Trinity Monday Sermon
Monday 24th April 2017 @ 3:52 pm
This beautiful address on ‘wisdom’ was preached to the university on Trinity Monday, a couple of weeks ago, by Dr Kieran OMahony OSA … find more of his gentle brilliance on www.tarsus.ie.
We thank him for this …
TCD, Monday Holy Week 2017
Welcome again to this chapel for a time of reflection, thanksgiving and prayer. Welcome and congratulations to all present. The Provost read from the book of Sirach, a biblical book which comes down to us chiefly in Greek. It belongs to a family of books in the Bible, referred to collectively as the Wisdom Literature. Two of the books enjoyed special renown for different reasons. The Book of Proverbs has been popular since the Reformation — full of acute observations, peppered with wit. Another book, Job, really belongs to world literature for the sheer beauty of the poetry, the penetration of the human condition and the courageous, really relentless questioning.
Given the occasion, it is highly appropriate to read from one of the Wisdom Books from the Bible, part of the Wisdom movement of the Ancient Near East. That movement embodies a palpable sense of wonder and an almost insatiable hunger for enquiry. It exhibits features which may surprise and, perhaps, may even speak to us today. The movement was both popular and scholarly; it was international and cross cultural; it was refreshingly uninhibited and wide–ranging; it invited reflection on how to be wise and, perhaps more important, what to do with wisdom once acquired.
In our time, which privileges the new, perhaps we can still learn from the old. As Jesus in Luke’s Gospel says, somewhat unexpectedly, “No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’” (Luke 5:39) No doubt there will be a chance to put this teaching to the test as the day unfolds!
(1) In every culture, there are wisdom traditions, oral and written, popular and scholarly. In the biblical tradition, “wisdom is an umbrella term that encompasses humanity’s quest to understand and organize reality, to find answers to basic existential questions, and to pass that information along from one generation to another.” From the very start, it was refreshingly open, even in its way international. A good example would be The Instruction of Amenemope, an ancient Egyptian wisdom tract from about 1300–1071 bc. Ever since its publication in 1922, it has been evident that Proverbs 22:17–24:22 exhibits, in the careful words of Roland Murphy, a “remarkable affinity” to the Egyptian text. Keen academic noses will detect a whiff of the only sin which cannot be forgiven: plagiarism. The same aptitude to recognise Wisdom wherever it is to be found continued even in the later books such as Ecclesiastes with an “affinity” to Stoicism and the Wisdom of Solomon with more than a dash of Neo–Platonism. The cultural range is impressive: Sumer, Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, Egypt, and, eventually, Greece.
(2) It is not only the cultural range which is impressive. The breadth of observation and enquiry is also arresting: domestic life, the garden, the cosmos, medicine, education, building, wildlife, the known unknowns, music, the power of words and again, not least, philosophy. To plod through all of them would risk pedantry, but I cannot resist showing you one or two.
In the book of Proverbs, we read, (the initial address will apply to no one present here)
Prov 6:6 Go to the ant, you lazybones;
consider its ways, and be wise.
7 Without having any chief
or officer or ruler,
8 it prepares its food in summer,
and gathers its sustenance in harvest.
One can almost hear the enthusiastic voice of David Attenborough!
At the other end of the spectrum, the feeling of awe before the cosmos is unmistakable.
Sirach is perhaps the best resource in the Bible for a “spirituality” of creation.
Sir 43:1 The pride of the higher realms is the clear vault of the sky,
as glorious to behold as the sight of the heavens.
2 The sun, when it appears, proclaims as it rises
what a marvellous instrument it is, the work of the Most High.
3 At noon it parches the land,
and who can withstand its burning heat?
4 A man tending a furnace works in burning heat,
but three times as hot is the sun scorching the mountains;
it breathes out fiery vapours,
and its bright rays blind the eyes.
That long poetic reflection is technically an onomasticon, a listing of the features of creation in ascending or descending order, which anticipates the scientific endeavour to classify. Even so, the author is overwhelmed by the magnificence of it all—think of Brian Cox—bringing his reflection to an unwilling, breathless conclusion:
27 We could say more but could never say enough;
let the final word be: “He is the all.”
Somewhat in the same vein, in the book of Job, the Lord God reminds Job that there are things in the universe which humans know nothing about — an early instance, perhaps, of the known unknowns!
Between the ant and the cosmos, there are many, many engaging observations. For example, the advice regarding the medical profession is disarming:
Sir 38:1 Make friends with the doctor, for he is essential to you;
God has also established him in his profession.
2 From God the doctorhas wisdom,
and from the king he receives sustenance.
