Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Luke 16:1-13
On This Week's Prompts for Personal Meditation
I love this ironically twisted story of the shrewd steward. If only I could engage the same cleverness and energy toward the kingdom of God that I apply to frivolous things! Or to adorn my soul with the care, expense, and attention to detail that an actress prepares to walk the red carpet on Oscar night! How skillful the con-man compared with the naive "children of light!" Of course this is another Lukan story of absolute forgiveness. Only God could appreciate the gifts of the consummate con-man in such a way as the master does in this story. Although the implication is that we, too, must also forgive lavishly.
My thoughts went in several directions this week. Commendation of the steward: I thought first of Bishop Nonnus and the story of Pelagia the Harlot, how the adornment of her body (even her bare feet!) inspired him to pray for himself and his clergy, that they might take the example of Pelagia as a goal for adorning their souls (Meditation One). You can not worship God and money: I thought of Belle releasing Scrooge from his engagement to her, a dowerless girl, as his idol has now become gold rather than love (Meditation Two). And being dishonest in little things made me think of Dorothy Day's experience in prison in 1917 when she realized the irony of society punishing dishonesty in little things but commending it on the successful corporate scale (Meditation Three).
Blessings to you in little things and large, -Suzanne
Meditation One (introit) adorned to please Adorned in gold and pearls, the beautiful actress Pelagia rides by a gathering of bishops. But the most blessed Nonnus gazed after her very intently for a long space of time. And after she had gone by, he turned round and still gazed after her. Then he turned toward the bishops sitting round him and said, 'Were you not delighted by such great beauty?' When they did not reply, he buried his face on his knees over the holy Bible which he held in his hands and all his emotion came out in tears; sighing deeply, he said again to the bishops, 'Were you not delighted by her great beauty?' Still they did not answer, so 'Indeed',he said, 'I was very greatly delighted and her beauty pleased me very much. See, God will place her before his awful and tremendous judgment seat and he will judge her on her gifts, just as he will judge us on our episcopal calling.' ...'What do you think, beloved brothers, how many hours does this woman spend in her chamber giving all her mind and attention to adorning herself for the play, in order to lack nothing in beauty and adornment of the body; she wants to please all those who see her, lest those who are her lovers today find her ugly and do not come back tomorrow. Here are we, who have an almighty Father in heaven offering us heavenly gifts and rewards, … why do we not adorn ourselves and wash the dirt from our unhappy souls, why do we let ourselves lie so neglected?' Life of Saint Pelagia the Harlot written by Deacon James, 5th Century, quoted from Harlots of the Desert, Benedicta Ward SLG
Mary Magdalene, Detail, Carravaggio, 1596-7
Lord Jesus Christ. I know I am a sinner and unworthy, for today the ornaments of a harlot have shone more brightly than the ornaments of my soul. How can I turn my face towards you? What words can justify me in your sight? I will not hide my heart from you, for you know all its secrets. Alas, I am a sinner and unworthy, for I stand before your altar and I do not offer you a soul adorned with the beauty you want to see in me. She promises to please men; I have promised to please you; and my filthiness makes me a liar. I am naked before earth and heaven, because I do not keep your commandments. I cannot put my hope in anything good that I do, but I place my trust in Your mercy which saves.
the prayer of Bishop Nonnus The Life of Saint Pelagia the Harlot by Deacon James
Sloth and cowardice creep in with every dollar or guinea we have to guard.
William James 1842-1910 The Varieties of Religious Experience
Anyone who is lukewarm in his work is close to falling.
-John of the Cross Other Counsels
In the Abrahamic religions, God is again and again praised as the “eternally rich One” who holds the fullness of life in both hands. Paradoxically, the way to this richness leads through poverty. Possessions, privileges, and power, all basic institutions of common life, are ever abolished anew in this attempt to come naked before God, without covering and defenses in the vulnerability that every love creates. Love, every love, renders one naked.
