a sermon delivered at the Annual Convocation of the Brotherhood of St Gregory, at Mt Alvernia, Wappingers Falls NY
In one of the Elizabethan period episodes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, the principal character, plagued with a personal problem of Shakespearean proportions, sets off to find help. One of his goals is to find a wise-woman, and in that quest he meets one of those annoying gnomes who litter quest stories and add plot elements by giving cryptic directions or posing ridiculous riddles. This particular gnome gives the advice, “Two things must ye know about the wise woman. First, that she is wise. And second, that she is a woman!” Our hero departs with this useless bit of guidance, cursing under his breath.
Well, today we get to hear about not just one, but count ‘em, four wise women. And two things must ye know of Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner and Harriet: They were wise, and they were women! More importantly, they were wise, and persistent in their wisdom, in an age when the powers and principalities rarely expected wisdom in women, and regarded their persistence as obstinacy or worse. Some few recognized their gifts in their own time, and today we honor them as prophets.
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One irony with which this presents us is summed up in the reading from Proverbs. Here we have a hymn of praise to Wisdom with a capital W, portrayed as nothing other than a woman. The irony is that this tribute comes from a culture that generally did not honor women, or give them much of a place in the councils of leadership or authority. That same book of Proverbs also goes on and on about that other sort of woman, no better than she should be, the harlot who uses her wiles to trap unwary, foolish men to their destruction. One woman offers wealth and riches and is herself more precious than gold and jewels; the other — well, with the other as the saying goes, You pays your money and you takes your choice. This is, of course, part of the well known male view of womankind as either on the pedestal or in the gutter, a pure virgin or a dirty whore.
In their day, Stanton, Bloomer, Truth and Tubman were seen by many men, and probably some women, as of this latter sort — hussies and harlots, harridans and harpies, sluts and slatterns and slags, skanks and skags, bitches and witches: and isn’t it interesting that English provides us such an array of colorfully nasty names for women — and I challenge you to think of some nice nouns for good women when you have the time — and to reflect on how our language shapes our perception of reality. I don’t know if it is true that the Inuit (The People Formerly Known as Eskimo) have forty words for snow, but English has a huge lexicon of nasty names for women, and precious few nice ones.
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But back to our four prophets: There were some few, of course, who saw these women for their virtues:their persistence in seeking justice, their commitment to the betterment of the world they lived in, and their wisdom. And some would call them prophets.
But what is a prophet, after all; and what is wisdom? I would start with another Shakespearean word, soothsayer, which is someone who predicts the future. That’s one way to understand a prophet — one who can accurately predict what is going to happen. In fact that is the test of a true prophet, given a word from God, recorded in Deuteronomy 18:22: If what the prophet predicts in God’s name comes true, they are a true prophet. If not, not. Simple.
But is the prediction itself always so easy to understand and verify — that is, what is being predicted? You may recall the soothsayer from Julius Caesar, who warned, “Beware the Ides of March!” Beware of the date — or what might happen on that date? This prediction didn’t help poor Julius much, but the soothsayer was proved right, in that always 20/20 hindsight. Successful soothsayers, like the oracles of old, and those annoying gnomes in quest stories, owe part of their retrospective success to giving such general or ambiguous warnings. Because human beings are pattern-seeking critters, seeing castles in clouds and faces in inkblots, you can be considered a true prophet if you cast your prediction as vaguely as the oracles or soothsayers of old.
Or you could use the cynical technique Nikos Kazantzakis described in his novel The Last Temptation of Christ. In the vision in which Jesus comes down from the cross to live an ordinary life, one of the apostles returns home and tells Jesus, “I’ve learned the secret of prophecy! When things are going well, tell people they are going to get bad, and when they are going badly tell them it is going to get better! It always works!” It still works for politicians of every sort.
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But I am less interested in the flim-flam men of old, or of now, when we have such excellent women before us. What I want to stress is that soothsayer and prophet at base mean, not “One who predicts the future,” but “One who speaks the truth.” And there is a lot of wisdom in that, for an accurate assessment of the present is the best way to think about and plan for what is possible in the future. A firm and discerning grasp of the present rules out impossibilities for the future, and allows one to focus on the range of what may be most probable — as that other famous wise guy, Sherlock Holmes, observed, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” A chess master is a master precisely because of the ability to focus on the state of play at each moment, to see only the range of possibilities for the next sequence of moves, eliminating impossibilities to weigh the optimum possible outcome and urge it into the best actual move.
So the real wisdom lies in understanding that the truth — what is — is not just possible, and is never improbable, as strange as it may seem. It just is. And as I’ve often said, Reality is our friend. And engaging with reality, persisting in discernment, asking the questions, searching for answers, knocking at the doors even to wake the sleeping and embarrassed friend (for Reality is sometimes drowsy and often embarrassing, and unknown until known) — these actions of asking, seeking, and persisting in knocking at the door of Reality are the tasks of the wise.
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This is all the more true for those who worship the God who goes by the name The One Who Is, the Great I AM! Those who engage with Reality at its deepest levels, who plumb the depths of Holy Wisdom, become, as Proverbs says, “friends of God and prophets.” We have such friends before us today: Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner and Harriet — one of them even known as Truth! You can see their image and read their story in the handy Office app, so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that they were wise, and they were women — in times and places where few associated those categories.
But they persisted in the quest — not so much as those sought out, but as seekers themselves. And what they sought was justice, charity, equality, and truth. They knocked on the doors of Reality, and a sleepy and reluctant world roused and still rouses itself to respond with like justice, in all charity, and by and for the truth. May God give us strength to do the same, Soli Deo Gloria — to the glory of God alone. In the Name of The One Who Is, whom we know as our Maker, Defender, Redeemer — and Friend.
— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG