Homilies - July 2011

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Feast of St. Benedict: July 11, 2011 by Fr. James

Sixth Sunday of Easter

  • July 11, 2011
  • by Fr. James

I am going to begin this homily in such a way that you may well doubt that it is a homily at all, but I trust that by the end, or even midway, you will be convinced that it is one. You may have seen a cartoon in Saturday’s Washington Post, taken from the British journal The Economist, that showed two angry creatures driving jeeps toward one another at full speed, moments from a head-on collision. One was a donkey, symbol of the Democratic party, carrying a banner that said, “Step Aside!” The other was the GOP elephant, his banner proclaiming, “My Way or the Highway!” Looking on in the background were two small, befuddled figures labeled Egypt and Tunisia. The caption read: “Want to learn about the Wonders of Democracy? Here’s a crash course.”

It was a clever cartoon, but the reality that it captured is immensely sad. I expect that many of you are, like me, among the more than eighty percent of Americans who have lost confidence in most of our lawmakers because intransigent ideological positions seem to be trumping any action that would be for the long-term good of our country, including the future good of children who are yet too young even to understand what is going on.

There is plenty of blame to go around. An editorial in yesterday’s Post began by quoting Nancy Pelosi’s recent decree, “No benefit cuts in Medicare and Social Security.” The editors correctly went on to say, “This is not a tenable position…. The program is on a course to run out of enough money to pay promised benefits in [the year] 2036. The longer policymakers wait to make adjustments, the more painful these adjustments will be…. Insisting on no change to scheduled benefits for any retiree … is not a responsible position—nor, at bottom, a progressive one.” There is a similar lack of responsibility on the part of many Republicans. David Cogdill, who had been the leader of his party in the California Senate before he was dumped for supporting Governor Schwarzenegger’s call for a rise in some taxes to help erase the state’s gargantuan budget shortfall, recently said that Republicans “have lost the art of compromise. If we don’t get everything we want, then we let the whole thing burn.”

Now the reason why I bring all this up is that those in either party unwilling to make necessary compromises are manifesting a profound lack of wisdom, a virtue that is distinct from both knowledge and understanding and that is, in our Judeo-Christian tradition, regularly seen as superior to both these other virtues. Whereas knowledge is primarily the accumulation of facts, and understanding is the ability to evaluate the facts at one’s disposal, wisdom is the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, and—above all—of lasting importance. It is, in other words, the ability to see the big picture, and in a religious context this means seeing everything sub specie aeternitatis, from the viewpoint of eternity or, we might say, making judgments and decisions in light of what will truly bring us closer to our eternal goal, life with God.

Now this is exactly what St. Benedict teaches us, both in his monastic rule and by the very example of his life. He never intended to start something altogether new but only to pass on to his own generation the tradition that had begun a few centuries earlier in saints like Antony of Egypt and Basil of Caesarea and that is regularly called “a wisdom tradition,” a way that instills in those who practice it the way to true life. This is, by the way, why so many of the sayings of the Desert Fathers begin with a young monk’s request to an elder: “Father, give me a word by which I may live.” That Benedict succeeded in living out this tradition himself is captured in that striking account left us by Gregory the Great in his life of Benedict, when he writes that toward the end of his life the saint once saw the entire world gathered up in what appeared to be a single ray of light. Benedict was, in other words, seeing everything from a God’s-eye point of view, and that is the essence of genuine wisdom.

Most appropriately, we hear such wisdom praised in our Lectionary’s first reading for today’s feast from the Book of Proverbs, one of the preeminent wisdom books of the Bible. The passage, you will recall, says this: “My son, if you receive my words and treasure my commands, turning your ear to wisdom, inclining your heart to understanding … then you will understand the fear of the Lord; the knowledge of God you will find. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”

Without using the actual terminology of wisdom, our Gospel really makes the same point. We there hear of the disciples having given up everything—houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, lands—for the sake of Christ, a decision that can indeed look like foolishness from a purely inner-worldly perspective, but the wisdom of their choice is captured by what Jesus goes on to promise: “[You will] receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” This promise has drawn hundreds of thousands of men and women to embrace monastic life down the centuries and still has the power to do so today. As we continue our celebration on this feast of our great patron, let us, then, pray that we may be faithful to what he writes at the end of the prologue to his rule: “Never swerving from [Christ’s] instructions, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.”

Abbot James Wiseman
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