.
So we have to strive. When there is an obstacle to our happiness that we need to destroy or circumvent or endure, those passions belonging to our irascible appetite come into play, and these passions are put in right order by the virtue of fortitude. Whether we are sustaining an evil attack—such as delay, contradiction, harm to our body or soul—or whether we need to assert ourselves to confront those evils aggressively, it is fortitude that keeps us from either shrinking back in fear or charging like the light brigade.
Yes, we even need fortitude facing the enemy that is ourselves. Why? Because he’s a crafty one, his logic is slippery. But because what he suggests is what makes us feel comfortable, we’re inclined to believe him. His magic line: “You can’t do that; you’ll be annihilated, dead, worse than useless, and God doesn’t want that.” The truth, however, is that we’re afraid of the effort, the suffering, the cross.
The gate to heaven is narrow, and I need to overcome the obstacle of self in order to be narrow enough myself so as to enter. What does this mean but that my pride swells my head until it’s too large to get through the door? My large sack of attachments to things is too big, and I won’t enter unless I let go of it? Whatever it is in ourselves that needs diminishing, it takes courage to believe the fight can be won, to do violence to ourselves in order to conquer, and to persevere when all we see is a long trail of failures.
How, then, do we gain this courage, this fortitude? The usual recommendations, all good, are mortifications, voluntary penances, starting small and working our way up, praying for the Spirit’s gift of fortitude, and so on. We should do these things; we need to. But I think an answer much more to the heart of our Holy Father St. Norbert, one that we ironically miss though it stares us in the face, is to keep our minds and hearts fixed, not on the narrow gate but on the kingdom of heaven on the other side. That’s where we’re going. It is there that we find rest for our restlessness, peace for our conscience, fulfillment of our desires, undying friendships, evidently a lot of fascinating people, and most especially the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus Himself, and the face of God.
Recently we heard St. Augustine posing a question to his congregation, which is worth quoting in full. He says, “Suppose God came and spoke to us here in His own voice…imagine that He is here and saying to…you: ‘Do you want to sin? All right, go ahead, then: sin. Do anything that gives you pleasure. Anything that you love on earth shall be yours. You are angry with someone? Fine: let him die. You want to lay violent hands on someone? He is yours to seize. If you want to hit someone, you can hit him. If you want someone condemned, condemned he shall be. Whatever you want for yourself, you shall possess it. No one is to oppose you…All the earthly things you crave shall be yours in abundance. You shall live to enjoy them not just for a time but always. But there is just one reservation: you will never see My face.’”
Immediately a reaction rumbled through the congregation: the people groaned. St. Augustine then asks his people, “You groaned when I said that, my brothers and sisters. Why did you groan?” We here can answer, because God’s face is the heavenly banquet; it’s all we really want, and we know it. If we love that unsurpassable good, then we’ll naturally strive for that narrow gate; we’ll have to; we won’t be able not to. How then do we grow in our desire to join the ranks of those who recline at table in the kingdom of God? By enjoying its foretaste now in Holy Communion.
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