I’ve now been to the city of Venice – Italy, not Florida – at least three times; it shames me to admit that I have, to this point, failed to write much about such a captivating city, well…except for that one time! Having spent the weekend there serving as a chaplain for some American college students and having had one of the most enjoyable visits yet, it’s time to share this beautiful experience! During the course of the 48 hours we were “on the island”, I spent a combined total of about an hour just sitting in St. Mark’s Square. You might be thinking, “Isn’t there tons to do in Venice? Why just sit around?”
There are plenty of things to see and do in and around Venice, many of which I’ve been able to do on previous visits. Some of the things I had yet to see I was able to see on this round, but there was something about the Piazza which captured my attention. After making a holy hour at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Mark on Sunday morning, I decided to walk across the square and just take it all in for a bit. There were lots of people going in all directions and some not going anywhere. Many people were clearly headed one way or another… some going shopping, some looking for a bite to eat, many trying to get yet another perfect picture of themselves in yet another random backdrop. Then there were those feeding the pigeons and seagulls which are legion! By the way, if you ever find yourself in Venice, know that you’re not supposed to feed the birds by order of the city administration.
Yet, amidst all that activity, all that scurrying to and fro, there stands fixed the great Basilica which was completed almost 1,000 years. This architectural wonder is the masterpiece of an historic square with centuries of moments both good and bad. One finds therein not only our Lord present there in the Most Blessed Sacrament, but additionally, the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist, scribe to the Apostle St. Peter. Thus, the Cathedral, on two accounts, is an epicenter of grace.
By the designs of providence, the Gospel for that day – the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – was the story of the wise virgins and the foolish virgins. The events observed in the square were something akin to the virgins. All 10 virgins went out with lighted lamps to meet the bridegroom, who was coming into the town for his imminent wedding ceremony. Because, however, he was delayed the lamps of the virgins went out. Five of the virgins had planned ahead and refilled their lamps to greet the bridegroom when he finally arrived; five failed to do so and they were definitively locked out of the wedding feast because they had gone off in search of oil for their lamps. While time demonstrated who were the wise ones and who were the foolish, at the beginning, it didn’t seem so clear. Those five foolish virgins raced off to the party without thinking twice.
The wise virgins, who could also be described as prudent or cautious, took time to pause, reflect, take stock of what they were about, who they were, what they were doing, what was around them, and where they were going. Herein lies part of the secret of that wisdom. To be someone who is wise – not someone who merely knows lots of facts or who knows how to do things, but someone who through experience and study has acquired knowledge of the most sublime mysteries of the world – requires taking time to be silent, to engage in much reflection, to be willing and able to sit in quiet and silence. Wisdom is not acquired by seeking quick answers, but, as Pascal said, by sitting in a quiet room alone … wrestling with things that we may not understand – not because they’re wrong – but simply because we have not arrived at that level of understanding that men in generations passed have discovered.
Contrast that approach to the modern method: YOLO; follow your desires and impulses; live for tonight and don’t worry about tomorrow? You deserve this; be like Frank Sinatra and do it your way! Don’t think; just do! Now; don’t miss the moment; live. This is exactly how those pigeons in the piazza were behaving who would race back and forth across Piazza San Marco, seeking the smallest morsel of food, driven by mere instinct to fulfill their bodily passions without the least ability to rise above the thought of filling their bellies.
No, to be like those wise virgins, which means to live out our Christian vocation, means to slow down, reflect, be quiet, let the world run itself to death. It means that we must live differently, we must listen and learn from those who are already wise so that we, too, like them, might learn the paths of wisdom. This is the goal of academic study; to sit at the feet of the masters of ages past: men and women who have studied, reflected, thought in quiet, who have not sought easy answers, but authentic answers.
More importantly, as a Catholic Christian, it’s about learning daily from the Master…in prayer, in the teachings of the Church, in the depths of our hearts. Interestingly, St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most intelligent members in the Church’s history, claimed
he learned more from time spent in prayer than time spent in study. It wasn’t that he substituted prayer time for his studies, hoping for some divine infusion. He spent LONG hours at his desk in study. Yet, for all that, he was able to learn all the more when seated humbly at the feet of the Master.
If you live this way, not running every which way at the least whim of your passions for immediate gratification: food, drink, sexual pleasures, giving in to the apathy or the immediacy of the modern approach … if you say that you’re going to have the courage to not do it your own way, but stop, be quiet on a daily basis, listen in quiet, submit to the wisdom and prudential judgments of those who have gone before us, and more importantly, of God and His Church, the world will laugh at you. What is perhaps worse, your friends, peers, family members, coworkers, or classmates may laugh at you; you’ll be seen as a fool.
We, however, “are not like the rest, who have no hope.” We hold it as certain that the Lord has conquered death and will return to judge our actions according to His standard, not our own. For those who seek the foolishness of living according to their own desires, the Lord will say to them, “I do not know you” and send them away definitively, permanently, eternally. He daily extends to us the invitation enter into ourselves, to enter into silence, to enter into that great relationship with Him thru prayer to seek the wisdom of His ways, which is the only way to salvation.