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What the “Wise Men of Old” Knew

I was once in the famous Powell’s Books in Portland, browsing the stacks in the religion and spirituality section. My budding interest in philosophy was captivated when I saw a shelf labeled “metaphysics.” Eagerly hoping to find a deep work by some great thinker, I was disappointed to discover that the books were all of the New Age variety. I was expecting being and essence; instead, I got crystals and energy flow.

It’s a shame the term “metaphysics” has been hijacked in this way, but it’s indicative of certain deep-seated assumptions in our culture. We are a technological society that is primarily concerned with solving “problems.” We will happily take whatever solution presents itself, of whatever form – and the easier the better.

That is why New Age spirituality, astrology, and like phenomena have proliferated in our age. Science and technology don’t banish such thinking; rather, the rising tide that is our central desire – to exert control over nature – raises both boats.

C.S. Lewis had already identified this tendency in The Abolition of Man:

There is something which unites magic and applied science (technology) while separating them from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.

As we see all around us, every developed society now continues headlong in its attempts to reshape reality rather than to understand or conform to it. One of the most revolutionary statements one could make today is: “Things are a certain way, and we would do well to accept them.” Because there are some things we cannot change, things that are so deep in us as to constitute our very being. But since we have given up on studying being, we have forgotten this.

*

When such fundamental truths are forgotten or ignored, the result can only be massive confusion and misunderstanding, leading to equally massive and bad action. One discarded truth is this: that action follows being (as the “wise men of old” would phrase it). In other words, what a thing is will determine what sorts of actions that thing will do, or be able to do, or be naturally inclined to do. But being (i.e., being a specific “something”) comes first. Dogs fetch and cats chase mice and people joke because those actions correspond to the sorts of beings they are

Oddly, what brought all of this to mind for me recently were the continuing scandals of abusive priests and cover-ups, and the response by some that female ordination is needed to help resolve this crisis. I see in both instances an ignorance of the primacy of being (another “wise men of old” formulation).

Advocates for women’s ordination often make the practical argument that women are perfectly capable of performing all of the tasks of the priesthood. Couldn’t a woman say the words and perform the actions of the Mass and the seven sacraments? Couldn’t she preach? Couldn’t she listen and counsel and comfort – perhaps better than men? Then why can a woman not be a priest?

The problem with this argument is that it gets the definition of priesthood wrong. Their argument defines a priest by what he does; but it ignores the primary question of what a priest is.

In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a man is marked with the seal of priesthood, effecting an ontological change – a change in his being – that conforms him to the person of Christ. By this configuring of his being, the priest is now capable of acting in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ the Head.

The priest is a living eschatological sign of Christ the Groom who will be united to His bride, the Church. And this sign value is only communicated if the one acting in the person of the Groom is a man. If you eliminate the sign, if you change what the priest is, the meaning of the actions of the priest radically alter as well. Being comes first.

In a similar way, forgetting or ignoring this primacy of being was surely crucial to the abusive behavior of many priests. People often ask, “How can these men who have committed such terrible crimes continue acting as priests? How could they look at themselves in the mirror?”

Well, if you only define priesthood by the performance of priestly actions, then it is all too easy to compartmentalize one’s life, to look in the mirror and say, “Yes, I hurt these children [or I broke my vows with an adult], but I’m still saying Mass and hearing confessions. I’m still a good priest.”

Perhaps if these priests were more mindful of what they were made to be on their ordination day, they would have a harder time rationalizing their actions. Perhaps if more bishops were less concerned with keeping their rosters full to “get the job done” than the integrity of the priesthood itself, they would have handled things differently.

Perhaps if we all looked past the everyday problems to the deeper questions in life, to the heart of things, we would all become ourselves a little closer to the kind of wisdom that those “wise men of old” knew cannot be ignored without bringing disorder and disaster on ourselves.

 

*Image: Ordination by Norman Blamey, 1956 [The Tate, London]. Mr. Blamey (1914-2000) was a member of the Anglo-Catholic Movement, a group within the Church of England that stems from the nineteenth century Oxford Movement.

Nicholas Senz

Nicholas Senz

Nicholas Senz is the Director of Children's and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX, where lives with his wife and two children. He holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. His website is nicholassenz.com.



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