I’ve been reading the wisdom books in Scripture lately. I’ve also been learning some theology from St. Thomas Aquinas. A discourse about humility in Sirach 3:17-24 (Confraternity-Douay version) struck a chord that led me to connect basic philosophical knowledge with what it lays out. I want to focus on this line, "What is committed to you, attend to; for what is hidden is not your concern" (verse 22). All of it is worth reading, but this part directly reminds me of how I understand the intellect to work.
ATTEND TO GOD
Let me touch on the part that says, “what is hidden is not your concern.” This does not me that we should not concern ourselves with what is unseen, God. This means that we should not “search into His divine judgments, or inquire into their reason and cause,” but we should have “an unchangeable faith, by which the mind rests content in the knowledge of eternal truth” (Roman Catechism, I.i.). In addition, the greatest commandment is this, "Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is one God; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength" (Mark 12:29-30). Not only should we concern ourselves with God, but our entirety should concern Him. Jesus quotes the Torah, “Hear O Israel!” as if to say, “Pay attention!”
It's called the greatest commandment for a reason. It requires discipline to achieve. However, it is a spiritual truth which is not the most familiar to our senses. So, let us consider a different great commandment: “Go, climb Mt. Everest.” Could I simply hop on a plane and complete this commandment? No. I would require someone to train me, to encourage me, to guide me on the way, etc. Likewise, loving God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strengths also requires a trainer, a friend, and a guide. This is why we are given the Holy Spirit, "for the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God" (1 Corinthians 2:10). "Eye has not seen or ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).
The Holy Spirit directs us away from our sensual delights. "Discipline is like her name she is not accessible to many" (Sirach 6:23), the word ‘discipline’ in Hebrew is musar, which means ‘withdrawn’. The Holy Spirit withdraws us away from the world and into the spiritual things of God.
The Holy Spirit trains us; "She walks with him as a stranger, and at first she puts him to the test; fear and dread she brings upon him and tries him with her discipline; with her precepts she puts him to the proof, until his heart is fully with her" (Sirach 4:17).
The Holy Spirit gives us encouragement and strength, "My son, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in time of adversity" (Sirach 2:1-2).
Even Jesus Christ climbed this mountain. “Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). He was even strengthened by an angel before His crucifixion (Luke 22:43). Put yourself under the yoke of Jesus Christ, learn from His humility and meekness; He will give you the Holy Spirit to lead you up the mountain of the Lord. This is to give you the Love for God that is certain, just, disciplined, and gentle.
ATTEND TO YOUR NEIGHBOR AS SELF
Intellect directs our attention
Let us now take a look at ourselves. We are singular. We are composed of a body and spirit. Our spirit is a soul because it has the capacity to command our body. God has COMMITTED our bodies to our souls to direct. The soul commands the body with the powers of the intellect and will. Let us go back to the verse, “What is committed to you, attend to.” Attention is the responsibility of the intellect (Catholic Encyclopedia). The intellect commands our brain and in doing so, encounters countless neurons collecting data from every nerve in the body. The intellect effortlessly decides which neurons it should pay attention to. For example, if my right hand is holding a computer mouse and my left is touching the keyboard, and I want to click something with my mouse, then the intellect directs my attention to the neurons coming from right hand and minimizes those from my left hand. When I find an interesting Catholic article on my computer screen, my intellect will direct my attention to the neurons collecting the visual data for processing. When this happens, I can completely lose track of what my hands are feeling. I get "absorbed" into the article that I’m focusing on.
Due to Original Sin, we are called fallen; our nature is corrupt. Our intellect and will are no longer in harmony with the body. They have both been corrupted. With the sacraments, we are healed. However, we are left with the task of ordering the soul so as to lift the more noble, spiritual parts up to govern the rest. Our intellect and will need to be in charge of the body. However, due to our fallen state, that doesn’t happen without training.
If our intellect is too “absorbed” by the bodily senses, it’ll get tossed about like a ship on a stormy sea. The brain is the storehouse of our sensual inputs, a lot of random stuff is in there. If we are too attached to the body, a lot of information is going to pass through our intellect. It’ll get very overwhelmed trying to attend to every neuron that pulses. In addition, due to our fallen state, "The wisdom of the flesh is hostile to God" (Romans 8:7). This is where detachment comes in.
