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In college, I received a paper back from a professor with no grade but with “Matthew 25:1-13” written across the top. I looked it up and read the Gospel for this Sunday (the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A) — the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.
I had turned the paper in after school ended, as summer was beginning. The message was clear: The points for this paper would be zero.
The Foolish Virgins made the same mistake I did. I relied on the mercy of my professor to save me in the end — I figured I could skip my due diligence, make an effort after the year was done, and the professor would give me credit. The Foolish Virgins thought they could do what they wanted, not prepare properly, and God’s mercy would make all their bad choices go away.
There are no limits to God’s mercy, but we human beings do have one tool at our disposal that can thwart even the mighty Ocean of Divine Mercy: Our presumption.
Presumption is “a rash expectation of salvation without making proper use of the necessary means to obtain it.”
Several factors make presumption common in our day.
We misunderstand salvation. There is a common belief in our day that going to heaven is simply a matter of being a fairly good person, then passing on to heaven. This “neo-Pelagianism” believes that God judges by our standards.
We miss the gravity of death. Related to the first is the common practice in our day of “celebrating the life” of a deceased loved one instead of praying for the repose of their soul. Even in cases like Mother Teresa and John Paul II, the Church celebrates a requiem Mass — praying that they will be granted eternal rest. A great retreat-master I knew in college was on his deathbed when he told a mutual friend, “Please tell people to pray for me when I’m gone.” He was insistent. “Tell them please not to assume I’m in heaven.”
We underestimate sin. The loss of the sense of sin has also made presumption more common. The U.S. bishops recently pointed out one manifestation of this: Many Catholics feel comfortable going to communion even after they have stopped making use of the sacrament of confession. The less we realize the horror of sin, the more likely we are to assume we’re just fine.
Today’s Psalm teaches an antidote to this attitude. “My soul is thirsting for you, O God,” we say in the response. The prayer describes the state of the psalmist without God: parched, lifeless, without water.
When we take God for granted, we have the opposite attitude. Our soul feels full, satisfied, satiated. When the presumptuous soul stands before God, this is precisely the problem. He doesn’t thirst for God; he feels fine. So there is no way for God to reach him.
For those of us who don’t thirst and long for God as we ought to, what we need is the first of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom. This is the gift that gives us a “taste” for the things of God. It helps us appreciate holiness, and it helps us to understand what we are missing when holiness is lacking.
The first reading today is all about the gift of wisdom, and how to get it. The very language of the reading is a clue about wisdom. It isn’t a ponderous, painful thing to gain: It is a light, beautiful thing.
“She is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her,” says the reading. “She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire; whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed, for he shall find her sitting by his gate.”
The search for wisdom is discovery, not drudgery. And we can start it right away.
Before we know it, we will need it.
As today’s Second Reading puts it: “For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven … 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.”