Sermon at the Temple Church
Thursday 17th June 2004
An address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
“Doth not Wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?”
We are accustomed probably to thinking of Wisdom and passion as things that seldom sit comfortably together, and yet here in the 8th and 9th chapters of the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom speaks and acts with unmistakable, not to say embarrassing, passion. Wisdom accompanies the traveller on the roads to the city. Wisdom covers the roadside with placards advertising her wares. Wisdom meets us as we enter the city and pesters us to come in and eat. At the beginning of chapter 9 we read that Wisdom has “killed her beasts…mingled her wine…furnished her table…sent forth her maidens” in order to persuade people to come in and eat. Wisdom, it seems, will stop at nothing to get the attention of human beings. Wisdom has an intense and passionate interest in human beings: “Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man”, says Wisdom, and later in this wonderful 8th chapter Wisdom says “my delights were with the sons of men”.
The Wisdom of God, the order of the universe, the moral order of human life is here given not only a voice, but, we might say, a psychology. Wisdom, instead of being dispassionate and distant, is God’s own urgent longing, God’s longing for human beings to live a vision of an orderly creation in the reality of an orderly moral life. And once you finally give way to these importunate demands, once you actually go in, sit and eat of my bread and drink of the wine which I have mingled, then it seems blindingly obvious how to live and how to see things. Try to see the order of the world truthfully; try to lead your life with integrity – the universe and its maker are on your side.
“I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me”. That ought of course to be a very reassuring text for this particular congregation. It is the love of Wisdom that I take to be the foundation of all effective practice in law. It is the love of Wisdom that leads them to rise early in its pursuit. Also, those here who give their services to the cause of law and Wisdom in shrievalty, freely, for nothing, they surely – you surely – love Wisdom and rise early to seek it. This is good news for a legal congregation, that the universe is on your side.
All of that power which made and sustained the universe is eager to help and eager to save you and heal you. And here we have one of the greatest paradoxes you can find in Holy Scripture. Wisdom is eager to make her home with you and yours and Wisdom pesters us on every side. Wisdom is as ubiquitous in the universe as MacDonalds in the globe we inhabit, advertises as freely and as shamelessly. And yet the sons of men seek death. The paradox is that virtue and true vision are utterly straightforward, yet gravely difficult. Sin, rebellion and untruth are vastly complicated, yet apparently very easy.
Conversion, true religion, virtue converge on an understanding that what is natural to human beings is truthful vision and orderly life. So what is it that has taken us so far away from that truthfulness and that order? Who knows what “great aboriginal calamity”, in Cardinal Newman’s words, has doomed us to this perversity? Yet we are so deeply in love with such perversity that it is only the passion of Wisdom, the urgency and shameless insistence of Wisdom that will save us. Here in Proverbs Wisdom cries, Wisdom shouts, Wisdom seduces and entices and begs us to come in and eat.
And yet the voice of Wisdom alone is not enough, and in this evening’s New Testament lesson we hear the full story of what Wisdom has done, Wisdom acting, in another sense, with the deepest of passion. The Wisdom of God, the urgent desire of God for human fellowship, has taken shape as a human life, a human life lived in vulnerability and powerlessness, a human life lived out to the very end in humiliating death at the hands of those who thought they served Wisdom and law. In that divine passion, divine longing and divine suffering, at last human beings are given the possibility of change, of being converted to who and what they really are, converted to joy, that joy in which truthfulness and vision and orderliness coincide.
Wisdom and passion are not strangers one to another, but we human beings have made ourselves deep strangers to ourselves. Be it said with all due respect to many of this congregation that they would be very short of employment if this were not so! But we have to be made no longer strangers to ourselves. We have to discover that order and joy, virtue and vision are at the very foundation of what it is to be human. Yet we can only hear that, we can only receive that, we can only live our way into that alien, strange intervention of the God who upsets our expectations by coming to us in death and powerlessness to show us how deeply we have misunderstood Wisdom and law and our own very selves, when God himself has restored to us our kinship with him.
When we are no longer strangers to God, we are no longer strangers to ourselves. When we are no longer strangers to ourselves, we are free to enter in, sit and eat with Wisdom.
The service of the law, like the service of the life of the intellect, the service of the healing arts, the service of prayer and contemplation, is an exercise in becoming reacquainted with ourselves, becoming no longer strangers to ourselves. Not every practitioner of the legal arts and medical arts and intellectual life – whatever – these days would call themselves instinctively a friend of God. And yet in their methods to reacquaint themselves with joy, harmony and thought, health, vision and truthfulness – the very centre of human life – there is that beginning of a friendship with divine Wisdom whose consequences we cannot answer for.
“I love them that love me” says Wisdom – and maybe those in law, in intellectual life, in the medical arts, or wherever, who love me without knowing my name, and who have begun to acquire a taste for the food and drink that are available at my table.
This evening, then, is an occasion to listen to the shameless enticements, the pestering of divine Wisdom; to recognise that in every moment, in every element in the universe, the Wisdom of God is pressing towards us, pressing us to recognise that vision and virtue are the most natural things in the world; pressing us to become reacquainted with ourselves, with our neighbour, with the physical order of things and with God.
It was a very great 20th century Roman Catholic theologian who said that the world is eager to be known because it has been made by a God who wants to be known. What a very different picture that gives us of knowledge from the one we so often work with: all around us is the reality that is urgent, eager to enter our lives to fill them and transform them. That is only one small part of the urgent calling of Wisdom. We listen for the voice of Wisdom; we remind ourselves how deeply strange we make ourselves to ourselves. We remind ourselves, if we are Christians, of the radical intervention that was needed on the part of Wisdom itself, himself, taking flesh, dying and rising. We resolve, perhaps, in the exercise of our calling to make friends with the truth of our human nature, to affirm that human beings are made for vision and for virtue and to seek in all we do to honour that vision and that virtue.
“I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me.” “Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled.” “My delights were with the sons of men.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.