Pondering Some Proverbs

In daily Mass this week we are reading from the Book of Proverbs, in which a common theme is the contrast between the wise man and the fool.

Let’s examine a few passages from the Proverbs. They go a long way toward explaining the ultimate destiny of the wise and the destruction wrought by foolishness and evil.  My comments are presented in red text.

Blessings are for the head of the just, but a rod for the back of the fool (Proverbs 10:6).

God’s law is a great blessing to those who love wisdom. His commandments are not prison walls; they are defending walls. His commands do not limit freedom so much as they frame it within necessary limits.

To the foolish, though, to those who despise God’s wisdom, to those who hate discipline and reasonable limits, God’s law—any authority that tries to limit behavior—is hateful and punishing, like a rod on the back.

Many today are not simply indifferent to God’s wisdom as proclaimed by the Church and Scripture, they are openly hostile to it!

It is like the reaction of someone who has been sitting in a dark room and is suddenly subjected to bright light. He despises the light and protests its presence as something obnoxious and intrusive. Jesus lamented, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil (Jn 3:19).

A wise man heeds commands, but a prating fool will be overthrown. A path to life is his who heeds admonition, but he who disregards reproof goes astray (Proverbs 10:8, 17).

The wise man listens to instruction and strives to base his life upon it. The wise humbly accept that they do not know all things and must be taught by God.

Fools, those who hate wisdom, prattle on and on about their own opinions. They believe something is true simply because they think it.

The text says that the end of a fool is destruction. Many nations, empires, political ideologies, trends, and philosophies have come and gone over the years, yet God’s truth remains. The wisdom and the Word of the Lord endure forever.

He who winks at a fault causes trouble, but he who frankly reproves promotes peace (Prov 10:10).

There is tremendous pressure today to remain silent about sin and evil. Those who do speak of sin are labeled judgmental and intolerant. Sadly, many Christians have succumbed to this pressure; nothing but trouble can result from such capitulation. The moral cesspool that is our modern age is evidence of this.

The correction of faults, frankly and with love, is an act of charity (St. Thomas Aquinas). Error and sin bring war and division, both individually and collectively, but God’s truth, lovingly proclaimed, brings peace by insisting on what is good, right, true, and beautiful.

We live in an age that turns a blind eye to evil. The world often celebrates it in visual entertainment, written media, and music. One can see the destructiveness of the glamorization of evil simply by reading the news.

God’s law is His peace plan for this broken world of ours; it is His wisdom that will bring us peace.

A fountain of life is the mouth of the just, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (Proverbs 10:11).

Jesus warned that Satan and those who are evil often masquerade in sheep’s clothing, while underneath they are ravenous wolves (see Mat 7:15). Many in our world today who despise God’s wisdom attempt to conceal their violence by using euphemisms such as pro-choice, pro-woman, no-fault divorce, reproductive freedom, euthanasia, and death with dignity.

Despite the cloak of pseudo-compassion, they ultimately peddle death and division. God’s wisdom, on the other hand, speaks to the dignity of every human life, to hope, and to the promise of life in spite of any difficulties.

The soul of the wicked man desires evil; his neighbor finds no pity in his eyes (Proverbs 21:6).

There comes a steady hardening of the heart of a person who loves evil. As the hardening grows worse, they care less and less for the pain they cause others. They show little pity and don’t seem to mind that they destroy the reputations of others. Their cruelty, both physical and emotional, grows ever worse.

The just man’s recompense leads to life, but the gains of the wicked, to sin. Better a little with fear of the Lord than a great fortune with anxiety. Better a little with virtue than a large income with injustice (Proverbs 10: 15, 16).

For those who are striving to be just and to follow God’s wisdom, the rewards received are to be shared generously with others. The gains of the wicked, however, lead to sins such as gluttony, greed, and hoarding. Rather than sharing their abundance with others, they spend it on the flesh; they place their trust in creatures rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.

Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but he who restrains his lips does well (Proverbs 10:19).

In an age of non-stop communication and 24/7 news reporting, the sin of gossip is an almost endlessly available temptation. Discretion appears to have been lost. Almost everyone thinks he has a right to know everything about everyone else. The people’s “right to know” seems to have no limits.

