Discerment and FOMO

Original Icon by Betsy Porter.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

JMJ

In the Serenity Prayer, we ask God to give us the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things we cannot change. This verse asks for wisdom to teach us prudence: in a way exactly the same. But prudence is more than that.

For a Christian, the act of the will (in conformity with Christ) is seen in the action of choice. Jesus says, “Let your yes be yes, and your no, no.” There’s nothing there about waffling. He says if you put your hand to the plough and look back, you’re not fit for the Kingdom. Prudence is the way of making the choice so that you never have to look back.

But prudence is exactly making a choice. Many people are terrified of making a choice at all. If they choose one thing they will have to give up another. If I pick marriage, I will miss out on ministry, but if I pick ministry, what if I want to date someone. Can I work here? What if I want to live elsewhere? Can I leave home? What if my parents die? This is called “Fear of Missing Out” or “FOMO”.

This is a huge problem. It’s often assigned as a generational problem to Millenials, but Xers show it (I had a boss who wanted others to make all the choices so he could blame them) and Boomers are famous for it: it’s the whole premise of 70s era feminism.

The original video tape is from 1984 so it’s a bit wonky (stretch marks) but you get the point.

Thing is, you have to choose. All of life is about choosing. In fact, the Christian journey begins with a choice: a renunciation of Satan, and an acceptance of Christ. It’s a conversion, a turning around, a choice.

The way of prudence is the way of making choices and sticking by them. It’s a course of action: not of thinking too much.

Now… can you do it? Well, I’m typing in a new apartment terrified it was the wrong choice for any number of worrying reasons, but can’t back out: signed the lease, paid the money. It will be fine, but right now, I’m scared because I’ve made a choice. It’ll pass.

That’s the whole thing: adults make choices and take responsibilities for them. Some part of life is painful: and that may be because of your choices. Accept that, grow and learn.

Why are we asked to make choices at the beginning of our preparation for Christmas? I’ve pointed it out already. The journey of a Christian begins with a sharp choice. The liturgy of the Church is telling us that the breaking point is coming. In the west, this verse will be sung just before Christmas on Dec 17. It’s the first blinking yellow light on the highway: there’s a huge split in the traffic up ahead. You have to make the choice. There’s no way to have it all. Some things will just not bring you to God.

God is the all we are choosing in the Christian Journey. Everything else must fall into line behind that. But he gives us everything we need to choose him: if he thinks you need a new job to know him better, you will get it. There’s nothing wrong with diving in: this world is the things God has given us to know him better. But we have to choose.

Pray for the wisdom to make the right choice.
Then make the choice.
And don’t look back.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
– O Radix Jesse (11/25)
– O Clavis David (11/30)
– O Oriens (12/5)
– O Rex Gentium (12/10)
– O Emmanuel (12/15)
– O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

O Sapientia


+JMJ+

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter, suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, who proceeds from the mouth of the Most High, reaching out mightily from end to end, and sweetly arranging all things: come to teach us the way of prudence.
The first step is admitting you don’t know.
In all Twelve-step Programmes, the first three Steps are:
  1. We admitted we were powerless over This Thing and that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
The first Great O Antiphon condenses the first three steps into a prayer for wisdom. From the beginning we admit that we don’t know what to expect. We need wisdom.
This antiphon echoes this Eastern Rite Prayer, used at the beginning of all services in that tradition:
O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: Treasury of blessings and giver of life: Come, dwell within us and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one!
Notice that the antiphon says God’s Wisdom “orders all things”, the Heavenly King is “everywhere present and filling all things”. Why is it then that the Omnipresent King must be invited to dwell in us, the Omnipotent Wisdom must be invited to come to us? Why are we the only part of Creation where God is Not? In the traditional story, it’s called “original sin” but that phrase comes with a lot of baggage: a good answer to think about is an addiction. Humans are addicted to the idea we can do it on our own. And over and over again we try and fail. The only self-made man (or woman) is either willingly or unwillingly blind to the presence of others and the action of God (these are the same thing, here). The only self-made man is delusional.
But, my! How we do love this delusion. America is founded on it – and we call it “the American Dream”.
Like drugs, it makes us feel strong and able to control the world around us. Like drugs, the delusion of self-sufficiency creates in me a masturbatory fantasy that all I am is all a product of me, myself and I – even covering up the presence of the drug! Like drugs, the delusion of self-sufficiency leads each who partakes down the path to Solipsism, the point that only I exist, all else is a product of my imagination. Eventually (quickly) it leads to the idea that I am God.
And then it goes downhill from there: Chaos ensues in and around the life of the self-sufficient man or woman who will admit no one as her equal. She becomes the center of her own universe, forgetting that there are, actually, other people here who are not extensions of oneself. Pain. Violence and abuse follow.
And in the end, insanity – both clinical and experienced.
And we see the product of this insanity around us: greed, abuse of power, selfishness, lack of love, lack of concern (and, more insidiously, self-interest disguised as love and concern). The world is now – and has nearly always been – falling into unmanageable chaos because of our illness.
Before I can utter the prayer of Wisdom’s Antiphon, I have to decide that there is, in fact, something greater than me. I have to admit not only that I am not all powerful – but that something else is. The first step is admitting there’s a problem: it’s not a diagnosis, but rather a confession. I may not know what the problem is, exactly. But I can easily see the effects. And having tried everything else, I’ve decided to give up and ask for help.
O, Heavenly King….
O, Wisdom from on High…
This is the first step.
We can not get to the virtue of Prudence – knowing when and how to act in the right manner – until we admit that we do no know, and need instruction. In another context, the scriptures urge us not to worry about what to say – for in the right moment, the Holy Spirit will tell us. Such is prudent speech, and such would be prudent action as well: not planned out, black and white thinking but in-the-moment choices for charity and grace. Not rigidity but openness. This flexibility and dance is the opposite of the uptight control of of the addict for whom any possibility of chance is a threat. It’s a mutual dance, however: as in rehab, one addict in denial throws the entire community off-balance.
Theologically it is also important: the NT stories are filled with people unable to recognise Jesus as the Messiah because they were expecting someone else. This is especially an issue today. Most people are sure they know who Jesus is…
Larry Norman’s “The Outlaw” takes us on this road:
some say He was an outlaw that He roamed across the land
with a band of unschooled ruffians and a few old fishermen
no one knew just where He came from or exactly what He’d done
but they said it must be something bad that kept Him on the run
some say He was a poet that He’d stand upon the hill
and His voice could calm an angry crowd or make the waves stand still
that He spoke in many parables that few could understand
but the people sat for hours just to listen to this man
some say He was a sorcerer a man of mystery
He could walk upon the water He could make a blind man see
that He conjured wine at weddings and did tricks with fish and bread
that He talked of being born again and raised people from the dead
some say a politician who spoke of being free
He was followed by the masses on the shores of galilee
He spoke out against corruption and He bowed to no decree
and they feared His strength and power so they nailed Him to a tree
The last verse is the most important to his song, but I’ll leave it off with this comment: when confronted with a bunch of people who claim to know who Jesus is, it might be better to ask him yourself. We are all addicted to our ideas of who Jesus MUST be – but I’m comfortable saying what I’ve always said on this matter: if only it is true that God loves us and *wants* to love us more, then ask… and you’ll know.
The prayer for wisdom is admitting we don’t know.
It’s the right place – the only place, to start.

Yeah, that Streetcar.


Today’s Readings:

  • Genesis 49:2, 8-10 
  • Matthew 1:1-17 

In the Douay, the RSV, or the NABRE with other mass texts

Sapientia Altissimi, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentire. The Alleluia Verse

Today’s Alleluia Verse is a condensed version of tonight’s Antiphon on the Magnificat (sung at Vespers on the 17th for both Catholic and Orthodox users of the Western Liturgy). That text in full is:

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

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 meeting ended with “you’re a nice young man, perhaps you should consider seminary?” You were on you way. That lunch would not happen for me until late in High School when I was Episcopalian, 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 two Summers ago 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.

The invocation of Divine Wisdom – Sapientia in Latin, Sophia in the Greek – 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. What is “correct action”?

In Catholic and Orthodox 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 are because we are imprudent. We can make a given choice based on other things: and so our choices are then against nature, παρά φύσιν (para phusin) which really means “to the side” of nature. We’re missing the mark. We’re off to the side. Again, that nature is the one God made for us: and all human nature is, shall we say, slightly dented. Some settling has occurred in transit. We’re not measuring up to the serving suggestions on the box.

Paul uses παρά φύσιν in his epistle to the Roman to describe a number of things including same-sex sexual activities and men pretending to be women or vice versa. Our answer to that charge, today, is usually “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, the Alleluia verse, the Antiphon, and Christmas itself 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 are many persons in One Humanity. In the Incarnation at Christmas that one Divinity became One of Us, part of the One Humanity, and so the natures are joined. There is no “my” nature: there’s just 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 rather on our own plans, our emotions, or our feelings. We cannot have different natures, different odd quirks or we are not saved because Jesus is not one with us, just another guy.

Human freedom granted us by God lies not in the ability to choose to do anything we want (which is properly called license), but rather our freedom to be the most amazing humanity possible lies in the choice for God’s plan – not our own. That’s the only choice: God’s way or the low way. When we choose otherwise we are not being free: we are led away as slaves to our own reasonings, our body’s cravings, our appetites, our sins, our lusts, or on our Passions, as the theologians would say. When we convince ourselves that This thing in me 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. How many people will die?

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 include our lives in 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 prudent choices, to have right action, become fully human (like Christ); the first step to becoming divine. We are becoming suave and debonair, that last meaning “meek and humble,” not well-dressed. See what our passions do to even the meanings of words?

To get right action again – after we’ve jumped the rails – requires a metanoia, often translated as “changed mind” or “repentance”, as in “If you sin, 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 really am”. Christmas 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, where phusis is properly understood as a divine revelation. My choices caused me and others some temporary happiness, but I cannot 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. They led to what is called “False Consolations”. I’m not me, I’m a false me, a me created by sins and illness.

A return to the confessional. A return to the Nature God gave me. A return to life. This is the way by to hitting the mark, the path of Prudence.

O Wisdom: 1st Advent Meditation

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?