N HIS ENGLISH TRANSLATION of the beloved Advent hymn Veni, veni, Emmanuel, John Mason Neale renders “Veni, viam prudentiae / Ut doceas et gloriae” prosodically as “To us the path of knowledge show, / And teach us in her ways to go.” Today, I would like to take a break from the “Chant Rhythm Wars” series and attempt a meditation on that couplet. The hymn itself is a paraphrase of the great “O” antiphons sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers from December 17 through 23. These particular lines are a paraphrase of veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae (“come to teach us the way of prudence”) from the antiphon O Sapientia for December 17, itself a reference to Proverbs 9:6: “Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence.” I do not know the reason for Neale’s choice of knowledge instead of prudence to translate prudentiae, but verse 10 of the same chapter might give a hint: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is prudence.”
The Scriptural Meaning of Wisdom • The opposite of knowledge is not stupidity, but ignorance. Remember that instructing the ignorant is one of the spiritual works of mercy, but remember also that “ignorance is bliss!” (This adage is NOT from the Bible!) We read the following in Ecclesiastes 1:17–18:
I have given my heart to know prudence, and learning, and errors, and folly: and I have perceived that in these also there was labor, and vexation of spirit, because in much wisdom there is much indignation: and he that addeth knowledge, addeth also labor.
The NAB translates verse 18 as, “For in much wisdom there is much sorrow; whoever increases knowledge increases grief.” Now, a week before Christmas, why in the world are we praying for something that scripture tells us will increase our sorrow, grief, and vexation? St. Paul provides the answer in 1 Corinthians 1:17–31, wherein he quotes Isaias 29:14. I won’t reproduce the whole passage, only the parts about divine wisdom:
Christ sent me to preach the gospel, not in wisdom of speech, for the word of the cross is foolishness to those who perish, for it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the prudence of the prudent I will reject. Where is the wise? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world, by wisdom, knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe. The Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Gentiles foolishness: but unto those who are called, Christ the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. There are not many wise according to the flesh, but the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that He may confound the wise; but of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom.
The Apostle to the Gentiles equates wisdom with Jesus Christ Himself, who taught in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12). As followers of Christ, we are called to be a sign of contradiction (Luke 2:34, Acts 28:22). Pope St. John Paul II wrote a book titled Sign of Contradiction, in which he proposed that the phrase might be “a distinctive definition of Christ and of His Church.”
Dwindling Attention Spans • Not so long ago, the average person could sit through a three-hour-long opera or film with an intermission without difficulty. Nowadays, the average film runtime is 90 to 100 minutes. Television series run an hour minus commercials and credits, and sitcoms a mere half hour. On YouTube, anything over twenty minutes is considered long, and TikTok videos are limited to ten minutes. Popular entertainment seems to be getting shorter and shorter, which surely says something about people’s attention spans. Modern technology has brought us into the so-called Information Age, and with an internet connection on our smartphone, we have access to practically limitless amounts of information. All kinds of knowledge lies at our fingertips round the clock, but what does that have to do with wisdom? Many of us erroneously assume that everyone exposed to a traditional High Mass will be captivated by its beauty. While the sung Latin liturgy appeals to many devout people and to those who have cultivated some degree of meditative practice, others find it unbearably boring. Not only do they find the Catholic liturgy boring, but also our sacred music, and perhaps the gospel itself. The problem is with the ground, not the seed! Is such apathy not symptomatic of our culture—or rather the lack thereof?
Worldly Wisdom • St. Thomas Aquinas says that “wisdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law” and contrasts wisdom as an intellectual virtue acquired through human reason, which he calls worldly wisdom, with wisdom as a gift of the Holy Ghost, which presupposes supernatural faith and grace (ST II-II, q. 45). Worldly wisdom, virtuous in itself, enables us to judge and distinguish what is good, sound, wholesome, solid, and substantial from what is bad, defective, unhealthy, flimsy, and superficial. Such wisdom enables us to discern that a professional probably knows more than an amateur, someone with an academic degree more than someone who has taken only a single course, and someone who has studied the subject matter thousands of hours more than someone who has only watched a few YouTube videos. It also enables us to know when we’re out of our own depth. Yet it is precisely this kind of worldly wisdom that leads to grief. The more we know, the more we realize our ignorance.
Divine Wisdom • The scriptures give us the loftiest descriptions of divine wisdom, in our Tradition considered the greatest of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost:
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His ways, before He made any thing from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived. Neither had the fountains of waters as yet sprung out: The mountains with their huge bulk had not as yet been established: before the hills I was brought forth: He had not yet made the earth, nor the rivers, nor the poles of the world. When He prepared the heavens, I was present: when with a certain law and compass He enclosed the depths: When He established the sky above, and poised the fountains of waters: When He compassed the sea with its bounds, and set a law to the waters that they should not pass their limits: when He balanced the foundations of the earth; I was with Him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before Him at all times; Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men. (Proverbs 8:22–31)
Who hath searched out the wisdom of God that goeth before all things? Wisdom hath been created before all things, and the understanding of prudence from everlasting. The word of God on high is the fountain of wisdom, and her ways are everlasting commandments. To whom hath the root of wisdom been revealed, and who hath known her wise counsels? To whom hath the discipline of wisdom been revealed and made manifest? and who hath understood the multiplicity of her steps? There is one most high Creator Almighty, and a powerful king, and greatly to be feared, who sitteth upon His throne, and is the God of dominion. He created her in the Holy Ghost, and saw her, and numbered her, and measured her. And He poured her out upon all His works, and upon all flesh according to His gift, and hath given her to them that love Him. (Ecclesiasticus [Sirach] 1:3–10)
Wisdom shall praise her own self, and shall be honored in God, and shall glory in the midst of her people, And shall open her mouth in the churches of the most High, and shall glorify herself in the sight of His power, And in the midst of her own people she shall be exalted, and shall be admired in the holy assembly. And in the multitude of the elect she shall have praise, and among the blessed she shall be blessed, saying: I came out of the mouth of the most High, the firstborn before all creatures: I made that in the heavens there should rise light that never faileth, and as a cloud I covered all the earth: I dwelt in the highest places, and my throne is in a pillar of a cloud. I alone have compassed the circuit of heaven, and have penetrated into the bottom of the deep, and have walked in the waves of the sea, And have stood in all the earth: and in every people, And in every nation I have had the chief rule: And by my power I have trodden under my feet the hearts of all the high and low: and in all these I sought rest, and I shall abide in the inheritance of the Lord. (Ecclesiasticus [Sirach] 24:1–11)
Likewise the Church’s liturgy:
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence. (Antiphon O Sapientia)
Let us meditate on all of these words as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Wisdom incarnate at Christmas and His manifestation to the Gentiles at Epiphany. May we be led from ignorance to knowledge and receive Him with joy!
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.