In Praise of Narrowness

The Graces That Flow From Taking the Narrow Path

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In Matthew 7:13-14 and in Luke 13:24, we read about a person who comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” The question anticipates a numerical type of answer and is one that is raised more out of curiosity than out of a genuine concern for moral guidance. The response Jesus gives is more profound than what the questioner is seeking: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many.”

This response was, no doubt, disappointing to the questioner. At the same time, had Jesus given him a percentage that was very high, it could have engendered complacency, one too low could have caused despair. Jesus buttressed his counsel by adding, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” We should not think of salvation in terms of statistics, but by being true to our specific calling.

The word “narrow” must have been just as disagreeable in the time of Jesus as it is today. It seems embedded in the human condition for people to want things to be broad, open, spacious, and easy. When we are told that the way is “narrow”, we cringe at the realization that it will also be hard. Christ came to save us, not to make things easy for us. We are already too easy on ourselves.

G. K. Chesterton has remarked that a man is rather foolish who complains that he “cannot enter Eden by five gates at once”. In the same vein, Chesterton states that “Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman,” and that “Polygamy is a lack of the realization of sex”. What we need and what serves us best may seem unduly narrow to some people, but that indictment reveals a lack of appreciation for what is appropriate and just. If we stretch the rubber band too far, it will break. If we widen the strike zone so that every pitch is a strike, it would make the “strike zone” meaningless and the game of baseball unplayable.

There is a time-honored adage that the study of law sharpens the mind by narrowing it. It is not the way of law to multiply the number of suspects and then, in a flamboyant gesture of broadmindedness, convict all of them. Rather, the way of justice is to narrow the field of suspects until the one person is discovered who is guilty of having committed the crime in question.

Justice, like all thinking, is a narrowing activity. In thinking, we clear away the wrong solutions until we find the one that is right. It is not beneficial to place error and truth together on the same path. Thinking clarifies precisely because it narrows. It is like gardening that gets the weeds out.  This process may be difficult, even laborious, but it is rewarding. The reason we begin to think is because the number of possible solutions is too great. Thinking marries the mind not to fantasy, but to reality.

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, Father Zossima says to a woman who has little faith:  “. . . love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” This instruction also falls on disappointed ears. In our dreams, love is easy and life is broad.  Such dreams, however, do not convey wisdom. Life is hard and the way is narrow. But this is not what we want to hear. Surely in today’s world, in trying to make marriage broad and divorce easy, we lose sight of the meaning of marriage and inevitably sap its strength.

The saintly Father Zossima, like Jesus, is not trying to be disagreeable, but only to make great things possible. The narrow gate opens, ultimately, to the expansiveness of Heaven. The wide approach contains contradictories and is doomed from the start to dissolution. The narrow way is purged of its destructive elements. Wisdom is rare; foolishness is rampant. The right answer is unique; the wrong answers are innumerable. God is One; the devil is legion. Narrowness is not to be shunned because it seems limited. It should be welcomed when it represents purity, and therefore, enhanced possibilities.

Jesus wants us to flourish. He is telling us that we must be patient. We cannot attain Heaven in a single bound. We must begin at the beginning and proceed by utilizing only the things we need.  And even though this way is “narrow,” it is immensely fertile and opens to ever-expanding realizations of life. On the other hand, the way that is wide and easy continually narrows until it reaches a dead end. We observe this among the licentious who are misled into thinking that their liberality is enriching. In truth, their lawlessness leads to their self-destruction.

Jesus offers us a great paradox: the narrow gate opens to a wide and satisfying life; the wide gate narrows to the point of despair. We are wise to abandon our fear of anything narrow, simply because it is narrow, and follow His instruction.


Dr. Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, CT, a Senior Fellow of Human Life International and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. This article has been published by kind permission of Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum.

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Donald DeMarco

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