It is said that the Book of Wisdom is acquainted with the philosophical traditions of Stoicism and Platonism; Stoicism asserting that virtue and happiness can only be attained by submission to destiny and the natural law, and Platonism being the philosophers’ theory of ideas, which makes a distinction between objects of sense perception and the universal ideas or forms of which they are an expression. However my fascination is in the virtue of stoicism, if virtue it is! No one can comprehend the wisdom of God, and yet today’s reading from this wonderful Book of Wisdom tells us that ‘wisdom is all around us’. It influences our lives more than we think. Sometimes it is acquired wisdom – learning from others’ experiences -, but more often than not, we acquire it from our own experience, and we label the result as common sense. It has a powerful influence on our human vocation, both spiritual and cerebral whether we are aware of it or not. I have a ‘streak of the stoic’ in me, and I have no doubt that it has developed through incidents in my life, such as the one I am about to relate which occurred in my youth while at school.
My great joys at school as some of you may know were not expressed in intellectual activities, but in physical, theatrical or vocal pursuits. One of the sports I enjoyed was rugby, and as a twelve year old, and within a few short weeks of my first term in senior school, I was an established member of the schools’ ‘Under 14’ Rugby team playing in the position of scrum-half. The only detriment or disadvantage to my playing ability was my hairstyle! It was 1953, and the hair-style some of us preferred was called a ‘Tony Curtis’ hair style, -Tony Curtis being a Hollywood star of the 1950’s and 60’s – a style which was easily recognisable as it sported a ‘quiff’ just above the forehead, and the rest of the hair on either side of the head being brushed to the back of the head towards the nape of the neck and was universally known as a ‘DA’! The problem was that the style was held in place by a well-known hair cream advertised as Brylcream, [did the prefix mean ‘brilliant’?] and its equally famous competitor Brilliantine. Neither had any pretence to hold the hair firm in a gale or adverse weather conditions, which meant that as the rugby game progressed, and particularly if it was raining, the hair-grease lost its effectiveness and the quiff became a ‘hair-curtain’, and an impediment to ones’ vision.
An important bonus for being a member of a school team was the joy of playing ‘away games’, which on occasions, particularly if the opposing school was some distance away, meant that we scholars had to miss some lessons, or on a truly joyous occasion, sadly, having to miss all of Saturday mornings classes. But already having been instructed in the virtues of natural law and the will of God [divine providence!] we accepted the decisions made on our behalf by those in authority. [with glee]
The beginning of my second year [Sept 1954] continued in the same happy sporting vein, and the ‘Under 14’s’ had ‘gelled’ into a fairly good unit. We were competent and confident, not that we won every game, but we enjoyed every game. Then one Friday evening, it was either late October or early November, just before supper, the First Fifteen coach – Fr Philip Catcheside – tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Be in the gym immediately after supper in your rugger kit to practice with the 1st. XV scrum; you’re in the team tomorrow!’
To say I was taken aback is an understatement. Why Me? What about the scrum-halves who played in the ‘Under 15’s; The Colts [Under 16’s]; the 2nd. XV? Why not use a substitute from another position in the 1ST’. XV? There were umpteen possibilities to choose from, but more importantly, I was on a hiding to nothing! I was out of my depth! I was 13 years old! The guys in the 1st. XV were twice my size and a number of them probably twice my weight and some of them looked too old to be at school anyway!
In any team game, confidence, comfort and ease of mind come through training with ones team mates and in developing trust both in style and effectiveness; knowing each others’ strengths and weaknesses, switching positions seamlessly and following ones’ intuition and instinct. There was not a snowballs chance in hell of me achieving any such competence with the 1st. XV after one hours training in the gym. My greatest concern was vanity, not the pasting that I could receive from the opposition, but the probability that I was going to look a complete incompetent, an embarrassment in front of all those watching, because when the 1st. XV played at home, all those not playing in a school team that afternoon, had to support the 1st. XV. One is always remembered for ones’ misdemeanours, never for ones’ successes, and my misdemeanours outnumbered my successes by a fair margin.
The next morning at Mass [7.30 am] my most devout pleading prayer was ‘O Lord, come to my aid ‘cos I’m up to my neck in effluent’, and ‘blessed be the Lord’, by break-time that Saturday morning, the Lord had heard my prayer and had pity on a scrum-half who was being prepared to be fed to the lions! Because of the appalling weather conditions, the match was called off! My spirits soared, not because I had been spared the ignominy of looking a complete fool in front of the school, but the glory of having been chosen to play for the 1st. XV at the age of 13! I had not been found wanting, as no one could criticise me for not playing, or refusing to play the game. I could bask in the glory of what might have been; dreams of glory fulfilled hidden in the anonymity of my mind, and thanks to submitting to Divine Providence and destiny, I modestly added one small notch to the virtuous belt of stoicism.
Through playing sport, and purely by accident I had learnt that wisdom ‘is all around’ and the discipline of respectful obedience to the instructions of one’s teacher, lecturer or coach can bring unseen, but personally satisfying dividends.
To quote from this mornings reading from the book of wisdom 6: 15.
‘To think about [wisdom] is the perfection of understanding
the one who stays awake for her will soon be free of care.’
I always managed to stay awake for the things that mattered, other than in class.