Write-Up of our October Conference

The theme of the Saint Benedict Center 2010 conference was “The Romance of Wisdom.” The talks are now available on CD, downloadable MP3, and DVD. Each of the nine speakers approached the theme from his own personal perspective, all together contributing to enrich the understanding of what an integral wisdom is, its necessity (as a supernatural gift), and its beauty. This was our fourteenth annual conference. Brother André Marie did a superb job as host, keeping the talks and meal servings on an exact schedule. In fact, I don’t think any of the speakers exceeded the hour limit that was requested in the invitation given them. The talks could each be ranked among the most informative and inspirational delivered in any of the past conferences. Mr. Gary Potter graced us again with his presence, as he has every year since he gave his first talk in 1996. The conference would not be the same without Gary. Nor has it been the same these last two years without the physical presence of Brother Francis, who had always given the introductory remarks to set the conference on its course. Two of the talks, those of Sister Marie Thérèse and C.J. Doyle, were dedicated to the wisdom of Brother Francis.

Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M.

Brother André Marie launched the conference with an update of all the good news that has recently come the way of Saint Benedict Center, Richmond, including the then anticipated gift of a resident priest. He also gave an introduction to the theme of the conference by way of an exposition of the term “romance” and all that it implies. This short talk was an excellent survey of the genre of the classical romantic literature that, before it was corrupted, enhanced Catholic culture and the ideals of chivalry, especially in the Middle Ages. In elevating romance to its highest aspiration, there is divine romance, he said, which is what inspired the seraphic saints such as Francis of Assisi and his beloved “Lady Poverty.”

Dr. William Fahey“With what wisdom shall he be furnished that holdeth the plough?”: Liberal learning, manual labor, and experience

Taking the title of his talk from chapter thirty-eight of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, one of the seven wisdom books in the Bible, Dr. Fahey, president of Thomas More College in Merrimack, NH, raised questions concerning the role of liberal education, the arts, and manual labor born of experience, in forming a wise man who is more complete in his natural perfections. The question raised by the inspired Old Testament author, Jesus, son of Sirach, is not posed to deny wisdom to the artisan or farmer, but rather to posit it, providing that husbandry or craftsmanship does not forfeit contemplation. The verse immediately preceding the one in the title, The wisdom of a scribe cometh by his time of leisure: and he that is less in action, shall receive wisdom, may seem, if taken out of context, to contradict Dr. Fahey’s thesis, but as the speaker demonstrated so well in his erudite presentation, it complements it. The speaker drew much from Blessed John Newman’s Idea of a University, taken together with his lesser known, but perhaps better work, Rise and Progress of the Universities. More than Newman, however, Dr. Fahey highlighted the Benedictine genius for an integral and even familial oriented education, incarnated in the motto, ora et labora, with natural and supernatural studies incorporated in both work and prayer.

Christine BryanThe Faithful and Wise Servant

This was a very practical and inspiring presentation in which the speaker, a wife and mother of ten (two being religious sisters in the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary), made the case for a happy, fulfilled, and even a detached spiritual life being achievable for mothers in a world devoid of Christian morals and sanity. She began her talks with a call for “new beginnings,” quoting one of Brother Francis’ favorite verses of the Psalms — just two words, in fact — Nunc Coepi (Now I have begun).  Four things are necessary for happiness, Mrs. Bryan argues, and they are all found in the book, The Soul of the Apostolate, by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard. First, one must make a real effort to live a spiritual life, not just wishful thinking, but making the sacrifice and persevering. Second — and this flows from the first — is mastering emotions, keeping inner peace, which is tranquility of soul, and daily asking God’s help in this. This is detachment: no matter what happens in the world, or even around me, if I cannot change it, I can still be still and do my duty in my state in life. As an example Christine acquainted her audience with the mother of Sister Lucia of Fatima. Third, our duty, for ourselves and family, to eat well (healthy foods, that is), and fourth, to move well, by which Christine means to keep the body (and blood) moving in periods of exercise, either by walking or physical chores. This talk is a Catholic self-help motivational shot-in-the-arm from someone — especially Catholic mothers — who tries very hard at walking the walk.

