‘WHAT’S MY PROCRUSTEAN BED?’ (Mk 2:23-28): 22 January 2008 (Tuesday)
Procrustes–literally, “stretcher”–was a thief and murderer in the myth of Theseus. He victimized travelers who were on their way to Athens by offering them shelter. He claimed to have a mysterious bed that would fit a guest of any size. It turned out that his claim was true because he either stretched the guests or cut their limbs to make them fit into his bed, in the process, torturing and killing them.
The term “procrustean bed” obviously originates from this story. It refers to anything that is considered absolute so that one forces everything to conform to it.
In the gospel today, the Lord exposes the procrustean bed of the Pharisees. They criticize him and his disciples for allegedly violating the the so-called law of the Sabbath, which honors the Creation of the world in six days by prohibiting work on the seventh day. But the spirit behind the law is not so much to prohibit work on the Sabbath per se, but to protect people from being overworked. The Pharisees insist on adhering to the letter of the law so much that they miss its point completely.
And so our Lord reminds them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, this law, as well as all the other laws and rules of Judaism, shouldn’t be treated as a procrustean bed, an absolute that people should conform to at all cost and even at their expense. The gospel reports many other similar clashes between our Lord and the Pharisees. Our Lord also gets flak when he heals on a Sabbath–as though it is more important to follow the prohibition of work than to ease the pain of a suffering person.
We all have our favorite procrustean beds, whether we know it or not–and whether we like it or not. These are absolutes–or “should’s”–that operate in our lives. For example, a man may be unconsciously looking for an ideal whenever he enters into a relationship. Perhaps he is looking for someone who is just like his mother, so when a woman turns out to be different and fails to meet these unconscious expectations, the relationship fails. Or someone may be fixated with a particular chapter in her life, and for her this past has become her procrustean bed for happiness. And so she refuses to be happy with anything else that doesn’t fit into that particular conception of a “happy life.”
Procrustean beds have a way of channeling our vision and shaping our decisions. And so it’s crucial that we have the right procrustean beds, the right set of absolutes and “should’s” against which we measure the people and things in our lives. If we don’t have the right should’s, we may end up like the Pharisees, myopic and off the mark–and even quite miserable.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, tells us that we have all been created for only one absolute value–one procrustean bed, if you wish: the love and service of God. Only this one absolute value is big enough for our dreams and desires. Only this ideal will stretch us, so to speak. If we choose anything else, we will unwittingly be reducing ourselves to something much less than what we have been created for and born for.
Today let’s ask ourselves: “What’s my procrustean bed?” Today is a time as good as any to examine the “should’s” that operate in the different areas in our lives. Are they the right absolutes? If we’re not careful, we may discover that we’ve been sleeping in the wrong bed.
(image: from theprocrustesfoundation.org)
Now, here is a Quick Question for YOU: “What do you think is your procrustean bed? Does it tend to stretch you or limit you?” Think about it, and feel free to share any thought, feeling, or question.