by Msgr. Joseph Calise
SEVEN YEARS AGO this week, I was having a once in a lifetime experience. I had just begun walking the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage walk across the Pyrenees Mountains in the footsteps of St. James. Although the walk can have several different starting points, the ultimate goal is the Cathedral of St. James in Compostela, Spain. People make the walk for many different reasons ranging from the profound spiritual and penitent to the less reverent, “I lost a bet.” Nonetheless, for whatever reason God uses, myriads of pilgrims take this walk every year.
One of the most important stages of the walk was preparing for it. I was fortunate to be traveling with a classmate and good friend. We met several times to discuss the route we would follow and brainstorm different things we would need to remember to bring. It was very important to us that we have everything we would need but also that we not over pack. We were very much aware that we would be carrying our luggage in backpacks. We knew that the terrain was going to be uneven; we knew the temperatures were going to be hot; we knew that walking close to 20 miles each day was going to be grueling. So we wanted to be sure that we had everything we would need for the journey, but we also wanted to be sure that we were not loading ourselves down and adding unnecessary burdens by packing what we would not need.
I was reminded of that packing process not too long ago when I was returning from a retreat I directed in Florida. As I was checking in, there were a group of students from one of the local colleges who were going home for vacation. One of the girls was kneeling over her open suitcase and removing selected items. If none of her classmates had room for it in her suitcase, it was discarded. Evidently, she received word that her luggage was subject to an overweight tariff, and she opted to discard rather than pay. Just as my preparations for the camino made me ask, “What do I really want to take along?” she found herself asking, “What can I leave behind?”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus, when asked about salvation, advises His disciples to “strive to enter through the narrow gate.” Many cities in Jesus’ time had gates that would have been uneven for different reasons: some because of terrain or because there was a natural break in a wall that was simply used as an entrance; others because a narrow gate would slow down an enemy who was trying to enter. When these gates were used for commerce, the wider gate was preferable to the merchant because he could load so much more on camelback. When a camel had to pass through a narrow gate (such as the familiarly known “eye of the needle”), it had to be first lightened of its cargo, a process that was tedious but could also be costly – but not impossible. The burden, of course, would be on the merchant to discern how badly he wanted to enter a particular city and what part of his merchandise would be expendable. Theirs was the scene played out by travelers worldwide – what do I take and what do I leave?
We cannot lose sight, however, that our ultimate goal is not a market for the peddling of wares but the salvation about which Jesus was questioned, a journey with eternal consequences. If we wish to be part of the kingdom, this life is our opportunity to prepare. In his Letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul calls his listeners to discipline, a discipline which might initially seem painful but which, in time, will bear fruit. Each morning is our opportunity to exercise this discipline as we prepare our luggage for the day, and each evening is a chance to look back and reflect on whether we have picked up anything we really did not need to carry along so that we could let it go in the hope that tomorrow’s portion of the journey might be a little smoother.
In one of the original episodes of “The Honeymooners” TV series, Ralph Kramden, played by the inimitable Jackie Gleason, is in his modest apartment when there is a knock on the door. The stranger who enters introduces himself as a prior tenant who, along with his wife, wanted to look at the place again to remember what it was like when they first married. He had since become a very successful businessman, and this visit was part of their anniversary celebration. Eager to learn the secret of his success, Ralph asks him how he did it and receives the reply that it happened in that very room. One day, the man explains, he took stock of himself by making a list of his good points and bad points. Each day, he tried to eliminate a bad point and strengthen a good one. Inspired, Ralph sets out on the same path but in his own style. In the next scene, the room is covered with poster boards listing all of his personality traits, good and bad, and he sets off on his quest for success with a lot of energy and a lot of humor.
Each day is our invitation to build on the good we see in ourselves as we try to avoid sin more carefully. Each day is our opportunity to grow closer to the kingdom by growing closer in imitation to Jesus. If I remember the Baltimore Catechism well, after we affirm that “God made me” in question No. 1, question No. 2 teaches that “God made me to know, love and serve Him in this life so as to live forever with Him in the world to come.” I might be off with the exact wording, but the meaning is so simple. May the lives we lead be a resounding “yes” to the Lord’s invitation to salvation.[hr]
Readings for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 66: 18-21
Psalm 117: 1,2
Hebrews 12: 5-7, 11-13
Luke 13: 22-30[hr]
Msgr. Joseph Calise is the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish, Williamsburg.