THE NARROW PATH
Conference Address - 2011- Revd D Gaffney
An Explanation of Matthew 7: 13 - 21
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. .... Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:13, 14 & 21).
“When the good of the neighbour, the general good, the good of the church and of the Lord's kingdom, is a person’s desire, then as to his soul the person is in the Lord's kingdom, thus in the Lord; for the Lord's kingdom is nothing else than a kingdom of desires and uses for the good of the human race. The angels themselves who are with people are solely within these people’s desires. Insofar as a person’s desires are in harmony with the Lord's kingdom, so far the angels are delighted with him, and join themselves with him as with a brother; but insofar as a person is in the desire of self, so far the angels retire, and evil spirits from hell draw near, for there reigns in hell no other desire than that we become selfish. From all of this, we can see how important it is to explore and find out what origin our motives come from, and this can only be known from looking at our desires.“ (Swedenborg, Arcana Caelestia 3796)
“... .for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (Paul the Apostle, 2 Corinthians 3:6)
Lord you alone know the full range of our motives for thinking the things we think, saying the things we say and doing the things we do. Lord, our motives are a mixture of good and bad of wheat and tares. We know it is so important to try to get in touch with those motives which you will allow us to see. Help us O’ Lord to take quality time with you in a quiet place and to try to work out with you in honesty, what are the possible, or likely outcomes of our actions and in this way to see our motives. Help us always to be magnanimous in our dealings with others. In this way O’ Lord may you show us the things we need to change. Amen.
Imagine you’re walking along a road through a forest and you come to a point where there is a three pronged fork in the road. A point where it splits off into three directions: to the left, to the right and straight ahead. The path you’ve just walked along has ended and you’ve now got three paths to choose from in order to continue. Going back is not an option as this is the road of life and what’s behind you is history; as Alice in Wonderland said, “I can’t go back to yesterday, I was a different person then.” So you’re now, effectively, at a crossroads.
I’m using this picture to represent the small gate with a narrow path and the wide gate with a broad path as described in our reading from Matthew. Why would you want to go through a small gate and down a narrow path? . ... . Or why would you want to go through a wide gate along broad path? . ... . To me, a small gate and a narrow path means more effort but a better final outcome.
The way I’m seeing this, in my personal imagery, is that the road straight ahead leads through the narrow or small gate onto the narrow path and the way to a heavenly life, and both the left and right paths lead through wide gates onto broad paths towards hellish lives or destruction. I’m going to call the left hand path the way to Babylon and the right hand path I will call the way to the Dragon. Two names which you may be familiar with, from the Book of Revelation in the Bible. The straight path through the narrow gate, I will call Israel.
These three paths represent the full spectrum of human behaviour. Somewhere in this scheme are you and I. Whichever path we are walking along, we can always change direction onto one of the others, the big question is, if we have begun to love the terrain on the path we tread, why would we want to change?
So let’s look at these paths in a bit more detail.
I will take the left hand path, the way to Babylon first. Those who walk this path - in my imagery - have little regard for the Lord’s commandments. I imagine this path represents a life of wild abandon, of giving way to our natural appetites; of greed and a hedonistic inclination to indulge in selfish and worldly things without thought or care of the effects we are having upon others. Those who walk this path desire personal power over the lives of other people and they love worldly possessions for the purpose of prestige and personal comforts at the expense of others
There are spectrums of severity of the behaviour lived out on this path. From mild to severe, from those in relative ignorance of the effects of their activities on others to those who are in higher awareness. From those who act out of desperation to those who act from calculation. From those who are mildly controlling, to those who crave dominion over others. There will be some who love acquiring wealth, for the sake of self aggrandizement and prestige, without any desire to be responsible stewards as to the use of their wealth, for the benefit of the human race or the Kingdom of God. In secret, some will contrive all kinds of inhumanity to mankind for power or for kicks. Some will wake up and turn around, some will not. Only the Lord Himself knows who will and who won’t. We all have at least a little bit of Babylon in us. The danger for us in the Church, is that we cannot pretend that we are ignorant of the Lord’s commands, and neither can we be ignorant of the tendency of human beings to desire to have dominion over others; the identification of such a trait in human nature is a central tenet of the New Church teachings.
