A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Eye of the Needle

by Anne Kerrigan

Yes, I tell you again, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven Matthew 19:24.

On a recent visit to my home, my ten-year-old grandson Tommy said, “Grandma, your house is so big!” Tommy has often been in my home, and we have regular “sleepovers.” I don’t remember him ever commenting on the size of the house. As I recall the incident, Tommy had been running up and down the stairs, and I think, at that moment, the stairs captivated him. Actually, my house is a modest one, having been built during the 1960s housing development boom on Long Island. It is a traditional front to back split-level, with a small set of stairs going upstairs and another going downstairs. It is an eight room house with modest-sized rooms, four small bedrooms, and situated on a quarter acre plot of land. It is a virtual ‘cookie cutter’ copy of thousands of similar houses all over Long Island. Tommy lives just a few minutes away in a ranch style house which is roughly the same size as my house, minus the stairs. His comment precipitated a profound flashback for me.

I grew up in the Kingsbridge area of the Bronx, in a very small three-room apartment with my parents and four siblings. When a new arrival was expected, we were fortunate that a larger apartment became available. Eventually, we had a five room apartment for a total of nine of us, seven children and my parents. We always played in the streets because the apartments were small, and almost everyone had large families. The living arrangements were tight, but we all managed because we knew nothing else.

When my husband and I married, we moved to another very similar and quite small fifth floor, three-room apartment. As Yogi Berra, the New York Yankee quipster, once said, “It’s déjà vu, all over again!” We were again living in an apartment very much like the one in which we had both grown up. Actually, there was little choice in the neighborhood since the apartments were basically all the same with choice limited to availability and finances. As time went by, that cute apartment became more cramped with the arrival of two young children and all the paraphernalia which accompanied them. It was then that the American dream took hold, and we aspired to more than cramped quarters in a tiny apartment. Upward mobility became the goal, and my husband and I scrimped and saved, scrimped and saved, until we were finally able to manage the down payment on a house.

Tommy’s remark immediately catapulted me back to the day I first moved into that house, over fifty years ago. I never knew anyone who owned a house, and I couldn’t believe that I had actually just become a homeowner. Now, here I was, waiting in my new home for the movers to arrive. I specifically recall thinking that the house looked like a gigantic mansion, a castle. I was in awe, overcome with the enormity of the house. “What have we done?” I thought. Such luxury was only for rich people, not for people like me. I was totally and absolutely panicked as I waited for the moving truck to arrive.

Yet, over the course of the years, still scrimping, we ultimately filled the house with five children, foster children, furniture, gardening equipment, tools, a shed, outdoor furniture, and a million other miscellaneous items. The gigantic mansion didn’t seem so gigantic any more. In fact, at times, it seemed as if we were scrambling for space! Even now, with all the children grown up and on their own, the house doesn’t seem large to me.

What has happened? I had a wonderful, happy childhood, crammed into a small apartment, with my parents and siblings, and now my eight-room house feels just barely adequate. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the gargantuan edifice I had once thought it was. Tommy’s observation made me think deeply about my paradigm shift with regard to housing and all that it entails. Tommy thought I had a very large house, but it did not seem so large to me. Had I forgotten the small apartments which were so much a part of my life? Have I forgotten what is was like to be without the extra amenities of life which contribute to a solid middle-class life style? The questions kept coming at me as I considered the paradigm shift in my own thinking. 

To be clear, I have always been involved in ministerial work in my parish. Serving others has always been a mainstay of my spiritual journey. But now, I started to wonder if I had become too contented, too ensconced in my comfortable lifestyle which blinded me from seeing that there was still more to be done. Often, the good gets in the way of the best. Because I am aware of the needs of others, perhaps I immediately stopped listening to the particular biblical challenges which attempt to remind me of my need to respond to others, thinking those messages did not apply to me. I am embarrassed that I possibly discounted those challenges because I felt as if I had already responded to them! As scripture asks, “Who is more blind? He who will not see or he who does not see?” It is apparently very easy to become comfortable with sincere ministerial efforts without really considering if there is more that I can do at this moment in time.

Aristotle, Francesco Hayez,
1811, Academy of Venice

Suddenly, the passage from Matthew’s gospel about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get to heaven made total sense to me. Jesus was not talking against the rich or against having money. I think he might have been referring to how easy it is to forget the poor and needy when you are living a comfortable life style. How much do I really need? Or is it just that I want certain things, and that gets in the way of my helping others? It is too easy to expect others to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps when we have already been helped up, either by our own family good fortune, by another person helping us, or by sheer good luck. Malcolm Muggeridge, the great British journalist and author, once said, “Every happening great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.” When Tommy made that comment about my large house, it was a graced moment for me. I feel as if God was speaking to me, encouraging me to look deeper into myself. Thankfully, I was listening. I am now much more aware of the needs of others, and I plan to respond accordingly in whatever way I can. Hopefully, Tommy or someone or something else, will keep reminding me of that sacred obligation to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”   

The good man thinks it is more blessed to give than to receive. Aristotle, 384-322 BC, Greek philosopher

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