OSapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom which camest out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things; come and teach us the way of prudence.
– English from Divine Worship: Daily Office
The Antiphon speaks of God disposing of all things sweetly or even suavely, to render the Latin in a more literal way. Fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia “strongly and suavely ordering all things.” Our God is the suavest. But how can that be? Evil is, right? I hoped to point out in my first post that something had touched my life that I think of as evil – the deaths of two close friends and my own brother over the course of 13 months. Even now, 40 years later, I wonder what it might be like to have had a brother for my whole life. While I have fallen out of touch with nearly everyone from that time in my life, I am not sure if it’s because of my sense of disconnection caused by that year of death. Certainly two families were thrown into chaos, as was our whole community. The murder of a young girl in her own home, in a quiet mountain village… it’s all too disturbing.
Way to be suave, God.
Such was my thought for a couple of years: I remember walking from work, a long walk around a golf course, yelling at God and asking him what he was doing. It was dark and chilly and there were homes along the walk – nice, well-lit homes with warm glows in them. Certainly nothing evil was happening there. Why are the wealthy untroubled by evil? That was my Freshman year in college. I took up smoking and some other things happened. You could smoke in your office in those days. My parents went on a trip and I spent two weeks in a panic, PTSD after the motorcycle accident. There were no cell phones in those days.
Anway… everything changed. Way to be suave. 40 years later those events still seem evil to me. But a young girl murdered in her own home is – certainly – real, actual evil? Right?
And so I languished before and eventually left behind the God that would let things like that happen. Of course, we are never told what could have been. I lost the idea that this was “the best of all possible worlds” early on, though. I learned during the rest of my college life and for much of the last 40 years, that God will really let anything happen. I can quite literally do anything I want. I am entirely free to do so. As was the man that murdered Michelle in her own bathtub, and as were the drunk boys riding motorcycles in the ran on a rural Pennsylvania two lane used as a trucking route. We are all free.
How does God work with that? The answer is in the crucifix that I carry around my neck but it is still a mystery. How can the most pure, the most just, the most innocent be condemned to death in the most horrible and public way, bringing pain to his family and friends and the horror of state oppression on all who watch? How does God work with that?
This antiphon is not about that though. This text is a prayer to Holy Wisdom to come and teach us prudence. What is prudence? It’s the beginning of our life, really: the life of being holy. Here’s the opening of Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues:
No dictum in traditional Christian doctrine strikes such a note of strangeness to the ears of contemporaries, even contemporary Christians, as this one: that the virtue of prudence is the mold and “mother” of all the other cardinal virtues, of justice, fortitude, and temperance. In other words, none but the prudent man can be just, brave, and temperate, and the good man is good in so far as he is prudent.
Our uneasiness and alienation would be only the greater if we were to take the proposition as seriously as it is meant. But we have grown accustomed to disregarding such hierarchic rankings among spiritual and ethical qualities. This is especially true for the “virtues.” We assume that they are allegories, and that there is really no need to assign them an order of rank. We tend to think that it does not matter at all which of the four cardinal virtues may have drawn first prize in the lottery arranged by “scholastic” theologians.
Yet the fact is that nothing less than the whole ordered structure of the Occidental Christian view of man rests upon the pre-eminence of prudence over the other virtues…
So it’s sounding important that we get this prudence – the whole ordered structure depends on it! But how can that be if in the “ordering of all things” God lets things fall apart?
But prudence is a virtue, and God is all virtue, so all prudence must be in him – every action of God is prudent: it is the right action at the right time, the right place, at the right speed.
I cannot write these evils off with any other philosophy I’ve learned. In 40 years the one thing that helps the most is the idea that what we humans think of as evil is not always actually evil: we only call it evil because we don’t like whatever it is. No, I don’t like the murder of a young girl in her own home, no I don’t like the death of my friend and my brother, and no I don’t like all the things it did to my family, my town, myself… but in some mysterious way, God is always prudent and I can be too if I pray for it to be given to me by God’s holy wisdom.
The questions handed to Job by God are valid (Job 38, Revised Standard):
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
and it is dyed[a] like a garment.
From the wicked their light is withheld,
and their uplifted arm is broken
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
“Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
“Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no man is,
on the desert in which there is no man;
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?
“Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.
“Can you bind the chains of the Plei′ades,
or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lead forth the Maz′zaroth in their season,
or can you guide the Bear with its children?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go
and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who has put wisdom in the clouds,[b]
or given understanding to the mists?[c]
Who can number the clouds by wisdom?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cleave fast together?
“Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?
Our Faith does not provide answers for why or how. Those are – in many, if not most – cases the most imprudent questions possible. Think of all of salvation history and, taking the Bible as literal for just a moment, explain why the crucifixion did not happen in the garden of Eden just after the fall? Why was all of salvation history, with its pains and slaveries, exiles, tortures, killings, conquests, etc, needed for the thing to happen? And yet it happened in exactly the right place and time. And yet the most innocent, the most just, the most pure had to die in the most horrible way.
It was prudent.
Our faith does not ask us to take comfort in our inability to know, even with divine wisdomcoming to us. Rather our faith asks us to know our place, to know God’s place, and to know they are not the same. To reach beyond those places is imprudent. It’s painful and humiliating, but in the end, our faith asks us to accept that it will be to our salvation.
There’s no answer other than God’s glory.
And that is pure joy.
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