The Strait Gate
( Originally Published 1908 )
Strive to enter in at the strait gate.—New Testament.
So he went on with haste like one treading on forbidden ground ; neither spake he to any man by the way. So in process of time Christian got up to the gate. Pilgrim's Progress.
These sentences might be supplemented by many others of similar import gathered from sacred and secular literature. In the mind of Jesus and John Bunyan the narrow gate is used to illustrate the entrance to a religious life. Both saw that there is a broad and easy and popular way of conformity; of yielding to the prevailing custom; of moving over a broad and descending plain. Wandering along this broad way, the multitude is found. But here and there may be seen a solitary path turning away toward rugged and difficult heights along which some lonely traveler is toiling.
But the strait gate and narrow path may be transferred from the books of religion to the whole great volume of human life. In the language of the Judean Prophet and the English Dreamer, they symbolized the difficulty of forsaking the world and entering the realm of spiritual truth and life. He who would find the narrow gate must diligently seek for it; and, having found it, no pains must be spared to enter it. In Pilgrim's Progress, Christian had great difficulty in finding it. His wife and children and neighbors tried to dissuade him from the search. He encountered dangers, and once was almost lost in the Slough of Despond. Mr. Obstinate and Mr. Pliable and Mr. Worldly Wiseman, each in his peculiar way, tried to turn him back. He went to consult Mr. Legality to see if he might give up the search, and a mountain that stood by his house threatened to tumble on his head. But, encouraged by Mr. Goodwill, he struggled on, and at last found and entered the gate. Then, relieved of his burden, he found himself at the foot of a hill which he began to climb, saying:
"The hill, though high, I covet to ascend ;
The poetry is not very good, but its wisdom is excellent. It is also capable of universal application. The narrow gate stands not alone across the path leading to heaven, but across the way leading to every kind of excellence. It is no more in the road of religion than in the road of art or business or learning. The best is always at the top of the hill called Difficulty. Whoso would possess it must climb ; must pass along steep and stony ways ; must overcome many an obstacle and rise after many falls.
Genius is sometimes described as the power of sustained effort. When complimented on the possession of genius, a celebrated artist replied : "Genius! I have no genius but the determination to work." However this may be, there is, indeed, hardly anything that will not yield to well directed and persistent effort. Whether it is tunnelling Alps or gaining the kingdom of heaven, this is so. To succeed in a difficult enterprise man must be like a burning-glass, concentrating all his rays of energy on one point. Diffused in air, clouds of steam are as powerless as dewdrops falling on a rock. Compressed and directed, steam has power to cleave rocks asunder, hurl mountains from their ancient foundations, and bend bars of iron as if they were twigs of willow. So, he who would accomplish anything of note must not permit his powers to waste themselves in empty space. As in the other, so in the greater game of life they who would win must "bunch their hits."
The many complex motives possible to a human mind are at once its glory and perplexity. Source of power, they are also source of weakness. Because so many paths lie open to man, there is always some danger of his choosing a wrong one. The course of an animal is clearly marked out for it. Its organization determines its direction and its destiny. The ox, the lion, the bird has only one thing to do. It obeys its instincts. It is never entangled and confused by a variety of opposing motives. It is not so with man. Many means to many ends are presented to him, and he must select those he will make his own. The collection is so large and so various that it is not surprising he makes many mistakes. Sometimes his misfortune results from lack of wisdom, sometimes from weakness of will, sometimes from vice. But whatever may be its cause, the sad fact is that many pass along over a wide road of error and pass through the wide gate of unhappiness.
