The Gate is Small (Pt. 7)

This is a continuation of an allegorical tale begun in The Gate is Small (Pt. 1) and continuing through The Gate is Small (Pt. 2), The Gate is Small (Pt. 3), The Gate is Small (Pt. 4), The Gate is Small (Pt. 5), and The Gate is Small (Pt. 6). I suggest reading the full story in order, but of course, that’s only my opinion.

Jack and I were sitting at an antique wooden breakfast table inside a backpacker’s hostel. The kitchen was well-stocked with the usual ingredients for breakfasts and dinners, and crystal clear water ran from the tap. Beyond the usual, Jack also had a personal stash of beer and pipe tobacco he kept in a drawer next to the sink.

I questioned the rightness of these particular indulgences and Jack looked back at me with a smile and said, “The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer,”1 he said gesturing to the drinks. “Unless of course you have a serious temptation towards intemperance, my friend. Do you?” he asked sincerely. “I’d be happy to put them away if need be.”

“I do not. I was just raised in a family that believed it was wrong to even touch the stuff, but I must admit, I do enjoy partaking of them once in a while. I’ve come around to the way of thinking that drinking and smoking are fine in moderation, it is only in their excess that they become true vices,” I said.

“Excellent. You are free to join me then! What’s mine is yours,” said Jack as he began eagerly packing his pipe. I grabbed a beer and began sipping it.

“So, how far away is the summit?” I asked.

“I could tell you, but where would the adventure be in that?” said Jack wryly as he picked up a silver pipe tool and box of matches from the table. I knew this was his way of dodging the conversation, so I didn’t press the matter.

There were four other occupants in the hostel. Three of them were already asleep for the night, and the fourth had gone to the restroom.

“So, what’s the story with Samuel?”

Jack was in the middle of pulling on his pipe to get it well and truly lit. He held up his index finger to tell me just a moment.

“He seems quite…” I struggled to find the right word, “normal compared to other hikers I’ve seen. He’s not one of you giants and he hasn’t the same external quirks as some others.” Jack leaned back, finally satisfied with the ribbon of smoke that swam upward from his pipe.

“He is just a fellow hiker like you, and I would agree that he doesn’t have the same visible quirks you’ve come across so far with your encounters. I would’ve loved to see this Magpie you described to me,” he chuckled. “But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t some invisible quirks of his own, as I’m sure you do too my friend. But then again, I’m not the person to ask about Samuel. Samuel is,” said Jack, gesturing to the man who had just emerged from the bathroom and was making his way to the table.

“Jack, have you ever thought that you might like that pipe a little too much?” said Samuel softly as he took one of the open seats, leaned back with his hands behind his head, and swung his left foot up onto his right knee.

“The thought has snuck into my mind, Samuel, but usually a pint of beer chases it right out again,” said Jack.

“You wanted to ask me something?” said Samuel, looking at me kindly.

“Oh. Well… no, not really… I was just commenting to Jack that you seem particularly… normal,” I said sheepishly.

“I never thought that normalcy would be noteworthy,” he said.

“It is when you’ve met the people I have on this trail. Everyone has seemed so unusual that I,” I tried to be delicate with my next words, “I find you to be a curiosity.”

He laughed. “You make me sound like a science experiment!”

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly.

“No, no. Don’t apologize. I like science. I’m also somewhat pleased. But let me ask you: Do you consider yourself to be normal?” he said.

“I suppose, yes.”

“Then you’re just as weird as I am for being on this path,” he said, grinning.

“I suppose you’re right.” He had actually given a voice to one of my fears. Everyone on this path was a weirdo… and I was on this path too. What did that make me?

“You are a weirdo, my friend,” said Samuel, reading my mind. “I am too, and I’m not at all afraid to admit it. Only the strangest of men and women end up finding that rusty narrow gate.”

“Well,” I asked timidly, but beginning to be more comfortable with the man, “what makes you a weirdo?”

“Well, take a look at our friend Jack,” he said. Jack smiled big, leaned back and blew a large smoke ring. “As we’ve observed, Jack enjoys his pipe and his beer. Jack enjoys these things responsibly. He never gets drunk, he smokes only in designated areas, and he is supremely considerate of those around him. I assume he asked you, as he always does, if you had serious reservations about him partaking of these pleasures tonight?”

“Yes he did,” I said.

