O Sapientia: Stop, Look, and Listen

As I’m writing this, there is a skiff of snow on the ground, my Christmas tree is lit behind me, and my presents are on their way to far-away family. There’s no doubt that Christmas is just around the corner. But it’s not here yet. This means that we’re in the final days of preparation. We’re in the home stretch of Advent now.

One of the ways this is signaled in the Western liturgical tradition is the appearance of the so-called ‘O Antiphons’ in the evening prayer services. These are beautiful, short, and ancient petitions rooted in the language of the prophets, one for each of the last seven days of Advent. As such, they represent the Western Church’s liturgical countdown to the coming of Jesus. (Fun fact: the Advent carol ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ is a paraphrase of the O Antiphons.)

Not wanting this beautiful Advent season to get away from me, I thought it would be nice to write short reflections on these prayers as they come up this week. Today’s antiphon is known as O Sapientia, “O Wisdom.” It reads:

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.

This prayer is book-ended by different ideas of wisdom. This is hard to see in English, because — as we saw in the series on virtues and character strengths — the word ‘prudence‘ carries dull, school-marm-y connotations for us. This is really too bad for us English-speakers, since it limits us from an important part of wisdom. Both Greek and Latin understood wisdom to have two sides: rational, intellectual wisdom (σοφια / sapientia, translated as ‘wisdom’) and practical wisdom (σωφροσυνη / prudentia, often translated misleadingly as prudence or chastity). In a way it’s similar to our distinction between ‘book smarts’ and ‘street smarts’, but, rather than being seen as opposed to each other, the understanding is (rightly) that they mutually reinforce each other.

And that is what this prayer is about: grounding the wisdom of how we live our day-to-day life in the Wisdom of God.

Theologically, the prayer is rooted in the Logos theology of St. John’s Gospel, which understands Jesus to be the incarnation of God’s Wisdom and Word — the same Wisdom according to which all things were made. This understanding is the foundation of natural theology within Christianity: It insists that we can truly know something of God by studying the world around us because the blueprint for the created world is nothing less than God’s own heart and mind. (We’ll be encountering this idea a lot more later in the Knowing God series).

This prayer asks Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, for the grace to open all of our senses that we might learn well from God’s beautiful and wise creation and thereby gain the practical wisdom we need to live lives that are just as beautiful and wise.

For me, the practical take away from this prayer today is a reminder to “stop, look, and listen.” It’s as important for living a good life as it is in safely crossing a railroad track. And it’s more important than ever in a season like this when we’re often too busy to be intentional about what we’re doing. It’s so easy this time of year to become task-oriented and forget the reasons why we’re doing it all.

The holidays are also a time when we can go on auto-pilot, falling immediately into not only beloved old traditions, but also the dysfunctional trances that often mar our family dynamics. So it’s a good time to cultivate prudentia, the practical wisdom that allows us to see what’s happening and act with intention instead out of the old, well-worn ruts in our relationships. We need to slow down and take time to see what’s really happening around us so we can engage with it and respond to it as well as we can. Stop, look, and listen.

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.


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