The center of the Sistine Chapel depicts an image that has been over-utilized to the point of becoming a cliché. Nonetheless, its meaning is still worth 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, recoils. His hand droops. His body language spells “retreat”. Simply stated, he does not stretch.
The 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 capacity to say “no”. When it is not stretched, it remains at its lowest potential, and is as shapeless as an amoeba. The celebrate Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” would never have been written except for a bit of stretching. “Musical ideas sprang from my mind like a flight of butterflies,” wrote 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 comprise his Summa Theologiae. First, he reminds us that “God destines us for an end” (homo ordinatur a Deo). We must recognize the reality of this end, therefore, “before we can stretch out and exert ourselves for it.” If there is no end, what would be the point of stretching? The realization of an end awakens and mobilizes us. It bids us to stretch.
Walter Farrell, O. P. and Martin J. Healy, in their simplified version of the Summa, embellish Aquinas’ statement by making a distinction between the will and the body: “The road that stretches before the feet of a man is a challenge to his heart long 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, one 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 law of gravity.
Robert Browning theologized stretching when he said that “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” He would have happily endorsed the message of Aquinas’ opening article. Metaphors stretch the mind. Paul Whiteman, who conducted the premier of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” said that while “jazz tickles your muscles, symphonies stretch your soul.”
We need to stretch because we are going some place. Yet, Adamic lethargy still haunts us. We withdraw, curl up into ourselves, and try to enjoy a life of comfort. Hence the popularity of “Lazy-Boy” recliners from which perch one can watch endless re-runs of Seinfeld episodes (which are about nothing), slowly morph into a “couch potato”, and expire from “mad couch disease”.
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, his arms to embrace someone he loved, or his mind to brush with infinity. A life of comfort is a life unlived.
E dolce far niente (It is sweet to do nothing), say the Italians. The Spaniards go one better: “It is sweet to do nothing and then to rest afterwards.” But inactivity leads to atrophy. Too much comfort becomes decidedly uncomfortable.
Though we are horrified to have visible stretch marks, spiritual stretch marks may be witnesses to our salvation. “Where are your stretch marks?”, God will ask. You can’t get to heaven on a stretcher. In order to get beyond the pearly gates we must do our own stretching.
“An adventure is the voluntary acceptance of discomfort,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. What greater adventure is there that we can embark upon than our 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.
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