Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 24, 2008 – Blessed Sacrament
For the last three weeks we have been hearing as our second readings snippets from the ninth to the eleventh chapters of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Although the passages we heard were too brief to follow the path of his argument, they did convey some sense of the anguish with which he addressed what he called a great “mystery,” the fact that so many of his fellow-Jews had failed to recognize their Messiah and Lord in Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified and whom Paul believed had been raised from the dead for the redemption of Israel and indeed of the whole world. In the end, all Paul could offer was tentative reasons for hoping that his Jewish kinsmen would one day be integrated into the community that acknowledges that Jesus is Lord and that in him God was reconciling the world to himself.
Paul’s developed argument ends, not with some sense of self-satisfaction, a belief that he has plumbed the depths of this mystery. It ends, instead, as we heard today, in awe-filled exclamation: “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” He quotes from the Book of Wisdom: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his adviser?” As St. Augustine put it, we may reflect on the mystery, wonder at it, tremble on account of it, but in the end we can only exclaim, because we are unable to penetrate it. To think that one can scrutinize the inscrutable, to search the unsearchable, Augustine said, is like wanting to see what can’t be seen and to speak about the unspeakable. Paul himself in the end could only be silent, a great silence that calls more for wonder than for scrutiny.
Paul is not advising us not to ask questions, not to try to understand the ways of God. After all, “why” is one of the most natural and most spontaneous expressions of the desire of our minds and hearts. That desire, that spontaneous wonder, is what has given rise to the sciences and made possible the technology that has transformed human living over the last couple of centuries. Aristotle said that the beginning of all philosophy is wonder. The quaestio, the question, was the distinctive scientific and pedagogical instrument of the Middle Ages. In our own day, one of my mentors, Bernard Lonergan, made wondering about wonder the basis for his grand philosophical and theological effort.
But it is not only the sciences and philosophy and theology that begin and end with wonder. Asking questions also defines our individual and personal lives. I have a four-year-old neighbor who is in the “Why-stage” so familiar to parents. Every answer to every Why? prompts another Why? It is wonderful to watch him–at least for a while–as he tries figure things out, putting the world together out of the responses his parents and neighbors give him. He wonders about everything, and one can only hope that as he grows older, his wonder will stay as alive as it is now and range as widely as it does now. To tell people that they can’t ask a certain question is to guarantee that they will ask “Why?” To no small degree we define ourselves by the kinds of questions we pursue: our personal horizons are determined not only by what we have come to know but also by what we desire to know. Wonder is one of the forms of that restlessness that Augustine said can only end when our hearts and minds rest in God.
That desire, that wonder, legitimately extends into the field of our religion. It is not wrong to ask questions about God, to direct questions to God. The questions may arise spontaneously, particularly out of experiences of difficulty or distress. We should not be afraid to ask the questions, or to think that they reflect a lack of faith. After all, the canon of the Scriptures includes the Book of Job, which is one great Why? about the undeserved suffering of a good man. Or consider the Psalms. One of them begins: “Why are you so far away, Lord? Why are you hiding in time of trouble?” In another, the Psalmist, even while calling God his “rock,” asks: “Why have you forgotten me?” At another time, he pleads with God: “Wake up, Lord! Why are you sleeping? Wake up!” One Psalm even compares God to a drunkard awakening from a stupor. Only the Holy Spirit, St. Augustine said, would dare to use such a comparison.
So when St. Paul declares that the judgments of God are inscrutable and his ways unsearchable, he is not demanding that we surrender our natural and spontaneous wonder. It is one of the glories of the Catholic tradition that it has sought an integration of faith and reason. It has done so out of a conviction that the mystery that is God and the mysteries that surround his work in creation and in salvation are not mysteries because they lack intelligibility, meaning, but because they contain an excess of intelligibility, of meaning. And that is the point of St. Paul’s exclamation: There is a depth to God’s riches, to his wisdom, to his knowledge, that we should never think that we have plumbed. The moment that we think we’ve got God figured out, we may be sure that it is not God that we’ve figured out. St. Augustine said the same thing long ago: “If you have understood, it’s not God that you have understood; if you’ve been able to understand, you have understood something other than God.”
God always escapes our grasp, always refuses to be reduced to the narrow and shallow dimensions of our minds and hearts, always wants us to remember what he said through the prophet: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways; for as high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” The Bible says that “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord,” which should not be misunderstood of some kind of cringing fear. It means what so overwhelmed Paul in the passage we heard today: “The beginning of wisdom is awe before God.”