Our age is one of many media (visual, verbal, musical, etc.) and on account of this sin is not wanting. We talk endlessly about other people’s business and often ignore our own issues. Why stay in our own lane when we can “tune in at 11,” read a scandal sheet, or surf to a website for the latest gossip?

Rare indeed are those who “restrain their lips” and limit their critique to what is truly helpful unto conversion.

Crime is the entertainment of the fool; so is wisdom for the man of sense (Proverbs 10:23).

Our culture often celebrates the sins of others as entertainment. On television, in the cinema, and in many other forms of communication, fornication, adultery, and all kinds of sexual misconduct are normalized—even celebrated.

It is the same with violence. Most adventure movies today glamorize its use solve problems. We also glorify mobsters and some other violent criminals.

Some will argue that movies should reflect life. That is fine, but most people are not killing other people, burning cities, crashing cars, or blowing up buildings. Most people are not involved in organized crime. Sadly, however, there is a lot of fornication, adultery, and participation in homosexual acts. In movies, this behavior seems to bring few negative consequences; in real life, however, the consequences are often devastating.

Where are the movies that depict wisdom, beauty, love, truth, chastity, and strong families? There are some out there, but they are far outnumbered by those that celebrate crime, violence, dysfunction, and sinfulness.

When the tempest passes, the wicked man is no more; but the just man is established forever (Proverbs 10:25).

The Church alone is indefectible, by the promise of Jesus Christ. Although evil movements, political forces, and sinful regimes rise and boast of their power, they eventually fall. The Church has seen empires rise and fall and philosophies come and go. Evil men have threatened the Church with destruction for thousands of years, but we have read the funeral rites over every one of them.

The truth will out. Evil will not remain; it cannot last. Christ has already won the victory.

The foolish keep resisting; they laugh at God’s wisdom, dismiss the Scriptures, and ridicule the Church. When they are gone, though, we will still be here proclaiming Christ crucified, gloriously resurrected, and ascended to glory.

Those who mock this resist the consistent message of history. Jesus is Lord, and though He permits His enemies time to repent, their days are ultimately numbered—evil cannot last.

These are just a few proverbs that are particularly appropriate for our times. They help us to understand what God has to say about many modern trends.

Here’s a video with some other sayings. In posting this I do not mean to affirm every saying presented in it, but some of them do make good sense!

The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence

Last week we considered the seven deadly sins; this week we begin a series on the virtues. Traditionally, there are seven Christian virtues: the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. There are also seven virtues (some of which are also in the previous list) that are specifically directed against the seven deadly sins. I will begin today with a consideration of the cardinal virtue of prudence.

Prudence is often misunderstood as merely caution or hesitance in taking action. While prudence sometimes dictates caution, and hasty action is seldom prudent, there are times when it is prudent to act quickly. Having a lengthy discussion about the best way to put out a house fire before acting would not be prudent. This is sometimes the case in less obviously urgent matters as well. For example, it would not be prudent to hesitate in stemming the influence of an erroneous teaching that might confuse or scandalize the faithful. Sometimes a carefully planned and gradual response is best, but at other times a quick denunciation of the error is in order. Prudence is the virtue that sees the best way and commands the will to execute that approach.

Let us consider more fully what prudence is by reviewing the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II, IIae 47). The following is my meager attempt at a summary. Read St. Thomas directly if you seek further clarification.

St. Thomas states, It belongs to prudence chiefly to direct something to a right end; and this is not done aright unless both the end be good, and the means good and suitable (II, IIae 49.7, respondeo). So prudence is the knowledge of how to act or conduct one’s life rightly, what to avoid or seek in the concrete and particular situations that make up our daily life. While prudence belongs to the intellect—because it so fundamentally guides the will—it also has the quality of a moral virtue. Prudence does not so much determine what is right and what is wrong as it regulates the means to make that assessment. In effect, prudence discovers what is good by taking counsel, judging what is discovered, and then commanding the will to execute what we ought to choose.

Because prudence is a virtue rather than merely an ability, it is oriented to what is good and morally upright. If perchance one were to speak (incorrectly) of prudence that was oriented toward what is sinful or evil, we should instead refer to it properly as craftiness or cunning.