There is no more prevalent and no more damaging delusion to the young than the careless belief that good fortune can take the place of prudence or that luck will make up for lack of industry. The dream of luxurious ease must vanish with the daybreak. Heroism is never easy. At first unwelcome is revelation to the youth that everything costs its full price and every good must be earned before it can be fully possessed. But it must needs come ; and, in after years, whatever it was that taught this lesson,—necessity, native ambition, grim poverty, rude blasts sweeping away arbors of indolent ease,—is seen as a benefactor. Whatever gives keener glance to the eye, greater firmness to muscles, more deftness to fingers, deeper penetration to intellect, stronger moral fiber, a more dauntless courage is a benefit, although tasks multiply and become more insistent with each increase of power. If where nature adds difficulties she adds force—employing earth-quakes and not zephyrs to rend mountain ranges, the moon and not a meteor to lift ocean tides—so, if force is increased, by so much the task is increased. When nature wished worlds she employed gravitation. Wishing trees and grass and flowers, she employed chemistry. But when she wished literature and pictures and music and laws and a high and still ascending civilization, some finer force than gravitation or chemistry was required. Only humanity was equal to this task. But ability brings obligation. Those who can, must. Noblesse oblige. Every one must bear his share of the world's many burdens. He must pay his way and justify his existence, although, by so doing, he shall be compelled to forsake the broad road of careless indolence and, for much of his time, climb a craggy and difficult path.
"We sleep and dream that life is beauty;
Beginnings are never easy. How feeble and constrained and awkward are all first efforts at a new task! The wrong way seems to come naturally to all beginners. There is no trade, no profession, no game, that does not demand much practice before any proficiency is attained. Considering the many obstacles to be overcome, it is surprising that persons learn to walk and talk and read and write and skate and make a speech and play a musical instrument. Before every-thing we have learned to do there was a narrow gate hard to pass through.
Illustrating the general statement in detail, how long and beset with hindrances the path from the quarry of marble, with its rude, clay-stained blocks, to the finished snow-white statue ! What prying with crowbars, pounding of sledges, chiselings and polishings ! Think of music on its long and arduous journey, from a few rudimentary sounds, imitated from nature, until it arrived at the point where freely rising and falling through all octaves of the highest heights and deepest depths of being, interpreting every emotion of the soul, from moan of despair to shout of triumph ! Think of language ! At first only a few half inarticulate names of objects. Words were so scarce and hard to make that one was made to perform many duties, and the meaning of each one was reinforced by gesture and physical representation. Now no other instrument so facile and adjustable; accommodating itself to every mood, it carries the thought of philosopher, eloquence of orator, meditation of saints, fancies of poets. Stronger than Hercules'-club, it is sharper than Ithuriel's spear. Swaying senates and parliaments when the fate of nations is at stake, it as readily lends itself to whispered secrets in the bower of love. Think of literature ! A half savage long ago etching upon some pulpy leaf rude symbol of his thought and sending it to a neighboring tribe ; clay tablets of Babylonia ; Egyptian papyrus ; wax tablets ; Rosetta stones ; parchments ; druidical pillars ;—now printed pages by the million coming to every door bearing thither transcript of every thought that has ever flashed through the human brain, every feeling that has ever surged in the human heart!
There is no good or beauty we possess that did not come in the same way. It was by care and diligence the flowers and fruits and grains reached their present high condition. Our world lies before us inviting us to learn its possibilities from its best products. If its most valuable possibilities are wisdom and goodness, then the search for them should be the most diligent. The Spiritual Teacher, in answer to an inquiry, said that few are saved, because the gate is so narrow that not all humanity can drift carelessly into it; so narrow that only those can enter who seek out and pursue a most straitened path. A hymn, much sung when some of us were young, contains the stanza :
"Broad is the road that leads to death
By a change of two or three words the lines become universally applicable. There is one and the same law for all of life; and the fewness of those whom the hymn represents as finding heaven is paralleled in the fewness of those who find the chief good of earth.
How many there are who fail to find and possess the true purpose and meaning of existence ! Some are positive destroyers instead of creators of good. Add to these active enemies the many incompetent; the irresponsible ; the triflers ; the indolent ; all of those the sole reason for whose existence is exhausted when the census taker has counted them. Cities boast of their growth in population, regardless of its character; but what city would not profit by subtracting from the quantity and adding to the quality of its inhabitans? How many there are who are following no path of usefulness nor striving to enter any gate of industry or honesty or wisdom ! Will they fail to find heaven? Already they have failed to find it.
