The road to hell is paved with…good intentions.
We’ve all heard that, right?
Do you know where it comes from?
(It’s OK no one else does either)
It’s often attributed to Samuel Johnson, whom Boswell quoted as saying, “Sir, hell is paved with good intentions.” [source]
It’s also attributed to St. Bernard of Clarivaux, the 12th century French leader of the Cistercian religious order, who is reported to have said, “hell is full of good intentions and wishes.” [source]
It’s possible that it came from a line in the book of Ecclesiasticus, “The way of sinners is made plain with stones, but at the end thereof is the pit of hell.” (Ecclesiasticus, a.k.a. Sirach 21:10).
That actually reminds me of that great image that Jesus uses…the two paths…the broad and easy one that leads to destruction, and the narrow and difficult one that leads to salvation (Matthew 7: 13-14). A broad, easy path is probably paved, or “made plain with stones”. Paving stones are easy to walk over…The narrow path undoubtedly has stones too, but probably ones that you have to climb over…or that you stumble over.
In truth, like all proverbs, “the road to hell being paved with good intentions” it’s just plain common sense developed over years of seeing people mean well…and trying to do the right thing…and missing the mark…failing, falling on their faces, and doing serious damage.
We all know that bad things can come out of the very best of intentions.
As we walk our spiritual paths, we know that we’re supposed to take the narrow, more difficult path…the one with the jagged rocks, the low-hanging branches and the gnarled roots…the one that’s not well marked, and sort of disappears off the edge of the map…the one less-travelled. We know that’s the one we’re supposed to take…the one we have every good intention of taking…
And we know that we’re wrong about things…we miss the mark…and we often find ourselves on those main-travelled roads. The easy ones…the paved ones…following the trends and fashions and news cycle of the day…following the devices and desires of our own hearts. And we know that we need to be intentional about returning.
But I want to shift the metaphor slightly. Because, we never take these paths all by ourselves, we travel with one another, and the path we are trying to walk was walked by others before us—and we maybe don’t spend time thinking about them—and we also don’t often don’t stop to consider the path we ourselves are making…for those who come after us.
I mean, a path is made by walking… over and over and over. We walk the path that others have made…and we need to pay attention to who we are following. Is it Jesus, and the disciples…and other Jewish ancestors of our faith (Esther, for example), the saints and martyrs…the faithful…That great cloud of witnesses…? Or are we following others?
We need to be aware of whom we are following…and we also need to be aware of those who are following us, and ask…what kind of path are we making for them? To put it another way: Those up ahead and around us…are they paving the way to destruction, are they causing us to stumble? Or are they leading us into life and wholeness? And are we becoming paving stones that lead others to perdition, are we stumbling blocks for those around us? Or are we actively working at being built into living stones, a dwelling place for God?
On the table are Living Stones prayer journals. I hope you’ll take one for each of your family units. These prayer journals have been prepared by the Stewardship Committee who are asking us to use them to reflect on this theme of becoming a living stone. The prayer journal is organized around the feast days of the saints between now and All Saints (which we’ll celebrate on Nov. 4). There are 21 entries between now and then (so not quite one a day). Each entry has a prayer for the Saint and a reflection written by one of your fellow travelers. I encourage you to take one, and spend some time on the appointed days reflecting on the life of the saint, the lives of the people who wrote the reflection, the lives of the hundreds of people who come to this place during the week…for refreshment, and community, and transformation. And also reflect on the lives of those who are not yet here…the ones who are seeking a path…the ones not yet born to their own path. Take some time with this journal and do what James encourages you to do today…pray with it. Let God speak to you through it. And reflect on the kind of path that you want your life to be…the kind of path that this place has been for you—a thin place, a holy place—and reflect on the kind of path you’d like to see it continue being—a place of light, and hope, and meaning.
Here’s another piece of proverbial wisdom that you might not be as familiar with, but it’s just as catchy. “Only transformed people transform people.”
I often attribute that to Franciscan monk and teacher Richard Rohr, but I don’t know if that line is original to him or not (I intend to find out one day…).
We see the truth of this every day…when people who are deeply—sometimes aggressively—un-self-refelctive try to force things to happen…exert their own will on a situation “for everyone’s good.” We know it’s true that we can do more harm than good, when we go off—with very good intentions—but have not really been transformed in our own heart—“we saw someone doing something in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” We know the truth of this when we expect to change other people—when we are the ones who still need to be changed, first. Something about taking the logs in our own eyes first…we need to be transformed people so that we are not stumbling blocks for others.
I encourage you to use this time between now and All Saints to use this tool, and dedicate some time to reflecting on the path that these folks have laid out for us. Reflect on the differences between paving stones, and stumbling-blocks (of which there are more than enough of in this world), and the living stones that we are called to become, so that those who follow us might have a path as well… A path to life, and wholeness. A path of love and hope and faith. A path that walks with God and towards God’s dream of a reconciled creation.