Centered Joy

Matthew 25:1-13 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Have you ever met a person that just radiates good? Someone who spreads joy, who makes everyone who encounters them feel at home?  I met someone like this seven years ago at the Abbey of Gethsemani.  His name is Brother Paul.

I met Brother Paul through an opportunity I had through a class I took at Baldwin-Wallace.  I was taking a class on Thomas Merton, a great spiritual writer and monk.  In this small class we read many of Merton’s books and sat around and talked about God, religion, and the contemplative life.  The highlight of the course was traveling down to Kentucky to the Abbey of Gethsemani which was Thomas Merton’s monastery.  


This is a photo of the Abbey of Gethsemani.  The weekend I spent there among the monks and my classmates was holy.  And yet it was simple.  We followed the monks in times of prayer, meals, times of work, times of gathering together.  All together it was this time of heightened spirituality, where God felt so close.  

It didn’t hurt that I was also able to share the weekend with my new boyfriend at the time, who many of you now know as my husband Josh.


Here at the Abbey life was and still is marked by silence.  It is somewhat strange then that my memory of the weekend is not of silence, but of laughter. 

My classmates and I had an opportunity that weekend to sit down with Brother Paul to talk.  Brother Paul had been a student of Thomas Merton and we were to ask him questions about his life and Merton.  I don’t remember many of our questions or answers, but I do remember Brother Paul’s laughter. 


Here is Brother Paul and Josh.  We sat at the Abbey in a special “monks only” area under a ginkgo tree.  It was a warm October day, as we sat in the sunlight filtered through the leaves of the tree.  

Brother Paul was radiant.  He had this energy almost unlike anything I had ever seen and unlike anything I have experienced since.  He was full of joy and laughter, so unlike any kind of solemn expectations I may have placed upon him as a monk.  And he was present.  He sat there with us, interested and engaged in what we had to say, asking us questions.  

I found a PBS interview with Brother Paul where he said, and here I am quoting,  “Well, I think the purpose of the monastic life in the modern world is to show that we don’t need a purpose. The purpose of life is life, and you are to be just to be. Everybody measures their importance by how useful they are, so you need to shatter that. You know, somebody has to come along now and then just say listen, you know, that’s not it. That’s not what life is.”

Brother Paul was there.  He was ready to see us, to listen to us, to see God in us.  He was present and prepared for joy.

There is a famous Thomas Merton story from his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander where he talks about walking through downtown Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut.  He wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

The wonderful thing about this story is that the corner of Fourth and Walnut is not an exciting place.  It’s not much more exciting than the corner of Northfield and Rockside.  Merton just happened to be ready to receive this glimpse of God.  

We hear in Matthew how there are some who are prepared with light, and some who aren’t. There are those who are ready for Jesus and those who are not.  Be ready, Matthew tells us.  

Notice which bridesmaids were ready.  They all fell asleep, they all had to wait, the ending of the night was unexpected to every single one of them there.  But the wise had extra oil and were ready for the banquet.  The foolish had to leave, to run frantically out to try and get more oil for their lamps.  

They were half present.  They brought the lamp, but not the container of oil.  

It was a silly thing.  It was a small thing, to have that extra oil ready.  The difference between wise and foolish was just a bit more preparation. 

The difference between an ordinary street corner and a moment of pure joy was maybe just a bit more attentiveness. 

I was at my sister’s house a few weeks back.  This is my sister Charity, the one who got married in October.  We were sitting at her dining room table, visiting as we waited for her husband Ahren to come home so we could all eat together.  When Ahren walked in, he immediately went over to the window and turned on two electric candles that sit in the window.  “You always forget,” he scolded Charity.  She giggled, knowing that was true.  An exasperated Ahren shook his head and that was that. 

I didn’t think of it until this past week when I was driving home from one of our choir rehearsals.  I was driving on Charity and Ahren’s street, looking for their house.  In a row of suburban homes, I still can occasionally have trouble picking out which one is theirs when it’s dark outside.  Looking through my windshield I spotted those two electric candles and instantly knew which driveway to turn down. 

Maybe Ahren had just wanted Charity to know that it only take a little light to be able to find your way home.      

It doesn’t take much to leave the light on.  I thought for a while after meeting Brother Paul that to have that kind of spiritual luminosity, I would have to give my whole life to a monastic lifestyle.  

It turns out it’s much simpler.  

Some read these parables in Matthew about the great division God puts between the wise and the foolish, how there are some who are prepared and ready to enter the joy and celebration God offers and those who are not.  

But all it took was a little oil, a moment of laughter, a bit of sunlight through the ginkgo tree.  I am coming, Jesus says. Turn on your light and see.