Small is Big.
Saturday I spoke with a wonderful doctor who recommended that I read a book written by a guy who was clinically dead for a day. In the book, the guy described the experience he had while he was ‘dead’. He didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel like you hear in other stories like this, no angels telling him to walk into the light. He said he was wandering around in a dark place, looking for a way out. It was scary and lonely. It took him a while before he found a door that would open, and when he did, his medical condition reversed, and he survived. The doctor sounded pretty convinced that the man was in a kind of purgatory, a no man’s land for a while.
To be truthful, I’m sometimes skeptical about these back-from-the-dead stories. But listening to this physician, who clearly sees his 'job' as a healing vocation (and I'm sure his patients are no doubt lucky to have him), I took interest in the book.
As the doctor was talking, I suddenly remembered this experience I had in the subway a while ago. I was struggling to carry a whole bunch of stuff in four very large bags. My friend had warned me that I was trying to take too much, but I confidently and stubbornly waved him off. “I’ll be fine”, I said. “I’m a man.” The truth is that I looked like a drunken sailor as I walked down the street with all this stuff, my balance off, the bags tangling with my legs. I was determined to do it in one trip, that I wouldn’t cave and ask for help, and I was not going to take a taxi. I made it into the subway station, and a lot of people had to deal with me on the crowded train. My stop was one of those lonely local stations without a subway booth and clerk, and the few people who got off the train with me went ahead as I readjusted my bags. When I finally had my act together, I found myself facing the only way to leave the station--through one of those ceiling-to-floor revolving bar exits. I swiped my card, pushed the bars in front of me, and in the middle of the turn, my bags got caught up in the metal bars, and the whole thing locked up. I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward, bars all around. I was in my own little prison, and not a soul around. I pushed and pushed—the bars moved a tiny bit back and forth, but that was all. I looked back and could see with my peripheral vision that someone had appeared on the other side of the station. “Ummmmm…hey, can you help me?”, I yelled, straining my head in the direction of the person, who now was no longer visible. “Hello?” The only response I got was silence. “Hey, I’m stuck in here, I can’t get out!” I yelled again. More silence. There was a moment of panic, followed by the vivid memory of my friend telling me, “you are ridiculous, and sometimes very dumb” as I walked down the street with my enormous bags.
Well I waited for a good 12 minutes in the cell of my own doing until another local train came by. A woman got off the train and then a man, and I called out to them as they approached the other turnstile exit. They both took pity on me and tried to untangle me from my prison, pushing and pulling on the metal bars, one on one side, the other on the other side. After a noble effort, they also failed at the task, and the man said he was sorry, but he was late for an appointment. The woman, bless her heart, told me that she would go to find a subway employee. I wasn’t sure she would actually do it. But sure enough, about 20 minutes later I was released by a transit cop and a subway clerk, as two interested strangers looked on. The subway clerk had a special key or something to unlock the mechanism. It was pretty embarrassing. The cop couldn’t refrain from a little sarcasm. What was I thinking, he said, getting on the subway with all that stuff? He made me feel a little humiliated, and I felt badly that I had put people out to rescue me from a fate of my own doing.
All the way home I kept hearing my friend’s words: “you are ridiculous…and sometimes very dumb.” I knew he was right, and my misadventure in the subway was proof of that. But my ego couldn’t entirely accept that either, and I found myself indicting my friend. I thought about all the dumb things he had done in his life, and I began to magnify his faults in an attempt to justify myself. Did you ever notice how big someone else's faults become when you're trying to justify yourself? You know, when you have an argument with your wife, or your husband or your sister or cousin or friend, suddenly it's part of some huge fault they've got, it's part of a lot of huge faults they have. You know how that is, to justify yourself you start to magnify their faults--they become one gigantic fault--and you minimize your own faults, of course.