3 Knowledge makes the doctordistinguished,
and gives access to those in authority.
It is not all relentlessly earnest, of course, and so we read further in the same book,
Sir 32:5 A ruby seal in a setting of gold
is a concert of musicat a banquet of wine.
6 A seal of emerald in a rich setting of gold
is the melody of musicwith good wine.
Some things, however, are even better than music and wine:
Sir 40:20 Wine and musicgladden the heart,
but the love of friends is better than either.
(3) Lastly, a conspicuous interest of the Wisdom Books is language and the power of words — not yet the complexities of contemporary semiotics but anticipating in some way the later enquiry. We live, it seems, in the post–truth world of alternative facts, where awareness of the potency and potential duplicity of words was never more needed. With commendable directness, Proverbs says,
Prov 20 From the fruit of the mouth one’s stomach is satisfied;
the yield of the lips brings satisfaction.
21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits.
The author is aware of speaking too much, a risk not unknown in our time:
Prov 10:19 When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but the prudent are restrained in speech.
A little more edgy is the comment on rulers, this proverb being just slightly longer than the seemingly popular tweet!
Prov 17:7 Fine speechis not becoming to a fool;
still less is false speechto a ruler.
More happily, good words at the service of truth have an inherent attractiveness, bringing truth and beauty together,
Prov 25:11 A wordfitly spoken
is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
With such emphasis on the power of words, which can make or break a world, we are approaching philosophy, for it is only when we name things that we may engage with them. In that sense, our naming things causes them to be. To use my earlier expression, there is indeed an affinity between Ecclesiastes and Stoicism and between the Wisdom of Solomon and Neo–Platonism.
Consistent with such wide interest, the Wisdom books reflect on good and evil, chance and order, death and life, love and family, justice and injustice and so forth. Overall, the movement (if such we may call it) was both earthy and speculative; it was international and cross cultural; again, it ranged widely. For these wise searchers of old, everything was of interest and their curiosity knew no limits. As they looked around at culture and people, politics and the cosmos, their primary attitude was one of awe and wonder, delight and pleasure, enquiry and exploration; in a word the desire to observe, to enjoy to understand and to order.
They also considered the responsibilities of the privileged ones who can engage in such research. Although confined to religious study, the way of life should sound familiar…
Sir 38: How different the one who devotes himself
to the study of the law of the Most High!
Sir 39:1 He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients,
and is concerned with prophecies;
2 he preserves the sayings of the famous
and penetrates the subtleties of parables;
3 he seeks out the hidden meanings of proverbs
and is at home with the obscurities of parables.
4 He serves among the great
and appears before rulers;
he travels in foreign lands
and learns what is good and evil in the human lot.
Sir 39:8 He will show the wisdom of what he has learned,
and will glory in the law of the Lord’s covenant.
9 Many will praise his understanding;
it will never be blotted out.
His memory will not disappear,
and his name will live through all generations.
Throughout the privilege of being a scholar is recognised,
Sir 38:24 The wisdom of the scribedepends on the opportunity of leisure;
only the one who has little business can become wise.
(4) Beyond this energetic and pervasive wonder, the ancients were convinced, stood God, the All, the wholly mysterious creator. Within the limits of their own time, they knew God was not simply another thing in the universe to be either discovered or discounted — he who is “The All”, being who lets be, in the happy expression of John Macquarrie. Every religion worthy of the name is obliged to negotiate in some fashion the nearness and the beyondness of the divine, the immanence and the transcendence of God. The Wisdom Books achieve this by speaking of the Wisdom or mind of God pervading all that is. At first blush, it may seem to resemble pantheism. Given the clarity of writers regarding the creation, it is best to speak of panentheism, God penetrating and present in all that is. As St Paul says,
Rom 1:20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
The path that the wise of old, our very ancient predecessors, walked is clear enough: for them wonder leads to a sense of gift, the sense of gift gives rise to gratitude, and gratitude points to the giver of all good gifts. In the words of Sirach, by now our familiar companion,
Sir 39:35 So now sing praise with all your heart and voice,
and bless the name of the Lord.
In our time, we are aware that research and scholarship, while creating the future, do indeed build on the past; we are aware that both science and wisdom are collaborative; we know that the artificial boundaries of culture and nation ought not to be barriers; we know that nothing can replace the fundamental attitude wonder, the beginning and end of all enquiry. Finally, we know as well that ultimately, our quest is for understanding and wisdom, Scientia and Sapientia, not only Wissenschaft but also Weisheit, stretching us beyond our specialisations, so that together we may make this earth a better home for us all. And for all of this collaborative effort, we give thanks and praise to God. Amen.
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