Finally, although prudence can exist as a natural virtue, the Christian tradition usually speaks of it in a way that is also charged by supernatural grace and informed by the Wisdom of God.

Prudence is fundamental enough that we may and ought to speak of it as having parts, which St. Thomas calls quasi-integral parts. This is because none of the parts replaces prudence as a whole or alone describes it; rather, together all the parts make prudence what it is. St. Thomas enumerates eight of these parts in the Summa (II, IIae 49):

  1. Memory – In the context of prudence, this refers to the recollection of what has been discovered, through experience, to be true in the majority of cases.
  2. Understanding – Rather than the kind of understanding we attribute to the intellect’s ability to synthesize or comprehend, in the context of prudence this refers to a kind of grasp or right estimation of situations and what should be done.
  3. Docility – This refers to the ability and willingness to be taught, especially by our elders and those with greater experience. None of us can personally know and experience all possible scenarios and matters for decision. Stubbornly opinionated people are almost never prudent because they are not open to being taught or to considering that their experience and prudential judgment can be assisted and augmented by teaching from others.
  4. Shrewdness – This is the ability to estimate rapidly what is suitable and proper in a given circumstance. While docility looks to considering the experiences of others, shrewdness is an aptitude for acquiring a right estimation of what is to be done. Shrewdness here is not understood in its pejorative sense, wherein it refers to cunning or craftiness, but rather as it refers to the gift of being able to come quickly to a proper estimation of the good.
  5. Reason – In the context of prudence, reason means not so much logical analysis as the right use of our mind, wherein we properly equip it and then use its faculties in a way that is adept yet humble. Because prudence involves accepting counsel and then sizing up a particular situation, it is necessary that one be able to reason well. Prudence belongs to the intellect and so reason both serves and is a part of prudence.
  6. Foresight – This is the ability to see something distant, particularly to envision how future contingencies (or consequences) bear upon what should be done now.
  7. Circumspection – This refers to the ability to compare the proposed course of action in the current situation and consider how other things and people would be affected.
  8. Caution – Falsehood is often found along with truth, and evil is mixed with good; sober care (caution) must be exercised in order to grasp the true and good while avoiding the evil. In addition, prudence requires caution to avoid the potential evil of doing nothing.

Thus we have reflected a bit on prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues. Continue to ask God for a healthy prudence, for frequently we err not in determining what is good but on the best way to accomplish that good. Prudence opens doors and keeps us on course toward that which is truly good. While at times prudence points to bold action, at others it counsels steady perseverance so that we attain the good without setting loose that which is inordinate or evil. Indeed, Lord save us from being “do-gooders” who lack prudence and may thereby set loose more evil than we seek to end!

Majoring in the Minors, as Seen in a Commercial

We live in times of great ingenuity; we have a lot of smarts. We’ve been to the moon and back. Our computers can do more and more amazing things, even as we are able to make them smaller and smaller. We can see farther than ever into outer space and look more deeply than ever into “inner space,” doing microsurgery and studying the human genome.

Yet although we have become technological giants, at the same time we’ve become moral midgets. Though able to solve complex technical problems, we can’t figure how to stay faithful to our commitments or keep our families together. The churches that once dominated our skylines are now dwarfed by buildings dedicated to banking, insurance, and other passing worldly affairs.

Our houses, with their great rooms, cathedral ceilings, and granite countertops, are monuments to our wealth. But inside, these houses are not homes; they are often filled with division and sterility.

Despite all our monetary wealth there is little wisdom; despite all our power there is little prudence.

From an eternal perspective our smarts amount to sandcastles on the beach that are sure to be washed away. Ultimately they cannot stand any more than can we.

Scripture warns of the human tendency to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We are smart, but about the wrong things. Our priorities are misguided.

