The Catholic Thing
In the Person of the Virgin Print E-mail
By Fr. Derek Cross, Toronto Oratory   
Thursday, 15 September 2011

Homily for the Opening of the Academic Year,
St Philip’s Seminary, Toronto, September 10, 2011
Proverbs 8:22-31; Matthew 2:1-12

It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. –Proverbs 25:2

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we welcome to our parish the students of St Philip’s Seminary, who are beginning their academic year. As is our custom, on this occasion we celebrate the votive Mass (Beata es, Sancta Maria, Virgo sapiens) of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. We invoke Our Lady’s prayers at the inception of another cycle of studies because, according to Catholic tradition, the wisdom of God speaks, in a certain sense, “in the person of the Virgin.”

The iconography of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom is various, but always she is depicted with a royal crown. Sometimes she is shown seated on her throne of state, holding a scepter of power. As the most perfect of creatures, assumed into Heaven, into the eternal presence of God, she shares in that wisdom which played before God in the beginning, before all things were made. There she is “beside the Lord as his craftsman, and his delight by day, playing before him all the while, playing on the surface of his earth.” Wisdom herself was the delight of God, and Wisdom correspondingly proclaims, “I found delight in the children of men.”

At other times, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom is shown as the very image of a tall medieval queen, protectively cradling the Child in her arms. She reminds us of the good queen, Snow White’s real mother, the alma mater, who with long and gentle stride passes through the stone corridors of the castle royal and pauses to gaze through the casement as a gathering frost chills the last roses of summer. Sadly, the good queen does not long grace these worldly chambers. Poor Snow White, you recall, is delivered into the ward of an evil stepmother, who turns with murderous intent against those whose existence threaten her selfish designs.

Prophetic sign! In a former age, one could find Christian kings and queens—some of them saints—ruling the Christian nations. But stepmother state, who has shunted them aside, is an intermittently violent and vulgar stand-in for her stately predecessors. We fear, for example, that she will never cease ordering out her huntsmen to kill the babies in the locality, should they unfortunately not fit in, be deemed “unwanted.” An ill-fitting crown falls slackly across the stepmother’s forehead as she tetchily demands her minions to repeat the submissive profession, “You are the fairest of them all.”

The Church knows well that the regime of the ancient Christian kings is beyond our power to reinstitute. But interestingly she has not responded by holding up the Christian president or the Christian prime minister in place of the roi defunct. In fact, more than ever before, Catholic social doctrine has been speaking of the munus regale, the royal office. For example, in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul II said, “if our time … shows itself a time of great progress, it is also seen as a time of threat in many forms for man. The Church must speak of this threat to all people of good will and must always carry on a dialogue with them about it. Man's situation in the modern world seems indeed to be far removed from the objective demands of the moral order, from the requirements of justice, and even more of social love. We are dealing here only with that which found expression in the Creator's first message to man at the moment in which he was giving him the earth, to ‘subdue’ it. This first message was confirmed by Christ the Lord in the mystery of the Redemption. This is expressed by the Second Vatican Council in these beautiful chapters of its teaching that concern man's ‘kingship’; that is to say his call to share in the kingly function—the munus regale—of Christ himself. The essential meaning of this ‘kingship’ and ‘dominion’ of man over the visible world, which the Creator himself gave man for his task, consists in the priority of ethics over technology, in the primacy of the person over things, and in the superiority of spirit over matter...”

This is where we come in. As the old Christian kings wilt like so many frost-encrusted roses, the royal office, the munus regale, must be shouldered by the Christian people themselves, playing out this role in a regime inclined towards vacuous technology, impersonal administration, and gross materialism. This brave new world, the popes seem to think, cannot dispense with royalty, even if kingship be exercised only in pectore.

How are we to carry out this munus, this office, which has been thrust upon us? “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” We need the wisdom of which Our Lady is the exemplar and dispensatrix. As charged with the munus regale, we now need to search things out like kings. We need to seek wisdom. That is to say, we need philosophy. And that is what our seminarians are here to study. In the philosophy division, they will concentrate almost exclusively on their philosophical studies. Moreover, those who have arrived at the study of theology do not leave their philosophy behind. We take as our main texts in the theology division the works of the Church’s greatest philosophizing theologian, St Thomas Aquinas, who marvelously explicates divine revelation in terms of sapiential philosophy, a philosophy of Being.

