Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 8, 2020
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In the legends about the life of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, there is a story about an encounter he had on the road soon after his enlightenment. A passerby noticed the Buddha’s radiance and peaceful presence. He asked the Buddha, “Are you a celestial being or a god?” “No,” the Buddha replied. “Are you some kind of wizard or magician?” “No,” he replied. “Are you a man?” “No,” he replied. “Then, pray, friend, what are you?” The Buddha replied, “I am awake.” From the moment I first received the gospel reading for today, I’ve been dying to tell this story. It captures in a simple, straightforward way what is for me the essential message of today’s reading from Matthew: BE AWAKE. I think it’s fair to say that most of us spend most of our waking life asleep and dreaming. We are either dreaming about the past, with regret for our failures or satisfaction with our successes, or we are dreaming about the future, dreading possible dangers or hoping for possible glories. Every so often we manage to wake up to the present moment and experience the richness of what is actually happening, and the richness of who we actually are. BE AWAKE. That is the basic message of my reflections this morning, in a nutshell. That’s it…but since I have some more minutes to fill, I want to unpack this message and look at what I think it means for us as Christians.
The story of the ten bridesmaids and their lamps is so wonderfully vivid and human. It is rich with suggestions and implications about the contemplative meaning of our spiritual lives as we are living them now. But this way of thinking about the story has not always been the case, at least not in my experience. When I was growing up in the pre-Vatican II Catholic church, this gospel story, and so many others, was interpreted in terms of the afterlife. The focus was always on where one would go after death, whether it would be to The Good Place or to The Bad Place. To “…keep awake…” meant to be vigilant about the state of one’s immortal soul, particularly whether one was in a state of grace or in a state of mortal sin. To “…know neither the day nor the hour…” meant that one might be snatched by God, that is, one might die, at any moment, and the consequences of the state of one’s soul would be either glorious or dire. Indeed, in general, the whole focus of my spiritual life in those days was not on this present life but on the future life after death. Everything I thought and did had spiritual significance only insofar as it bore on my destination in the life to come.
I imagine that for many of you listening this morning, this version of the spiritual life sounds pretty familiar. Indeed, in many quarters it continues to be the received view of what the Christian life is all about. And I suppose it’s pretty obvious what I will say next: I’m going to suggest a different way of interpreting this story. What I suggest is that we must keep awake to our present life…awake to how God is creating each of us right now. After all, what other life is there but what IS, right now…and now….and now? The past is a memory of something in the present. The future is something we imagine in the present. What is real is the creative edge of the present. The rest is all in our heads, you might say. The present is like the phloem in a tree trunk: the living layer that performs the life and growth of the tree; a thin layer of flowing life between the dead bark and dead heartwood. So the living present is happening between what no longer exists and what does not yet exist.
Our first reading today tells us that Holy Wisdom, the feminine face of God, “…will be found sitting at the gate.” The present, this moment, IS that gate. It is the gate that God, as Holy Wisdom, as Sophia, opens and enters our lives. This does not happen as a result of our own efforts. Curiously (and usually frustratingly), our thinking or saying or doing something to make God break into our life pretty much ensures that it won’t happen. It’s not up to us. It’s up to God. All we can do is cultivate an attitude, a stance, of openness, acceptance, and welcoming to whatever arises in our experience…in the present. The practice of faithfully cultivating this attitude is to pray without ceasing, as St. Paul enjoins us elsewhere in his first letter to the Thessalonians. This injunction was taken to heart by the earliest Christian monks in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, and a practice of ceaseless prayer was developed. That practice was passed to the Western church through the writings of John Cassian, and had a particular effect on Benedict of Nursia, without whom, of course, I would not be standing in this place and speaking these words today.
So, I want to draw together the threads of these reflections by drawing on the spirit and tradition of St. Benedict. I am going be so bold as to the say that my simple message today–BE AWAKE TO THE PRESENT MOMENT–this simple message is an expression of three foundational principles of the Benedictine life that have had great meaning for me on my spiritual journey: the principles of stability, humility, and continual conversion.
Being fully awake to the present is a deep inner realization of stability. It is the recognition that there isn’t anywhere to go. We expend a lot of energy figuring out how to get “there,” when, all the time, the real work is in learning how to get “here.” Here is where everything is happening. Here is where God is, sitting at the gate, waiting for us to awaken to Her eternal presence. There isn’t anywhere else to be.
Being fully awake to the present is a deep expression of humility. It is the acceptance of things as they are. It is accepting that there is only THIS, right here, right now. There is nothing else that is happening but what is happening in the present. It may not be what we had in mind, but it is what is real, it is what is true. This embracing of reality–this humility–engenders the kind of clear seeing that underpins all skillful, compassionate action in our lives. Without it, we are sleepwalking, dreaming either the past or the future.
Finally, there is the principle of continual conversion of life. Being fully awake to the present is a deep expression of openness to change. Even more significantly, it is an expression of our openness to being changed, as the Benedictine oblate, Rachel Srubas, has so brilliantly reframed this Benedictine principle. This is an openness to how we are being created, in this moment; created not by the force of our own will, but by our life, and by God, who is the center and source of our unfolding life.
As the Book of Wisdom tells us today, “She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.” Through our stability, humility, and openness to being changed, we express this desire. Awake here, now, we welcome Her coming through the gate of our Hearts, though we know neither the day nor the hour.