Sister Mary Philomena, M.I.C.M.Teaching Wisdom to Little Ones

Few of those attending the conference realized that the title of Sister Mary Philomena’s talk was taken from the Psalms: The law of the Lord is unspotted, converting souls: the testimony of the Lord is faithful, giving wisdom to little ones. (19:8) Since she has taught little ones for almost twenty school years, Sister Mary Philomena had a lot of sage advice to offer on the subject of nurturing wisdom in the young. She divided her talk into three parts: religion, all other subjects, and character development. Refuting what she called the four modern errors 1) impossibility of habitual virtue (no one can always be good) 2) utilitarianism (means become ends) 3) pragmatism (whatever works is good) and 4) mechanistic evolution, Sister then launched into the positive message of her presentation in which she showed how education cannot be merely intellectual and specialized (pragmatic) but must at the same time be moral. The purpose of education is to make the student wise by giving him, in the words of Brother Francis, the “most perfect knowledge of the important truths in the right order of emphasis accompanied by a total disposition to live accordingly.” Part two of her talk dealt with what makes for an integral curriculum, the three Rs being the most fundamental. The third part, on character development, was the crown of a magnificent overview of liberal education in relation to true wisdom. Sister’s personal anecdotes and examples from history made for a very enjoyable one-hour “class.”

Gary PotterRomancing Wisdom (and Sharing Some)

Mr. Potter explored the aspect of wisdom as the highest of all the goods worth pursuing. It is the pursuit of wisdom, he said, that brings in the quest that is romance. The more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. In this sense wisdom is always more than a perfection possessed, but a seeking. Beginning with natural goods, such as science, philosophy, music, and art, he established the foundation for a soul’s receptivity to grace, which perfects nature and brings it to union with God who has and is all Goodness and perfection. A major theme of Mr. Potter’s was the need to seek wisdom with patience and in silence. Without serenity it cannot be found.

Sister Marie Thérèse, M.I.C.M.Our Patrimony of Wisdom

All for Brother Francis from a devoted spiritual daughter. This was a beautiful talk on the crusade as it was bequeathed to Saint Benedict Center’s religious and third order through the wisdom of Brother Francis. The “something more,” as Sister put it, that Brother Francis passed down as his patrimony to his disciples was the Saint Augustine Institute of Studies and its Syllabus. Stressing that wisdom in its highest sense is even more than a gift of the Holy Ghost but Truth itself in the Person of the Word of God. In receiving Holy Communion this morning, Sister said, we received Wisdom as an Eternal Person. What a beautiful thought! A touch of the Thought of God, the Logos.  Brother Francis, she said, had so many virtues, but his humility struck her the most. How could a man so wise be so humble. “I am a student in every class I teach,” he used to say. Sister then took the audience through a survey of the Syllabus, beginning with the nine books that were required reading for all third order members. She talked about simple things, the child-like things, that make the Syllabus so do-able. Twenty-four book reports; that’s all — and only two paragraphs about each book with one’s favorite quotations. Sister pointed out that Brother Francis, in keeping with the spirit of the Center, advised all his students to make a daily routine of prayer, work, and study. In this, especially third order members, one can live a spiritual life in any state. Finally, she emphasized the importance of getting the Institute’s diploma, and really earning it. At the end of her talk Sister played a short recording from Brother Francis talk on the Institute. He said that if the Church in the United States had just 200 zealous apostles who knew their Faith, the country could be converted. We must work at becoming the “leaven” which Brother Francis believed would expand the true Faith in America and win countless souls for Christ in His Church of salvation.

Dr. Robert Hickson — Wisdom’s Slow Fruitfulness and the Adventure of Our Probation

As a professor of literature, Dr. Hickson has a keen eye for the right kind of books that would inspire Catholic ideals in this age of mediocrity and superficiality. In last year’s conference he introduced us to the historical wartime novel, The Red Horse, by Eugenio Corti, and this year he proposed for our consideration three other excellent works in keeping with “wisdom.” They were Gabriel Marcel’s The Decline of Wisdom, Maurice Baring’s biography of Robert Peckham, and the always intriguing G.K. Chesterton, in a review of his mysterious novel, The Return of Don Quixote. Of the three books, the one I thought would be the least interesting, Robert Peckham, proved to be the most fascinating. That choice, however, may well have had to do with Dr. Hickson’s awesome presentation of a complex character, who stayed loyal to the Faith amid the gravest of crises, and who surely grew, as did those whom his life touched, in “Wisdom’s Slow Fruitfulness.” The epitaph that this voluntary exile willed to be placed on his tombstone would be enough in itself to arouse a curious wonder about the man: “Here lies Robert Peckham, Englishman and Catholic, who, after England’s break with the Church, left England because he could not live in his country without the Faith and, having come to Rome, died there because he could not live apart from his country.” Chesterton’s novel, as Peckham’s life, was a story of conversion and redemption, or, as Dr. Hickson puts it, “slow fruitfulness.”

