Sunday, September 1, 2013


Having slept the full five hours apparently allotted me last night, I woke up around 4:00 this morning. Rather than just stay in bed, I decided (for a change) to do follow more traditional exemplars. So I got up and began to read from the Bible. I had in the back of my mind something Thomas Merton wrote in 1949. "Test a religious rule by the way it reflects the calm and the measure of the sapiential books."
Merton, of course, had a close familiarity with the Old Testament's wisdom books from their use in the Cisterican liturgy. In the Roman Rite, too, those books were quite prominent. In fact, until centuries of tradition were unaccountably abandoned by the new, post-conciliar Pauline Office, the wisdom books were regularly read at Matins in late summer - Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) in August, followed by Job in the first half of September. Following that sequence, I suppose I should perhaps have opened up Job this morning, but instead I took a less demanding course and read from the more easily accessible Book of Wisdom - often traditionally referred to as "The Wisdom of Solomon," who lived centuries earlier but who was reputedly very wise.

At Mass today, the first reading comes (abridged) from the Book of Sirach. Overall, however, the post-conciliar liturgy likes to use the prophetic books a lot. (Thus, for example, whereas the old Roman Breviary would have started two weeks of Job at Matins today, the current Liturgy of the Hours has Jeremiah instead). The predominance of the prophets - especially at Mass - makes a certain sort of sense, I suppose, given the promise-fulfillment approach we have traditionally taken towards the prophetic books. (How well that actually works, given the highly abridged character of the readings and their general denseness may be another question).Even so, I think a good case could be made for a greater and more comprehensive liturgical use of the wisdom literature - and by extension a greater and more comprehensive devotion to the wisdom literature outside the liturgy.

Whereas the Pentateuch and the historical books look back at the great things God has done for us in the past and the prophetic books point forward to our redemption in Christ, the wisdom literature is focused mainly on life in the present - how to live wisely and well in this present world, which sometimes seems to go its own way but in which traces at least of God's action are evident. How to live day-by-day is, after all, the essential ethical question. to be sure, religion is never just about ethics, but neither can it completely be separated from ethics. How to live day-by-day in light of God's action in the past and his promise for our future is central to any Christian understanding of life in the world. And which of us wouldn't benefit from making part of our own daily prayer the prayer of "Solomon" in Wisdom 9?

For in everything, O Lord, you have exalted and glorified your people, and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places (Wisdom 19:22).

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