One of the most famous and influential justices of the U. S. Supreme Court was Oliver Wendell Holmes, who served on the Court for thirty years at the beginning of the 20th century. He was known for his brilliant mind—and also for being rather absent-minded. One day he was aboard a train out of Washington D.C., and was busy studying legal briefs related to an upcoming case when the conductor asked to see his ticket. Justice Holmes searched every pocket in his topcoat and suit, but to his great agitation, couldn’t find it. The conductor reassured him, “Don’t be concerned, Justice Holmes. We know who you are; when you return to Washington, you can send us the ticket at your convenience.” Holmes shook his head sadly and said, “Thank you, my good man, but you don’t seem to understand the problem. It’s not a question of whether I’ve paid the train fare. The problem is: where am I going?” A brilliant legal scholar and jurist had forgotten his destination (Brian Cavanaugh, The Sower’s Seeds, #23).
That’s the most important question each of us has to answer: where are we going in life? At a university some years ago a certain professor was known for his militantly atheist beliefs, and he would taunt Christian students in his classes, dismissing religion as nothing more than a fairy-tale designed as a crutch for weak and frightened people. The professor always used to challenge the young adults in his classroom, “Be brave and play the game of life!” However, one day a student asked, “Sir, how are we supposed to play the game of life when we don’t even know where the goal posts are?,” and to this the professor had no answer (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 9, #217). Because death sooner or later comes to everyone, it is not only foolish, but potentially disastrous, to go through life without a purpose or destination in mind. Jesus tells us that our goal must be eternal salvation, and He warns that membership in His Kingdom does not happen automatically. We must actively choose to accept the gift of eternal life that He alone offers—and only if we do so can our lives on earth be judged a success.
Because of God’s immeasurable love and mercy, everyone who has ever existed has had a chance to be saved; no one is ever automatically destined for Hell. As the Lord proclaims in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (66:18-21), many foreigners and Gentiles—that is, non-Jews—will find their way to Heaven and there become part of His chosen people. Because of God’s perfect justice, however, those who ignore His call, or who answer it only in a halfhearted manner, will not be numbered among the elect. When someone asked Jesus (Luke 13:22-30), “Lord, will only a few be saved?,” He did not answer, “Oh, don’t worry—almost everyone makes it to Heaven.” Instead, He warned of the very real danger of eternal damnation, including for people who smugly assumed their outward show of religion meant they had nothing to fear. What a terrible thing it would be, Jesus said, for them, or us, to hear His words of judgment: “I do not know where you are from—depart from Me, you evildoers!”
How can we avoid such a terrible fate? One simple but important means is by humbly accepting and learning from the discipline of the Lord, which the Letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7; 11-13) describes. If in our sinfulness we are starting to ignore God or go in the wrong direction, He may allow misfortune to correct us and remind us of our need for Him—not primarily as a form of punishment, but as an expression of love. Therefore, as the reading says, “Endure your trials as ‘discipline’. . . . strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees, [and] make straight paths for your feet. . . .”
This image of a straight path brings to mind a legend in which a great king announced that any prince wishing to marry his beautiful daughter must prove himself worthy by walking a long distance over difficult terrain in a perfectly straight line to his royal castle. Several young men of royal blood presented themselves. The first prince walked slowly and carefully, constantly looking to his right and then to his left to make sure he was not going astray—but despite his best efforts, the farther he went, the more he veered off the proper path. A second prince kept his eyes on his feet, making sure they always pointed in the proper direction—but he too badly missed the mark. Finally, a third prince undertook this journey, though without looking to the right or to the left, nor at his own feet. He alone succeeded in walking in a perfectly straight line, and was given the right to marry the beautiful princess. When asked how he had accomplished the difficult task, he explained, “I simply kept my eyes fixed on the light shining from the castle tower, and allowed nothing to distract me” (Jonathan Cahn, The Book of Mysteries, p. 264).
It seems many people today are not only distracted by this world’s pleasures and concerns; they give no thought whatsoever to what will happen to them when this life ends, and are completely unprepared for death and judgment. As Christians and especially as Catholics, we are supposed to know better than this; our faith teaches us that every passing day brings us 24 hours closer to our entry into eternity. When Jesus refers to being ready for this experience as “entering through the narrow gate”, He means that to be successful, we must keep our eyes on the goal and stay focused on what really matters. Among other things, this requires us to attend Mass every weekend, so that we can grow in grace by worthily receiving Holy Communion; pray every day, even if just for a few minutes; pray not only when we need something, but also to praise and thank God; pray not only for our own intentions, but also for the needs of others; receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation whenever we’re conscious of serious sin, and once or twice a year even if we only have venial sins; forgive others so that we may be forgiven; treat others as we wish to be treated; seek God’s guidance in all our important decisions; pay more attention to Scripture and the teachings of the Church than to the values of this world; and place Jesus at the center of our lives by striving to be humble, loving, and compassionate.
By trying to live in such a manner, we ensure that, through God’s grace, we won’t lose sight of our goal or stray from the proper path. It doesn’t really matter when or how we die, as long as we are prepared when the moment arrives—and if we are, our lives will have been a success, and we will rejoice to be numbered among those who recline at table in the Kingdom of God.