Anno Christi MMXV
The prayer of the Church is a storehouse of instruction and inspiration. For us who are beginning a year of theological studies, the Church’s liturgy for the Votive Mass of the Most Holy Eucharist is particularly illuminating. One of the readings for the Votive Mass is the beginning of the ninth chapter of the book of Proverbs, a passage that opens with the declaration “Wisdom has built her house” (Prov 9:1), and, continues, several verses later, to speak of Wisdom, that is, of Christ, as inviting the townsfolk to “come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Prov 9:5).
As students and teachers, it is fitting for us to consider our common work in light of the metaphor of building a house for wisdom. There is ample warrant for such a metaphor in the writings of the Apostles, for St. Paul speaks of our bodies as “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), while St. Peter writes: “like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:5). Common experience also supports the comparison. The first and essential function of a house is to offer protection to our bodies; the moral virtues have an analogous role to play by protecting wisdom from the many temptations and distractions that surround us. A house also constitutes a kind of stage upon which we exercise the virtues of the active life, while our characters are, as it were, the stages on which wisdom plays its role of guiding and directing us to our end. Finally, the house is the prime example of the architect’s work of marshalling the various subordinate crafts to a common end, for it is within the house that the arts of the plumber, electrician, carpenter, painter, and upholsterer are joined together in the service of a complete work. Similarly, it is wisdom, the habitual knowledge of God, that alone is able to conduct the various instruments of human knowing in the glorious symphony of truth.
In our work of building a house for wisdom, it is nothing less than the love of Christ that “urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14). Since we love Jesus, who is himself Truth (Jn 14:6) and Wisdom (cf. 1 Cor 1:24), we want to know him better, to study his words and his deeds as fully as we can, and to have the faith of the Church shape our very thoughts. In this way we will be “renewed in the spirit of [our] minds” (Eph 4:23) and, in imitation of St. Paul, we can aspire to “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). We may even hope that our studies of sacred doctrine will contribute to our growth in charity, in accord with the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that “since likeness is the cause of love, the pursuit of wisdom especially joins man to God in friendship” (Summa Contra Gentiles I.2.1).
To build a house for wisdom is also a response to Our Lord’s commandment to love our neighbor (cf. Jn 12:34). To have acquired a measure of theological wisdom is to have been “prepared,” as St. Peter says, to give an “account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). And while every Christian has a duty to make known the truth of the Gospel (CCC #2472), those of us who have been given the talent, training, and leisure necessary for theological studies would seem to have that duty to a higher degree (cf. Luke 12:48). Here we may again learn from Aquinas, who measured himself by the high standard set by the Fathers of the Church and made his own the words of St. Hilary of Poitiers: “I am aware that I owe this to God as the chief duty of my life, that my every word and sense may speak of Him” (see SCG I.2.2).
To build a house for wisdom is always an arduous task, but perhaps especially so in our age, which finds itself subject to what St. John Paul II called a “crisis of truth” (Fides et Ratio §98) and what his successor described as an “educational emergency” (Benedict XVI, General Audience of April 14, 2010). We are constrained to admit that the very powers of our souls sometimes have defects that make them hard to bend to wisdom’s service—much like knots or warps in a board can thwart the carpenter’s work. Thanks in large part to our habits of using media, our interior senses may suffer from chronic overstimulation, and consequently we find it difficult to remain attentive to what is more intelligible in itself, but less captivating to sight, hearing, and imagination. The godly standard is plain; one expression of it is David’s prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). There is work for us to do both on the side of restraint, but also on the side of action, perhaps by imitating the blessed man who “meditates day and night” on the law of the Lord (Ps. 1:2) and thereby building up the “deep memory” of the things of God spoken of by Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei (§25).
There may also be imperfections of will and intellect that need to be pared away, planed down, and sanded smooth as part of our labor. And if that be the case, we can take solace from the example of St. Augustine, whose Confessions is in large part a tale of just such a work. Like so many of our contemporaries and perhaps also like us, St. Augustine was plagued by the vice of curiosity. It took a heroic struggle of many years for him to rid himself of his love of fame and of his attraction to being known as the privileged possessor of rare learning, and to replace those disordered loves with an ardent desire to know the saving truth offered by God to the whole human race. Although we may struggle to identify with St. Augustine’s life as a student—after all, he was able to understand Aristotle’s Categories without the help of a teacher—we can certainly admire the ardent labor of thought that was necessary for him in order to puzzle his way out of the errors of the Manicheans and the astrologers.
Like St. Augustine, we who wish to build a house for wisdom will have much work to do repairing the imperfections of our minds. In the last analysis, however, we must recognize that however successful that work may be, we will remain far short of our goal. Because of the wounds of sin and also simply because we are creatures, we stand in need of God’s grace if we are to become fitting homes for divine truth, which is both incomparably more pure than we are and far exceeds our natural capacity as knowers. It is the Most Holy Eucharist that is the great source of the grace we need, with our worthy reception of Holy Communion the occasion when, as Benedict XVI put it, “Christ becomes for us the food of truth” (Sacramentum Caritatis, §2). The surest way of making progress in building a house for wisdom is for us to accept Wisdom’s invitation to “come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Prov 9:5). It is here, in the Eucharist, that the Master Builder constructs his Church and fashions a unique place within it for each of us; it is here that the Psalmists’s words are most marvelously fulfilled: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps 127:1). May Jesus, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, strengthen in us our desire for truth and our joy in finding the truth in him.