In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, contrasting the servants “whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival” with those did not make preparations for the masters arrival. “You also must be prepared,” Jesus tells his disciples, “for at an hour you do not expect the Son of Man will come.”
These words can be read in a number of different ways. We can read as saying “you don’t know when the end is coming,” end referring either to our own death or Jesus’ final coming. And it is certainly beneficial to live with an awareness that our end could come at any time. That is something we know intellectually, but we still live and behave as thought we had all the time in the world. (Think about how many times you think about next year’s vacation, or what you will do when you retire, etc. Always with the assumption that time will be there.) An awareness that our end could come at any time can be a powerful motivator.
But as I prayed with the passage this morning, I read it as also serving as a reminder that God can appear to us in any moment, in any situation.
God often appears to us in unexpected ways. But we can easily miss God’s presence if we are not open to it. It is very easy to box God in, having preconceived notions about how and where God will make God’s presence known.
Being aware of God where God is (already) present requires an openness. And we need to live each moment of our lives prepared for how God will break into our everyday.
In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus objects when his disciples rebuke the children who were brought to him. “Let the children come to me,” said Jesus, “for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
What is it about children that causes Jesus to say this? What gives them a special ability to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?
Perhaps it is that children possess an openness to mystery that adults sometimes lack.
Edith Stein reminds us that insights into the “truths of faith” do not require scholarly education and that “one need not believe by any means that these deep mysteries exceed the child’s powers of comprehension.” She further suggests that “[t]he strong desire to be introduced to the mysteries of God is often stronger in small children than in adults.”
I don’t know if I would phrase it as a stronger desire on the part of children, but it does seem to me that children do have an openness to mystery and an ability to experience it with bare awareness, in a way that may be more difficult for at least many adults.
Perhaps we might observe children so that we might learn something of their openness to mystery.
We often go through our days wrapped up in our thoughts. Worrying about things that might happen. Caught up in some task we need to accomplish. Worried that something we already did wasn’t done well enough. We can get so caught up in our own mind that we are completely unaware of our surroundings. I know sometimes when I am driving to work I am so caught up in my thoughts that I all of a sudden realize that I’m not entirely sure exactly where I am on the road.
Hiking is one of those wonderful activities that reminds me of what it is like to live in complete awareness of my surroundings. On the trail, my eyes see everything around me – the path in front of my feet, the movement of an animal or birds off to the side of the trail, the sunlight streaming through the leaves of the trees.
And my ears hear every sound – the snapping of a twig beneath my feet, the wind rustling through the trees, the birds, the insects. And I am conscious of everything my body is feeling.
My awareness of everything around me is heightened on the hiking trail. And I experience, in a way that is not always easy when I am home (when I’m often trying to do several things at once…while I’m planning several more) what it is like to live fully in the moment. The thrill of the experience, however, is good motivation for trying to live with that kind of heightened awareness of the present moment all of the time. Or even more of the time.
I’ve commented before about the effect certain lines of Scripture have on me. All I need to do is hear them and something in me releases; I immediately relax into the presence and love of God. During a daily Mass sermon the other day, the priest made a similar observation, pointing out that just looking at the crucifix does something to us; it brings a feeling of peace.
In both cases there is a direct effect, an affective response, that does not depend on any rational or discursive thought. There is an immediacy to the reaction, an immediate awareness of the presence of God beside me. There is no analysis, no working out of anything, indeed, no real thinking at all. There is stimulus (cross, scripture, perhaps some other image, music) and there is response.
I think there may be some things that are universal in their effect, e.g., the effect of the cross on Christians. In other cases, different pieces of scripture, different images, different pieces of music, etc., my cause that sense of immediate release and relaxation into the arms of God. So it is important for each of us to identify those things that are our doorways into an enounter with the divine and that lead us to that sense of peace and overwhelming love. When you identify it for yourself, you might consider sharing it with others – who knows what encounter of another with the divine you may facilitate.
What is it for you?
There is value in developing a consciousness of the things that set off our egoic reactions. For me, one of the big triggers is someone appearing to question my competence. It tends to set off an immediate reaction – I feel the indignation arise, often way out of proportion to the incident, which may be very minor.
Yesterday I got an e-mail from my dean, with whom I am meeting later today for my annual evaluation. The e-mail said that he could not locate a copy of my annual report and asked if I had yet sent it. If so, could I resend it; if not, he suggested it would be helpful to receive it before our scheduled meeting. Pretty innocuous e-mail…no reprimand or annoyance expressed in it…implicitly but clearly acknowledged that he might have received it and misplaced it. Yet my first reaction was one of annoyance and indignation. In my mind swirled various thoughts around the idea of: “I sent the report in over a month ago. How could he think I would not have submitted it in a timely fashion? I don’t miss deadlines. I always do things like this promptly. I’m never late.” Etc., etc. And I could feel the swirl of negative feelings around the thoughts.
Of course, as soon as I became aware of what was going on, I realized how silly it was and the negative feelings dissipated. The key of course is being aware – not getting completely caught up in the ego, but being able to step back and observe the thoughts and feelings. The idea is not to try to actively do anything to stop them, but simply to observe without judgement. If we can do that, the negative feelings lose their power and dissipate. And I think developing a consciousness of the things that have the greatest tendency to set off these reactions in us is helpful to being able to not get caught up in them.
To be sure, this is not always easy. But it is hard to have the peace of which Jesus and the New Testment writers speak if we can’t let go of our egoic reactions. If we can’t step back, there will always be something preventing our minds and hearts from being at peace.