Detachment is the intellect taking a step back so it can direct our attention to our God-given duty. St. Thomas Aquinas agrees with Anaxagoras when he says, "that the intellect requires to be 'detached' in order to command, and that the agent must have power over matter, in order to be able to move it" (II-II.Q15.a3). We can think of our intellect as a commander of an army; commanders do their best when they are detached from their unit. When detached, they can be more objective in creating the strategy that leads to victory.
When I find myself too absorbed in something, I will take a cold shower. My intellect likes to attach to sensually pleasurable things. However, I can most easily convince my intellect to detach, if being attached means experiencing the agony of a thousand drops of freezing water hitting my ribcage. However, after detachment, I noticed it attaching to spiritual vices like pride so I had to go into the cold shower with a plan to focus on spiritual virtues, like the honor of working within God’s justice and mercy. Meditating on the privilege to participate in His good works is wonderful. Imagine being heard by someone with immense authority and power. Imagine that person doing what you asked of him. All of this leads us to Christ's words, "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matthew 16:24).
Love neighbor as self
The next thing that God has COMMITTED to us are our family, friends, and neighbors. In addition, attending to our neighbor relates to the second of the greatest commandments, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22:39). However, it is about more than paying attention to them; this attention must come with the unifying force of love. This love should extend from our love for ourselves. St. Thomas Aquinas explains what it looks like to be our own friend (II-II.Q25.a7):
- "For in the first place, every friend wishes his friend to be and to live;
- secondly, he desires good things for him;
- thirdly, he does good things to him;
- fourthly, he takes pleasure in his company;
- fifthly, he is of one mind with him, rejoicing and sorrowing in almost the same things. (5 things proper to friendship according to the Philosopher)
On this way the good love themselves, as to the inward man, because
- they wish the preservation thereof in its integrity (survival),
- they desire good things for him, namely spiritual goods,
- indeed they do their best to obtain them, and
- they take pleasure in entering into their own hearts, because they find there good thoughts in the present, the memory of past good, and the hope of future good, all of which are sources of pleasure.
- Likewise, they experience no clashing of wills, since their whole soul tends to one thing."
When we love ourselves by directing our whole self to our spiritual good (God), we can be equipped to love our neighbor in this way. It’ll start with our attention to them as souls in need of spiritual good. This will look like empathy as we pray for them and give them food, water, shelter, clothing, etc. Eventually, this attention should eventually come with the unifying force of love as we allow them to penetrate deeper into our hearts. When this happens, we will take more pleasure in their presence, we will more assiduously pray for them, we will more earnestly desire and obtain goods for them (spiritual or temporal) even to the detriment of our bodies, and we will more fervently seek harmony in our beliefs and wills. However, seeking this harmony can be harmful to us.
If our loved ones are outside the faith, our desire for harmony with them might lead us to believe their errant beliefs or do as they do and sin. Therefore, it is especially important that we frequently direct our attentions back to God. We should remind ourselves of the fundamentals to our Catholic faith and reaffirm our beliefs daily. “Blessed is the man who…delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on the His law day and night” (Psalms 1:2). We need to direct our attention to God, His commands, His Sacraments, His Gifts, His Fruits, His virtues with the unifying force of love. We need to train so our focus will be so absorbed in God’s will that we lose track of our own desires.
I understand how arduous the day-to-day battles can be since God is unseen. But, as with everything that we determine to be beyond our strength, let us turn to prayer. Pray that we desire God above all things. Pray that He prunes everything in our lives that doesn't direct us to Him. Pray as David prayed in the Psalms, "If my way is crooked lead me in the way of old" (Psalm 138:24); "Let the just man strike me; that is kindness; let him reprove me; it is oil for my head, which my head shall not refuse, but I will still pray under these afflictions" (Psalm 140:5). Let our suffering detach our intellects from our body and onto Christ. Let Him command our body to commit virtuous acts. Let us not only commit virtuous acts, but let us also love them, letting them diffuse into your very being.