In the entryway of my home, just outside my office, hangs a portrait of a woman that reminds me of the “Parable of the Ten Virgins.” It held pride of place at our home in China too, hanging on the central landing where we would all pass it every day, just outside our living room where a little congregation gathered for church every Sunday.
It wasn’t an expensive painting, maybe $30-$35. I bought it one night on the street in Guilin, China, from the artist who was selling his wares. Nearly everything he showed were landscapes, understandable because Guilin is famous for its hauntingly beautiful limestone mounds, lakes, rivers, and utterly breathtaking underground caverns. What tourist wouldn’t want to snatch such a memory to hang on the wall at home, except me who’s never been much for secondhand scenery, unless the specific location held a special personal meaning. But there in the corner of the back table, I spied something different, the portrait of a woman gazing out from a black canvas, lit only by the candles in her hand.
I shied away at first, hesitant to offer. I was alone, knowing there wasn’t much in my pocket, and that I still had to get back to the vacation apartment we had rented. Yet I remained, looking at the tables. The woman in the painting had grabbed my hands and spoken to me. I could not let her go. I walked around the stand and looked again, noticing the date under the artist’s signature. He’d been holding onto it for a couple of years, possibly loathe to sell it, but there was also the possibility it was “old inventory” and he’d be willing to unload. I didn’t dicker, just offered what I could. He nodded and the bargain was struck. He rolled up the canvas, and I carried it in my hands through the airport, on the plane, and on the freeway all the way from Shanghai to Suzhou. I’ve done my best to keep it near me ever since.
It’s just a tourist painting, nothing valuable. It could easily have been painted from a copy of a copy of a copy, but I don’t care. The woman in the portrait is likely of the Miao people, one of the four major ethnic groups in Guilin, each with their own distinctive look, costume, and traditions. She is very beautiful with an elaborate beaten silver headdress and jewelry that is an important part of a Miao funeral or springtime celebration, but utterly essential for a wedding. A Miao woman will begin collecting silver jewelry when she is still a child, so that on her wedding day she will be prepared to enter her groom’s family possessing her own wealth and standing. But it wasn’t the jewelry that caught me, it was the expression on her face.
She is holding up her candles in her left hand, and looking off to her right, as though watching or waiting for something, poised and ready, wearing the red of the traditional Chinese bride, and the silver of her people, carrying on her person all the essential ingredients for a celebration, gathered over the course of her life. The work is done, and there is her face serene, placid, captured just at the moment she begins to smile, lit by a glow she holds herself.
The artist was very likely a Buddhist who has never heard parables of five virgins, let alone ten, but he did capture what he saw, a young woman prepared and at peace with herself, even though she stands in a dark place. A real human in a real moment.
When my kids were little, I’d dress up on Halloween to take them trick-or-treating, and one year I went as an unprepared virgin with a ratty bathrobe, curlers in my hair, carrying an old desk lamp from a thrift store, and wearing a sign that said, “Got Oil?” I’m not sure which was more ironic, asking for oil while trailing a cord from an electric lamp, or a “virgin” taking her three children door to door. My neighbors were too polite to comment either way, but I have thought a great deal about what it means to be prepared.
Preparedness is a bit of a rabbit hole, I’m afraid, and it can keep me up at night if I don’t take a step back and get some perspective. Some people still read the “Parable of the Ten Virgins” and complain that the prepared women should have shared with those who didn’t have enough. It’s a fair argument, because aren’t humans supposed to be charitable and support one another?
Material goods certainly can be traded around as we work hard to fulfill our temporal needs, and keep our eyes out for those who are hitting roadblocks as they struggle to do the same. Having enough of the right things has always been so important to me, and I do not mean silver and gold. Having been born almost pathologically shy, I always needed to have my ducks in a row just to have the courage to talk to people. I needed to look right, know the right words, have enough supplies to be self-reliant, and hold a ticket that gave me the right to be where I stood. I got so good at preparing to fit my slot, that sometimes I forgot I was shy for hours at a time. Then everything crashed.
Suddenly I was facing cancer, divorce, financial disaster, family catastrophes, all my food storage had been given away, and I couldn’t get a job to save my soul. Wow, what do I do when all my crutches have vanished? What does preparation even mean? I needed to find some answers.
I had already been taught that the oil in those virgins’ lamps was always symbolic. The women were carrying the light they had accumulated drop by drop over the course of their lives, and when the bridegroom came, they were prepared to enter with their own inner treasures glowing from within. I don’t have treasures glowing from within. I’m just an ugly, fat lady who is trying to do the best she can. But I’ve figured out I do have a little bit of oil, drops here, and drops there, accumulated from my life experience. Sometimes you have to slam into zero to understand how wealthy you truly are.
I had to learn to receive charity. I’ve talked before about how hard that was for me, but it was a necessary drop of oil I had not yet received, preparation I had not made. I had not yet learned to look at the world through the eyes of the receiver, to know the stress and the struggle, to grapple with simultaneous feelings of gratitude and shame, the personal failure of accepting help. In one of life’s great ironies, it took losing my security to increase my true preparedness, to better see the plight of God’s children, to increase my ability to communicate with the Lord, and to recognize just how much He loves me and my family. When it comes right down to it, God can make bread out of a stone, but He will not force me to be ready for the wedding. Perhaps one day I will meet him wearing all my silver and a bright red dress. In the last few years He’s visited my home enough that I’m pretty sure He’ll appreciate the reference.