If you’ve visited or occupied a hospital room in recent years you’ve seen the smiley face pain scale. This is a tool doctors use to determine your level of discomfort. It goes from a smiley face 0 (no pain) to a teary-eyed frowny-face 10 (worst pain). People of faith could use something similar to describe their soul’s pain while speaking to a spiritual advisor.
Such a passion scale would come in handy when we feel particularly lukewarm. On a standard temperature scale, lukewarm would fall somewhere right in the middle between freezing cold and feverishly hot—and would normally occupy a fairly happy position on the pain scale for that matter. On the passion scale, though, lukewarm occupies the position that “worst pain” occupies on the pain scale. Lukewarm faith is misery to anyone desirous of passionate faith. The misery is torturous because such a person may remember the fervor they felt early on in their faith journey when their passion was closer to 10 and now they’re conscious of heading downscale to the numbness zone. The fear is, once they reach this point of apathy, there may be no return; they may be unrecognizable to themselves or even to their maker.
In this Sunday’s gospel reading (Lk 13:22-30) Jesus tells us how someone’s loss of faith can disfigure their spirit, causing them to fail the identity screening process as they try entering God’s domain.
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’”
Zero on the passion scale indicates the absence of a sense of “other.” A 10 on that scale is notable for intimacy—not the sensual, fleeting kind, but the kind that bonds spirits. The best way I’ve heard it described in human terms was in a lyric delivered many years ago by Tony Bennett in a song titled “It Amazes Me.” It concludes: “I’m the one who’s worldly wise and nothing much fazes me, but to see me in her eyes, it just amazes me.”
This lyric implies a deep gaze into the soul of a loved one and seeing oneself there, as that loved one sees you. The fact that you are so central in that field of vision implies a mutual recognition and understanding. Now imagine this kind of relationship with your Creator, and each time you pray, you see yourself in God’s eyes. It’s like kneeling before the tabernacle in church and seeing your reflection staring back at you from the gleaming door. How could anyone be lukewarm at the thought of seeing themselves gazing from the gateway of His kingdom? The idea of being the focus of God’s vision is what has attracted passionate searchers for such intimacy from all nations of the world, as the prophet Isaiah tells us in Sunday’s first reading (Is 66:18-21):
Thus says the LORD: I know their works and their thoughts, and I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory. I will set a sign among them; from them I will send fugitives to the nations: … to the distant coastlands that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.
But even the most loving earthly relationships, whether between man and woman or parent and child, are laced with trials that require strength to keep our passion reading out of the lukewarm zone—or even further down the scale. Such a slide can be precipitated by earthly distractions or heavenly course corrections, as we are reminded via Sunday’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 12:5-7, 11-13):
You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children: “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines.”
Keeping our spirit out of the lukewarm zone requires insulation throughout our earthly lives, through periods of suffering or apathy—or the suffering of apathy. It comes with remembering that suffering carries a spark of redemption whose potency depends on the grace God delivers through the proximity of family, friends and, sometimes, strangers. In fact sometimes it’s in a stranger’s eyes we will see our true selves.