The right hand path, I will call the way of the Dragon. This character type appears to obey all the Lord’s commands to the letter and makes sure everyone knows about it. The classic example of this type is the Pharisee praying in public on street corners for all to see. It seems to me that to be a religious leader is one of the greatest opportunities to have power over the lives and spirits of other individuals that is available to the human race and with it comes proportional temptations and also great responsibility.
A dragon, is a serpent with wings. And a serpent, having its entire undercarriage in contact with the ground represents a love affair with the sensual world. This love affair with the sensual perverts a person to a love of the self and worldly things, if that person does not at the same time, have an internal connection with the Lord and to something of what is spiritual. In my view, the serpent here really represents Babylon and it is not until it sprouts wings that it becomes a Dragon.
The wings of the serpent represent an attempt of these types of sensual-materialistic people to contrive to fly up to the heavens even without changing their materialistic mindsets. In the same way, the Tower of Babel rose up out of the plains of Babylon in an attempt by Nimrod to rise up to heaven on his own terms of power and dominion instead of on God’s terms.
As I have already intimated, this right hand path, the way of Babylon is particularly attractive to the clergy, priests and those who want to be religious or spiritual leaders. Here, there is a strong temptation to impress people by external appearances, and misleading doctrines, without any intention of really changing within, and as I have already said, the Pharisees fell foul of this temptation in a big way.
The same love of power and wealth exists here as it does along the left hand path to Babylon and it has merely mutated and progressed into the right hand path of the Dragon which seems much more sneaky and underhanded than the Babylonian. This mindset is in a sense more spiritually dangerous than that of the Babylonian because it is a progression of the character of the Babylonian arrived at it by aforethought and design. It is the Dragon type who, according to Swedenborg, is the most stubborn enemy of those who try to practice the love, charity and wise intelligence of the New Jerusalem. And of course, we all have at least a little bit of the Dragon within us.
Anything inside or outside of us which nurtures our tendency to be dragon-like needs to be separated from the New Jerusalem by the Lord. These can be personality traits or social groups or churches which harbour this type of culture. This is so that loving kindness can shine through each and every one of us and this will be the true attraction to the New Jerusalem; a genuine radiance, a smily face from inner joy.
Now to the small gate and the narrow path, what I have called Israel. This of course is the path to the genuine smily face from true inner joy. Jacob, as you may recall wrestled with God who then called him Israel, a name which means: wrestles or rules with God. In fact, Jacob didn’t actually wrestle with God at all, this was just an appearance. What Jacob did was to represent a person who wrestles with himself or herself so that they can be more present with God on God’s terms of love. To the extent that we wrestle with our own manipulative and selfish tendencies, it is in fact the Lord who is wrestling with the darker forces of the spiritual world for us, in order to assist us. When we are struggling with some kind of temptation or test, as all of us do from time to time, it is important for us to accept that although we think we are doing all the hard work, in fact the Lord behind the scenes is doing a lot more. We would definitely be overwhelmed without Him.
There are two gates in the human mind, one above and one below and although it seems as though we travel through them, in reality, it is either angelic or mischievous spirits who travel through them to us. Through the gate above or deep within, which I have called the way of Israel is where the Lord and angelic spirits have access to our minds. The gate below which I have already dealt with is obviously the opposite.
The small gate and narrow way, which I am here calling Israel, is referred to in Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible as follows: “How straight is the gate, and compressed the way that is leading to the life, and few are those finding it.”
The statement “How straight is the gate” doesn’t really make literal sense. How can a gate be straight? Yes, it can have straight members constructing it but one thinks of its function as opening or being a point of entry, not being straight. For me it represents accessing a way of life, a path, where we need to endeavour not to deviate to the left or to the right. The word straight may come from a Greek root ‘ortho’ signifying straight, correct, regular, upright and able to grow etc. Perhaps the gate or point of entry is about preparing ourselves in certain ways before endeavouring to proceed along the path. But what about the compressed way? How can a way be compressed? I can only imagine, that there are hedges on either side pressing in, with foliage hanging down in front and along the way making it difficult to move along and difficult to see ahead.
How difficult can our walk with the Lord be at times, how difficult to move along and make progress, how difficult to see the direction we need to take? What is the right or wrong decision? For me it certainly has been and still is a constant struggle, but the good thing is that looking back I can see progress. We are only allowed to see Providence in the back, never from the front or we would run a mile.