  1. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matt 23:22-24).
  2. But God said to [the rich man who built barns], “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich in what matters to God (Luke 12:20-21).
  3. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light (Lk 16:8).
  4. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ (Phil 2:21).
  5. But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people (2 Tim 3:1-5).
  6. How prosperous Israel is—a luxuriant vine loaded with fruit. But the richer the people get, the more pagan altars they build. The more bountiful their harvests, the more elaborate their pagan pillars. Their heart is false; now they must bear their guilt. The LORD will break down their altars and destroy their pillars (Hosea 10:1-2).
  7. A discerning person keeps wisdom in view, but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth (Proverbs 17:24).
  8. They are ingenious in their wickedness (Romans 1:30).

In other words, we humans tend to get smartest about the least important things, and are foolishly forgetful of eternal things—the things that matter most. Yes, we maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. There are some who know everything there is to know about football, or who’s who in Hollywood or politics, but are at a loss when it comes to the most basic spiritual concepts, biblical stories, or moral teachings. Hours are consumed by sports, television, and politics, but there is no time for prayer.

Well, you get the point. We are smart, but about the wrong things. Meanwhile we remain foolishly out of touch with the things that matter to God and that last unto life eternal.

I thought of all this when I saw the following commercial, which appeared recently in my YouTube queue. It features men who have developed every talent imaginable related to beer.

Now I have nothing against beer in moderation. But allow the beer to represent the things of this world. And thus we see humorously illustrated our tendency and capacity to become very talented in worldly things. But at the end of the day, it’s just beer; it’s just the world, a world that is passing away.

Are we as talented and ingenious about spiritual things?

On the Gifts of Aging – A Meditation on the Inverse Proportionality of Physical Aging and Spiritual Vigor

We live in an age where youth is celebrated and aging is lamented. Generations ago, age was the “hoary crown of wisdom,” the elders were reverenced and the young stood when they entered. But in this age of the visual, this age of television, everything is reversed. I remember a line from a song (by The Who) when I was a teenager which said, “Hope I die before I get old.”

The Photo at  right is me at 5 years old, my dad to the right was 38, my grandfather was 68. All three of us were named “Charles Evans Pope.” Now they’re both gone on, and its just me. The world laments age and death, But as I look at this photo I rejoice for them and myself. They were men of faith, their journey is done, and my is well past noon. And as I journey in their wake, I marvel at what the Lord is doing for me.

Yes, as for me, I must say, I’m glad I’m getting older. I know, you’ll say, “At 50 you’re just a child.” But I am not child, I’m half past dying and celebrating that God has brought me a mighty long way. Yes, I’ve discovered that the gifts of God have come more alive in me as my youthful vigor has dissipated.  I see those old pictures of myself in my twenties, looking young, tan and trim, now I’m old(er), white and fat. But though my body has gone south for the winter of life, now my soul has come alive as never before.

St. Paul says, Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16).

Yes, indeed, I am a witness. I have to admit, my body isn’t exactly wasting away (it actually tends to gain weight), but it surely is not the sound sleek body of my youth. But this I can surely attest, my inmost self is being renewed and strengthened with each passing day. I have become more prayerful, more joyful at what God is doing, more aware of his presence and his ways. I am seeing sins put to death and better things come alive.I am less fearful, more confident, less angry, more serene.

Inverse proportionality – Yes, even though my physical stamina is less, I get winded climbing stairs now, my spiritual strength is better than ever. At age 50, I am more alive than I was at age 20. Glory be to God! I would never want to be 20 again, the Lord has just brought me too far and done too much for me, to ever want to set the clock back again. A few particulars occur to me that suggest an inverse proportion between youthful vigor and spiritual growth.