Perhaps we cannot decide things otherwise than by majorities. But what abuses our country is subjected to by this method of government ! However it may be in theory, in fact the ignorant, the vicious may hold the balance of power in political parties. Nothing must be done by the leaders to alienate the rogues and drive them into the opposing party. To be defeated is the only calamity to be avoided. Hence great care must be taken not to discover frauds in the party, and not to punish them if they are discovered. Nevertheless, is not the mission of honesty in this world to alienate and oppose dishonesty in politics as elsewhere? Rogues should not be flattered and rewarded, but disciplined and punished and relegated to obscurity. Honesty is, indeed, a narrow gate through which to ask our huge, lawless, arrogant American politics to enter. But entrance must be made. The dream of Bunyan means us. The City of Destruction is on the plain ; and ,whether it is individual or nation that drifts along in the broad road of dishonesty, there is no escaping the stroke of Fate.
Some of us can remember when our nation passed along a path, narrow, difficult, dangerous. It entered a gate after a long period of struggle, and for a time found a beautiful and more peaceful scene. But it grew careless again and moved complacently along the broad road. Now there seems to be a crisis in our career. The wise, far-seeing and unyielding Spirit that presides over human destiny commands us to for-sake the broad road trampled into dust by those nations which have gone to destruction. Wise will we be if the command is heeded and we strive to find the path that leads to the Delectable Mountains.
The will of the majority,—we must obey it; but let us not yield a superstitious reverence to it. The heroes and saviors of their times are always a small minority. They are the elect, not of Calvinism, but of Nature. Reading of them and learning of their marvelous strength and bravery and what help and healing they brought to their times, it is sometimes difficult to think they were made of common human material. It is easy to see how belief in demigods and all kinds of superhuman beings arose. Yet they came from the same mingling of clay and spirit, breathed the same air, were nourished by the same food, chilled by the same frost, and subject to the same disappointments as were their contemporaries and as are the great, complaining, half-distracted, hurrying multitudes on earth today. What, then, in history and legend, makes them seem so different? Nothing, but that they heard and heeded a voice bidding them strive to enter the gate opening upon a path that leads toward the heights. All may have heard; only these obeyed. They were elected; but their own wills cast the decisive vote.
Some one has defined life to be that which holds matter together. That will do for plants and animals ; but, in human beings, it is not a satisfactory definition. It is intended for something else than merely to keep their bodies from disintegrating. It makes large drafts on one's faith, that nature makes nothing without a purpose] to keep from laying violent hands on some persons. A cipher found in the right place, although nothing in itself, gives an additional value to the unit. But the human cipher so often in the wrong place; detracting from the value of the unit; sometimes meddlesome and complaining ; indolent, improvident, parasitic, lying ;—all one can do is to submit to the inscrutable will of Providence which, contrary to all seeming necessity, permits them to live.
What dissatisfaction there should be with merely existing! There should be an earnest purpose. There are always opportunities and duties. Enterprises often fail for no other reason than because the will is infirm. It is absurd to trust that luck or miracle will make up for lack of steady purpose and faithful work. In fairy tales wishes are sometimes substituted for effort, but life is never a fairy tale. It is reality. Here is no magic wand which, when waved in the air, will sum mon a host of supernatural aids whose arrival annuls the plain law of cause and effect. As in the fable, so is it in fact;—when our carts are stalled in the mire we may pray to Hercules for assistance, but mean-while must not neglect to put our own shoulder to the wheel. Here is no enchanted lamp, rubbing which will instantly construct invulnerable castles and gorgeous palaces. No; they are only builded by faith-fully and laboriously laying stone upon stone. There are many easy chairs; and the fire on the hearth, weaving beautiful pictures, invites to pleasant reveries. Sitting beside it, the regeneration of the world seems very easy. It will regenerate itself. The air swarms with victories that are gaining themselves. Heroism is admirable in other people. But such musing is profitless unless it is condensed into energy. It must become first thought ; then passion; then will; then action.
Have any of you carried with you from youthful days remembrance of the rude pictures illustrating Pilgrim's journey? There is a plain full of marshes and pitfalls, in which stood the City of Destruction. On one side the plain began to narrow and ascend. Finally it became a path along which only one could travel at a time. Below were abysses; overhead were cliffs; clouds overcast the sky from which thunder-bolts were falling; at turns were frowning towers from which enemies were hurling darts. . Pilgrim was the only traveler. All the way to the Delectable Mountains was beset by obstacles and dangers, and only one heart was resolute enough to encounter them.
