Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

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The Father’s Gracious Will

The Father’s Gracious Will

The Convocation Address by the Academic Dean at the beginning of the Augustine Institute’s 15th academic year.

The joy of the Lord is at the heart of the Gospel. It was while Jesus was revealing his new commandment of love that he said, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11). It is fitting, then, that we should attend with care to every indication of his joy. St. Luke has left us a precious record of one of them, from the time when Jesus received the seventy-two disciples at the successful completion of their first mission. “In that same hour,” the evangelist tells us, “he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will’” (Lk 10:21). We who are dedicating ourselves to the study of what the Lord has revealed have much to learn from Our Lord’s joy on this occasion and from his elegant prayer of thanksgiving to the Father. Our patron St. Augustine can help us to appreciate both. “Why did the Lord exult?,” he asked. Because the mystery of God was “revealed to little ones.” “Who are the little ones?” They are those who are somehow opposed to the wise and understanding, but plainly not because they are ignorant or foolish, or the Lord would have said as much. No, Our Lord’s meaning is plain: the wise and understanding are the proud; the little ones, the “little children,” are “the humble.” [1]

To learn as much, however, is to find another puzzle: why should God have chosen the humble as the recipients of his special favor? What is the aspect or character of humility that makes its possessor worthy to receive the gift of God’s truth? Humility, as Aquinas put it, is a virtue that “tempers and restrains the soul so that it should not tend towards high things immoderately.”[2] Yet among the high things to which our fallen natures most strongly tend is knowledge, especially any knowledge that nourishes our disordered desire for self-rule. As a wise preacher once said, “among all the passions of the human soul, one of the most violent is the desire to know.”[3] Humility curbs that unruly appetite by keeping us mindful of our lowliness, and especially of our lowliness as knowers.[4] In what does that lowliness consist? In two essential characteristics of human beings. First, that we learn by a lengthy, difficult, and fallible process of interrogating our experience and bringing it to the bar of reason. Second, that we stand in need of learning about matters that are beyond reason’s horizon and can only do so by accepting the gift of Divine revelation. It is because humility includes a lively and instinctual sense of these limitations that it is, again in the words of Aquinas, “a certain disposition in men and women that accords free access to spiritual and divine things.”[5] “So let us then be little ones,” as St. Augustine urges us, by deepening our commitment to look for and to listen to God.[6]

The tragic tendency of fallen men and women to ignore their Creator is a constant of human affairs. St. Augustine warns us that the problem lies in the crookedness of our will. “Who are the wise and the knowing?,” he asked. “Perhaps they are the ones who indulge in a great many arguments about God and say things that are untrue about him; full of their own learning, they have been totally unable to find and recognize God.”[7] Countless men and women through the ages have made a show of their learning; the ability to do so lies at the root of the intellectual life’s oldest profession, that of the sophist, the one who sells the ability to gain power over others through the clever use of words. Like all talented artists, highly effective sophists rejoice in their abilities, for instance in this declaration from the late Richard Rorty: “The only point in having real live professors around instead of just computer terminals, videotapes, and mimeoed lecture notes is that students need to have freedom enacted before their eyes by actual human beings . . . [by] teachers setting their own agendas.”[8] What an uncanny echo of St. Augustine: the wise and the knowing are indeed those who are “full of their own learning.”

Back in 1976, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla sized up contemporary intellectual culture in similar terms. While preaching Lenten conferences before the Roman Curia, he observed that the “old difficulties nurtured by idealism [and] rationalism” in the nineteenth century pale in comparison to our own, for “Present-day man . . . does not think things through to the end, does not seek the fundamental reasons why, looks for no foothold in knowledge of him whom the book of Wisdom proclaims as the Creator.”[9] Not quite a half-century later, the situation is far more grave. The arch-sophist Rorty made a successful career of asserting that the “undesirable sense of wonder” that he saw in “Plato, Aristotle, and orthodox monotheism” should be replaced by “the desirable awe which we feel in the presence of the great works of the human imagination—redescriptions of the universe which make all things seem new and wonderful.”[10] His formulation should haunt us, because it is an apt characterization of what digital technology excels in producing: imaginative representations of the world in the virtual realities of CGI-powered cinema, social media platforms, online games, and the proliferating tools for expanding our sensory powers and directly manipulating our brains. As witness, consider some marketing copy from the software consulting company formerly known as Dopamine Labs:

Backed by decades of neuro-scientific research, [our] technology changes peoples’ behaviors, beliefs, and being. What are your organization’s challenges around human behavior? What are people not doing that they should? Doing that they shouldn’t? Our Enterprise Variable Reinforcement Engine learns to predict – for every unique user – when and how to deliver them the perfect burst of dopamine that keeps them engaged.[11]

The company, with a self-awareness that is perhaps admirable, now calls itself Boundless.