I had the chance to go back to my grammar school a few years ago before they permanently renovated it and converted it into condominiums. I hadn't been there since I was in sixth grade, and all my memories of it were of this huge building of endless hallways and jillions of classrooms, a gigantic auditorium and gymnasium and cafeteria. Our principal was Mr. Schaefer, who was very tall and very bald and very, very old--ancient, like maybe 50 or 55. To help us remember how to spell the word 'principal', one of my teachers always used to say 'the principal is our pal', which was a good way to remember how to spell the word, but which was definitely a lie because the principal of our school, Mr. Schaefer, was by no means, no way, a pal of mine or anyone else I knew, and if you ever had to go to his office to see him it was certainly not for the purpose of 'pal-ing' around. One time I made a visit there to his office, I think that was the time I hit Sheila Goldberg in the eye, and I remember very well the long walk down the hallway to his office, it was like 6 miles, a very lonely and dark walk, and when I got there, he had this huge door, maybe 50 feet high, and when I went in and stood before him, explaining myself, I saw there on the wall behind him, a paddle, a big big paddle, ready for use. I never knew anyone that actually felt the sting of that instrument of torture, I never did, but let me tell you, it was very effective, just to look at it.
Well, when I went back to the school one last time, now as a grown-up, I was amazed. The whole thing had shrunk, it was tiny. Tiny hallways, low ceilings, there weren't all that many classrooms, and the ones that were there were little and really cramped-looking. The bathrooms all had sinks and toilets and urinals that were really small and low to the ground; the auditorium and the gym and the cafeteria were about the size I remembered the classrooms to be. I don't know what happened to the place. The last place I went was to my 'pal's' office, at the end of this dinky hallway. The door was built for midgets. You know what was still hanging there on the wall? The paddle. And you know what? It too had shrunk: it was the size of, not much bigger than… a ruler.
While he was making his way to Jerusalem, someone asked Jesus if everyone would make it into heaven. Not necessarily, he said. But to do so, you must "come in through the narrow door. Many, I tell you, will try to enter and be unable." Through the narrow door, the tiny one, the humiliating one built for midgets, try to come through that one, Jesus said, knowing full well that it was the only door for him as well as for us, the door he would find open and waiting for him on a hill in Jerusalem. Some might not fit through that door, perhaps because of the size of their ego, or their inability to let go of the things that entangled them on the way out. For those folks, perhaps, no light at the end of the tunnel, no angels telling them to walk into the light. Just wandering around in a dark place, scary and lonely, looking for a way out of the prison in which they have willingly enclosed themselves.
When you're little and mostly innocent, like a child, you see things with a certain perspective of truth, you see things as they really are: gigantic, enormous, humongous--paddles, hallways, water fountains, doors--but more importantly you see how small and dependent you are, how needy and fragile and alone you are in a world that is much bigger than you can really handle. The truth is, no matter how old and how big we may think we become, we often really small and ridiculous and dumb.
But when in all humility we realize how small we really are, the door that stands open before us is not narrow at all, but wide as a river and high as the sky. Behind that door, if we would but step into it, is Jesus himself, behind that door is the First Principle who is truly our pal--indeed, how can it be otherwise with the One who created us and sustains us in gigantic, stupendous love?
The problem is, the door becomes narrow and hard to pass through the bigger we are, the bigger we think ourselves to be, the more we justify ourselves in our stupid little arguments. You see, it is our own faults magnified by our pride and our self-righteousness that blow us up so big we can't fit through the door. I eventually realized that as I thought more honestly about my stubborn subway mishap. Humility, to let go of the baggage we sometimes carry around, the ego, the need to be right, to be number one, to be the victor. Humility is not a value or a virtue in our culture: to be humble and small is dumb, and foolish, it makes you lookweak, people take advantage of you, win arguments against you. Precisely.
And you know what? Here at this altar is the truth of the matter. Here, in a little piece of bread, and a little bit of wine, so tiny that you can hardly see them up here, in the bread and wine is the narrow door made wide for you and for me. To see it that way, to see the truth of what it really is, you've got to become small again, and dependent, and humble. To see the miracle on this altar, you've got realize your own faults and forgive the faults of your brother and sister, husband, wife, father, mother, brother, sister, children, friend-- even the faults of your enemy. When you receive from this table in a little while, remember how small you are as you approach, and how big you become when you leave, Jesus running through your very blood.