Foolish Bridesmaids (November 2002)

November 2002
Foolish Bridesmaids ©

Among the expressions that have stuck in my mind since childhood is the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. While its secular meaning has been evident to me since my days in short pants, I have more recently come to see it as also having religious significance.

Robert Baden-Powell founded Scouting in England around 1905, with deep convictions about the importance of spiritual development. A careful analysis of his writings shows that the concept of a force above man is basic to Scouting. The whole educational approach of the movement consists in helping young people to transcend the material world and go in search of the spiritual values of life.

For the retired English soldier, “Be Prepared” summed up the most significant thing about growing up. It calls us to full consciousness and awareness vital to resisting dangers while growing in goodness.

We find in the Gospel of Matthew a parable that carries a similar message.

A story is told of a wedding banquet for which ten bridesmaids await the arrival of the groom. We are told that they wait into the night bearing lamps. Five of them wisely “took flasks of oil” in case their lamps would burn dry, while the five foolish ones did not. Soon, the lamps run out of fuel. Those who have brought along extra oil replenish their lamps and later greet the groom. Those who were unprepared to wait are obliged to leave and seek the necessary oil. Meanwhile, the groom arrives and bolts the door of the banquet hall.

The Gospel contains many images of wedding feasts. They are reminders of God’s concrete engagement with his people, of the bond between his Son and his Church, and the joy to which we are invited as followers of Christ.

The feast that celebrates this sacred wedding is a deeply personal occasion as well as a moment of solidarity with all of humanity and creation. It provides those who attend all that is necessary to the body and the spirit.

We cannot afford to miss this banquet. Our body and spirit cry out, as in Psalm 63: “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you …my soul is satisfied as with a rich feast.”

There are several things we can learn from this parable, I think.

The first lesson is all about being alert. Writing of the groom’s arrival, Matthew’s Gospel concludes that we will know “neither the day, nor the hour”. Metaphorically, we are warned that we are not the ones to determine either where or how God is to manifest his presence. It is foolishness to think that we can either know in advance or even determine the form that God’s grace will take, especially through human will or intellect.

The Book of Wisdom reminds us that true wisdom, which is our salvation, will be found by those who “rise early to see her.” The main requirements are an open mind and an open heart — open to find meaning in unexpected places and in unexpected forms (epiphanies). These truths are revealed to us on the condition that we have the courage to pass from the false security of our own way of looking at things and onto the horizon of true freedom. What we will find there is beyond the limits of human expectation.

Second, the parable of the bridesmaids teaches us that we must have a light sufficient to guide our steps into the banquet hall. Here, the light is wisdom; the oil is the virtue that comes from the Word of God. But there is no light –in metaphor or reality – that can truly embrace the breadth and depth of God. God is both within and beyond human experience.

Jesus is the groom. He is both the lamp (the light of the world, the Wisdom of God) and the oil (The Word of God). So, what was the flask that the celebrated bridesmaids carried? It may be said to be the Gospel, the Word of God …the Word made flesh … the person and the teaching of the Son of God. For humans, wisdom is not a once-in-a-lifetime, one-size-fits-all commodity. It needs constant expropriation to contour itself to the challenges of daily life. To ensure its ongoing relevance, the Living Word is reinforced by the virtues which allow us to apply its teachings effectively.

The fruit of Wisdom is Truth. The Lamp of Wisdom illuminates the Truth. If we want to see it clearly, our hearts need full conversion. The parable, therefore, is also an unambiguous challenge to find in the Gospel the Truth that will guide our particular life’s journey — the truth about authentic love, as opposed to some off-the-shelf variety or the counterfeit emotion publicized in popular culture; the truth about authentic relationships; the intimate truth about Jesus, as brother and servant, friend and saviour.

The third lesson is that there are decisive moments in our lives in which our authenticity and openness to God’s call. The gate where the groom is met is the meeting place of the human and the divine: “Come out to meet him”. Salvation is based on faith, which is a free gift from God. Recognition of that gift so fills us with thanksgiving and joy that we cannot remain passive.

What if we do not heed the call? Failure to do so is a failure of consciousness and of gratitude and generosity. When we remain passive toward God, it is as though we deny the grace he provides. It is as though, in failing to acknowledge his love, we cause him to say: “I do not know you.” Without the Spirit of the Gospel in us, we are not suited to espousal with the Word, the bridegroom of the Church. The door to the hall of genuine joy is closed.

That is why not preparing our hearts and minds for authentic conversion is such foolishness. It closes us to the exciting possibilities God presents to us in overflowing love. The door to paradise, in this world and the next, is wide open to those who heed the call to “Keep awake” …to Be Prepared.

I sometimes wonder if Baden-Powell had the parable of the bridesmaids in mind when he coined his now-famous motto. After all, the biblical admonition to “Keep awake” rather resembles the call to “Be Prepared”.

Baden-Powell was a veteran of the Boer War. He was an insightful soldier who came to admire the Zulus that the British were fighting. In fact, he befriended a Zulu chief and was given a special necklace the beads of which later formed the tokens that hang around the neck of accredited Scouting leaders. In 1919, when the first Scoutmasters’ Course drew to an end, Baden-Powell presented each participant with a simple wooden bead from a Zulu chief’s necklace he had brought back from Africa.

As we honour the memory of those who have died in various wars, we do well to recall that our faith challenges us to love our enemies. This is difficult for us to do. At least initially, we feel a natural and visceral revolt against those who have harmed our loved ones.

Yet Jesus calls us to rise above our baser instincts and to find, as Baden-Powell did in the Zulu Chief, new levels of awareness regarding the Good News.

This story echoes a much older one about Saint Francis. “In 1219, Saint Francis was on his way to Damietta, Egypt, where the crusaders had begun a siege a year earlier. Before Saint Francis’ arrival, the Egyptian sultan, a Saracen Muslim named Melek-al-Kamil had offered transfer of Jerusalem to the Christians in exchange for their evacuation from Egypt. The papal legate rejected the offer and in May 1218 the crusaders began their siege of Damietta. Francis went vulnerable and unarmed to meet the enemy.

He was not afraid to pass over to the enemy’s army. The sultan’s judges recommended that he not engage in any sort of discussion with him. They said: ‘Our law, O Sultan, forbids us to listen to those who preach another law than ours. Rather such men should have their heads cut off instantly.’ But the Sultan let Saint Francis have his say and gave orders to lodge the peculiar guest as befitted a man of God. It is clear that both Saint Francis and Melek-al-Kamil had been profoundly changed. God’s living Spirit had shaken their assumptions of each other. They were able to discover new dimensions of the truth. They parted as friends.

I have a feeling that all those who died in battle are gathered as one celestial chorus and are at this very moment imploring the Lord: “Let there be no more war. Remove from the heart of all men and women the fear and hatred that the Evil One has sown and fill them with your Peace and Goodness.” I also have a feeling that they sing for us each day the Prayer of St. Francis.