The first reading from the book of Wisdom has always been a favorite of mine; what it reveals is that if one lacks wisdom, it is because one simply does not want it: “She [wisdom] hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire; Whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed, for he shall find her sitting by his gate.”
The fundamental problem with human beings is not that they lack knowledge. The problem is that a great many people simply don’t want to know. Many people have given up the search for truth and the pursuit of wisdom, because they know what they want, and what they want just might conflict with the truth, so they do not seek to discover whether what they want is truly good and in accordance with God’s will. In short, they don’t care. There’s an old adage: “There are none so blind as those who will not see”, that is, those who choose not to see for fear of what they might discover.
The Second Reading assures us that Christ will come again and that he will judge the living and the dead. And the gospel is about preparing for that Second Coming of Christ, for the return of the Bridegroom. The five foolish virgins or Bridesmaids did not prepare properly for the coming of the Bridegroom. They did not take with them flasks of oil to light their lamps in the darkness. They were not concerned with keeping the flame alive, the flame of charity, the divine love that spreads out towards our neighbor, a love that is a light in the darkness. This life is about preparing for eternal life, and we prepare by allowing ourselves to be ignited by the fire of the Holy Spirit, and by actively preserving that flame through a life of prayer, regular confession, spiritual reading, and works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal.
If we look at the various stages of human development, we see that every stage is a preparation for the subsequent stage, which in turn is a preparation for the stage that comes after, and so on. When we enter this world for the first time, we are babies. Now the life of a baby is totally centered on himself. He screams when he’s hungry, is satisfied when he’s fed, and he needs to be constantly amused. He is completely dependent upon another, and it is only gradually that he realizes the world outside of him is not an extension of himself. The baby is the very center of his world.
The toddler stage is different; his interests have changed. He knows the world is distinct from himself and his thinking is influenced by fantasy, that is, by the way he’d like things to be. The child believes that others see the world from his viewpoint. The child takes in information, but he then changes it in his mind to fit his ideas (fantasies). A little girl will personalize things, like a toy train or truck, laying it down for a nap, covering it with a blanket, etc. The child knows the toy not as it is in itself, but as she wants it to be.
What happens to the child at this age is inevitably interpreted in reference to himself or herself. The child thinks egocentrically—and that’s natural, a normal part of being a child. So unfortunately, if a child is being abused, in the child’s mind, it is his or her fault. He or she is not capable of thinking otherwise.
But in adolescence, things are very different. What once interested the child is no longer interesting when the child reaches adolescence. His and her body is beginning to change; he or she is beginning to experience a new feeling, namely a kind of eros (the crush, or the experience of falling in love). There is a sexual awakening, and so there is a greater preoccupation with one’s appearance. Some of my students admit that they spend hours on their hair every day. And adolescence is a very difficult period because he or she wants greater independence, which characterizes adulthood, but at the same time it is difficult to give up old habits; they don’t want the responsibilities that belong to adulthood, and rightly so. They cling to the irresponsibility of childhood. The difficulties of adolescence are a result of being pulled in two directions: the adult world expects greater responsibility, but there remains a preoccupation with the self. Although this preoccupation with the self is not as intense as that of the baby or the toddler, it is nevertheless relatively self-centered—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is simply part of that stage of development.
But what is the adolescent body preparing for? The bodily changes have to do with fertility. The sexual awakening is a preparation for parenthood. She is beginning to ovulate, his body is producing sperm. Adolescence is ordered towards adulthood or parenthood. But the life of a parent is not centered on the self, but on another, namely the child. And just as the adolescent no longer delights in what the child finds amusing, the adult no longer delights in what he or she once found amusing in adolescence—unless of course we are dealing with an adult who is stuck in adolescence, and there are many. A parent whose maturity level has grown along with the development of his or her body will find parenthood delightful, despite its difficulties. There is great joy in loving and raising a child, because there is great joy in loving others for their own sake. But such joy has to be discovered by actually making that commitment and sacrifice. It’s not like trying a new dish in order to see if one likes it.
So what we see when we look at these stages from a bird’s eye view is that there is a gradual transition from self-centeredness to greater selflessness, a gradual emancipation from the self. Human development moves from the most self-centered existence to a gradual turning outside the self to focusing one’s life around another or others.
Parenting, of course, does not last forever. The children eventually grow up and leave home. However, by this point, the adult should have discovered that this life has something to do with learning to love and that the greatest joys in this life are the joys of loving others selflessly, above all loving the Great Other (God) selflessly. Our purpose here is to prepare for eternal life, which is the joy of complete selfless love within the very heart of the Trinity. The Trinity is a divine community of knowledge and love.
The life of post-parenthood, then, ought to continue the progression, and so it ought to be a life of service to others, service to a community wider than one’s immediate family. This is the time above all to prepare for eternal life, not the time to revert to an earlier stage through a life of leisure and ease. During retirement, one is certainly not going to work to the same extent as one did throughout one’s life, but with the more time that one has, one ought to use it for the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The problem today is many people think it’s the time to retire to a leisurely life in Florida or the tropics. They fail to realize that this life is about preparing for the coming of the Bridegroom.
There’s an old theological maxim: grace perfects nature. We see this clearly in this case. Divine grace moves us to love the Lord in the suffering, the despised, and the needy of this world. Christ loves the downtrodden and the poor of this world so much that he identifies himself with them. He becomes them, so that what we do for them we do for him, and our treatment of them is the measure of our love for him. When we respond to divine grace, we actually do what our deepest nature already demands of us and gradually prepares us for, if we cooperate with that development.
Next week’s gospel will clearly illustrate that the Lord loves the poor so much that he identifies with them, to the point of becoming them, but his doing so is also a result of his love for us who are not so poor, oppressed, and engulfed in suffering. You see, if we love others, we want them to be better than us, higher than us, greater than us. A proud man will not allow himself to be dependent upon another; an envious man does not want the other to be in a better position than himself. But Jesus is not proud and he is not envious. He descends into the very life of the suffering and the poor so that we who are not poor and suffering can know the joy of serving him (Christ) who makes himself dependent upon our service. He decreases so that we may choose to descend to him and love him, so that he may look up to us, so to speak, and that he may have an excuse to reward us with riches beyond our ability to imagine. That’s how great our God is.
But just as university life is difficult if one has not properly prepared for it, or running a marathon is painful if one has not properly prepared for it, so too will death be a very difficult ordeal if one has not used this life to prepare for eternal life. A lady who worked with the dying once told me: “Generally speaking, people die as they live”. She said that if you live without God, you’ll die without God; there are very few death bed conversions. And I’ve noticed over the years that among the dying, the ones who have cultivated a rich interior, through a life of prayer and worship, are the ones with joy in their eyes despite their having to deal with the infirmities of old age. And that is why St. Vincent de Paul is able to say:
O my sister, when the hour of death comes, what a comfort it will be to you that you have spent your life for the object to which Jesus Christ gave His: for charity, for God, for the poor. If you realized your own good fortune you would be overflowing with happiness; in doing what you do you fulfill the law and the prophets, which command us to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. What greater proof of love is possible than to give oneself altogether, all one is and all one does, for the saving and the comforting of the unhappy? In that way lies perfection. See to it that your own love is united with your gift of grace, that you surrender to the good pleasure of God, working and suffering in all things by the same motive for which our Lord worked and suffered.