The Way Less Travelled
by Fr. Jack McArdle
I cannot begin this chapter without acknowledging the source of my title. Some years ago, Scott Peck gave us the classic The Road Less Travelled. It made a great impact, and, through many types of work-shops, and work-books based on that original book, it continues to teach and to inspire. I stopped short of using his title, out of respect, but I could not resist getting as near as I could to it, because it says exactly what I want to write about in this chapter.
"Enter through the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many go that way. How narrow is the gate that leads to life, and how rough the road; few there are who find it."(Mt. 7:13-14). When Jesus had completed his work on earth, he returned in triumph to the Father. Before doing so, however, he gave his apostles their final instructions. "Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation. He who believes and is baptised will be saved; he who refuses to believe is condemned. Signs like these will accompany those who have believed: in my Name they will cast out demons, and speak new languages; they will pick up snakes, and, if they drink anything poisonous, they will not be hurt. They will lay their hands on the sick, and the sick will be healed" (Mk. 16:15-18).
Two thousand years later, that mission has had but a minimal effect for good on the world in general, and an enormous effect for wonderful good in the lives of many millions. The mission entrusted to us as Christians has suffered greatly down the centuries. It has suffered greatly in the many and various ways in which it has been interpreted, changed, adopted, and compromised. It has suffered through the perceptions that unfaithful proclaiming and imposing have provided. Where it has been faithfully adhered to, it has suffered at the hands of those who, like the religious leaders with Jesus, knew of only one way to put an end to it, and that is to shoot the messenger. Without the faith that the Spirit inspires, one could easily despair of this message ever getting a wide audience, or attracting wide-spread attention.
If the Kingdom of God is not of this world, then neither is the Message of God. The Christian message is such a direct contradiction to the beliefs and values of this world, that it would be totally unrealistic to expect it to be acceptable to those whose minds and hearts are moulded and formed by this world. When I think of the message, I must not think of a collection of words strung together, containing great wisdom, and sound direction. I must think of the SPIRIT in the words, because words, of themselves, would be incapable of bringing change.
On the morning of Pentecost, Peter spoke to several thousands from every land in the known world of the time. His words were so charged with the Spirit that all his listeners heard him speak in their native language, and their hearts were so touched by the power of his words that "those who accepted his word were baptised; some three thousand were added to their numbers that day."(Acts 2:41). Imagine what would have happened if that momentum had been maintained!
How come that, after all these years, only a minority have ever heard of the Garden, and only a tiny minority of those show any great interest in getting back there? This is something that I cannot pretend to know, but I can, at least, express a few opinions on. Fr. Christian de Cherge was the prior in a Cistercian monastery in Algeria, when on May 21st. 1996, he and six of his confreres had their throats slip by a gang of Muslim rebels.
In anticipation of such an event, because of the unleashed violence of Algerians Muslims against all foreigners(the monks were French), Fr. Christian had written a letter to Paris, expressing his views, loudly proclaiming his forgiveness to those who might kill them, and asking the French not to blame all Algerians and all Muslims for the actions of a group of extremists. He expresses his admiration for the Muslim religion, in which he finds 'so often the true strand of the gospel'. He looks towards death with 'an avid curiosity' to be able to see things from God's point of view, 'and to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, and filled with the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion, and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the difference…".
Here was someone who knew that God has no grandchildren; that we all are children of God. What I mean by this is, that I don't believe the Christian message is for everyone, because that would imply that only Christians can make it back to the Garden. In God's way of doing things, such a possibility is unthinkable. I don't pretend, as I've said already, that I fully understand the economy of God's salvation, but I do believe that God is concerned with unity, and never uniformity.
Even among the Christian Churches, while the emphasis is on uniformity, there is no possibility of them ever coming together. It is a question of unity in diversity, that is based on mutual respect. It is not a question of watering down one's beliefs, or compromising one's truth, just to afford accommodation with another Church. Ecumenism that is based on dishonesty cannot possibly be of God, and cannot possibly lead to the good. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to have total respect for other religions, that are genuinely inspired, are obviously of God, and whose members are sincere fellow-travellers on our journey back to the Garden.
I wrote that last paragraph to 'situate', as it were, the 'other' religions, so that we could get back to our own, and see what we ought to do to inherit eternal life.(Mt. 19:16). No matter which way we look at it, we find ourselves in a minority. Better be in a minority, than simple following the crowd, not sure where we are being led. Jesus is very clear about what our presence on this earth should mean. We are like yeast that is mixed with flour in baking a cake; although a tiny portion, it completely effects the whole cake. "The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast which a woman took, and buried in three measures of flour until the whole mass of dough began to rise."(Mt. 13:33). "Do you not know that a little yeast makes the whole mass of dough rise?"(1 Cor, 5:6).
