These Parables: The Ten Virgins

If the Basiclica of St. Peter in Rome were destroyed by an earthquake, the Catholic Church would go on a bit dusted but without missing a beat. Lost, though, would be any aesthete whose faith was founded on a fondness for the architecture of Michelangelo. I am perhaps belaboring the obvious, but the obvious was hidden to those who promoted Catholicism for every reason except Christ: her buildings, her lands, her crowds, her political influence. The Holy Spirit recently has given the Church a massive purge: The hierarchy and the faithful were taught a lesson in humility when scandals showed how drowsy we are as servants of the Lord. From now on, a mitre will convince only if the wearer of the mitre convinces; and a Catholic who thought he was such because he called himself Catholic will have to learn anew what it is to confess Christ crucified.

Pomposity animated those who showed our Lord the splendor of the marble buildings in Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1). He loved the Temple, even to the point of cleansing it, but He was not impressed with the Herodian embellishments. It would all come down. The logical question of when this would happen was answered with the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).

John Calvin was not wrong about everything, and he was right in being impatient with esoteric allegorizers who read all sorts of meanings into the lamps and the oil in them and the number of maidens and their virginity. Some of the early exegetes, East and West, made an art of labyrinthine interpretations, and to the extent that they do not distort the core meaning, they are harmless and even edifying. But a bridge is better built by Roebling than by Rube Goldberg. We shall never know all about these ten lamps, but there are three things we do know and should never lose sight of in the mire of elaborate allegory: their meaning, their reason, and what to do about them.

Their meaning is that the soul must always be prepared. The Church militant is more specifically like the marines, whose Latin motto is “Semper Fideles.” This is not the same as always watching, for the wise sleep as well as the foolish. One sleep is trust, and the other is neglect. When you sleep, you must consecrate your sleep, like Pope John XXIII, who put his guardian angel in charge of the Church when he went to bed. This faith, which is the opposite of presumption, breeds the Romans who say: “When a pope dies, make another.” The only popes who would object to that nonchalance are those who were not saints.

The reason for preparation is that we do not know the hour of the Bridegroom’s arrival. Demagogues claim they know: The airwaves are laden with the voices of evangelists predicting oceans of blood within the week, and still they accept checks dated later than that. Excitable innocents make the same mistake in their quiet hysteria, using a Lateran Council to warn that the crossbow will end civilization or modern microphones to compare the Persian Gulf War to Armageddon. There is a difference between holy fear and servile fear, and its name is prudence.

All ten virgins had lamps, but only five lamps were lit. Sanctifying grace has to be kindled by actual graces and frequent confession. The parable speaks to the believer, not the pagan. Among believers, enthusiasts and formalists share the error of founding faith on something other than the light of Christ. The “born again” Christian who will tell you the hour he was saved is easily lost when he stops feeling saved. The cultural Catholic who lacks the interior strength to pursue the sacramental life justifies himself by saying that he is rejecting “Catholic guilt.” But guilt is not Catholic. Guilt is guilt. The guilty slumber as though life is all a dream, having made no provision for the inevitable confrontation with Truth. When they do come to their senses, the door of reality will be shut in their faces, and like every scorner of the Church, they will blame the Truth for being true.

It is not idle allegory to say that the wise virgins processing to meet the Bridegroom are the Church in eucharistic celebration. The celebrants are those who live day in and day out, knowing that the Truth will appear. This explains the palpable radiance a pastor sees in some very old people who beam at the prospect of seeing God face to face. They are not among those burned at the stake or gored by lions. But martyrdom is a bad half-hour. Fidelity consists in living the daily routine—if not ground by beasts, then ground down by the daily grind—for as long as the Bridegroom wills it before the heavenly nuptials.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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