Catholic Phoenix


Sapientis Est Ordinare: The Primacy of Prayer in the Life of the Mind

Sapientis Est Digito Demonstrare

I want to begin my Catechismal Thoughts by quoting a line from the Commentary on Aristotle's Ethics by St. Thomas Aquinas, who was really just quoting a line from Aristotle's own Metaphysics (Aquinas really liked Aristotle, I really like Aquinas, and you happen to be reading me for the moment: it all works out to your advantage).

Sapientis est ordinare, said Aquinas: setting things in order is the wise man's business.

Why? Well, the human mind, as its proper work, grasps the order of things. Reason recognizes order and relation. Other animals have eyes and ears, but only humans do algebra. Because of our minds, we can see the relationship between one thing and another. And so since being wise is the mind's greatest feat (or if you prefer Aquinas: sapientia est potissima perfectio rationis) it follows that human wisdom is primarily concerned with the proper order of things.

How does this apply to the beginning of my Catechismal Thoughts? I'm no wise man, for sure. But I am planning on reading a book with much wisdom: the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But I want to do it in a funny way: I want to start at the end, Part Four rather than Part One. My plan could prompt someone to say, "You're going out of order." But I'm not. The Catechism begins Part Four by pointing to the underlying order of the Catechism, whose four parts are related to the mysterium fidei. "Great is the mystery of the faith!" it declares and goes on to explain that:

The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles' Creed (Part One) and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two), so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part Three).

So the Catechism is structured around the mystery of faith, which "requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God."

The Catechism's Fourth Part concerns that vitality and that personal involvement in the Christian's relationship toward God, the Cause of All Things. What is that relationship? This relationship is prayer, the Catechism teaches.

Like I said above, the capacity for algebra is distinctive of man's mind. But so is man's capacity to enter into a vital and intimate relationship with God. Reason's work is to grasp order, which includes man's being ordered toward the Divine Good and Ultimate Truth. The creeds, the liturgies, and the Church's moral doctrines, dealt with in the first three parts of the Catechism, are all aimed at cultivating the subject of the Catechism's fourth part: prayer—an intimate life with Jesus, true man and true God.

So I hope it's tolerably clear why I wish to begin with the end. The life of prayer, the Catechism reminds us, is really the goal of all intellectual life, which you, the reader, and I, the blogger, are engaged in for a few minutes here at Catholic Phoenix (if I didn't lose you at the Metaphysics reference). Reading books, browsing blogs, writing posts, leaving comments, and more generally pondering issues and thinking things through are important but, in the order that faith reveals, secondary.

Prayer in Christ comes first.

Maria, Sedes Sapientiae, ora pro nobis.

5 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Charles Smith

    What a great posting!

    As Cardinal Arinze so beautifully points out in a talk that he did a few years ago on the CCC, this beautiful document is broken down into four sections: What we believe, How we worship, How we live, and How we pray. The beauty of our Catholic faith lay in that it appeals to the intellect as well as the senses.

    How interesting that you propose looking at the prayer life of the Church and back into the other sections. I am certain any that read this would agree that their prayer life could use some work. And what better way to desire our intellectual side be nurtured than through fervent prayer.

    So today, I will ask that the Holy Spirit guide me in my prayer, to sweep through the twisted catacombs of my mind, and nourish my intellect. I will pray that I can see Christ in others, and that they might see Christ in me. I pray for humility, meekness, and compassion for my fellow man. I ask that my will be confirmed to the will of God, who created all, that my own selfish desires be cast away, and that all come to know, love and serve the Lord our God in all that they do.

    I ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


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  3. Cordelia

    Just thought I’d give us all the rest of the quote under the depiction of Mary Seat of Wisdom at the end of Hanson’s post (Proverbs 9:1-6):

    “1 Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven pillars. 2 She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. 3 She has sent out her maids to call from the highest places in the town, 4 “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” To him who is without sense she says, 5 “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. 6 Leave simpleness, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” -RSV


  4. Reginaldus

    Hanson, though I have been light in comments over the past week or so, I have been faithful in reading! I think that the Catechism discussion will be very helpful … it is most interesting that you start with the section on prayer. I found that an emphasis on the spiritual life has been a great opening or starting place for bringing people into the fullness of the Tradition.
    Thank you for your unabashed Aristotelian Thomism!
    I myself once gave a talk to a group of seminarians and I said that “I will begin at the end, since that seems to be the most logical place to start” — it got a real laugh, but I was serious and meant what I said.
    I can see that you think according to the same pattern — that which is first in intention is last in actualization.


    1. J. Hanson

      Thanks for the comment, O Reginalde. It’s good to have you weigh in. I’m always nervous that a roving band of Scotists or militant group of Phenomenonologists has carried you off when we don’t hear from you.

      “Unabashed Aristotelian Thomist”…that’s getting tattooed on my right shoulder blade.