“God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). And the woman, overcome by this vision cast by the serpent, saw that “the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen 3:6). From the beginning, we have wanted to know as the angels do, with the immediacy of sight. The need to gain painful experience of the world through our senses; the need to sift, to interrogate, and to bring order to what we have thus learned; the need to measure our conceptions against the inbuilt logic of human reasoning and the findings of the wise who have preceded us; the need for much time for salutary truths to settle into the soil of our minds, to take root there and to grow, and to bring forth good fruit; the need, finally, to admit that we “see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12): these are the true sources of humility with respect to our power of knowing. Such humility stirs us to action. “Present-day man does not think things through to the end,” said the great Wojtyla. That is because we are not sufficiently little. Rather than seek the highest truth by making a generous use of the light that our reason affords, we content ourselves with partial grasps of the truth, so long as they bring us power. To be a little one is to want to find God more than power. Let us be such little ones who look longingly for our Creator.

Yet as we look, we must also listen, for “long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his son” (Heb 1:1-2). And these things that God has said and done have revealed to us a love that we could never have presumed to be so deep. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16) for it, that is, for us. And some of those to whom God gave his Son have received him gladly, as St. Augustine attests: “[The Lord] says, ‘Upon whom shall my Spirit rest? Upon one who is humble and quiet and trembles at my words’ (Is 66:2). At these words, Peter trembled, Plato didn’t; let the fisherman keep what the great and famous philosopher lost.”[12] There is a great mystery in the jealous particularity of God’s love: he chose Israel, he chose the Twelve, he has chosen each one of us. And there is also a great mystery in human freedom, the ability to accept having been chosen and to turn to God with a listening heart as one of his little children.

How shall we be such little ones? By having a deep, habitual disposition to listen to Christ, to his words and to the lessons of his deeds as we find them recorded in the Gospels. Little children willingly measure their own conceptions of the world by comparing them to those of their parents, elder siblings, and teachers. They love to find that they have understood something correctly, that they have spoken well. Let us have that same mind with respect to Our Lord. To do so, we must read his Gospels keeping in view the difference between study and that kind of prayer in which we seek to be illuminated by the Divine light while we reflect upon the Word of God. St. Francis de Sales framed the distinction aptly: “Meditation differs from study and other thoughts and considerations” which are “done not to acquire virtue or love of God but for other ends and intentions, such as to become learned, to write, or to reason.”[13] In other words, to be little ones, we must sometimes—indeed regularly—read and ponder solely for the love of God; that is, we must meditate upon God’s Word. By doing so, we will ensure that our studies will contribute to the life of charity and not merely puff us up in pride. The same distinction we find in St. Basil, here speaking sonorous Victorian English thanks to the translation of St. John Henry Newman: “Every deed and every word of our Saviour Jesus Christ is a canon of piety and virtue. When thou hearest word or deed of His, do not hear it as by the way, or after a simple and carnal manner, but enter into the depth of His contemplations, become a communicant in truths mystically delivered to thee.”[14]

This is the way of the little ones, those to whom the Father, by his gracious will, has revealed the mysteries of his kingdom and of the inner life of the Most Blessed Trinity. So, let us be little ones. And let us bring joy to Our Lord’s heart at the outset of this year of looking for and listening to him by making this prayer of St. Augustine our own: “Turning to the Lord God the Father Almighty with pure hearts, let us give him hearty and abundant thanks as much as we can in our littleness, beseeching him in his singular kindness graciously to hear our prayers in his good pleasure; also by his power to drive the enemy away from our actions and our thoughts; to increase our faith, direct our minds, grant us spiritual thoughts, and bring us to his bliss, through Jesus Christ his Son. Amen.”[15]

[1] St. Augustine, Sermon 67, in Sermons III (54-94) on the New Testament, trans. Edmund Hill, O.P. (Brooklyn: New City Press, 1991), p. 219.

[2] Summa Theologiae II-II.161.1: “una quidem quae temperet et refrenet animum, ne immoderate tendat in excelsa.”

[3] Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, “Sermon sur la Mort” (March 22, 1662), in Bossuet, Oeuvres Oratoires, édition critique de l’abbé J. Lebarq, revue et augmentée par Ch. Urbain et E. Levesque (Paris: Desclée, 1926), IV: 262-81, at 263.

[4] See ST II-II.161.2: “cognitio propria defectus pertinent ad humilitatem sicut regula quaedam directiva appetitus.”

[5] ST II-II.161.5.ad4: “humilitas est quas quaedam disposition ad liberum accessum hominis in spiritualia et divina bona.”

[6] St. Augustine, Sermon 68, in Sermons III (54-94) on the New Testament, trans. Hill, O.P., p. 228.

[7] St. Augustine, Sermon 68, trans. Hill, O.P., p. 223.

[8] Richard Rorty, “Education as Socialization and as Individualization,” in Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. 125.

[9] Karol Wojtyla, Sign of Contradiction, trans. Mary Smith (Middlegreen, U.K.: St. Paul Publications, 1979), pp. 11-12.

[10] Rorty, “A World without Substance and Essences,” in Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 51.

[11] See

[12] St. Augustine, Sermon 68, trans. Hill, O.P., p. 227.

[13] St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, II.5, trans. John J. Ryan (New York: Image, 1972), p. 77.

[14] St. Basil, quoted in John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, sixth edition (1878; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), p. 67.

[15] St. Augustine, Sermon 67, trans. Hill, O.P., p. 220.

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