As an academic and somewhat of a nerd, I have always been the type to follow directions and try to please teachers. I spent much of my young life dismayed at my mediocre grades in penmanship (thanks to being left-handed). Or worse, my last-place finishes on the presidential physical fitness test (thanks to having to run a mile in Miami’s heat and humidity). I just wanted to do well! I just wanted to get good grades, to be seen as good, as smart, and as worthy.
Unsurprisingly, today’s readings give me a great deal of anxiety. First we learn from St. Paul that we don’t know how to pray. Then the Gospel points out that we must work hard to enter through a narrow (and soon to be closed) gate of salvation. Those who think they are near to Jesus may well be wrong. Those who think they are strong are weak. And perhaps most poignantly, those who claim intimacy with Jesus—sharing food and drink, and remembering that Jesus taught in “their” streets—are turned away, condemned. If there were anxious people listening to Jesus on this day, they probably went away very worried indeed.
I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s prayer from Thoughts in Solitude: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.” For me, these are the most honest words ever uttered in prayer. Merton reminds us of our radical dependence on God and of the paltriness of our efforts at salvation. He knows what St. Paul knows: that the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness, that the work of salvation is God’s. Our role is to strive for salvation and to seek God’s face, yes, but also to rest in the knowledge that the Spirit will help us—whether we are getting the top grades or whether we come in last, panting and sweaty. Even those of us who can’t run can live in hope that God will see us bringing up the rear . . . and hold the door.