Dear Brothers – November is a month for us to particularly remember the dead. Death is, for many, one of the more unfortunate side effects of life. Everything that lives will at some point die. Sequoias may live for thousands of years, but they do eventually die. Certain single-celled life forms may live indefinitely, but when their environment vanishes, they will perish. And no matter how long-lived anything is, it will certainly die in our sun’s supernova far in the future. Death is universal.
COVID-19 is plowing relentlessly through the United States, leaving nearly 240 thousand people dead in its wake. And the death toll is rising every day. Death has become all too common. But each death is a personal one, in which each unique dying person must confront the loss of their autonomy, the loss of control, and the emptiness that will swallow their very selves.
For the first generation of Christians, it must have been startling to have to deal with death in their communities. They likely expected Christ to return very soon, so hadn’t thought about the possibility of dying before that time. Perhaps this delay in Jesus’ coming was beginning to shake the faith of some members of their communities. They had been promised eternal life, and now good people were dying in front of them. What evidence did they have that what they had been promised could be true? The world looked a lot like it had before they converted, and death was just darkness.
Paul writes to the Thessalonians to calm their fears and to remind them of the basis of their faith. He reassures them that Christ is indeed coming, and will raise up all the dead who are part of the body of Christ and, along with those left alive, join them to himself. Paul defines life for us as extending beyond the life we know on earth. Unlike those who only see what is material, he talks about a life beyond the material, beyond the merely physical. Death is not the end, but a transition to something else. We might have some trouble envisioning being caught up in the clouds, since we don’t really think of heaven as “up” anymore, knowing as we do that the earth is round and hanging in space, with no real “up” or “down” to it. But the idea remains. Life continues after physical death. This is the basis for the faith of the Thessalonian community, and Paul reminds them of this.
Paul’s message is startling. We no longer assume that death is the ultimate evil. Death is no longer opposed to life. Death has been overcome by the resurrection of Christ. Physical death is still universal, yes, but physical death no longer means the end of life. Certainly there is still darkness and mystery to death, but the darkness is no longer to be feared.
In our first reading, wisdom exhorts us to seek her. But she doesn’t make finding her too tough. “She is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.” This reminds us of Christ’s words, “Seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you.” But wisdom goes even further, “She hastens to make herself know in anticipation of their desire.” She actually goes out of her way to make herself available to anyone who wants her, even before they are aware that they want her. The only effort necessary on our part is desire. But we must have desire. “Whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed.” It takes some doing to get up before dawn, as we know. “Whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care.” We watch and wait in the darkness.
In today’s Gospel, Christ tells us to “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The parable to which this saying is attached doesn’t quite illustrate this point—all ten virgins fall asleep, after all, but in a roundabout way it does. Why are the five foolish virgins foolish? Because they didn’t bring enough oil for their lamps. But the reason they didn’t have enough oil is because the bridegroom was so late. How could they have anticipated this? Isn’t it the bridegroom’s fault rather than theirs? Perhaps the point is that they were acting from their expectation. They had an idea when the bridegroom would appear, and they weren’t prepared for anything else. They weren’t ready to wait, to “watch . . . at dawn.” We have just gone through a few days in this country where events didn’t move according to our expectations or our desire. The count went on for days and days with no end in sight. I’m sure most people in the country, on both sides of the political fence, were on pins and needles, waiting for the result. If events can be so contrary to expectation in mere human affairs, think of how contrary the kingdom of God can be, which in so many of Jesus’ parables, is contrariness in its very essence. We must wait in patience, in silence, in the darkness, with only our little oil lamps to give us light.
And what do we have for our flasks of oil, to sustain us as we wait for the bridegroom here at Gethsemani? Our flasks of oil are our monastic practices. Silence, lectio, our liturgy, our daily work, our love and compassion for our brothers, these are the oil that keeps our lamps lit during our long wait for the bridegroom. The psalms we sing each day remind of this. “My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word,” says psalm 129. “My soul is longing for the Lord, more than watchmen for daybreak.” “In the morning I offer you my prayer / watching and waiting,” says psalm 5 and psalm 32 reminds us that “my soul is waiting for the Lord, the Lord is our help and our shield.” And of course today’s psalm says, “For you my soul is thirsting, my body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water.” Such a powerful image of yearning. Our need for God is as adamant and necessary for life as our body’s need for water.
This waiting and watching, this yearning has a function. Yearning reveals that there is something missing in us, a darkness, an empty space. Many people know about this empty space inside them and try to fill it with distractions, with ambition, with activity. Or they may try to numb their awareness of it with routine, or addiction. But this emptiness is not really empty. It is God. Our yearning opens up a space inside us which seems to us to be empty, but is really God, the deep well of God which we only perceive as emptiness and darkness. The bridegroom is already here, in our hearts, but as darkness. Our job, and it’s a difficult one for sure, is to learn to value this emptiness, to nourish our yearning, to nourish our love, to nourish this life-giving darkness, and resist the temptation to cover it over or fill it with something else. One day, whether we want it to or not, this emptiness will overflow from the center of our hearts to engulf us in its love, and this is how we will meet death. If we are afraid of this emptiness, we will be afraid of death, we will try to run from it, to deny it, but if we have nourished and grown this emptiness, have learned to value its silence and profound depth, we will welcome it like an old friend.