While they went off to buy the oil, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Matthew 25: 10-13
It is difficult to read the parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel without being struck by a striking apparent inconsistency with other teachings of Jesus. We are well aware of the difficult teaching of Jesus that when someone asks us for our coat we are to give her or him our shirt as well. So, how is it that when the virgins without oil in their lamps ask the wise virgins for some of their oil, these commended virgins refuse? They refuse because, they say, that there is not enough oil to do so. Yet, Jesus, on the contrary, had drawn his disciples’ attention to the widow who gave “all she had to live on.”
It is important to point out that the parables are told to shed a unique insight into the nature of the Kingdom, so, it is perhaps not quite fair to compare them in this way. Yet, in this case, there is perhaps an important dimension of life in the Kingdom that we can draw out from the contrast. The parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel is a call to “stay awake.” It reminds us that aside from moments of sickness and crisis, it is easy for us to live as if we are immortal. Much of our life is lived in forgetfulness of our own true nature and the reality that everything is passing away. One of our greatest desires is for a permanence that does not exist, and so we create a false consciousness in which it does. We do this by filtering out those aspects of reality that trouble us, that remind us of our own mortality. In short, we live much of our lives asleep.
When Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his passion and death, his disciples keep falling asleep. The reality of the situation is far too much for them. They are unable to watch and pray. Even the physical and emotional presence of Jesus himself is not enough to keep them awake. There are things we can do to help and support each other, at the material and emotional levels. Yet, even Jesus cannot keep his disciples awake. Perhaps this is why when the unprepared virgins ask the wise virgins to give them some of their oil, the wise virgins reply: “No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.” (Matt. 25: 9) It is not due to selfishness that the oil is not shared; it is rather because it is impossible for us to keep another awake. That is something we can only do for ourselves, for which we alone are responsible.
In the northern hemisphere we are coming to the end of summer, the time when many of us take our vacations and, when possible, travel away from home. Precisely what makes vacation and travel significant for us is that it is an experience of breaking our routines and of “taking a break” from our habitual ways of living and acting. Yet, it seems a universal experience that after some days or weeks, we look forward to returning home and to getting back to our usual routines. In fact, I discover that if I am away for an extended period, I attempt to re-establish some kind of familiar and habitual ways of acting. Even in the most foreign of environments, I attempt to establish, even in small ways, some familiar and recognizable routines. For example, in our somewhat frequent visits to Kenya and Congo, I look forward to putting together my daily breakfast of coffee, bread, and peanut butter. The routines and habits we establish are necessary for us if we are to feel secure and comfortable enough in a world that is far too big and unpredictable for us. So, even after an enjoyable break from routine, we experience a longing to return to it.
It is precisely those routines and habits, however, that over time can put us to sleep. The necessary security thus becomes something of an illusion. We want and need to think that we can count on tomorrow’s being like it is today. It is more than a bit terrifying to remember, as Jesus says, that we “know neither the day nor the hour” of his coming.
So, the call to remain awake is a difficult one for us. It is a call to find our security within a consciousness that does not deny the contingency and impermanence of life.
One way that the spiritual traditions call us to awaken is by living more and more consciously in the present moment. Our infra-conscious, what is Freud’s unconscious, is rooted not in the present but in the past. It is the way we live in the world out of habit. It experiences life as a repetition of our past. And so, we have automatic judgments about every new person, situation, and thing. Living from the infra-conscious means that we interpret the demand of the present to us in light of our past experience. So, our response is inevitably repetitive and habitual. We are unable to recognize and so respond to whatever is different and new in the moment.
We are not only, however, our infra-conscious. We are also spirit and transcendence. At the level of spirit, we are able to attune to the reality of the present moment as new and different and to act in accordance with what it asks of us. We are a capacity to be available not only to the pulsations of our cultures, the impulses of our bodies, and the ambitions of our ego but also to the aspirations and inspirations of our spirits.
It is our difficulty in being awake that is the cause of much of the routinization and so diminishment of our relationships to those closest to us. It is of our very nature to take our experiences of the other to be the other, to fall asleep to the mysterious depth of those whom we see on a daily basis. The life seems to drain from our relationships because we come to live them repetitively. Occasionally something will happen, for example distance or illness or a crisis of any kind, that leads us to experience the other in a new and deeper way. The gospel today is a summons to learn to live that newness at all times. This is what Jesus means by calling us to “stay awake.”
What is deepest in us, our spiritual and transcendent dimension, is like the mustard seed or the leaven in the flour. It is very quiet and usually hidden. If we live only on the surface, we shall, like those without oil for their lamps, miss the the visitation of the Mystery in the moment. For the sake of a false security our lives will become routinized and lifeless. We shall live out Thoreau’s fear of passing one’s days without really living. Spiritual teachers from all the great traditions will tell us that we awaken as we practice living in the present moment. As Dainan Katagiri writes: “Each moment is the universe.”
Many years ago a brother, much beloved of many of us, died suddenly of a heart attack. Although it was sudden, it was not totally unexpected as he had suffered a very severe attack some years earlier. He died at his desk doing his work as the province treasurer. When a friend was informed of this brother’s death, his response was, “How good he could die while doing his work.” Each moment of our lives, be we active or ill, is a call to do the work that is ours to do at that moment. To be doing what we can with “all our heart and soul and mind and strength” is to be awake and fully present. It is also to be at rest in “the continuous flow of life energy.” Each moment is a summons to be and to give ourselves in the way only we can. We need not “defend” ourselves from the present moment, for we need not fear it. It is new and mysterious, but it is always beneficent. To have such a faith in the moment is what allows us to stay awake and to stand ready to respond to whatever it asks of us.
Taking care of right now is coping with an emergency case. So when a moment comes, whatever happens, just face your life as it really is, giving away any ideas of good or bad, and try your best to carry out what you have to do. You can do this; you can face your life with a calm mind and burn the flame of your life in whatever you do. This is Buddha’s practice. That’s why teachers always tell you to practice, devote yourself to doing something, and forget yourself. When you forget yourself and put your wholehearted effort into facing every moment, you can do something, and simultaneously you can rest in the continuous flow of life energy. Then you really enjoy your life.
Dainan Katagiri, Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time, loc. 438-441