On Squirrels & Readiness

It is not the Bridegroom's duty to accommodate the bridesmaids; it was theirs to be ready

This morning I left for work a little after the sun had risen — not unusual with days shorter and clocks turned back one hour. As I walked across my parking lot, a couple of squirrels were busy on the old oak tree, about whose acorns pelting my window pane I wrote last week [here]. They were occupied with squirreling away what acorns they could still scrounge. Occasionally, a nut that escaped their little paws plummeted down, making a thud on the asphalt.

Squirrels don’t think about the coming winter. The little brains in their little skulls do not plan. God gave them the instinct to save as the ambient environment grows more threadbare with the cold. They may not watch, but their instinct for self-preservation makes them aware the day grows shorter. And, obedient to those instincts, they are making ready.

In November, the Church’s lectionary turns eschatological in a big way. Next Sunday’s Gospel of the Wise and Foolish Virgins focuses on the question of readiness. Who is ready — and who is not ready — when the Bridegroom arrives, when the time comes?

What distinguishes man is his intellect and free will. He can intelligently read “the signs of the times.” But what he does with that reading is up to him. He can prepare, trimming his lamp. Or he can do nothing.

You don’t see lazy squirrels lolling around while others collect nuts — except in cartoons.

Such is man’s dignity… and danger. It’s his dignity that he acts beyond the merely instinctual, but it’s his danger that he can ignore his basic self-interest.

The squirrel senses what his surroundings are telling him. He doesn’t consult a calendar to learn it’s November and winter is six weeks off. For him, it’s just what he does now. 

Man, immersed in and aware of space and time, nevertheless can pretend to ignore them. Man can always play Scarlett O’Hara: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

There were a few Scarlett O’Hara’s invited to a certain wedding feast. No doubt they were busy making sure their dresses were the most stylish, ensuring their head coverings were unique. “Wait, did you pack enough oil?”

“I’ll think about that later.”

And then the Bridegroom delays his arrival. Some in the modern world might take the foolish virgins’ side: “Can’t blame them! After all, he was late showing up!”

Well, first of all — as we say to the birthday boy or the about-to-be bride — it is his or her day of celebration. That is particularly true of the Bridegroom. But the important point about the Bridegroom in the Gospel of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is not when he appears but who shows up. Because the Bridegroom is Christ. As the priest prays during the blessing of the Paschal Candle every year at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night: “Christ — the Alpha and Omega — the Beginning and End — All time belongs to Him — And all the Ages — To Him Be Honor and Glory forever.”

The Bridegroom is not late. The Bridegroom comes at the proper time because, for Him, all time is now. And, from the perspective of eternity, He providentially guides our time. For neither time nor history is autonomous, set on automatic pilot to tend ineluctably towards “justice” or “progress.” When justice happens before the eschaton it is not the result of blind temporal history but of a Loving Eternal Will, conjoined to human wills responding to grace.

It is not the Bridegroom’s duty to accommodate the bridesmaids; it was theirs to be ready, not to be “useless servants, who did only what we were supposed to do” (Lk 17:10). They are invited to the celebration. They are expected to have the proper wedding garment. And they are to keep their lamps trimmed and burning.

My diligent squirrels — bereft of intellect and free will — manage to do that. December will not catch them unready, unless they cannot find those acorns, which would not be for lack of trying.

We forget that, if “all time belongs to” the Bridegroom, there is for Him no “early” or “late.” Our experience of history playing out in time is not God’s, for whom all “time” is now. That is why we ask our Mother to “pray for us now” (“and at the hour of our death” — the two relevant moments in a human’s history). And that is why now is the moment of Kairos, of opportunity and grace, which is why “if today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” ( Ps 95:7-8) or let your lamps go out.

My squirrels might not have a Robert Herrick (much like monkeys lack a typewriter-toting Simian Shakespeare), but they still follow his counsel to “Gather ye acorns while ye may…” Herrick wrote to “Virgins, to Make Much of Time” because time is the opportunity for readiness. And to man, who should also be diligent and “work while it is day” (John 9:4) lest night and imprudence show him an unready lamp.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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