The Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Wis 6:12-16; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13]
As a seminarian several years ago, I served as chaplain at a psychiatric hospital, in Indianapolis, where I was assigned, as one of my patients a young woman who I’ll call “Stacey”, who had been sexually abused by her father from age six to eighteen – for about twelve years. Stacey was being treated for what doctors call “suicidal ideation”. She was troubled by thoughts of killing herself, and had, on a few occasions, actually attempted to take her own life.
Having scheduled routine pastoral visits with Stacey for about three weeks, I was pleased to report to my supervisor that things were going well. “Stacey”, I assured her, “is talking to me.” “Does she have any choice?” my supervisor asked. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that. “I guess she has a choice”, I said, “I mean – I really hadn’t thought much about it.” “No”, said my supervisor, “I thought maybe you hadn’t. You have a good intention.” she said, “You want to help. The problem is – you establish the time and place to meet with Stacey; you decide when the conversations start and when they end; and, to a large extent, you determine the content of the conversations. But – that’s been the problem for Stacey all along: men always come to her with their own agenda. Your agenda is to help. You see, the men in Stacey’s life don’t advert to the fact that she needs to exercise her freedom to make her own choices, especially in her relationships with men.”
I was embarrassed. I said: “What do I do?” “Try this.” she said: “Tomorrow morning when you see Stacey say to her: “Good morning Stacey – I just wanted to let you know that I will be here on the unit this morning from nine till eleven, and if at any time you think you might like to talk to me, I’ll be sitting right over there next to the magazine rack.”
Having encountered Stacey the next morning, and recited almost verbatim my supervisor’s words, she looked at me a little puzzled and said: “Uh – Thank you.” Surprised at how extremely uncomfortable I was feeling, I went to my assigned spot, and found myself anxiously watching Stacey out of the corner of my eye. After a little while, I saw her go to the nurses station and make a request. A moment later, Jeannie, Stacey’s physical therapist, walked in to the unit, apparently having been sent for by Stacey, who cheerfully greeted her and asked if they could go for a walk. “Sure”, said Jeannie, and the two women walked out of the room in animated conversation, passing right by the chair where Stacey’s chaplain, looking a little disoriented, was sitting by himself.
Having reported the whole humiliating incident to my supervisor, her face lit up. She seemed genuinely pleased and excited. “What you did for Stacey this morning”, she said, “may be more than any man ever did for her in her life: you gave her the opportunity to exercise her freedom in a relationship with a man. You let Stacey experience the self-respect she’s been giving away to men for years. Recovering her self respect, is critical to the healing of Stacey’s mental condition. This morning, you helped her do that.”
Jesus says the moral of today’s gospel parable about the wise and foolish virgins is: “Keep your eyes open”. But the moral could just as well be: “Never – give away the oil that keeps your own lamp burning.” Never, never, never give away the oil that keeps your own lamp burning. Think about that a moment. What made the wise virgins wise, was not that they kept their eyes open. They did not. The parable says they all fell asleep. What made these virgins wise was that they maintained a supply of oil to keep their lamps burning, and when they were approached and asked: “Our lamps are going out, Give us some of your oil”. They said “No – no, because the oil I have is indispensable to my own well-being. I cannot give you my oil. You must go and find your own.”
It is not clear exactly what “oil” represents here, but the parable clearly suggests that there is something; some mysterious entity that each of us possesses as a part of himself or herself, which is so absolutely indispensable to our existence as a human being that we must never, never, never give it away, ever, to anyone, for any reason – not even for love. Not even for love!
I’m wondering if this may have been the insight Stacey gained that morning she stood up her chaplain. Stacey had loved her father and thought she was showing her love by obeying him. But by repeatedly accommodating his inappropriate sexual advances, and doing what she experienced as profoundly demeaning, Stacey forgot she was free and that she had a choice in the matter. In short, Stacey neglected to maintain a basic self-respect. But what do we mean by “self-respect”?
St. Bernard of Clairvaux taught that genuine self respect is rooted in the conviction that you are an image of God. More particularly, the image of God in you is precisely your freedom of consent. In fact, Bernard says, your freedom to give or withhold the consent of your will is the one and only attribute that exists in you in no way different than it exists in God. Your freedom of consent is absolute – the only absolute, perfect, and God like thing in you. Your freedom to give or to withold your consent is God’s very image imprinted in your being.
Stacey’s freedom to give or withhold her consent was the very image of God in her, but surrendering the exercise of that freedom, to accommodate others, she lost her self respect, and consequently found she could not live, or work, or love, or do anything. By giving away her self respect to her father, and to other men, Stacey was giving away the “oil” that kept her own lamp burning, and so took the first step toward destroying herself as a human being; a process that very nearly resulted in her death. It was only when Stacey reclaimed her God given freedom and experienced again the love and respect she owed herself, that she was able to stand up to a man, and begin to flourish again as a woman, a friend, a human being, in the fullest sense of the word.
Maybe then the “oil” in the parable, could be thought of as representing self respect, based on the conviction that in one’s freedom of consent God’s very image is manifest in one’s being. If I am right about this, Jesus’ parable could be understood as follows: Ten wise and foolish virgins stand awaiting the Bridegroom’s return. The night is long and sleep gradually overtakes them. They awake to find the Bridegroom has arrived, and that some of their lamps have burned out. Just then, the foolish virgin turns to the wise and says: “Give me some of your oil.” She means: “Give me self respect.” The wise virgin responds: “I cannot give you self respect”. I have mine. You must find yours. If I give away my self respect for your sake, you will have no more self respect than you had before and the respect I owe myself, – I will have lost.”
The moral of the parable: brothers and sisters: Never, never, never, give away the oil that keeps your own lamp burning.
In this morning’s gospel We are told of Jesus’ return on the last day, when every human being will meet him face to face, either prepared or unprepared. The best way to prepare for his coming on the last day, is to recall to mind every day Jesus’ love for us, his continuous presence to us, and his patience with us. As we prepare now to meet him in the Eucharist, let us entrust to him our whole soul and ask him to purify us to meet him on that day when he comes again in glory.