Saturday, August 26, 2006

This Night Your Soul is Required of You

I am just back from a week's vacation. Not the usual sort of vacation that I hear about other people sometimes taking, but as close as I seem to get to taking one: sleeping on a distant couch, preferably the kind that folds out into a bed. This time it was a relatively nearby distant couch, one in a time-share in Park City, almost 30 miles outside of Salt Lake. Thanks to the Internet trading of my aunt and uncle for the opportunity in general. And, in particular, my ability to detach myself from my weekday activities to drive my mother there and stay. As nice as it was to spend some time in a resort town, and to get away from the narrow horizons that normally present themselves to me in my day to day life, the greatest part of the trip was much more precious—time.

In the Lectionary readings of a few weeks ago, we read the version of the parable of the Rich Fool that is found in the Gospel of Thomas. It is a short, simple, and stark story. A man is prosperous, well off, in the black. He makes some plans on how to use his current wealth to make even more money. Right after planning this, he dies. I like the archaic phrasing from the King James Version. “But God said to him, Fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee.”

There are different interpretations of the “moral” of this parable. However, being a parable, it is a symbol in story form. It cannot be encapsulated in any single “moral.” That is why I like the simplicity of the version found in Thomas, it lacks the interpretation that is found in Luke. This lets you approach it again and again for the first time. The only thing missing from English interpretations of this parable from the Coptic of Thomas is the compelling poetry of the phrase, “this night thy soul shall be required of thee.”

One of the “morals” given to this parable is that the rich man was foolish for keeping the wealth and not giving it to the poor. Presumably, that would have been a wiser investment in that interpretation, giving him eternal dividends in the afterlife. I addressed this type of thinking in my article on “Treasures in Heaven” so I won't go into it here, except to mention that it strikes me as the weakest of the possible spins to put on this parable. Turning it all into some postmortem investment scheme. Some way to get “more bang for your buck,” or some such nonsense.

No, there are many other reasons why the man in the parable is a fool. The one I'll touch on here is a simple one, so simple that it's profundity escapes us until it is too late. One of the ways in which the rich fool misplaces value is to value his wealth to the exclusion of what was so much more precious—time. No amount of wealth could purchase him one more sunrise. It was that night that his soul was required of him. That very literal deadline could not be moved back one day, or hour, or minute more.

No matter what his plans where, he could not have carried them out. Even if he had planned to go and give all that he had to the poor the next day, it wouldn't have happened. Nothing on the other side of that night would ever matter to him the way that night would. For nothing beyond that night would ever be, even though he could not know that. Yet he spent those few precious remaining minutes planning on how to use the abundance that he had acquired only for the purpose of acquiring more the next season, which, presumably, he would also only use to acquire still more after that.

In every consideration of the parable, the man is a fool because he values the wrong things, he doesn't recognize what is truly valuable. He lacks Gnosis, and so goes about doing what seems best for him in the world like life were merely a game. He doesn't experience it directly in the story, he makes plans, laying out a strategy for the game. There is no fault found with his strategy, it is never intimated that his plans wouldn't work. He will simply never get to implement them. The game ends and he is no longer the playing piece in his future plans, but a soul. No longer a prosperous man doing what seems wise, but a fool.

It is amazing how often we put off doing things. How much time we spend making plans that will not even be attempted. How much we refuse to simply allow ourselves to be ourselves until this or until that, or, because of this or because of that. And so our strategy becomes to not live our life as we would truly want to do so at the only time that we will have to do so—a strategy guaranteed to loose. For the only time that we can have is right now. The only place were we can live is here, now.

Trading away a day now for a future day may be a poor bargain in other ways. Scientists have found that subjective time really does pass by faster the older you get, making our real mid-life two decades earlier than the stereotypical one. Yet this is the time we trade most readily, perhaps because it does seem so abundant. But, one day does not equal one day, even if one lives through both of them. And, as the parable points out, one may not.

What does this have to do with a vacation? The precious time I referred to, was time spent with my dear aunt, my other mother. She is dying of cancer. Her objective time is limited by that fact, her subjective time is limited by the toll this takes on her, the need to rest and sleep more and more.

Yet I had an hour with her in an art gallery, really looking at paintings. I had a half hour with her walking along a small stream. I had hours with her talking about the things that matter most in life. The difficulties of this way of life prevented me from spending my recent birthday with her like I had wanted to do. It was the birthday present that I wanted most. And I not only didn't get to see her that day, but wasn't able to see her afterwards, until we were all together in Park City. And so, I like to think that I was not a fool after all. For the same circumstances that made for barriers, made for this opportunity. And while I don't have money, I do have some precious time.

Few know even vaguely how much time they have left, or how quickly it will seem to pass. My own time to accomplish things seems so very limited. Yet even then, the temptation is to wait, to make plans, to do other things first. And so, another gift my aunt has given me is the recognition of the preciousness of time. The time in which we can feel alive, experience, be souls rather than a role or a game piece, is more precious than rubies. The man in the parable is a fool because only at the very end of his life was his soul required of him. Our souls are required of us not as a discontinuity of our lives, but as the living out of them. Not in the future, but now. This night. This day.


Padre G said...

Thanks for sharing this. It is something I too have learned interacting with patients at the City of Hope Cancer Research Center. It has certainly made me change my priorities.

Your point about the 'fool' not having Gnosis is essential to interpreting the story. There is nothing wrong with contemplating how to invest one's resources - the error comes in doing so at the expense of experiencing the beauty of our short trip through this realm.

Linda said...

Very enlightening post, I enjoyed it very much. I am sorry to hear of your aunt, I know from experience how hard it can be. My own father was diagnosed with cancer in October of 1996, and he passed away in December of the same year. I spent everyday with him watching his old movies, letting him teach me chess and just enjoying his company. When the end came, I had no regrets and felt the loss, but not as significantly as my siblings. Cherishing everyday and every moment is what life is about and I don't intend to have any regrets. Peace be with you.