We are also compared to salt which gives taste to food, and is a preservative against food going rotten. "You are the salt of the earth. But if salt lose its taste, how can it be made salty again? It has become useless. It can only be thrown away, and people will trample on it."(Mt. 5:13). Isn't it true that only a little salt is needed, and that too much salt would destroy everything? When salt is thrown generously on a road during times of frost, the motorist is advised to run a hose over his car later on, to prevent the damage that so much salt can have even on metal. We are also referred to as light, and this image is easier to understand. One lit candle effects the darkness in a whole room. Better light a candle than curse the darkness. "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and covers it; instead he puts it on a lampstand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, your light must shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."(Mt. 5:14-16).
"Do everything without grumbling, so that, without fault or blame, you will be children of God without reproach among a crooked and perverse generation. You are a light among them, like stars in the universe, holding to the Word of life."(Phil. 2:14-15). All of above speaks very clearly of the witness factor or value inherent in Christian living. Mother(Blessed) Teresa's witness had a profound effect on the lives of many who are not, or never will be members of the Catholic Church.
Christianity is about attracting, not about promoting. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the earth."(Acts 1:8). As we all head back to the Garden, then, we discover that different people are marching to the beat of different drums. We share a common destiny. I would much prefer to be a sincere Hindu than a hypocritical or lukewarm Christian. My vocation is to respond with a generous heart to the call I hear; a call that I know is addressed to me.
There are three groups of people in most gatherings, whether that be Church, society, or organisation. There are those who cause things to happen; those who watch things happening; and those who haven't a clue what's happening! It is against this that I chose the title about the way less travelled. When I read the description given of the General Judgement(Mt. 25), I may be surprised to find that Jesus' questions are scandalously materialistic. He never mentions prayer, attending church, or visiting holy shrines. He speaks about a slice of bread, a cup of water, an item of clothing, a simple visit to a prison.
In other words, what I am asked to do is very clearly specified and spelt out, and there is absolutely no room for ambiguity or doubt. Jesus even goes further, less there be any misunderstanding. He tells us "Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, I will take as being done for me."(Mt. 25:40). He really does identify himself very closely with each and all of us; while unashamedly showing a great preference for the poor and the marginalised, just as he did when he walked the roads of Galilee. I can approach Christianity on two different levels. I can approach it as a road-map for life, full of great wisdom, and imbued with wonderful insights.
There is enough material and content there to supply the needs of all the world's debating societies, and theoreticians. However, I don't think,---as a matter of fact, I'm certain---that this won't change anything. One of the ways of avoiding doing anything is to talk about it long enough. The second way of looking at Christianity is to be willing to mediate it down to the very specific. In other words, it tells me exactly how I should threat this person in this particular situation. The debating societies may have the advantage of numbers; that is why I speak of our call as walking in the way less travelled. I saw a poster one time which had two doors at the end of a corridor. One door was marked 'Heaven', and there was one person waiting to enter. The other door had quite a crowd waiting to enter, and it was marked 'Talks about Heaven'.
Discovering this Way is one of the Spirit's greatest gifts. "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. The man who finds it, buries it again; and so happy is he that he goes and sells everything he has, so that he may buy that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a trader looking for fine pearls. Once he has found a pearl of exceptional quality, he goes away, sells everything he has, and buys it."(Mt. 13:44-45). There is something here that should cause each and every one of us to consider at some length. If this Way is so important, does our approach to it show that we do have that conviction?
Oh, I know that I can never be totally committed to anything, in that any level of commitment is capable of being improved on. However, I can get a fairly accurate reflection of where I'm at relative to travelling down this road with Jesus. The whole secret, of course, is to allow myself be led by the Spirit. By myself, I have no way of measuring or assessing my progress on this journey; nor do I need to know. Suffice it to know that my heart continues to be open to the promptings of the Spirit, and that I take each new day as a gift, with infinite possibilities.
"For I will gather you from all the nations and bring you back to your own land. Then I shall pour clean water over you, and you shall be made clean. I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you. I shall remove your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh. I shall put my spirit within you, and move you to follow my decrees and my laws. You shall live in the land I gave your forefathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God."(Ezek. 36:24-28). "There will be a highway, which will be called the Holy Highway. No one unclean shall pass over it, nor any wicked fool stray there. No lion will be found there, nor any beast of prey. Only the redeemed will walk there. For the ransomed of the Lord will return; with everlasting joy upon their heads, they will come to Zion singing, gladness and joy marching with them, while sorrow and sighing flee away."(Is. 35:8-10).
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