By way of introduction I have been posting meditations on the “Great O” Antiphons since I was Chrismated in 2002. There are seven in the Tridentine liturgy plus one more from the Sarum Rite. These 8 antiphons space out rather nicely over the 40 days of the Byzantine Rite Advent Fast which starts today, 15 Nov. I will, God Willing, post on 20th, 25th, and 30th November, 5th, 10th, 15th and 20th December. For a good bit of history (as well as html Frames!) see Fr Z’s page here. He also does meditations on the Antiphons and some of my RCC and even WR friends may appreciate his take more!
Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodidisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.
This Advent I’m meditating on failure – mine, mostly, but our shared failures as well. Another word for failure is “harmartia“, which comes from the Greek ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν hamartánein, which means “to miss the mark” or “to err”. It’s usually translated “sin”, but I’m going to stick with failure for now because I am here, “Midway in the journey of our life” and it seems a good time to do so. So this is a sort of “Life Confession” or “Midlife Confession”.
From 5th Grade, at least, I wanted to be a minister. Our family was Methodist. I’ve no idea what the Methodist “Ordination Process” was like in 1974, but it was probably some low-church version of “lunch with the Bishop.” If the Lunch ended with “you’er a nice young man, perhaps you should consider seminary?” You were on you way. That lunch would not happen until late in High School, but from fifth grade on I was teaching Sunday School and preaching the “Youth Sunday” Sermon. Pastor Bob was a great encouragement to me in Wurtsboro, NY, as was Pastor Jim when we moved to Acworth, GA. But somehow, 40 years later, I’m not ordained.
This self-evident fact was given to me like a hard face slap a couple of years ago, just after my 49th birthday, as a friend was ordained to the priesthood. I realized that given all the same choices as I, he had taken them differently in several places and his choices had led him to where I had claimed to want to go. Another friend was ordained this Summer and his mother commented regarding her pride in the choices he had made to get there. She used the words “Sacrifice” and “Integrity”. These are not words I would be able to use to describe my life’s journey.
O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who orders all things mightily,
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
The invocation of Divine Wisdom – Sapientia in Latin, Sophia in the Greek – at the beginning of these Advent Devotions is to a specific end: the inculcation of Prudence in the worshipers. But what is Prudence? It is one of the four Cardinal Virtues which also include Justice, Temperance, and Courage. (There are also three “Theological Virtues”: Faith, Hope, and Charity.) Prudence is primarily about foresight, about seeing which of several possible choices is the moral choice, the right choice. By the correct actions we can grow the other virtues as well. Prudence is regarded as a prime virtue for this reason: you can’t get the others without it. But what is “correct action”?
In Orthodox and Catholic understanding of the human person man’s natural state of being, his φύσις or “phusis” is according to God’s plan for his life. In this natural state – that state “according to our nature”, the nature God intended for us – man makes prudent (correct) choices and from this correct action flows. Correct action is according to our nature. Our failures throw this prudence off course. We make a choice based on other things: and so our choices are against nature or παρά φύσιν (para phusin) which really means “to the side” of nature: and look, we’re back to missing the mark again. We’re off to the side.
Paul uses παρά φύσιν in his epistle to the Roman to describe a number of things including same-sex sexual activities, men pretending to be women or vice versa. Our answer to that charge, today, is “Yes, but this is my nature. Paul had no idea about my nature. For me to pretend to be something else would be against my nature.” To this individualistic claim, Advent is a Divine Slapdown. Human nature is one ontological whole: yes there are many persons who are human, but there is only one Human Nature. Just as there are three persons in the One Divinity, so there is One Humanity. In the incarnation of that one Divinity as One of Us, part of the One Humanity, the natures are joined. It is not my nature: it’s nature.
Your nature is no different from mine save in the ways each of us fails in the path of prudence – of making choices based not on the Divine Plan but on our own plans, our emotions, or our feelings. Human freedom lies not in the ability to choose to do anything we want, but rather our freedom to be the most amazing humanity possible lies in the choice for God’s plan – not our own. When we choose else we are not being free: we are led away as slaves to our own reasonings, our body’s cravings, our appetites, or on our Passions, as the theologians would say. When we convince ourselves that “This thing contrary to God’s plan is really who I am” we are exposing our own lack of understanding of our shared human nature. We are rather like a street car refusing to ride on the tracks laid out for it – and insisting that it’s a better street car because of its ability to jump the rails.
The first Great O Antiphon is a prayer for Divine Sophia, to teach us prudence, to show us the way to go. We want her to put our lives in o that “all things mightily and sweetly” dance into which she orders the world. We want her to make our lives, to borrow a pun from the Latin, suave. As Sophia is Christ, the Incarnation itself is an answer to this prayer. Jesus becomes man to restore our sanity, to restore to us our natural, inborn ability to make the right choices, to become fully human (like Christ) which is the first step to becoming divine.
To get to right action again – after we’ve jumped the rails, as it were – requires a metanoia often translated as “changed mind” or “repentance”, as in “If you miss the mark, you must repent”. But it’s not just a “changed mind” but “beyond mind”. We need to get beyond our own thinking, our own little box of ideas about “who I am”. Advent is the only way out: God becomes us so we may join him in the dance. God reveals to us in himself the fullness of humanity and, by becoming man, restores to all of us our natural humanity.
When I look at my life I see that my choices were imprudent because they were para-phusis, if phusis is understood as a divine revelation. I will admit my choices caused me and others much temporary happiness, but I can not say that they have made me into the person I wanted to be way back in fifth grade. Nor, to judge by my active life in the confessional, have they made me into the person God wanted me to be.
Which leaves me with one remaining question: perhaps that desire, first voiced in 1974 or ’75, was the wrong choice. Can a fifth grade be prudent? Is it possible for the fifth grader to derail the man?