  1. My physical eyesight has become very poor. I am quite crippled without my glasses now. Until forty I did not wear glasses at all. But since forty I have come to place where, without my glasses everything is just a hazy blur. And yet, I spiritually see things I never did before. The word of God jumps off the page in new ways. There are new insights, new enlightenment as to what God is saying. I rejoice in this new inner vision that has come upon me in this second half of my life and I look with great expectation to the even deeper vision He will give me as I age.
  2. My hearing has become poorer with the onset of middle age. I have had a certain hearing loss since birth but now it becomes worse. But here too, I have learned to listen more attentively and to look at others while they speak. This connects me more deeply to them.
  3. I also have new insights into the people I am privileged to know. I have come to appreciate how wonderfully quirky we all are and how closely related our gifts are to our deficits. Though my physical vision is poor, my insight into the glory and the struggle of those closest to me is a gift I appreciate and hope to see grow even more with the passing years.
  4. Even as my physical hearing has diminished, my spiritual hearing has become far more acute. I hear things in God’s word I never did before. I hear God speaking to me on my spiritual walk with greater sensitivity. We have very good lectors and a marvelous choir in my parish and I marvel at what I hear from them each Sunday. Faith comes by hearing, and as I age I am more sensitive to what I hear at Mass and in sacred moments. When I was young, I was tuned out at Mass. The priest was just “some dude” up there talking and the Choir, well they weren’t singing rock, so what did it matter. But God has opened my ears as I have aged to appreciate his voice in newer and wider ways. Thanks be to God. He speaks to me throughout my day and I hear his voice more consistently.
  5. As I age, I am less physically able to accomplish things I once did on my own. I now fear heights and can’t climb tall ladders. I have a hard time lifting heavy things without injury. But all this has made me more humble and more appreciative of the help that others can give. Gratitude and an proper sense of interdependence are a gift I have discovered with age.  In the gift of age God has helped me be more grateful and connected to others.
  6. As I age and become less physically “glorious,” I appreciate more deeply the beauty and glory of Creation. Indeed, it astounds me in new ways. Each new discovery shouts out the glory of God to me. I am far more appreciative of the present glory of God than I ever was as a youth, when the focus was more on me. Now simple things, like the color purple, the magnificence of Spring, the quiet still after a heavy snow, the wonder and awe created by watching a science channel show on the mysteries of the deep oceans. As I have become more vincible and fragile with age, the world far more astonishes me and makes me cry, Glory to God!
  7. As I have aged I have discovered limitations. But this has made more humble and understanding of the struggles of others. When I was young I was impatient. There was little I could not do, or at lost thought I could not do. But, now, experiencing more of my limits I have seen compassion and understanding awaken in me, patience too.
  8. As I have aged, I am more easily fatigued. I usually need an afternoon nap and am blessed to be able to take one, living as I do “above the store.” It’s the only way I can get through my evening appointments. Yet, what a gift a nap is. I am mindful of Psalm 127 which says, In vain is your earlier rising, your going later to rest, you who toil for the bread you eat; for the Lord pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber (v. 4). Yes, God does pour his gifts on us even when we slumber. And as I age a I grateful even for the gift of a brief rest.

More could be said. I am glad to be getting just a bit older. I am running to meet God, and every day brings me closer. I can’t wait to see Him. I am like a child in Mid December who can’t wait for Christmas morning. That the days speed by more quickly only increases the longing for me. Each day, each step, closer to God.

And while my body goes south, my soul looks up. The weaker my physical flesh, the stronger my spirit and soul. The weaker my eyes, the deeper my spiritual vision and insight. The duller my physical hearing, the more intent my spiritual ears. God is good, he takes the one gift and returns another and greater gift.

And the best is yet to come! The Gospel today was of the man born blind who came to see, and God said to me at Mass today, in the words of a Gospel song,  “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” Scripture affirms: Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of his works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).St. Paul says, When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Cor 13:11-12)

I’m running to meet God. Age is a glorious thing, bring it on!

This song says,  Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus. (As the deer longs for running water, so longs my soul for you, O God). The text is from Psalm 42:1  I would compare the song to a musical sigh. Palestrina has captured well the longing of the human heart for God here. Another gift that I think comes with age.

In Seeking Wise Counsel, Find Someone Who Has Suffered

Back in seminary, as we were coming close to ordination we were exhorted by the spiritual director of the Seminary to find a spiritual director in our diocese and to be faithful in meeting with him. I remember well being surprised at the main criteria we were told to look for. I expected to hear that he be orthodox, wise, prudent, and so forth. And I am sure our seminary director of spiritual formation presumed we knew that, for he did not list any of those as the main criteria. No he said something far different than I expected. He said, “In looking for a spiritual director I would counsel you, above all, to strive to find a priest who has suffered. Such a one will be a surer guide for you.”

