28 January 2008

Only fools call themselves Wise...


St Thomas Aquinas: Wis 7.7-10, 15-16 and Matt 23.8-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

The Book of Wisdom wisely teaches us: “…both we and our words are in [God’s]* hands…” It is wise that the Book of Wisdom teach us this b/c as a book this book would not want—if a book could want—to be left in the hands of a fool to be read by foolish eyes and taught by foolish tongues. The wisdom imparted here also reminds the potential fool that he or she does not read, teach, write, or research alone. Prior to any desire for knowledge, any longing to know, is the primal hunger for God, our preferred state of perfected union. Our intellectual and academic pursuits are marked from the beginning with the presence of God, Wisdom: “…I chose to have [wisdom] rather than the light, because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.” So even before the light is shone in the darkness, wisdom abides and seduces us to the humility proper before our Father in heaven.

What is wisdom? Aquinas writes, “According to [Aristotle] (Metaph. i: 2), it belongs to wisdom to consider the highest cause. By means of that cause we are able to form a most certain judgment about other causes, and according thereto all things should be set in order…[and in the second article] Accordingly it belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue to pronounce right judgment about Divine things after reason has made its inquiry…”(ST II-II.45.1-2). Slightly more simply put, wisdom is that habit of mind that seeks to discover and study the final causes of all things and put these things in their proper order given their final cause. Wisdom is not some goofy, spooky secret that floats around waiting for the right moment to possess someone. Nor is wisdom to be found among the sticky tomes of Retail Gnosticism that haunt Borders and Barnes & Noble. These “wisdoms”—usually some form of esoteric paganism muscled-up with pseudo-scientific jargon—these wisdoms tend to provide the weak ego with a boost of faux confidence and leads the newly self-minted guru to exalt him or herself. But here’s what we know from the wisest teacher of them all: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

On receiving a gift, we say “thank you” to the giver, thus humbling ourselves before the giver as a sign of our dependence on him or her for that gift. We say grace over our food, giving thanks for our benefactors and our cook. Perhaps you woke up this morning and gave God thanks for one more day to serve Him. We are all here now offering the ultimate thanksgiving of the Mass. But do you thank God for your Reason, your ability to deliberate on moral problems, your sense of right and wrong given the limits of right reason, your ability to experience creation and deduce godly truths? Do you thank God daily for His wisdom? If not, I wonder who it is you call “Master”? I wonder what it is that moves you to think about anything at all. . .

To help his disciples maintain the humility necessary to grow in wisdom, Jesus tells them: “Do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.” He also says not to call anyone “father” or “Master” b/c they have one Father and Master. The essential point here is that there is a single source of Wisdom for us, just one origin for the understanding of all things made. This warning isn’t about titles or honorifics but about foolishly identifying someone created as the source of Creation. It is not difficult to see how quickly such folly grows into madness. And that madness into the exaltation of one who was created from dust. What is there in the human mind that precedes the wisdom of the mind’s Creator? Nothing. Thomas called it “straw.” Straw has its proper uses, for sure, and it is a good thing, but it is straw not enduring truth. Enduring truth starts for us when we come to understand that “…both we and our words are in [God’s]* hand…”

*I’m not avoiding the male pronoun here in deference to the so-called rules of “inclusive language.” Context requires that the pronoun be specified.

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