The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 5:19:18

Heavenly Arithmetic and Supernatural Paradoxes

Marie Meaney, Aug 14, 2014

Christ’s reasoning is shocking sometimes, nay seems downright unjust. To the one who has, more shall be given and from the one who has little, what he has will be taken. This seems like cut-throat capitalism. Then again, Jesus seems to go against justice in order to err on the side of mercy, when he tells the workers of the last hour that they will receive as much as those who have labored all day long. He shuts the door in the face of the foolish virgins who are just a tad late, though they have now managed to get some oil (shouldn’t that be rewarded?); the prudent virgins, who were not generous enough to share their oil with them, however, are rewarded. He speaks in parables so that we may hear yet not understand, see yet not comprehend.

At the very least, these statements can wake us up from our Sunday morning doze. For if we listen carefully, there is enough in Holy Writ to shake us up and counter all the boredom we might experience due to our luke-warmness or that of our pastors. Reading Simone Weil recently (whom, yes, I tend to mention at least once in my posts) shed some new light on these mysteries for me. When faced with a paradox (by which Weil really means mysteries and not logical incompatibilities), we need to give it our full attention, until the light of the truth illuminates our intelligence. This means bearing the darkness, facing up to the puzzle, feeling dwarfed by what is greater than our mind. Hope is key, and woe to those who give up, fall asleep and miss their master’s arrival. They have failed to watch through the long night for truth to awaken them, and will remain in eternal darkness.

In The Need for Roots, Weil speaks about the hardships industrial workers have to bear. They are enslaved by the rhythm of machines, which often demand wearing, mindless movements, but also great watchfulness for fear of having a finger chopped off.  How to give them access to an education suited to their life, taking into account their fatigue and lack of time, is one of the questions she was trying to elucidate. So far, they had received a dumbed-down education, as if they were amnesiac high-school students. The knowledge imparted to them did nothing for them, was not assimilated and left them without any real culture. For authentic education should not vulgarize texts, ideas, or the truth, but should transpose them, thereby making them more accessible. In order to do so, one needs to comprehend them fully, and having “placed oneself at the center of a truth, to have possessed it in its nudity”. It does not matter that workers may not have much time to spare, for “truth illuminates the soul in proportion to its purity and not because of any kind of quantity”. Workers do not need to have read the entire corpus of great literature. If they have understood and appreciated a few good books, seen some great paintings and heard Bach’s “Passion according to St Matthew”, for example, they will have been in touch with authentic beauty, which is “a revelation of God”. The truth and beauty manifested to them in these great works-of-art contain in a sense the whole of what truth and beauty are. Of course, other great classics will reflect other truths and a different kind of beauty, but it takes only one encounter to lead to a prise-de-conscience of what they are and to lift the soul. The luminous intelligibility of truth, its independence of the perceiver, its call to be acknowledged, and the way beauty speaks of another world and touches the soul can be recognized in one instant.

This sheds new light on Christ’s promise that more shall be given to those who have. Those who seek the truth, the good, justice, beauty and all values – even if they do not have much of these in their lives since they are downtrodden, poor, enslaved – will receive them a hundredfold in the next life. What they have sought, they will behold in its plenitude. Those, however, who pursued their own pleasure and self-interest, will realize that the more one seeks these, the hungrier and the less satisfied one will be. Hence, giving them more of the same would mean that they would have even less. For they have forsaken the only means which would have allowed them to be fulfilled, namely openness to what is good and true. The Ersatz used in this world to parody fulfillment will not be at their disposal in the next, and to their distress, their emptiness is no longer coated over.

This sheds some light on the parable of the prudent and foolish virgins as well. The foolish virgins have not filled their lamps with the oil of love, truth and goodness, but with their egoistic pleasure and pride. Hence, they themselves have become empty vessels, chestless men, as C.S. Lewis called them, or mere shadows in the wasteland they have created. Those who were waiting for the bridegroom, however, kindled by faith, hope and charity, had to bear the longing, the sense of emptiness and an interior desert. God was hiding in the Eucharist, in the cross and in their hearts, and only manifested Himself in flashes. They kept their lamps empty so that they could be filled by Him, whilst the others experienced a fake satiation that didn’t leave room for God.

When the bridegroom comes, the prudent virgins cannot give the foolish virgins any oil, since they cannot share a choice that each individual has to make for himself. The foolish virgins scramble to fill their lamps, but are left outside – not because the bridegroom is cruel and unforgiving, but because they never wanted Him in the first place. They have now become aware that their choices are leaving them in a dreary wasteland, excluded from the feast of God’s nuptials with each soul that chose Him, and this they are now regretting. But they have made themselves incapable of receiving God, and the only oil they have is that of their egoism. Their regrets are not fuelled by repentance and leave no room for change; they are those of the thief for having been caught rather than for having stolen in the first place.     

The workers in the fields all receive the same wage, because God can only give Himself and He gives Himself fully to all those who have chosen Him, even at the 11th hour, even in that last instant before death. He does not hold back, since He is pure love. These workers have created some space for Him, even if just a little, and through that crack He will enter.

But why use these paradoxes, which leave one shocked and puzzled, and which Christ said he told so that they would not be understood (Mk 4:12; Mt 13:14)? Christ does not want a superficial understanding, which comes easily, one that is worldly, self-interested and utilitarian. The wisdom He wants to impart to His listeners demands from them already the attitude of the prudent virgins, namely of holding out while seeking Him despite the difficulties, the cross and the darkness. Only then will the truth of His sayings dawn upon us, when we have been willing to sell all in order to obtain the pearl of great price. For we have been bought at a high price and though we can obtain grace gratuitously, we cannot gain it cheaply. It will cost us everything – in order to gain more than we could ever have imagined.