The Word Embodied
“Steady your trembling knees.
I know a good and graced woman, now in her eighties, who sometimes seems a bit queasy about the aftermath of her death. She said one day, “I hope I don’t die in my sleep; I’m not sure I’ll like where I wake up.” I may be wrong, but I detected an apprehension in her, not unlike that of other virtuous people who wonder about their eternal fate.
Most young people are said to believe in a hell where nobody goes. Many others, perhaps adults, think there is a hell largely populated by enemies. And among the old are believers who nervously wonder if hell might be populated by the likes of themselves. They, like St. Paul at some moments, consider the question of their salvation “in fear and trembling.”
They may have good reason. When someone asked Jesus whether a small number would be saved, he was not very comforting: “Try to come in through the narrow door. Many, I tell you, will try to enter and be unable.” The lord of the household seems not to acknowledge those standing outside, knocking and pleading for entry, even though they had once been in his company. What is more, there will be that horrible “wailing and grinding of teeth” by those rejected.
If this is the discipline that the Letter to the Hebrews refers to, it is difficult, despite the advice, not to lose heart. After all, what comfort is there in the prospect that we might not be saved or accepted into Christ’s heavenly kingdom?
The allusion to the narrow gate is found in Luke’s thirteenth chapter, which contrasts a self-defeating hardness of heart with redemptive repentance. Those whose faith is sterile and lifeless hurt only themselves. Those who are hypocrites fix their fate when they reject the truth. Those who, with Herod, hate Jesus slam the door on their salvation. And those who refuse to be gathered in by him as chicks are gathered by their mother are left to their own scattered journey.
The narrow gates of the old cities were wide enough for a person to get through. It is the size of a person because it is a person. Jesus is the narrow gate, the way by which any person can get through to the heavenly city.
In all the debates over who and how many will be saved, in our own wonderings about our own eternal lot, it is instructive to remember a truth that is disconcerting yet calming. We all most likely deserve a fate far less glorious than heaven. After all, would not all of us be lost without him? But through him, the narrow gate, all may enter paradise, one by one in salvation’s long procession.
We do not know for sure; but perhaps there was a generous wisdom far greater than we realized in that old prayer often said amid the rosary mysteries of our redeemer’s life.
Dear Jesus, save us from the fires of hell. Bring all souls
to heaven, especially those most in need of your mercy.
That is a prayer to the narrow gate, wide enough, however, for all to enter, even those who die in their sleep.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University