‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. ~~ Matthew 25:1-13.
Like all parables, the Parable of the Bridesmaids has many interpretations. When I read this passage, my focus is always on “what does Jesus really mean about being awake?” Jesus talks at times about watchfulness, and being awake – this is far from the only time that this comes up. St. Hesychios the Priest (from the Philokalia) has some interesting thoughts on watchfulness:
Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if sedulously practiced over a long period, completely frees us: with God’s help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions. It leads, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and helps us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries. It enables us to fulfill every divine commandment in the Old and New Testaments and bestows upon us every blessing of the age to come. It is, in the true sense, purity of heart, a state blessed by Christ when He says: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt. 5:8); … Because this is its nature, watchfulness is to be bought only at a great price. But once established in us, it guides us to a true and holy way of life.
So what does this mean in our lives? What does it mean to be watchful? What is this “method” St. Hesychios speaks of? Watchfulness isn’t staying awake all night, or isn’t really about making sure your lamps have oil (or your smartphone’s battery is charged, which is the modern equivalent, perhaps.) Watchfulness is cultivating that state of wakefulness and awareness. And that state of wakefulness is when your inner observer is awake, the one who can notice and be aware of your emotions, but not be attached or identified with them. It’s when you can act from compassion, or through the Spirit, instead of acting out of fear or greed. This is the state when we are most open to God’s wisdom, when we can see clearly, speak clearly, and act clearly.
I talk a lot about cultivation when I talk about practice, and here it is again. Watchfulness is cultivating our minds and hearts through practice, to prepare our own ground, so that God’s seeds of compassion and joy can grow and flower.
Yesterday, when I got up in the morning, I was stressed out and grumpy. And I spent 10 or 15 minutes explaining to myself why I shouldn’t be grumpy. I should be thankful that this thing is true, or that other thing is true, that I don’t have to do that thing, or that other thing. And as I was watching myself justify to myself all of the myriad ways my life could be worse, and thinking about all of the myriad problems that I didn’t have, I realized something important: I was crowding out grace.
So first, what kind of grace am I talking about? I’m talking about that miraculous quality of the Holy, allowing us to see more clearly the reality of the moment, and the power to allow what is to just be. And then, just when you don’t expect it, joy comes around the corner, right after grace has been by.
But allowing room for grace has to be cultivated, because there are all sorts of things that can get in our way. Just like I did yesterday, even things that might seem helpful at first – finding ways to be thankful for what we have, can be counterproductive. I was so busy telling myself that I shouldn’t feel grumpy and stressed, that I stayed grumpy and stressed until I just let myself feel grumpy and stressed. Because its totally OK to feel grumpy and stressed, or sad, or angry, or anxious. And when we allow ourselves to just feel how we feel, when we get rid of all of that stuff that tells us how we shouldn’t feel, we allow room for grace. What’s important about this is that allowing ourselves to feel how we are feeling means that we’re actually better at dealing with it. We’re better at acknowledging what’s real, but not acting out of it.
So now to the cultivation part – how do we cultivate room for grace? I know one way, although I know there are others. Cultivating room for grace involves a number of things. It involves cultivating our ability to notice – cultivating our awareness. It also involves cultivating our willingness to let the Spirit work within us. We can do this through silent prayer, or other practices. Those practices help us to quiet our minds, they open the door to God, and they allow us, over time, to get better and better at leaving room for grace.
Transformation is a word that gets bandied about a lot, especially in New Age circles. And you might have filed it away as “woo woo” or not applicable to you, or even, perhaps heretical. The kind of transformation that I am talking about is relevant to you – it’s especially relevant to anyone who takes following the words of Jesus seriously. If you want to find joy, live a life full of love and compassion, or really follow Jesus, you need transformation.
OK, so now I’ve convinced you to at least read a while longer. How is it that I am defining transformation? Here it is, in less than 140 characters: Transformation is a process, and it allows us to increasingly live in the moment in the presence of the Holy. You can’t be a real peacemaker without transformation. You can’t love God with all of your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself without transformation.
So what gets in the way? Why is it that we need transformation? Some might call it ego, others call it the “false self”, some might invoke Satan (I won’t, though.) There are a lot of ways to talk about the things that get in the way. Living in the past, and worrying about the future. Identifying with our emotions, so we act out of them, instead of acting out of love and compassion. What the Buddhists call the “Three Poisons” which will be familiar to anyone as obstacles to living with love: greed, hatred and delusion.
Transformation is possible. It takes determination, it takes faith, and it even takes doubt. And there are many ways to put yourself on the path to transformation. Just about every spiritual tradition has a path you can trod. But, of course, I’m all about just one of the many – the contemplative path. That’s what everything here is about, really. Tools in the Christian contemplative tradition to help you transform, and live a life with love and in the presence of God.
From the introduction to the Philokalia:
[T]his path is open to all to follow, each to the best of his or her ability and whatever the circumstances under which he or she lives. Indeed, in this respect the distinction between the monastic life and life ‘in the world’ is but relative: every human being, by virtue of the fact that he or she is created in the image of God, is summoned to be perfect, is summoned to love God with all his or her heart, soul and mind. In this sense all have the same vocation and all must follow the same spiritual path. Some no doubt will follow it further than others: and again for some the intensity of the desire with which they pursue it may well lead them to embrace a pattern of life more in harmony with its demands, and this pattern may well be provided by the monastic life. But the path with its goal is one and the same whether followed within or outside a monastic environment.