I suppose it is hard to simply define what it means to have suffered. Here in America there are not many priests who have recently come from a gulag. But suffering comes in different ways and I have found it is possible to tell those who have been tempered by its schooling. There is a true wisdom that comes from suffering.

In the reading from Sirach, in Wednesday’s Mass we read this:

Wisdom breathes life into her children and admonishes those who seek her….She walks with him as a stranger and at first she puts him to the test; Fear and dread she brings upon himand tries him with her discipline until she try him by her laws and trust his soul. Then she comes back to bring him happiness and reveal her secrets to them and she will heap upon him treasures of knowledge and an understanding of justice.  (Sirach 4:11-18 selectae)

Scripture also says,

  1. Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.  (Eccles 7:4)
  2. With humility comes wisdom. (Prov 11:2)
  3. Before I was afflicted I strayed, but now I obey your word. (Psalm 119:67)
  4. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Cor 1:3-4)

Perhaps we wish it were different but most of us know that our sorrows and crosses have usually been our best teachers. There is a test in every testimony. The text above says wisdom puts us to the test, fear and even dread are brought upon us and discipline is insisted upon. Only then does wisdom open her treasures and reveal her secrets.

Where would I be today without my crosses? What knowledge and wisdom would I lack without the challenges and difficulties that caused me to ask questions and passionately seek answers. When you suffer, platitudes aren’t enough, slogans won’t do. You have to go deeper, search for real answers and often learn that there are no simple answers. Suffering also unlocks an acceptance of paradox and an appreciation that all is not as it seems and some of God’s greater gifts come in mighty strange packages. Suffering can also teach silence and waiting. Great wisdom is found in these virtues. Suffering bestows insight, trust and serene peace. Only after years of suffering could Joseph stand before his criminal brothers and say, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Gen 50:20). Suffering does that, it teaches the deeper things, the harder things, the better things.

 In seeking counsel, look for those who have suffered. It is not the only thing, to be sure. For some have suffered and only grown resentful and despairing. But there are those unique and beautiful souls who, tempered by suffering, and steeled by faith have come to a place where wise counsel has found a stable home. Seek them. And, dare I say, seek to be among them, as one of their number.

On the Preventative Medicine of The Church’s Wisdom and Experience

As a teenager I remember resenting how adults would try and prevent me from doing what I pleased. They would often warn me not to “learn the hard way” that something was wrong. I would often be told that I should learn from them and their experiences not to make the same mistakes they did. The rebel in me thought that it might be fun and pleasurable to “make a few mistakes of my own.” Of course I pridefully thought that I would escape the consequences.

In the end of course they were right, and one the most valuable gifts I have received from others to have learned from their experience. As a pastor too I must say that my staff has preserved me from innumerable errors through their expertise and long experience with the parish.

The word “experience” comes from the Latin experientia, meaning the act of trying or testing. More deeply it comes from two Latin words,  ex (out of) + periri  (which is akin to periculum, meaning peril or danger). Hence “experience” refers to those have endured trials, perils, testing, and dangers,  and speak out of these to us so we don’t have to endure such things. It is a very great gift!

The Church too offers us the great gift of long experience. Indeed, one of the great advantages of making our home in the Catholic Church is that we are at the feet of a wise and experienced teacher who has “seen it all.” The Scriptures, the Catechism, the lives of the Saints, all the Church’s teaching,  is a wealth of knowledge and collected experience for us. Through this vast treasury The Church, as a good mother and teacher, helps us to learn from the experiences of others.

At this point I would like for G.K. Chesterton to do the talking:

The other day a well-known writer, otherwise quite well-informed, said that the Catholic Church is always the enemy of new ideas. It probably did not occur to him that his own remark was not exactly in the nature of a new idea. …Nevertheless, the man who made that remark about Catholics meant something….What he meant was that, in the modern world, the Catholic Church is in fact the enemy of many influential fashions; most of which … claim to be new. [But] nine out of ten of what we call new ideas, are simply old mistakes.

The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves….There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and nearly all errors.

