I have been captivated recently by the icons of Maxim Sheshukov, a Russian iconographer who works in a traditional style but whose icons often depict themes or events from Scripture rarely depicted in icons – Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, or Judas accepting the bag of silver, or the slaying of Abel by Cain, for instance. One icon that has been much fodder for my prayer depicts Christ, his figure almost whimsically tall and slender and slightly bent at the shoulders, standing before an equally tall, dark, and very narrow door. The wooden panel on which the icon is painted is tall and narrow, and is itself highly suggestive of a door. The background is a simple, quiet yellow ochre, the color of sand or wheat. Christ’s right hand – or more precisely, his outstretched, right pointer finger, seems to rest on the face of the door, pointing toward it, perhaps giving it the gentlest tap imaginable. His left hand holds a thin, narrow scroll, its words concealed from view.[i]
“Lord, will only a few be saved?” someone asks Jesus. The nameless questioner could be someone who counts him or herself assuredly among that few – or who is haunted by fears that he or she is not among that few. Jesus doesn’t exactly answer the question, or certainly not on the terms that it is asked. His reply is all phrased in the future tense, with one significant exception: The word “Strive,” in his opening phrase “Strive to enter through the narrow door,” is in the present imperative. Strive! Like a single, slender finger pointing or tapping gently, hard to ignore. The Greek word (agonizomai) means something like “struggle and effort in the face of great opposition.” Jesus’s advice is personal and pertains to everyday practice in the present. It’s as if he says, “Try. Try with your whole being. Seek, suffer when necessary, be painstaking. The open but narrow doors that each moment presents to you are the openings through which God is reaching out to you. Concern yourself with that. And don’t think that you can open and shut the door to God’s house as you like, simply because of where you come from.” The arc of Jesus’ reply bends toward a spacious and inclusive understanding of salvation, a healing and wholeness open to all people that is consistent with Luke’s overall vision. But I suspect that the questioner in this passage carries a fairly entrenched assumption that “where he or she comes from” is a reliable indicator of spiritual health and wholeness, the logic perhaps being that “If I come from the right place, then I’m going to the right place.” The double repetition of the house owner “I do not know where you come from,” specifically counters that logic.
The passionate and continual striving of Christ to enter the narrow door – his life-long struggle to accept, embrace, and act upon God’s will for him personally – reaches a particularly intense climax in the garden of Gethsemane. There, Luke records, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:43-44). Some early scribes omitted these verses, evidently offended by the graphic intensity of Jesus’ suffering humanity. His anguish – in Greek, his agonia – is his own “striving in the face of great opposition.” Jesus continues his striving to enter his narrow door straight through to his dying breath, and his body passes through the narrow door of a very narrow tomb. The healing and wholeness of God is spacious – as spacious as the Resurrection, the opening of every door, the rolling away of every stone. But I don’t think that means that salvation is a “one size fits all” process. Rather than a great elastic waistband, it is exact and intimate to the measure of each life and the contours of each soul. There is a narrow door – a specific, particular, and personal door – for each disciple who tries to enter.
The door in Sheshukov’s icon – and the door that is Sheshukov’s icon – has evoked every door that inhabits my memory, real or fictional: the door in the ordinary wardrobe which led to Narnia, the door to my grandmother’s attic, the door of my high school locker, the red door of my first apartment, the dented passenger’s side door of my faithful, used Toyota, the door of this monastery, the door of my cell. But it also has me asking myself which inner doors I open or close, which inner doors Christ visits, hoping that one day the gentle tapping of a finger will yield a way in, and which doors I have simply to strive to enter, though the striving may be life-long. From God’s side of the door, that is enough.
[i] Some icons of Maxim Sheshukov, as well as an excellent article about his work, can be found here: http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/childs-inner-eye-contemporary-icons-maxim-sheshukov/
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.