Brian Kelly — Reflections on the Book of Wisdom

In praise of wisdom, I chose to speak about the holy Book of Wisdom, one of the seven sapiential books in sacred scripture. Before I explored my favorite verses within the text itself of the nineteen chapters, I spoke about the inspired author, King Solomon. The reason I devoted a bit of time to Solomon was because of the lesson to be drawn for all believers from the rise and fall of this wise man, so uniquely gifted, and so tragically weak in the end. It is the lesson of the saints: for it is not how we begin on the path of righteousness in grace that determines our salvation, but how we end. Hence, the highest wisdom is to pray daily for the magnum donum, final perseverance. The most important chapter of the Book of Wisdom as prophecy is the second. I devoted most of my talk to this chapter because it reads like a certain gospel of the passion of Christ. In order to demonstrate the clarity of the vision granted to Solomon of the suffering Christ and the machinations of His enemies I juxtaposed the verses from the gospels that fulfilled what the inspired author saw by way of prophecy. In the Book of Wisdom (chapter two), the Just One, condemned to a shameful death, is Christ, whose very countenance His enemies could not bear to look upon (vs. 15). “And they blindfolded Him, and smote his face” (Luke 22:64). Then, I also joined together, with the verses from chapter two, the other prophecies of Christ’s passion taken from the Psalms and Isaias. One of my intents was to present a case for the inspiration of the holy scriptures in light of the Old Testament’s vivid prophecies of Christ, which, having been fulfilled, cannot be denied. As Fulton Sheen once put it: Jesus Christ was the only person whose biography was written before He was born.  Most especially was His passion written about before He suffered. Therefore, He is the Son of God, the Savior of the world. I hope that my talk will help open the eyes of many who do not see.

C. J. DoyleReminiscences on the Wisdom and Counsel of Brother Francis

Since the death of Brother Francis was still so recent to us, his close disciples, I suggested to Joe Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, that he speak to us about his mentor and ours. Joe met Brother Francis for the first time when he visited the monastery in Still River in 1972. From that visit on Mr. Doyle was a regular at Brother’s Tuesday night class, driving all the way from Boston, which was an hour and a half ride. He would come with Mr. Joseph MacIsaac, who was the biological brother of Brother Hugh MacIsaac, M.I.C.M. Beginning with his remembrance of that first visit, Mr. Doyle spoke with great enthusiasm and gratitude about his personal experiences with Brother Francis over nearly forty years. Many of the things Joe spoke about were new to me (for I had known Brother Francis for only one year less than Mr. Doyle). For, example, being an historian, Joe asked Brother Francis his opinion of many Catholic political figures who had made an impact on the twentieth century history of Christendom. The answers were sometimes quite surprising. These figures included Eamon de Valera of Ireland, Garcia Moreno of Ecuador, Antonio Salazar of Portugal, President Diem of Vietnam, and, of course, General Franco. But Joe also educated the audience on Brother Francis’ pre-Saint Benedict Center activities in working in his native Lebanon for a united republic of Arab nations that could have been a bulwark against Communism, Zionism, and radical Islam. Most importantly, keeping to the theme of the conference, Joe talked about Brother Francis’ gift for wisdom and prudence in dealing with the problems in the Church, the “crisis of Faith,” and its effects. This, Joe pointed out, is our legacy — to keep that wisdom alive. In order to do that, he said, we must ask for the gift of counsel, which Brother Francis so much respected, and, even on the natural level, always seek the advice of those more intelligent souls whom God has placed in our life as teachers and fellow counselors.

Round Table

With Brother André Marie handling the microphone, posing questions, and doing his best Phil Donohue act, all of the eight speakers contributed their views on various topics related to wisdom, both practical and speculative. Each of the speakers chose a person whom they considered an exemplar of wisdom and why. Favorite books and authors were discussed and reasons presented as to why these books should be read by every Catholic. All in all many issues were thrown on the table and each speaker was able to give his or her insight, usually based upon their own field of expertise. The discussion lasted one full hour and, as intended, was spontaneous and animated. It made a great end for a great conference.

Don’t forget: The talks are now available on CD, downloadable MP3, and DVD.