Which means that the excellent is difficult. Is it faith? Then dare plunge into the darkness and set sail over unknown seas. When the sun sets, steer by the stars ; if the stars are concealed, hold the rudder true and wait till they reappear. Is it goodness? It it found in the same way learning and riches and power are found. It is the path of struggle, of self-restraint. Angelo no more stumbled upon his art, nor Napoleon upon his victories, nor Humboldt upon his science, nor Shakespeare upon his poetry than did Christ stumble upon his virtue. There is no birth without travail. Is it Truth? Then it must be sought among the rugged and untrodden heights. It is not in the market place, or in conventions, or church councils, or society. These are only its cast-off garments. Who would find it must leave these things and press forward; must sweep away all hindrances ; must neither gossip with Mr. Pliable nor conform with Mr. Worldly Wiseman; must care neither for ridicule or flattery ; must heed only a high conviction coming from within; at times must tread alone the thorny road of doubt; must master self ; must beat down all fears and even the fear of fear itself, most persistent of all foes ; and never question that if truth is ever found it will be ample reward ; and, if it is never found, there is more than compensation in the strength and freedom and individuality coming as noble by-products of the search itself.
"Facilis descensus Averni," Virgil wrote: Descent to the lower world is easy. True; but it is the lower world. "Steep and craggy are the paths of the gods," Porphyry wrote. True ; but they are the paths of the gods. It would have been much easier for Palissy not to have agonized over his pottery ; easier for Columbus not to have sailed over unknown wastes ; easier for America not have struggled for freedom by way of Valley Forge, and for a higher freedom by way of Gettysburg ; easier for Wyclif and Luther not to battle against ecclesiastical superstition and tyranny ; easier for Jesus not to endure Gethsemane and Calvary. So it is easier for the multitude to submit passively to moral gravitation than actively to struggle for moral levitation. But what a difference in the outcome ! In art it is pottery without enamel and the name of Bernard Palissy unknown. In history it is America, home of savagery instead of home of civilization, and the name of Columbus long since gone into oblivion with those of a million other forgotten sailors. In religion it is superstition still poisoning the heart and authority yet tyrannizing the intellect, and no spiritual hero de-serving deathless fame. In all human life it is perpetual dominance of sense and all low motives lengthening, instead of shortening, the distance between the animal and the angel in mankind.
This is only reiteration of the common saying: There is no excellence without labor.' But the trite is usually the true; and common-places are not common-places until they are realized and made into actions. It would be well if to many a youth the saying, "no excellence without labor," should come with all the force and fervor of an original discovery. It would dispel illusions and impel him forward on a nobler career. The excellent is difficult but not impossible. Moreover, every obstacle overcome imparts additional power to overcome remaining obstacles. Taken in their natural order, ability is acquired to perform all tasks assigned us; and those which, at a distance, seem impossible yield when the time comes to attack them. Thus end-less advance is promised the earnest and aspiring and resolute soul. A being who has learned to walk and talk ; learned to read and write and solve problems ; has gathered a world's literature into mind and heart ; has acquired a refined taste, so that all the beautiful in nature and art and all the noble in conduct bring inexpressible delight; is capable of sacred and lasting friendships ; and moves kindly among all God's creatures ;—such a being will surely go farther and still farther, discovering and utilizing more and more of those beneficent laws and forces which in such plenitude stream from some unseen Source, creating and preserving worlds and impelling and guiding nations and persons to a higher end.
Fortunate the youth who has fully learned the cause and method by which all excellence is attained. Making his noblest wishes pledges of all his actions, he will unerringly pass by way of new conquest to enlarging power and is gradually being fitted to join that host which, in bright array, the Mystic saw on the everlastings, sun-crowned heights of the great up-per world.
Sermons By Reed Stuart:
The Christ Child
The Christ Man
The Christ Spirit
The Strait Gate
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