When the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man not wearing a wedding garment. And he said to him: “Friend, how did you come in here, not having a wedding garment?” But he was silent. Then the king said to the waiters: “Tie him up hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness outside. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth there. For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Matthew 22: 11-14
After getting by the textual problem in today’s gospel of how someone late invited to a wedding banquet is punished for not having the appropriate dress, we can appreciate the teachings of each of the two parts of Matthew’s parable. The first is about accepting or rejecting the invitation to the banquet; the second makes the point, according to the scripture scholar Daniel Harrington, “that it is not enough to show up at the banquet; one must be prepared to enter into the banquet as a full participant” (The Gospel of Matthew, p. 308).
Although Woody Allen says that 90% of life is just showing up, the gospel makes clear that this is not the case for sharing in the banquet. Having made the commitment to follow Jesus, each of us must be “a full participant.” The Xaverian Fundamental Principles summon us to recommit ourselves daily to this participation.
You have responded to the invitation:
Come follow me.
Day by day
you will need to renew your response.
Do not become discouraged
over the difficulties you encounter
in your life of evangelical service.
Knowing that difficulties would be your share, your Founder judged:
that nothing special is achieved
without much labor, effort and zeal.
Recently, I heard a story on public radio concerning Nancy Frates, the mother of Peter Frates, a young man now living the late stages of ALS. From the first diagnosis of Pete’s illness, he exhorted his family not to sit around and wallow but to commit themselves to the work of increasing awareness and concern about the disease and those who suffered with it. One result of their effort has been the now famous “ice bucket challenge” which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for ALS research and has led to an initial breakthrough in understanding the protein lacking in the brains of those afflicted by the disease. During the interview Nancy Frates, when asked how she has managed to give her life so fully to this work, said that every morning she recommits herself to do everything she can for love of her son and the good of others. She pointed out that it is always an option to curl up in bed and pull the covers over her head, paralyzed by sadness and self-pity. Instead, however, she makes a deliberate and focal choice to spend the moments of her day otherwise.
It is not enough to show up at the banquet, one must be prepared to enter into it as a full participant. The great obstacle to deeper life and love in my own life is an ever-present tending towards passivity. It is the pull of what the Desert Fathers and Mothers called acedia. Evagrius Ponticus speaks of the monk’s being assaulted by “the noonday demon,” who strikes him with boredom and leads him to lookout his window and to walk about outside his cell looking to see what the other monks are doing. Although looking out the window, literally or figuratively, to see what others are doing remains today a manifestation of our struggle with acedia, we have so many other ways to numb our feelings of sadness and boredom. Even at moments of work, prayer or reading, the ring tone of an incoming email summons me to assuage my curiosity rather than to remain committed to the task at hand.
It is hard work to enter deeply, as Nancy Frates does, the full reality of life and to find in the passions of our heart the impetus to love and to serve. That, in part, is because the deepest work and call only comes out of a fully open and engaged heart. To live from the heart requires that we be willing to experience pain, loss, disappointment, and discouragement. To not become discouraged, as the Fundamental Principles exhort us, requires a willingness to feel discouragement, and all else that a vulnerable, loving, and fearful heart goes through. As Nancy Frates, we need to realize that to draw the blinds and curl up in bed (or to watch more television, surf more internet, or fall into our particular modes of addictive behavior) is always an option. To wear a wedding garment, however, is to summon at such moments the “labor, effort, and zeal” that will keep us full participants at the banquet. It is to “do something” rather than to fall into a discouraged and depressed passivity. We know the experience of faith, hope, and love in our choosing to face the call and task of the moment, even in the midst of the desire to avoid it.
The demon of acedia — also called the noonday demon — is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.
Evagrius Ponticus, Praktikos, 12