The Moral Significance of Stretching
COMMENTARY: Humanity has a date with destiny but can meet it only by dint of our own heroic stretching.
In the center of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is an image that has been overused to the point of becoming a cliché. Nonetheless, its meaning remains worthy of revisiting, for it encapsulates the central drama between God and man.
An energetic God-the-Creator thrusts his hand toward a reclining Adam. His intended beneficiary, however, does not accept it. His hand droops. His body language spells retreat. One can easily imagine an electric spark crossing the space between the two hands. Will man accept God’s blessings or will he prefer to live by his own resources?
That image begs a further example: A rubber band is useful only when it stretches. It is a most obedient and practical servant. It has the wonderful capacity of being enlarged. Unlike Adam, it does not have the ability to say No. When it is not stretched, it remains at its lowest potential, and is as shapeless as an amoeba.
To that end, the celebrated Bach-Gounod Ave Maria would not have been written except for a bit of stretching. “Musical ideas sprang from my mind like a flight of butterflies,” wrote Charles Gounod, “and all I had to do was to stretch out my hand to catch them.”
St. Thomas Aquinas explains why stretching is of prime importance in the very first of the 631 articles that compose the Summa Theologiae. “Man is directed to God, as to an end, he reminds us.” In order to reach this end, man must do a bit of stretching. If there were no end, there would be no urgency to stretch. But the realization of an end awakens and mobilizes us. It bids us to stretch.
Dominican Father Walter Farrell and Martin Healy, in their simplified version of the Summa, add to Aquinas’ statement when they write, “The road that stretches before the feet of a man is a challenge to his heart before it tests the strength of his legs.” We must choose to stretch before we engage in the actual process of stretching.
The rubber band, when stretched, exhibits a tension. One force causes the stretching; the elasticity of the band provides a counterforce that bids it back to rest. There are times when, being forced to stretch, all we want to do is to return to our comfort zone, which is also the level of our lowest potential. It is most tempting to surrender to the force of gravity.
Robert Browning theologized stretching when he said that “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Metaphors stretch the mind. The halfway house along the way is a rest stop, not a point of termination. Paul Whiteman, who conducted the premier of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, stated that while “jazz tickles your muscles, symphonies stretch your soul.”
Baseball has its “seventh-inning stretch,” which gives its fans a chance to get a little exercise after sitting on hard benches for two hours or so. Exercise, itself, is voluntary stretching that improves our blood circulation. It redeems the sin of being stationary which, as in life, hinders our social circulation. Stretching that comes in the home half of the seventh inning may not be mandatory, but it is a cherished tradition that has become immensely popular. In many ballparks it is set to music. It is a momentary victory of stretching over sitting. At Fenway Park in Boston, for instance, it features a fan chorus set to the music of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.
We need to stretch because we are destined to reach our end, which is not given to us automatically. Yet, Adam still haunts us. We withdraw, curl up into ourselves, and try to enjoy a life of undemanding comfort. Hence the popularity of recliners from which one can watch endless reruns of Seinfeld episodes (a show about “nothing”) and slowly morph into a “couch potato” and expire from “mad couch disease.”
“It is sweet to do nothing (E dolce far niente),” say the Italians. The Spaniards go one better: “It is sweet to do nothing and then rest afterward.” But inactivity leads to atrophy and the profound regret that one has wasted time and opportunity. Too much comfort makes a person decidedly uncomfortable.
The saddest epitaph that would mark the end of vanished opportunities would be that one did not stretch his hand to help others in times of need, or stretch his legs to accompany others on their journey, or stretch his mind to better understand the meaning of life, or stretch his heart to love his neighbor. The unencumbered life is a life that is not lived.
“An adventure is the voluntary acceptance of discomfort,” wrote G.K. Chesterton. What greater adventure can there be than to embark on that journey back to God? Adam took a rather circuitous route because he was, at the outset, reluctant to stretch and meet God halfway. We have been forewarned. Therefore, we should know better. We have a date with destiny and cannot meet it in a “stretch limo,” but only by dint of our own heroic stretching.
- thomas aquinas
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