"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The splendor of the firmament

As the liturgical year draws to a close, the theme of "the last things" comes to the forefront of the Liturgy. Prominent among them is divine judgment, which will be good or bad for you depending on how you've chosen to live. The first reading from Mass today tells us that “...the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever"—unlike certain others, who will be "an everlasting horror and disgrace." Let nobody tell you that hell might well be empty; I can think of little that inspires me more to be one of "the wise" than this passage, which the words of Jesus echo in many ways. I want to be one of those stars. That the alternative thereto is so ugly only points up the beauty by chiaroscuro.

But is the wisdom in question that of human intelligence or learning? Will only the educated and the theologians shine so brightly at the Last Judgment? Hardly; or as they say down here in the South, "not hardly." If anything, the proportion of the dull and the uneducated among God's "stars" will probably be greater than that of the learned. For the wisdom in question is one of the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit" enumerated in Isaiah 11: 1-3. Those gifts are bestowed on believers embryonically in the sacrament of confirmation, and are enhanced when we undergo that special manifestation of the power of the sacraments of initiation which is known among charismatics as "baptism in the Holy Spirit." Such gifts cannot be earned, though they must be cultivated; those most likely to receive God's gifts with joy and cultivate them as he wills are those who are not full of themselves but empty themselves for him; and the more temporal gifts we have, the more likely we are to be full of ourselves rather than empty for God. In my experience, only athletes, movie stars, and politicians tend to be as full of themselves as academics, among whom are to be found, um, theologians.

Even so, there is hope for us self-styled intellectuals. For God, all things are possible—even the salvation of theologians. St. Thomas Aquinas says of the gift of wisdom that it instills that virtue whereby we habitually "judge and order all things in accordance with divine norms and with a connaturality that flows from loving union with God." As his own life so well illustrated, it is possible even for the learned to do that. If those of us who love theology and do it are to shine like the splendor of the firmament, therefore, we had better make sure to get out of God's way long enough to let him unite us to him in loving union. In the meantime, the dull and the uneducated who are already there will pray for us.
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