October 31, 2018
Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you,
will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.
There are passages in the gospels that comfort and reassure us, and passages that don’t, that scare us, that frighten us. And though I take it as a rule that God is a God of infinite mercy and kindness and love, and He is, and that any of us who choose him will be saved, however sinful we are, if only we admit our sins and ask for his grace—and that’s the Church’s teaching, too, that we can all be saved—still, I don’t think it’s bad for us to be shaken up sometimes, as we should be by this passage, to be reminded that these are life and death issues and that we have choices to make and that not everything is OK.
It’s not bad to be scared sometimes, especially on Halloween.
I think of one of my favorite passages from the letters of Flannery O’Connor, the great Catholic writer. A younger writer has written her about all her doubts, all her struggles with faith, and these are the first two paragraphs of O’Connor’s reply:
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, but of course it’s the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.
As someone who talks a lot with young people about faith and about doubt, I really love this passage. O’Connor is saying that the struggle to believe is a part of the process, always, and that it’s really a kind of suffering in itself, a kind of intellectual suffering. My students just don’t think that way. Most of us don’t. We think that if it’s tough to believe, if we struggle, there must be something wrong. We think that if something isn’t obvious or easy, it’s not for us. But with faith, it’s exactly the opposite. Eventually we get to the peace and the joy of the gospels, of Jesus, but we have to struggle first: with our own sinfulness, with our false assumptions, with the vastness of a God who is beyond our comprehension, who won’t give us easy answers—who isthe answer. “There’s no coming to consciousness without pain,” Carl Jung says.
We just have to accept that: that there’s suffering in the world; that we can’t understand why. That’s the call: to complexity, and then to surrender. Only then do we get light enough and thin enough and free enough to walk through the narrow gate—without all those bulky preconceptions, without that big, heavy blanket.
And that’s the choice, there it is, and it’s a choice that many, many people are not making and that we don’t always make ourselves day to day. “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, rather than face their own souls,” Jung also says. We eat. We spend hours on our phone. We drink too much. We get lost on Facebook, reading things that only distract us, posting things that only hurt us, and others. We buy things. We turn to sex. We work harder and harder. Anything, rather than just sit in that chair in the morning and pray, or try to pray, or admit that we can’t. That we need grace. That we need God.
To get through the narrow gate, ironically, we have to “keep an open mind,” as O’Connor says.
That’s the cost. Keeping an open mind. Accepting the lack of certainty. And trusting the rest to God.