-Dorothee Soelle The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance
Poverty of Spirit
Total poverty is more than this. [“having no more than, and being able to call on no more than, the poorest worker”]. It is poverty of Spirit which you, Lord Jesus, said was blessed. that makes every - absolutely every - material thing a matter of complete indifference, so that we can brush everything aside, break with everything … This is the poverty that leaves no attchments at all to temporal things, but completely empties the heart, leaving it whole and entirely free fro God alone. God then refilled it with himself, reigning in it alone, filling it wholly with himself, and putting into it - though not for itself, but for himself, for his own sake - love for all men, his children.
The heart then knows nothing and holds nothing but these two loves. Nothing else exists for it any longer, and it lives on earth as though it were not there, and in continuous contemplation of the only real recessity, the only Being, and in intercession for those whom the Heart of God longs to love.
Charles Foucauld 1858-1916 -The Spiritual Biography of Charles de Foucauld
Vanitas, Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, 1659
Meditation Two (insight) Belle breaks up with Ebeneezer
"It matters little," she said softly. "To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve." "What idol has displaced you?" he rejoined. "A golden one." "This is the even-handed dealing of the world!" he said. "There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!" "You fear the world too much," she answered gently. "All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?" Charles Dickens 1812-1870 A Christmas Carol
Meditation Three (integration) selling ourselves one way or the other
That I would be free again after thirty days meant nothing to me. I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world there are women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us are guilty.... People sold themselves for jobs, for the pay check, and if they received a high enough price, they were honored. If their cheating, their theft, their lie, were of colossal proportion, if it were successful, they met with praise, not blame. -Dorothy Day Jim Forest, Love is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day
The Last Word No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. -Luke 16:13
Bishop Nonnus praying for St. Pelagia and her courtesans, 14th century, Richard de Montbaston and collaborators
The Con-man and the Harlot
I love the story of the dishonest steward. Only God could not only forgive but commend such a scoundrel. (I’m always relieved by the Gospel’s all-encompassing mercy!) The first meditation (above) cites the story of Pelagia the Harlot as a kind of parallel. We don’t know what happens to the shrewd steward, but we know what happens to Pelagia.
During a meeting of clergy, Pelagia rides by on a donkey, adorned with pearls and gold, young men and women dancing by her side. Bishop Nonnus, transfixed by her beauty, follows her with his eyes until she is well out of sight, the other clergy averting their eyes, of course. But Nonnus demands, “Did you not SEE her great beauty?” The clergy, embarrassed, say nothing. If only we, who say we love God, cared for our souls as this woman cares for her hair and pearls!
Pelagia must have noticed Nonnus. She shows up in church and hears him preach. She sends a note to Bishop Nonnus asking him to instruct her for baptism. He responds, explaining the impossibility of the situation. In the case of a harlot, the instructor has to guarantee she won’t go back to her life of sin and he can’t make that promise. And, obviously, he acknowledges, she’s too beautiful for him to manage. He'll find a good Christian matron to instruct her. Pelagia insists that unless HE instructs her, she won’t submit to baptism and the damnation of her soul will be on his conscience. Talk about shrewd! So he agrees.
Pelagia gives away her fortune to her servants. After her baptism she disappears. Her new friends and companions weep with grief. Nonnus, however, not grieving very much himself, comforts them.
Years later, Deacon James, the narrator of this story, decides to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He asks Bishop Nonnus what he should see. Bishop Nonnus tells him that it would be of great profit to visit the holy hermit Pelagius who lives in a hut on the Mount of Olives. Deacon James visits the hermit, who, he realizes in retrospect, must have recognized him, because the hermit withdrew quickly from the window into the shadows of his cell when James approached. The conversation was so enlightening that the deacon decides to visit the hermit one more time before leaving the Holy Land.
But the hermit has died. People from all over come to grieve over the holy man. Upon the washing and anointing however – the mourners find the body of a woman! (Obviously, the once beautiful Pelagia!)
I wonder about the dishonest steward. What happens after his master commends him for his shrewdness? Maybe the master decides not only to keep his friends close but his enemies closer. Perhaps they become great friends and feast side by side at a great table with other sinners and scoundrels. To which we are all invited, of course.
Nonnus said, "If only my clergy cared for their souls as this harlot does for her hair and pearls." If only we brought calculated cunning to the Kingdom, as Pelagia brought to her baptism. What would the church be like with dedicated scoundrels bringing their holy shrewdness alongside the gifts of the less effective children of light?