It is a great honour for me to be with you this evening in the Chapel of Trinity College as you begin another academic year. I thank the Provost of the University, Dr Patrick Prendergast, for his presence among us. In a special way, I want to thank the Revd Darren McCallig for his kind words of welcome. Let me begin by mentioning that I read in this morning’s Irish Times that Trinity has risen some seven places in the Times Higher Education rankings. So for that, I say “congratulations”.
My own experience of having been a student in universities in four different countries makes me quite envious of you. I always found the beginning of the autumn term an exhilarating experience, an exhilaration born of the excitement of new courses, new professors, new things to learn, new questions to master.
The period of our lives in which we are university students is without any doubt one of the most formative in terms of setting the trajectory of our lives. It is often when we are in university that we come to the realization of our path in life, that we make decisions which affect our entire future.
And so, university life is certainly more than our studies, although our studies are important. It should be a time when, regardless of what we are studying, we begin to acquire something more than knowledge or skills. It should be a time in which we begin to acquire that difficult–to–define quality, which in English we call wisdom. Wisdom is usually described as “the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgment”.
In Greek, the quality is of course called sof?a, and in Latin sapientia. Human beings have a thirst for wisdom, for sapientia. It’s no accident that our species is named for wisdom: homo sapiens. But the big question for us always is where is this wisdom to be found. Yes, we know that wisdom is connected to experience, but not all experiences make us wise. We know that wisdom is related to knowledge, but not all knowing leads to true wisdom.
For Cicero, sapientia was the ars vivendi (De finibus 1.42), the art of living, and that is surely as good definition as any. We want to live and we want to live well. Wisdom is the quality which makes us capable of doing so.
But we return to the big question: where is wisdom to be found? There is a strong tradition in the West that would say that true wisdom is found in relativism, or in other words that it is unwise to aspire to a truth which transcends one’s own person, a truth which is as valid for you as it is for me. In such a view, wisdom is to be found instead in the absolute conviction that all truth is relative. There are other traditions which would even despair of asking the question about wisdom and instead simply “praise the audacity of those who believe that human existence is devoid of any inherent meaning…” (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes, 10). These currents are powerful in our own day, both on an academic level, and more significantly and perhaps more unusually, on a popular level as well.
For Christians however the situation is different. There is first of all the awareness that the values of the world do not constitute in themselves a wisdom sufficient for living our lives. For a Christian, the ars vivendi cannot be completely identified with the way in which “the world” lives. And indeed this is what is communicated by Saint Paul in the reading which we have just heard this evening. He refers to the two streams of human thought with which he was familiar, and seeks to sum up their approaches: “Jews look for signs and Greeks look for wisdom” and then he proposes another way, “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for gentiles” (1 Cor 1:22–23). He goes on to say that for those who have been called – both Jews and gentiles – “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God”. So, Paul first describes the two paths with which he was familiar. One he identifies with the Jews: the power of God as manifested in his signs. And the other with the Hellenistic world: wisdom or sof?a. And Paul argues that in the person of Jesus Christ crucified these two streams – power and wisdom – are at once brought together, reconciled, but also transcended in a power that looks like weakness, in a wisdom that looks like foolishness to the world.
And that is the paradox of Christianity: God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the weak things of the world to shame the strong, creating a new ars vivendi, which is in the world and yet not of the world. It is Jesus Christ who is this ars vivendi; it is he who is this way, this truth, this life (cf., John 14:6).
It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the great universities of the world like Trinity, are the successors, if you will, of the monastic schools of education which flourished in Europe in the first millennium. Those monastery schools sough quite consciously to impart a wisdom which was not of this world. In fact, the monasteries of Europe were shaped by the experience of Saint Benedict, the founder of Benedictine monasticism, who in the Catholic liturgy is memorably described as a person who “withdrew from the world…, knowingly unacquainted with its ways and wisely unlearned (sapienter indoctus) in its wisdom”.
It is quite amazing to think that it was this impulse to withdraw from the world and to become “wisely unlearned in its ways” that developed and changed, through many vicissitudes, into what we now know as the modern university, which is explicitly involved in engagement with the world. But perhaps this glance at the historical DNA of the modern university gives us a hint of how Christians might live and flourish in the university of today. We, in a certain sense, need to be “knowingly unacquainted” or “wisely unlearned” with regard to streams of thought which would despair of finding any meaning in human existence, or which would reduce the mystery of the human person to merely the material aspect, or which would encourage us to seek only our own interests at the expense of those of our brothers and sisters. We can be “knowingly unacquainted” in the sense that we know and understand such ideas, but that we choose to embrace a different wisdom, or better, we recognize that we have been embraced by a different Wisdom.
For Christians of a sacramental tradition, especially, of course, the Orthodox, Saint Paul’s words about Christ crucified as the power of God and the wisdom of God point us towards the two pillars of Christian life; the power of God which flows into us through the mystery of the sacraments, the signs of God, and secondly, the sof?a Qeo?, the wisdom of God, revealed in the Scriptures and Christian doctrine, pre–eminently in the Beatitudes. For us then as students and chaplains in a modern university, the path of the Christian, at least so it seems to me, is to drink from these two sources of power and wisdom, that is, from the sacraments and Christian teaching. And if we do so, we will in our own twenty–first century way live wisely, like Saint Benedict, but in a different way, in the world, but not of the world.
Alasdair MacIntyre, the Scottish philosopher who is now professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, famously concluded his book After Virtue with a reference to Saint Benedict. Speaking of the modern world and academia, and referring to the picture of modernity communicated in a play by a famous graduate and later lecturer of Trinity College, Dublin, MacIntyre wrote in the final line of his book: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict” (p. 263). For MacIntyre, that meant someone who would do in our own time what Benedict did in his, create “a quite new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labor, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish in a period of social and cultural darkness” (Prologue, p. xvi).
I myself am not so sure that what we need are new intuitions, but rather – for Christians in the post–modern world – a new vision based on the Benedictine tradition of prayer and study, on sacramental mysteries and Christian doctrine, on “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). The two go together. We cannot simply know Christianity, we have to live Christianity. Another Benedict, the Bishop of Rome, whose representative in Ireland I am, spoke about the need for wisdom in a meeting held just a month ago in Rome with many of his former students from his time as a university professor of theology. He said, “Wisdom is the art of being human, the art of being able to live well and of being able to die well. And one can live and die well only when the truth has been received and shows us the way: to be grateful for the gift that we did not invent, but that we were given, and to live in wisdom; to learn, thanks to the gift of God, how to be human in the right way” (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 2 September 2012).
My friends, as we begin this academic year, let us seek to live in that power and wisdom which are the gift of God in Jesus Christ. Let us entrust ourselves as well to the mother of Wisdom, the Sedes Sapientiae, Mary of Nazareth, to be our advocate and guide as we live our Christian faith.