This is all very difficult, as the students who have attempted it will assure you. The philosophical neophyte undertakes to exercise himself in many philosophical disciplines: logic, philosophy of nature, philosophy of man, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy. He also achieves a nodding acquaintance with the historical saga of man’s philosophical quest. Sometimes it seems to the larval philosopher that the crown on his head is a circlet of thorns and his royal scepter but a weak reed. His earnest efforts to search out wisdom are mocked. Then—as well as at the inception of his studies—it can be helpful for him to step back and remind himself of the overall pattern of the philosophical itinerary. For this purpose, I place a threefold map into your hands.

First, sensibly enough, is the beginning. Plato and Aristotle show that the beginning of philosophy is wonder. Philosophy is not empty talk. It is not memorizing answers to questions you have never asked. It is not a science of irrefutable proofs, spun from impregnable foundations. It is not a massive, bulbous club that will stun your adversaries silent. Nor is it an elixir to assuage all doubt or to still the heart’s anguish. Its beginning is altogether more shining and generous. We look out upon the world with eyes of childlike wonder. We are the young kings and queens of Narnia who have been invited to take possession of our realm. In its ordinary course, this realm is something marvelous. Our wonder at its ways urges us to try to understand it, to try to articulate it. Without wonder, I am afraid, the whole thing is a bore. You won’t recognize truth even if it slaps you directly in the face. You will imagine you’ve heard it all before, yawn, and turn away distracted before ever understanding the first thing. But for those who engage this learning with wonder, the most wonderful thing of all is that wonder never ceases, even when understanding dawns. (We might even wonder why this is.)

Second, there is the middle state. This is often a muddle, when you understand some things and not others. Perhaps you don’t understand what it is all driving towards, and you wager on wild detours that eventually lead nowhere. But in the middle of things there is a guiding compass, like the star of the magi in the gospel of today’s Mass: desire. When the first philosophers named themselves and their pursuit, they deliberately separated their endeavour from that of the Sophists, the so-called “wise men” of the age, with their ready answers. Philosophy is not a matter of retailing or selling wisdom. That we leave to the Sophists. A genuine philosopher, like Socrates, is a monarch without much of a treasury. He is enriched instead by the sign of his impoverishment, by his desire. Philosophy is proverbially the love of wisdom, not the pretense to be wise. Now desire is both a spur to go on and a promise of fulfillment. We don’t desire what we aren’t in some way aware of, even if we can’t quite put our finger on it. We seek to know better what we already possess without full clarity. But nor do we desire that which we have in undisputed possession. Strong and vigilant patience will be required to court our love. But the structure of desire assures us that our love ultimately will not be frustrated. When wisdom comes, it will correspond to our deepest desires, our truest selves; it will not appear as an alien imposition. Wisdom confers kingship, not rule by another.

Third, there is wisdom, the goal of our search. What that is cannot really be conveyed in a simple speech. But I give you an image. In C.S. Lewis’s Narnian tales, the land beyond the wardrobe is only for children. As the Pevensie children grow older according to the reckoning of this world, they are eventually barred from re-entering their enchanted realm. However, we know that when they were still there, in Narnia, the Pevensies were kings and queens, and sat upon the thrones set up for them from of old at Cair Paravel. They became skilled at the hunt and other royal diversions. They spoke an elevated language and carried themselves with becoming dignity. They entered the lists against the forces of evil. I ask you: were the Pevensies kings and queens or were they children? “Then was I beside the Lord as his craftsman, and I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while, playing on the surface of the earth.” This is the eternal play of the Logos and Sophia, qui laetificat juventutem meam.

“Come to me, all you that yearn for me, and be filled with my fruits; you will remember me as sweeter than honey, better to have than the honeycomb. Whoever eats of me will hunger still, whoever drinks of me will thirst for more; whoever obeys me will not be put to shame, whoever serves me will never fail.” Dear students, like the four thrones awaiting the Pevensies at Cair Paravel, thrones have been prepared for you from all eternity. There, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom gives her royal nod. Dare to take possession of your realm, for the exercise of the munus regale is within reach, nay, the withered rose of modernity thrusts it upon you.

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