“A noble giant if there ever was one,” said Samuel. “Well, imagine a man for whom even a sip of alcohol would cause drunkenness immediately. Imagine a man who cannot even look at a bottle of beer without becoming drunk. Or perhaps a man who becomes sick any time he uses a tobacco product. What would be your advice to such a man?”

I thought a moment. “Well, I suppose my advice would be to avoid those things, if he doesn’t want to become drunk or sick.”

“Ah, but what if he does want to become drunk and sick? What if the drunkenness of the alcohol and the sickly feeling of the tobacco bring him pleasure? What if the things that cause him pleasure would cause anyone else revulsion and pain? What would your advice be then?” asked Samuel calmly.

“Well… I don’t know,” I said hesitantly.

“Many on the wider path would not hesitate to tell him to enjoy away, would they not? What would it hurt for a man to be perpetually drunk or perpetually sick if he were happy while he did it? He’s not hurting anyone! And it’s not as if he can get hurt walking around drunk on the beautiful wide path below! There is plenty of room to indulge in any behavior down there. But that’s not the case here is it?”

“No. It’s not,” I said, thinking of myself earlier that day, dangling off the cliff edge. One careless step form an intoxicated man on this path could send him crashing to his doom.

“Correct you are. And the Rangers teach as much. They themselves tell Jack to enjoy his beer and his pipe, but they give strict instructions never to become drunk from them. Why would they do that? Isn’t the drunkenness the point of the drink?” said Samuel.

I pondered this question in silence.

“Such a man as we imagined, one who would plunge into drunkenness at the drop of alcohol, or spew out vomiting from one puff of a pipe, is not a ‘normal’ person. Wouldn’t you agree?” asked Samuel.

“Definitely,” I said. “But what does this have to do with—”

Samuel didn’t let me finish my question. “But such a man is not wrong for the condition, is he? He must merely adopt a different lifestyle! He must avoid the pint and the pipe in order to better focus on the hike. He cannot partake of them rightly and still continue the hike, so his only recourse is not to partake of them at all if he truly wishes to continue hiking.”

“Yes…” I said slowly. I was trying to think of some loophole in Samuel’s logic, but there was none.

“I am one such man,” said Samuel simply. “I am one such man that we imagined, who can’t drink without being drunk, and cannot smoke without becoming sick, but I am also one such man who has found the joys that come from hiking on this marvelous, but narrow, path to life, as the sign on the gate says. I do desire and enjoy the drunkenness, but I have found a better joy on this mountainside. So I abstain. In essence, I abstain because the rangers say so, and the rangers say so because they are good. I’m convinced that what the rangers say is good, because I’m convinced that they are good, and I’ve seen the goodness of their ways. They’ve shown me that.”

His eyes were kind and clear. This was not the first time he had explained this to someone, I could tell. He glanced at Jack who gave him a knowing nod, then chuckled and changed the subject.

The three of us sat around the table for two more hours discussing new technology in hiking gear, our favorite printings of the Rangers’ survival manual, and the philosophy of what constitutes a lie.

Eventually, the night got the better of Samuel who let out a large yawn and said, “I believe I’ll take my leave this eve.”

Jack laughed at the internal rhyme and shook the man’s hand. “I’ll see you in the morning old chap.”

Samuel looked at me and said, “It has been a pleasure to speak with you this evening, weirdo,” and bowed his head slightly, a smile curling around the left side of his mouth.

“And you as well,” I said, mimicking the bow.

Samuel went away to the bunks in the next room, and Jack and I sat around the table a few minutes longer. I thought back on the conversation we had about Samuel’s “quirk,” and a curious question that had been nagging me earlier steadily reentered my mind. I looked at Jack and said, “Remember when Samuel was discussing his condition earlier, and asked me those hypothetical type questions about what a man with such an ‘imagined’ condition should do?”

“Yes,” said Jack.

“Well, I find myself wondering if he was being wholly honest about himself with me. Was he telling me the whole truth about himself?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” asked Jack curiously.

“Well, I’m wondering if he might have been speaking about something broader or different from alcohol and tobacco. I’m wondering if maybe his resolve to abstain from drinking wasn’t really a resolve to abstain from something else… and maybe his issue of being unable to drink without being drunk isn’t just an analogy he uses to describe…” I trailed off while expressing the half-finished thought.

Jack, gulped the last bit of beer in his glass and raised his eyebrows at me, as if to ask the question You don’t say? He then intently and meticulously put away his pipe without another word on the topic.


The story continues in The Gate is Small (Pt. 8)

1 C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory