O Sapientia!

The point of the Christmas season has to do with owning a need, or want, that is unnameable because it encompasses human destiny.

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In the liturgical calendar, the first of the eight days before Christmas is marked by a short hymn to Wisdom and known as ‘O Sapientia’.

‘Give me Wisdom, O Lord, that sitteth by Thy Throne, that she may be with me and labour with me’. I have these words, in what is now very faded writing, on a card on my desk. The card is positioned so that my eyes alight on it whenever I take them off the computer monitor. On the reverse of the card, less faded, are the words ‘Joy be always with you’. The person who gave me the card, and wrote out the words, died many years ago. I did not know her all that well, so the fact that I think of her when I look at the card is of some significance. She must have known something about me, that I wanted something that these words could supply.

Today, I find myself wondering what on earth I could possibly ‘want’ for Christmas, given that kind family members have been asking. I feel almost embarrassed to own to the one or two little practical things that it might be nice to have, but by no means essential. The truth is, I want for nothing. And yet I still want.

The wanting seems to have something to do with the words on the card, which are taken from the book of the Wisdom of Solomon.  I want that Wisdom – not cleverness, or common sense, or even a more agile and creative mind. I want something that defies description. On the inside of the card is a painting of the Virgin and the child Jesus. The genre of the painting is not one I particularly like. It is a little too mannerist, too florid. But it serves as a pointer to what it is I think I want. I also think that my own ‘wanting’ is part of a far greater wanting that we all share but can seldom name.

This, I think, is the point of the Christmas season. It has to do with owning a need, or want, that is unnameable because it encompasses human destiny, holds it in some way, so that we don’t slide into chaos and oblivion, even if in a couple of centuries or so, we will have ceased to exist altogether as a species and as a planet. Christmas is about paradox. It is about frailty and innocence holding together what is brittle, broken and spoiled.

The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew describes how the infant Jesus was given his name. It is told entirely from the vantage point of Joseph, the man chosen to be his earthly father and protector. We are told that Joseph is a righteous man, but what matters most to us is not his righteousness so much as that he should have agreed to the child being given the name Jesus, or Yeshua, which means saviour. We are told that this Yeshua ‘will save his people from their sins.’

Christmas reminds us of the paradox of joy that seems to sit alongside sin, and of the suffering that sin brings with it. Christmas is often far from happy. So it is essential that we understand these two concepts of ‘saving’ and ‘sin’ anew if we are to make sense of the joy of Christmas. Irrespective of the way sin manifests itself, it is invariably about separation and brokenness, the tearing apart of the human person, through addiction, or the ‘drivenness’ of the need to succeed at all costs. Sin is about the breaking, or rendering brittle, of good relationships, and of the things that make for a compassionate society, and it is about the brittle relationships that persist between nations and peoples who are unable to forgive one another as they remember and hold on to a shared history of war or injustice.

At Christmas we are invited to contemplate innocence, even as we are experiencing or remembering suffering. The innocence we contemplate in the face of the Christ child is not sentimentality, neither is it peculiar to a particular style of painting. It is not necessarily pretty. In fact, it is best seen in people and circumstances that are ugly and dirty – in the refugee, the child (poor or wealthy) growing up in a violent or abusive home, in the lonely of all ages, in the addict. All of these situations return us, inexplicably, to the face of innocence as we see it in the infant Christ. And that face returns us to Wisdom.

Wisdom is ‘Sapientia’, or pure intelligence as we see it manifested in this royal baby who, as the result of some bureaucratic edict, has been born in a cattle shed. It is about being willing to come to terms with the reality of our spiritual poverty, when we want for nothing, so that we can also come to terms with the reality of the love of God, and of our own need for it.  

Time To Take Stock

Just about every day I seriously consider coming off social media. I vaguely envy those who’ve managed to make the break. I’m beginning to think there’s a stigma attached to even trying to do this. Why is it so difficult? There are of course all sorts of valid reasons for staying with it and, to be honest, the fear of isolation and loneliness is one of them, but I also realise that being caught up with facebook and twitter, neither increases or diminishes that particular state of mind, or perhaps it does both. Therein lies the confusion many of us experience in regard to social media.

The illusion of freedom that social media bestows makes us all vulnerable – and hence hurtable. We may feel impregnable, behind a computer screen alone against the world, but there is no telling who is out there, or how they will read us, what tender vulnerability we will touch on, wittingly or unwittingly, and how they will reciprocate, when we have taken one too many risks with a tweet or a post, and left ourselves momentarily exposed.

So the media, and social media especially, is encouraging a kind of ghetto mentality, one with which people can identify by being part of a group which will keep them safe, or at least provide support and refuge when what is said or half said hits them where they are most vulnerable. But we are all vulnerable to being hit, or excluded from the group, one way or another. We are all on the defensive. As a result of this none of us is truly free.

As I ponder whether or not to come off social media, I also have to ask myself what this fundamentally defensive attitude of mind does to us as a society. What kind of society are we becoming? Are we truly free? Embodied in the idea of freedom is that of liberality, which also means generosity, generosity of spirit. There is a growing antipathy towards these two ‘graces’ which are often cynically conflated and written off as ‘liberal elitism’.  Bearing in mind that November is the month of remembrance, it is worth recalling the sacrifices made in recent history by two generations in the name of this very freedom, this liberality, this generosity of spirit.  

How do our notions of being a free society sit with theirs? Perhaps it was easier for them to think of themselves as a free society, one which was about belonging together in freedom of spirit, because they had a visible common enemy to defeat. We have many enemies, but they are not visible in the same way as those of our grandparents and great grandparents. Our enemies thrive on isolationism, on the sovereign power of the individual. Without a visible common enemy they translate into nationalism, identity politics and the cult of celebrity leadership.

As a result of this we allow ourselves to be identified with the kind of people who embody our fantasies. We want stardom, because it is the opposite of vulnerability and of wisdom. It makes few demands on our intelligence or sense of right and wrong. It evokes a certain kind of impregnability, often pertaining to an imagined past. But in reality it speaks of rootlessness and of a people which seems to have lost all sense of purpose, because it has lost sight of its own history. It does not seem to be rooted in anything that gives meaning or shape to its life, still less to its future as one of a wider global society.

The celebrity leader appeals to the rootless because, like any other celebrity, he has no time for anyone or anything other than himself and his immediate short-term objectives. Stay focused on him and on his fantasies and all will be well. Celebrity leaders seem to be largely male, perhaps because the male leader, when he is intoxicated by power, plays to our fantasies, and feeds on our complacency, as he persuades us that his objectives are all that we could possibly need or want.

The celebrity leader succeeds through lies and duplicity because we have given up on the real meaning of freedom, on the kind of liberality which allows us to believe in our capacity for right judgment and goodness. We have given up on ourselves. More importantly, the celebrity leader succeeds, and will succeed again, because we, as a society, have little sense of belonging to the wider sociality which makes up the planet we inhabit, and of the responsibilities we bear to it. We have also given up on the infinite source of goodness itself. Perhaps it is time to take stock of these things and turn back before it is too late.

Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?


tynaLoHHXVh_imageRight now, I’m re-watching The Bletchley Circle. I was initially drawn to it because I thought it would take me back to the original World War II Bletchley story, about a group of singularly gifted women who intercepted and decoded vital enemy information and thereby saved countless numbers of lives. The relatively new drama, which was originally released in 2012, is set in 1952. It picks up on the only possible common denominator with the wartime story; that solving problems, and possibly saving the world, is so much more straightforward when you work together and when you only have one enemy to deal with at a time.

Or perhaps that is an oversimplification of what foiling the enemy in wartime really entails. Most of us have not known armed conflict at home, but it seems we are no nearer to solving the problems that divide us as nations and as societies than we were over 70 years ago.

For one thing, if we start from the premise that there is a common enemy, the enemy appears in so many guises that it is hard to name. Whatever it is, it sets us against each other, fomenting distrust and hatred in subtle and various ways. Sometimes, the enemy takes the form of a question which might determine a nation’s future, like Brexit. At other times, it embeds itself in the issue itself, so that the question becomes a vehicle for distrust and hatred. What you believe about Europe defines you in the minds of those who think differently, as a potential threat, a latent enemy. It can also hide unpalatable truths about how we think of our fellow human beings, whichever side of the question you come down on.

Twitter, and other instantaneous forms of pseudo-communication, foment this kind of distrust. A thread may begin as an invitation to exchange ideas, and even to find common cause, but this is seldom where it ultimately leads. Too often it degenerates into a platform for verbal abuse. Twitter is not for the faint hearted, but neither does it afford much help to those who are simply seeking the common good, including perhaps, a solution to the problem of climate change.

But, working on the assumption that most people feel that the risk to the planet posed by human-induced climate change is having a detrimental effect on the common good, social media becomes the primary motivator for change in this crucial area of concern. It is not that we all agree on how, whether, or when the slide to extinction needs to be reversed. It is simply that we seem to be of one mind about the need for it to happen. Could this signal the return of Wisdom?

Wisdom, if not outdated, is certainly misunderstood. It is usually coupled with a rather pedestrian idea of common sense.  But common sense makes no sense at all if it is not held in a deeper place of commonality, apart from humanity’s proclivity for auto-destruction. In other words, apart from what used to be called sin. We should have learned by now that we, as a species, are incapable of halting our own relatively imminent destruction (within the next century, if not much sooner), not to mention the destruction of countless thousands of other species with whom we share this planet and for whom we are accountable before Wisdom, the ultimate Good that embodies all other good, through Whom and in Whom all things were ‘made’, and here I refer to the beginning of the gospel of St. John.

The idea that we are accountable to a good which embodies all that has ever been good from ‘before the beginning’ puts a different slant on how we might confront together the enemy that threatens us. It is as much an existential enemy as it is a physical one. Being accountable to Wisdom, to the One ‘through whom all things were made’, means that we share in that life force. You could say that the life force of Wisdom is at one with all that is good and true about human beings, so that human nature is essentially good. This is what the mediaeval spiritual writer, Julian of Norwich taught for times which were as turbulent, in their own way, as ours.

If Julian was right about how Wisdom conceives of human beings, then the cardinal sin of our times is one of despair about the human condition, despairing in our will and capacity to the good. On the whole, despair comes in the shabbiest forms of disguise. Cynicism, apathy and procrastination, when it comes to the need for change in the way we feed ourselves and go about our daily lives, are perhaps the most common to all of us. It is not that difficult to stop using cling film, for example, or to insist that supermarkets only use bio-degradable bags for loose vegetables. It is also often possible to walk to wherever we need to get to by allowing sufficient extra time.

Overcrowded days and over busy schedules are significant, if indirect, contributing factors to global warming. And this takes us to the heart of the problem, or enemy, that we face. The enemy is nihilism, destructive purposelessness brought about by not having the will or the time to simply be at one with Wisdom, the source of Life itself.