One of my first acts as curate in Trumau was to celebrate the opening Mass of the school year for the International Theological Institute, which is now located in a Schloss in Trumau. My father was the founding president of the ITI. Originally it was located in a former Carthusian monastery in Gaming, in the the lime stone alps of Lower Austria. We moved to Gaming when I was 12, and for the next six years (before leaving home to go to college) I was constantly at the ITI—attending Mass and Divine liturgy, playing football with the students, going to lectures, sitting in on classes etc. So there was a peculiar sort of home-coming feel to celebrating the opening Mass. Below is an abridged reconstruction of my sermon.
And he went down to Capharnaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the sabbath, and they were astonished at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon and he cried out in a great voice: Ha. What is there between us and you, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you come to destroy us? I know you, who you are, God’s holy one. Jesus reproved him, saying: Be silent and go out from him. And the demon flung him down in their midst and came out of him, without doing him any harm. And wonder came upon all and they talked among themselves, saying: What is this speech, that in authority and power he gives orders to unclean spirits, and they come out? And the rumor of him went forth to every place in the region. (Luke 4:31-37)
It is a joy and a wonder to me to be celebrating this opening Mass of the school year at ITI. As many of you know my father was president of the ITI at the beginning, and so I was a part of this community for many years, and owe very much to it.
In the collect of this votive Mass, which we offer at the beginning of a new year of the study of theology, we pray that the Lord might make us truly wise in the Holy Spirit— recta sapere. Literally recta sapere means “to taste the right things.” But sapere is the root word of sapientia, wisdom, and so it can be translated “to be truly wise.” To be truly wise is to taste the highest truth, and to taste the right things in it. The whole purpose and final cause of theology is to attain to true wisdom: to taste the highest truth, God Himself.
The unclean spirit, who possesses one of the men in the synagogue of Capharnaum is, from one point of view, very wise, an excellent theologian: “I know you, who you are,” he says to our Lord, “God’s holy one.” And we have to agree that he is right: his Christology is entirely correct. But he does not have true wisdom. He does not taste the right things in his knowledge. He does indeed know something about our Lord, but instead of filling him with wonder and reverence, it fills him with anger and a bitter fear. The Fathers of the Church say that the demons make a show of their knowledge in order to impress their hearers, and lead them astray. This is a perennial temptation of theologians: to want to know God, not for God’s sake, but for their own glory.
The other persons in the synagogue are closer to true wisdom: they are filled with amazement and wonder at the authority with which our Lord speaks. Wonder is the beginning of wisdom. The lover wisdom, Socrates tells us in the Theaetetus, must begin with wonder. If one would end in wisdom, one must begin with wonder. Wonder is a strange thing: a mixture of ignorance and knowledge, of pain and delight. Wonder is a knowledge that shows us out ignorance, and fills us with desire to know more fully. Wonder is aroused in us when we have the beginnings of the knowledge of something truly great; we are filled with delight at the greatness of the thing, and with pain at the inadequacy of our knowledge.
The knowledge of God is maximally wonderful. The more we know God, the more we realize that we are ignorant of Him. The greater the delight at His greatness, the greater the pain at how little we are able to see Him. In studying theology we see that God is not one thing among other things, but rather the reality in comparison to which all created things are mere shadows and reflections. He is an infinite ocean of being and perfection, not divided into parts or across time, but possessing Himself entirely in the indivisible instant of His eternal and unspeakable happiness. He exceeds the capacity of our minds more than the mighty ocean exceeds the capacity of a tiny bucket. But even the smallest knowledge of Him is beyond all comparison more delightful than the most comprehensive knowledge of any created thing. A teacher of mine once said that the study of theology would be unbearable if we did not have the hope of the beatific vision in Heaven, where we will see him not through thoughts and signs, but face to face as He truly is.
The great advantage of the method used at the ITI is that it helps to arouse wonder the divine Truth. To work through the great works of theology yourself, and struggle with the questions they raise— this helps to show your own ignorance, but also to begin to taste the sweetness of the truth. The seminar method can be frustrating. One can wish at times that the professor would simply present the answers in encyclopedic way— so that one could know what to think about a given topic and move on. But such an encyclopedic summary of theology would not be suited to arousing wonder, and thus it would not be likely to lead to wisdom. It would not be likely to lead to you yourselves coming to taste the right things.
My father once gave a talk to the students of the ITI in which he compared the study of theology to climbing a mountain. Before one begins the ascent, one sees the mountain from afar in all its beauty, and wants to climb to the summit. But once one begins the ascent, one no longer sees the mountain as a whole, one sees merely the rocks in from of one’s nose, and feels not amazement at the beauty of the mountain, but weariness at the difficulty of climbing. In studying theology too one can lose sight of the greatness of the divine mystery amid the laborious details of struggling through difficult arguments on seemingly dry and abstract questions. But it is worthwhile being patient climbing a mountain, and it is worthwhile being patient studying theology.
As this school year begins try to cultivate wonder at the divine mystery, and be patient with the struggles of reading and discussing difficult texts, trying to catch the taste of the divine Truth. A great help to cultivating wonder is the rich liturgical life of the ITI: the treasures of the Roman and Byzantine liturgies, which are so full of reverence, awe and wonder at the greatness of God, who created us to know Himself. “And this is the life everlasting, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.”