The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them. On this map of the mind the errors are marked…[but] the greater part of it consists of playgrounds and happy hunting-fields, where the mind may have as much liberty as it likes. But [the Church] does definitely take the responsibility of marking certain roads as leading nowhere or leading to destruction…
By this means, it does prevent men from wasting their time or losing their lives upon paths that have been found futile or disastrous again and again in the past, but which might otherwise entrap travelers again and again in the future.

The Church does make herself responsible for warning her people against these; she does dogmatically defend humanity from its worst foes… Now all false issues have a way of looking quite fresh, especially to a fresh generation. ..[But] we must have something that will hold the four corners of the world still, while we make our social experiments or build our Utopias. (From Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds (1926). Reprinted in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 3 Ignatius Press 1990)

Yes, what a gift. Many may take of the role of a pouty teenager and be resentful at any warning from the Church. But in the end, It’s a mighty fine gift to be able to learn from others and benefit from their experience. Here’s a funny ad  from yesterday’s Super Bowl that illustrates this:

Distinguishing Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding

As you may recall, there are seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Piety, Fortitude and Fear of the Lord. Most Catholics cannot define them well in any sort of articulate way. This is due to poor catechesis but also to the fact that modern English has tended to use several of these terms interchangeably, almost as synonyms, though they are distinct theologically. There are also secular usages of these terms that have no correspondence to how we mean them theologically. To indicate intellectual understanding of something,  a person in modern English may say, “I know” or they may say “I understand.” To most modern Anglophones this is a distinction without a difference.  To speak of someone as being of great intelligence, a contemporary English speaker might say, “He has great understanding” or “He is a wise man” or yet again, “He is possessed of great knowledge.” Here too most would not think of these as dramatically different sentences. There are shades of meaning in calling a man wise versus smart or knowledgeable but most modern speakers are losing what those shades of difference actually are.

For all these reasons (poor catechesis, secular misuse  and evolving language) Catholics have a hard time distinguishing between Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding. Let’s try to repair some of the damage.

First, some distinctions:

  1. We are discussing here the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. As such they are given to the baptized and strengthened in confirmed. They exist only in the Christian per se. A man may be said to be knowledgeable in the repair of a car or in the stock market, but we are not referring to the Gift of Knowledge given by the Holy Spirit in this case, only to worldly knowledge. A woman may be said to be wise in the ways of the world. But again, we are not referring to the Gift of Wisdom given by the Holy Spirit when we speak in this way. A man may be said to understand Spanish, but we are not speaking of the Gift of Understanding given by the Holy Spirit when we speak in this way. Hence, there are worldly counterparts to these words which do not conform to the theological meaning of these realities.
  2. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are supernaturaland thus they transcend the ordinary powers of the soul or the human person in general. They are infused by God and no soul could ever acquire them on its own. In these senses they are different from the virtues which can be acquired naturally and can be moved or actuated by man himself. In the caseof the Gifts, God is the unique mover and cause. Man is only the instrumental cause. Thus the acts which proceed from the gifts are materially human but  formally divine just as the melody an artist plays on the harp is materially from the harp but formally from the musician who plays it. That the soul reacts or responds preserves freedom and merit but the soul merely seconds the divine action and can not take the initiative.
  3. Wisdom and knowledge are distinguished according to their objects. Wisdom pertains to God and the things of God. Knowledge pertains to created things and how they relate to our final end.
  4. Understanding too, meant here as the Gift of Understanding has a rather specific focus: It penetrates revealed truth to grasp its fullest meaning. Hence one may understand Spanish, but we are not referring to the Gift of Understanding in speaking this way. To grasp the purpose, meaning and implications of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ would be a more proper usage of this word in terms of the Gift of Understanding.

OK, How about some Definitions. Incidentally, these definitions are gleaned from the Summa and also substantially from Fr. Antonio Royo Marin O.P. in his Book,  The Great Unknown, The Holy Ghost and His Gifts