This foliage, which is not actually mentioned in the text, and which I am intuiting, could have an interesting bearing on the subject. Foliage can represent our thoughts and concepts, which according to the Word of God need regular pruning. Our minds often get cluttered up with thoughts of all kinds, many of which are distracting and not conducive to clear thinking and progress. So, much of this clutter needs pruning. This leads to clearer vision, better circulation of air and better production of good fruit, which in our case, as professing to be people of God, is true usefulness from a sense of humility and charity.
Along this compressed way, we wrestle with our lower natures, with our self-centred tendencies which are inherently at odds with the Lord’s Love striving to dwell within us. Sometimes we get it wrong and make little progress or even deviate to the left or to the right. When we do so, in order to get back on the straight path, we need to try to get in touch with our motives for acting in unwise and uncharitable ways. For instance, when we are judging other people, we cannot judge a person’s spiritual condition, to say someone is a bad person for instance can come from a motive of making ourselves appear better than them. Only the Lord Himself can judge a person’s spiritual condition. But we do have an overall duty to judge the actions of people which may put others, or society at large at risk.
The Lord through his mercy and grace can turn people around from all kinds of self destructive or hellish directions. We need to get in touch with a sense of humility in order to develop or regain our innocence, like that of the little children of which Jesus often spoke so fondly. Innocence from wisdom is actually the very essence of heaven and if we can get in touch with it, it is a very refreshing place to be. Alberto Villoldo, a Cuban anthropologist said, "In any situation healing for all is most likely to occur when someone is able to break out of character and step out of their story. We're not here to continually reenact the unhealed part of our narrative and define ourselves by what happened in the past." So we need to continually review our directions, for the Lord makes all things new.
The apostle Paul, whose books according to Swedenborg are good books for the church said, “...the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” We cannot obey the Ten Commandments completely by ourselves and indeed, to attempt do so has its own dangers. To try to obey the Ten Commandments by ourselves without giving credit for our successes to the Lord can make us arrogant and boastful as the Pharisees were. This in no way means that we should not try to live according to the Commandments, but that we should draw on the Lord’s help every step of the way. It is a fallacy to believe that any of us are regenerate, and we all to a greater or lesser extent find the Commandments a challenge. They cause our consciences to be pricked, cause us to be tested or tempted and as we know, no test - by definition - is easy; changing the narrative of our lives has its inevitable inertia. The Spirit, is full of the Lord’s mercy and grace and He will write His Law in our hearts, but this is a long process which continues in eternity. The Law is the map, but the Lord’s mercy and grace are living guides, without them no-one can be saved, so love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself.
No matter what we have done in the past, what lifestyles we have lived, what mistakes we have made, as far as the Lord is concerned, the door to His office is, as they say, always open. The past can nag at us telling us we’re doomed, that we can never change or that its too late now, because you’ve done it, whatever it was. The Lord is always open for business. However the motives behind our actions are everything, and the way we can get in touch with them to see if they are honourable or not, is to look at the likely outcomes of our actions or our proposed actions. There is however a real danger that if we live life in opposition to the commandments, especially when we are in prior awareness of what they require of us and that they are the Lord’s, we can end up loving our unregenerate ways of life and having no desire to change. Would we then really be interested in going to the Lord for help?
We should greatly admire the Lord for his great love and patience towards the human race. Since the Garden of Eden, he has patiently followed the spiritual decline of mankind waiting for the precise moment to incarnate as Jesus Christ. And so he put the Hells beneath His footstool and restored our spiritual freedom. Freedom to choose a gate and a path. We can choose the wide gate and the broad path of bludgeoning self-centeredness, that which I have called Babylon in this address. Or the more cloaked, manipulative and calculating mode of exercising self love and the love of worldly things which I have called the Dragon. Or we can choose the straight gate and the compressed way and wrestle, with the Lord’s help, to free ourselves of ungodly traits and old patterns and build heaven within. Our aim is, as Swedenborg puts it, conjunction with the Lord. Where he will come in and dine with us and we will dine with Him. We will reflect His love and take on His countenance. The Lord said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21). So it is no good talking about doing good and how wonderful the Lord is, the only solution is to actually do as He asks. This will bring us the inner joy we need. We do this by living useful lives in the world in accordance to our best and prayerful interpretation of His Word and giving Him the credit. Jesus said, "Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me. (Matthew, 11, 29). Amen.
Which road would you take your children along?