“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’”
Luke 13: 24-4
Jesus reminds us today that the way to the life he promises is one that takes effort and that must be entered through a narrow door. He then tells a parable in which he describes those who came to the owner’s house by their own way and are surprised to find the door closed to them. They have taken themselves to be friends of the owner, to have eaten and drunk with him, and yet the owner says that he does not know them. How is it that there can be such a profound and basic misunderstanding between the owner and the many who thought they were his companions?
Last week I developed a bad cold. It required that I take time away from work and my usual preoccupations. The result was that for a couple of days I had several more hours to be still and by myself than usual. As I corresponded with a friend about being laid low in this way, he concluded his email to me by writing: “But mostly I wanted to write to you to encourage you to take the time you need to think and get well. It’s important not just for now but also for the longer term.” “To take the time you need to think and get well” in light not only of the present but also “for the longer term” seemed to be a call to me for how to use the hours before me.
It is Socrates who famously said that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Today’s gospel nuances that teaching and invites us to ask ourselves two questions: Am I living an adequately reflective life and what is the perspective from which I am to engage in that reflection?
As my recent experience with the cold exemplifies, I have a long standing pattern in life of getting sick to varying degrees when I lose touch with my own pace of life. Once I find myself in a health enforced quiet and seclusion, I very often can see in the preceding days a tendency to have been pushing at a pace which is incompatible with my physical, emotional, and spiritual limits. Unfortunately, it is almost always in retrospect that I realize how readily I cease to live within the limits of my own physical and emotional life, taking the time I require to process that life and so live it responsibly. It is so easy, even after all these years of life, to let others and circumstances dictate to me my own way of living and working. At such times I am not living responsibly toward others and the world, but merely reactively. In truth, however much I may appear to be contributing or accomplishing, I am not living the life that has been given to me to live.
Living truly responsibly requires living reflectively. When we do not take the time to ponder our life in our minds and hearts and to consider discerningly the calls of the world around us, then we are not authentically living our own lives. In a world in which the stimulation of technology and the demands of a secular perspective make the functional dimension of life paramount, it is much easier just to keep doing, pushing, and reacting than it is to appraise the “needs of the times and the desires of the Lord” and our unique capacities of heart and mind to respond. Developing a habit of reflection requires of us both to set aside specific times of our day for silence and solitude and also to develop a way of moving, of acting, of being that is in accord with the unique “pace of grace” of our minds, bodies, and spirits. To violate that pace of life is to violate our own call.
Which takes us to our second question. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us of the unique perspective of living the examined life that accords with our belief that our life is a response and responsibility to the One who has given it to us. The God who has created us, as we hear in the scriptures, knows us by name. Our life call is to live our life in fidelity to the name, the life, we have been given — a life that is unique to us. We are free, however, to live that life or not. Our societies and cultures, our historical moment, our own sense of pride all offer us alternative identities. It is the easiest thing in the world to spend our days living a life that really is foreign to us. When I drive myself to meet demands that are not mine to meet, I am, through sickness, physically reminded to come home to myself. When we find ourselves at odds with the life commitments we have made and those who care for us, we are being reminded that the life we have been living may not be recognizable to God.
Life is filled with moments of judgment, if we attend to them. These moments of judgment are the perspective of faith from which we are to reflect on and examine our lives. In who I am at this moment, in what I have done and said this day, in how I have responded to my brothers and sisters in the world have I been the one whom Jesus recognizes, or have I been busy about many things that were not truly my business? It is precisely because there are so many alternatives to our own truth that the way is so narrow. There is one way to be ourselves, while there are so many ways to become unrecognizable to the One who has loved us, in our uniqueness, into being.
The autobiographical impulse comes in two models. The first is the currently surging urge to pass along the story of our lives to others: the recent bulge in the over-sixty-five population has yielded an abundance of published memoirs. The second model is simply to get the story of our lives straight for ourselves. These often turn out to be conflicting impulses. An inherent problem in writing one’s memoirs for others to read is the temptation to indulge in literary nips and tucks. After all, who really wants to be remembered as, say, a man who spent an inordinate amount of time watching Law & Order? Not for publication! But just possibly the fact that a man spent many an hour intrigued by Law & Order does figure in an honest attempt to make thematic sense of the life he lived. For the philosophically minded, the venture of constructing one’s life story for oneself alone figures prominently in the making of an authentic old age.
Daniel Klein, Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, p. 74