  1. The Gift of Knowledge is a supernatural habit infused by God through which the human intellect, under the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit, judges rightly concerning created things as ordained to the supernatural end. Notice that it is a habit. That is,  it does not come and go. But like all habits, it can and does grow in depth and breadth. Grace builds on nature,  and as one matures and gains experience the Gift can and does make use of these human qualities. Because the gift is supernatural it is not a matter of human or philosophical knowledge deduced by natural reason. In other words you don’t go to school to get this gift. However, it is not unrelated to human development which school can provide. But this is not its origin. There are plenty of learned and humanly smart people who do not manifest the Gift of Knowledge. This can be due to a lack of faith or to resistance caused by weak faith and sin. By the Gift of Knowledge the human intellect apprehends and judges created things by a certain divine instinct. The individual does not proceed by laborious reasoning but judges rightly concerning all created things by a kind of superior gift that gives an intuitive impulse. I have underlined “created things” because this essentially distinguishes knowledge from wisdom (which pertains to Divine, rather than created things). Notice that the Gift is especially oriented to created things insofar as they pertain to our ultimate end. Now created things tend either toward our supernatural end or away from it and the Gift of Knowledge helps us to judge rightly in this respect. Looked at another way, the Gift of Knowledge helps us to apply the teachings of our faith to the living of daily life, the proper usage of material creation, knowing the proper utility and value of things as well as their dangers and misuses. By it we are able to determine well what conforms to faith and what does not. We are able to make use of creation in a proper way with necessary detachment and proper appreciation for what is truly good.
  2. The Gift of Wisdom is a supernatural habit, inseparable from charity, by which we judge rightly concerning God and divine things under the special instinct of the Holy Spirit who makes us taste these things by a certain intuition  and sympathy. In other words The truths of God begin to resonate with us and we begin to instinctively love what God loves, will  what God wills. What he is and wills makes great sense to us. His teachings clarify and make sense. We see things increasingly from God’s point of view through this supernatural gift. The thinking of the world increasingly seems as folly and appreciation of God’s Wisdom magnifies. More and more thorough this gift the human person desires to be in union only with God and His ways. By this gift the world is defeated and its folly clearly perceived. Our love of neighbor is also perfected by it since the Gift of Wisdom helps us to see and thus love others more and more as God sees and loves them. Since this is a gift,  it cannot be learned or acquired. But, as with the Gift of Knowledge, one’s study of Scripture and Tradition can help dispose one for the growth of the Gift which can and does make use of what is humanly supplied. Grace builds on nature.
  3. The Gift of Understanding is a supernatural habit, infused by God with sanctifying Grace, by which the human intellect, under the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit, is made apt for a penetrating intuition of revealed truths, and even of natural truths so far as they are related to the supernatural end. It enables the believer to penetrate into the depths of revealed truth and deduce later by discursive thinking the conclusions implicit conclusions contained in these truths. It discloses the hidden meaning of Sacred Scripture. It reveals to us the spiritual realities that are under sensible realities and so that the smallest religious ceremonies carry tremendous significance.  It makes us see causes through their effects simply and intuitively. This gives a profound appreciation for God’s providence.

This song says, “Take My Life and Let it Be Consecrated Lord to Thee.” It goes on to consecrate the whole person to Christ, including the intellect and will. As such it is an invitation for the Seven Gifts to come fully alive.

Pondering Pithy Sayings

I have a love/hate relationship with slogans, philosophies of life, and pithy sayings. At one level I like the way they make me think. They sort of reduce all the complicated ways we think of things to a simple thought or insight. It’s good for a moment to cut through all the noise and consider “just one thing.” But that’s also my problem with these things. In reducing everything to one thing we lose the essential nuances and the sophistication that accept that not everything fits into a nice little saying.

For example, consider the saying “All things in moderation!” Well yes, moderation is a good thing most of the time. But there is also a time to throw moderation to the winds and become passionate about things. There is a time to fight (or celebrate) with gusto. Maybe its a fight for justice, or maybe we’re called to sell everything for the “pearl of great price.” So all right, “All things in moderation,… including moderation!” Anyway I hope you get the point about sayings and slogans: enjoy with caution and careful consideration.

The following video contains a very good collection of “philosophies of life.” Many of them I have never seen before and some of them are quite good. But remember, like analogies, many of the things said in them are as untrue as they are true. Consider them as a way to make you think: what is true about this saying? What is untrue? What distinctions are necessary, especially for a Christian? So think. But don’t think so hard that you fail to enjoy. Take what you like, take what is true and leave the rest.