“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13,14
It is both funny and endearing, comical and touching to reflect on all of the ways we human beings strive to encounter God. In my (the Christian) tradition, there is plenty of fodder for laughter and inspiration. If you haven’t read John McGuckin’s book, Standing in God’s Holy Fire, I would commend it to you as a great little introduction to the Eastern church’s holy men and women who throughout history sought to embody and articulate what it means to “enter through the narrow gate.”
Which is a bit like training for the spiritual Olympics. These early monastics were the best in their sport. They had honed certain spiritual practices- some of them a bit odd to say the least- to a tee. Take, for instance, the fourth-century Syrian ascetic, Simon Stylites. He was the most well-known of a group of Christian monastics called “Stylites,” who practiced the spiritual discipline of stasis, which was essentially prayer over long hours in a motionless posture. Simon had a knack for sitting on top of high pillars when he prayed. For hours, even days. In the desert. I have to imagine a sore bum, aching back and bad case of sunburn went along with the exercise- as well as a quick end to any vertigo issues.
When Jesus instructs us to enter by the narrow door, I suspect he doesn’t necessarily mean that we all need to find high pillars or their modern-day equivalents to sit around on. Elsewhere, Jesus advises that when we wish to pray, we should go into our rooms, close the door and pray to our Father in secret (Matthew 6:6). But I can appreciate the genuine sentiment here of Simon Stylites and all of the mystics who have preceded and followed him in their unbridled desire to commune with God. Because a mystic need not be a monastic. A mystic is anyone who seeks an encounter with God’s presence in the ordinary stuff of life- for whom the common, daily material of our world can become “sacraments” of sorts. Mediums of God’s grace.
Mystics can be all of us, really. To the degree that our eyes and ears are open for God to meet us as God chooses. In the sacred profaneness and profane sacredness of our lives.
So that when Jesus issues this reminder, it is really a description of and a warning about a reality. The reality that to do this kind of seeking- to be available to what God would say to us 24/7, to “pray ceaselessly,” as the apostle Paul instructs in 1 Thessalonians, to listen and obey not just in “church” or in our “holy” places but everywhere- is really, really hard. It’s the narrow way. When we forget to be intentional about our relationship with Jesus, or pretend we don’t need to be, or when we allow ourselves to be carried along by life’s currents without actively looking for and clinging to the One who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” then we can easily self-destruct. We can lose the Way, miss the Truth and rob ourselves of the Life.
For as much as I am inclined to laugh when I read accounts of saints like Simon, I am also inclined to feel a bit nostalgic. Because I suspect that the church today needs a few more “holy fools.” Folks who will go to any length, no matter how embarrassing or foolish it might look, to do something radical for God in their worship and service. Folks who, mindful that Jesus can meet them at any hour, at any moment even, are like the “wise virgins” who ready their lamps, all the while waiting with great expectation for their Bridegroom to come and consummate their love (Matthew 25).
This kind of vigilance, this quality of choosing to live as “set apart” for God, is rare today. We inculcate it when we ask God to unplug our ears to hear God’s voice in those around us, in our circumstances and our world. Or when we open ourselves to God’s call to us, in our workplace, relationships and various walks of life. Often, to do this requires a regular practice of learning to be still before God. Of doing nothing but being silent in God’s presence. Of learning to listen.
I’m only a beginner in these things. And thus far I haven’t received any divine summons to walk in Simon’s shoes. If you see me levitating on Stone Mountain or perched on the top of the Bank of America in fervent prayer, then it will be a surprise to all of us. But a girlfriend of mine has been encouraging me to wear heels. At 6’0″, I have tended to avoid any platform that might earn me the epithet of “the fifty foot woman.” (I haven’t seen the movie, but apparently there is one.)
But “stylito heels” are a different story. When I put these on- (and while I am thinking metaphorically here, I might be persuaded to wear real ones as the uncomfortable spiritual discipline of a postmodern “holy fool”)- I am straining upwards to give God a smooch. This way God doesn’t have to come down quite so far to kiss me and enter in.