Today’s readings, unlike the three readings of many Sundays, are harmonious in theme and scope. As we know, the second readings are always from an epistle which we begin on the appointed Sunday and then continue through until the end so, while the first reading and the Gospel are complimentary in theme and scope, the second reading often doesn’t match them very well. It has its own beauties and meanings, but doesn’t fit into the over all picture presented as the theme of the day. Our readings today happily match very well.
Looking at the first reading we find that the scriptural author points out a few salient features of wisdom.
First of all, wisdom is shown to be accessible, especially in the verses about “perceived by those who love her and found by those who seek her.”
So the admonition from the author is that one has to search for wisdom. One can only find wisdom by looking for it. We all need to search.
The Thessalonians were searching for wisdom – wisdom and understanding about the fate of believers who have died. If you recall, the thought of the early Church was that the second coming of Jesus, the parousia, was immanent, just around the corner, “coming soon to an assembly near you”. What would happen to the faithful departed then ?
Paul, one of the big names that held the belief that Jesus would come any second now, tells them “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not proceed those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord… will come down and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then, we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
Today’s Gospel, the parable of the 10 young women waiting for the bridegroom with their lamps full of oil, or not, has always been a little problem for me. Where was the charity in refusing to share oil ? How could Jesus, who was the world’s champion sharer, tell a story where those who wouldn’t share what they had were labeled “wise”, and the ones who could not convince their neighbors to share with them get locked out of the party ?
All right, so it was Matthew and his community recalling the parable, but it still does not ring very Christian, this refusing to share.
The symbolism of the parable had gotten in my way because I had not clearly seen the meanings as the early Church had. I had let too many centuries and their meanings crowd out the original.
The ten virgins represent expectant believers, like Paul or the Thessalonians, or us. They are waiting for the bridegroom, who is delayed. The second coming isn’t coming fast enough. That’s the problem – the delay of the second coming of Christ. The entire point of the parable is readiness. Readiness no matter when he comes. Jesus, being the Lord of Surprises will come at a time we least suspect. It might be the middle of the night, or tomorrow or 100 centuries into the future. Matthew and his community are commenting on the danger of love growing cold because the waiting grows long. What do we do while he hasn’t shown up yet – what about the people who have died waiting ? And what about that oil ?
Oil, for the community of Matthew, represented good works. The foolish ones haven’t got enough, they’ve been slacking off, while the wise ones, fully ready cannot transfer their good works to someone else. They can help, but readiness to accept salvation is ultimately a matter of personal responsibility. When the door is shut, admission is not automatic if there is a shortage of love and good works – you’d better go and get some.
Sister Dolores, also considered the possibility of love growing cold because the waiting grows long. “It is generally by very small degrees that fervor vanishes,” she commented. The perfection of each sister, she went on, depends on “performing extraordinarily well the ordinary courses of every day.” She asked “that Charity and holy friendship flourish in the house.”
Our mother was a wise woman, as we know from her many recorded words, and she was conscious of the need to be ready for her Lord. But what was she like as a person in community ? How did she inspire her sisters to keep their love warm and bright ?
Irene Otto, was a woman who, as a child had been at the Cathedral Sunday School. She said of Sister, “Mother Dolores would often stop to listen to the children and to talk to them individually. This was particularly true in my case because my father was an invalid and things were difficult at home. She was always sympathetic, often humorous, touching off her conversation with a light remark. I always waited for her, as her comments made things shine.”
So, we know that she kept her lamp burning brightly for her ministry. What did the sisters have to say ?
Sister Consilio, remembering Sister Dolores to younger sisters spoke of Sister’s outstanding qualities such as extreme kindness, understanding and love for her sisters.
Ask Sister Lucille some day about the letters that she found from the early 1900’s from a sister telling how Sister had such concern for them. If the night turned cold, there she was with an extra blanket or offering them a little extra comfort if the day had been hard.
We know that when a sister’s parents were extremely ill or dying that Sister Dolores would send them home to spend time with the family. Sister Stanislaus was sent home to her dying grandmother and stayed there four days.
Even her corrections were given with some humor. One sister recalled how Sister Dolores often reminded her to not keep her eyes on the floor, but to hold herself naturally. One day this sister, forgetting how much Sister had reminded her of her down cast eyes complained, “Oh, Sister, I haven’t seen the stars for months. “Well,” came the answer, “hold your head up !” That night as the young sister was leaving the chapel Sister Dolores was there, putting her hand over the young sister’s. “Take these three pills before you retire”, she said. “There in my hand,” wrote the younger woman, “were three delicious candies.” It seems that this was a habit with Sister. The first Sister Vincent told Sister Benedicta that whenever Sister Dolores gave a correction which seemed severe the reprimanded sister would later find some little remembrance under her pillow – new gloves or something else thoughtful and kind, which suggests that Sister Dolores really disliked having to correct anyone.
Sister Benedicta said, “I do not recall any words ever spoken by her, but never felt ill at ease in her presence.”
In her Councils to Superiors – the superiors she hoped there would be some day – she reminds them to speak gently to each other, not interrupting others when they are speaking and listening carefully however little they might relish what they hear. “Never contradict or maintain your own opinion with obstinacy,” she wrote … “you ought to interiorly believe that it is possible that you may be mistaken as perhaps you have been on many former occasions.” In addition she commented, “You must learn to accept gracefully and humbly the attentions and services of your Sisters, as well as to bestow yours on them. This…is essential to the happiness and perfection of Community life.”
How simple are the activities that she saw keeping the fires of love and good works going while waiting for the coming of the Lord. It is in our relationships with each other in community that will render the oil of personal responsibility, something that no one else can provide.
“Apply yourself,” she said, “to acquire a manner that will indicate respect and consideration for the person, feelings, wishes and happiness of others, for thus only can you fulfill the rule, render yourself dear to your community and to God for whose sake you yield to, and serve all. This practice alone will render you truly amiable and holy.”
The stories that we hear about Sister Dolores indicate that her presence in community carried out the directives that she proposes. We know that she apologized when she thought she had been at fault or had been harsh with another. She prayed for those who wronged her – recall her prayer for the fraudulent stigmatist, her first companion, who brought down such humiliation and publicity upon her, so that for years, as our older sisters told me, people on the streets would still point at her and whisper about her.
How wise she was. How anxious she was that her own love, and that of her sisters, would not grow cold as they waited for their Lord. She sought wisdom and found it, prayed for understanding and received it. She continually reminded herself and her sisters by word and deed to fill their lamps full and remain watchful and ready to receive the bridegroom joyfully whenever he arrived.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another.”