The Word Embodied
“You do not know the hour.” (Mt 25:13)
Wisdom is unfading in splendor. She is found if she is sought. We must watch for her at dawn. “Whoever for her sake keeps vigils shall quickly he free from care.” Wisdom makes her rounds, gracious and solicitous.
What is Wisdom that we might learn from her? We all look for sound judgment and keen insight. We seek depth of mind for an anchor. We await days when, free of illusion and pretense, we will see things as they really are and discern the gifts worth cherishing.
Everybody values, but few value what is valuable. Wisdom is not so much knowing what one values as it is valuing something that is worthy of our care. We celebrate choice, but choices are a dime a dozen. What is rare is the wise choice.
As we approached the last few days, months, and years of the millennium, voices were raised, as if inspired by wisdom, announcing the “end times.” Readings from the gospels or letters like today’s to the Thessalonians were hauled out to predict the parousia, once again. Ears perked up, expectant for God’s trumpet and the archangel’s call. There were voices of prediction and perdition. Magazines ran articles on the Book of Revelation. Talk shows chattered about the “rapture.” Most of it was clap-trap, little of it wise.
We have a Gospel. It portrays ten bridesmaids, five of them foolish, five wise. The foolish ones have brought no oil reserve for their lamps, in case the first allotment runs out. The groom is late. Finally, he appears at midnight. The unprepared call out to the others, “Give us some oil.” But the provident tell the foolish to get their own. And so the chance is missed, the door barred, even as those left behind cry for opening. It is too late. The moral of the story: “Keep your eyes open, for you know not the day or the hour.”
There’s the wisdom. We never know the hour or the day. All ten bridesmaids, recall, were asleep. The difference was that five of them were prepared. The point is not that we should calculate when destiny might arrive. It is that we should be ready for it every moment of our lives.
Readings that deal with the “end times” are not prognostications of the future, even though, with the church’s year-end apocalyptic texts, we are reminded of the “four last things.” That can be instructive, yes; but it is far wiser to think of the things that last. It is a mistake to take such passages as occult predictions concerning the end of the world. It is far wiser to see them as a way to wisdom at the start of each day. Each day may be our last. The farewell we give might never be given again. We may not see another day.
To be wise, then, is not to calculate the time of departure. It is to spend the present moment—the waiting—well.
We rush through time to get things done. When we are not getting things done, we think we are wasting time. But the real waste of time is the way we rush through it. We may think we are active, but we are really inattentive. In hurrying to prepare ourselves for things not yet upon us, we are unprepared for what is here. And sooner or later, our gas runs out.
Almost ten years ago I made what I later thought was a foolish commitment. In a rash moment I volunteered to spend a year in Africa. Regretting my big mouth during the days following, this journey seemed to be the last thing I should do in my mid-forties, especially since I had so many other things to do, promises to keep, deadlines to make.
I had imagined myself vigilant and alert, so busy about the things of God and earth that I could barely keep up with life. A feeling of being “always rushed” had beset me. I began to resent the friends or students who would come to my door for talk, since they were taking up my time. (This was an ironic paradox: all I ever wanted was to “help” and be with people, the very gift that was getting on my nerves.)
I remember on the long trip, first to Australia and then over an endless sea to the coast of Africa, how I rued that impetuous act of volunteering. I had so much to do. And here I was letting a year of my life disappear in a village on the edge of Harare, Zimbabwe.
It took about a month for gracious and solicitous Wisdom to show her face. After weeks of quiet walks, gentle and unrushed conversations with Shona and Ndebele, fewer compulsions to keep up with news, sports, weather, and all the ephemeral opinion columns I daily consumed, Wisdom made her rounds to me—not when I was watching for her at dawn, but at the moment of a day’s dusk.
Sitting on a porch overlooking a valley unknown to and unmentioned by almost everyone in history, I beheld the meaning of a day. Freed, for a moment, by Wisdom from my cares, I felt the end times.
It was all opportunity. It is all now.
The last things are the lasting things: this moment of gratitude, this one gift of another breath, this particular person before me, this chance to hope, this hour to believe. It is all now.
Eternity is now. And God is with us. All that we need is to be alert.
At life’s end, no matter what the hour or day, we will only welcome the presence to whom, in our rare wise times, we have learned to be attentive.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University