But what struck me most forcefully in the recent inauguration were two things, the moment the prayers began, only moments before the presidential oath.
The first person to stride to the podium was a Catholic priest.
It may seem trivial, but that’s never happened in my lifetime. The last time an ordained Catholic man gave the invocation at a US President’s inauguration was 1977, when Archbishop John Roach led the prayer for Jimmy Carter in 1977. I wasn’t yet anywhere near the light of day.
Seeing a priest take center stage in such a defining American moment was a shock, given that the President elect is not a Catholic himself. Catholics have had a roller coaster of a relationship with the American project from the beginning, sometimes seeming to be America’s greatest advocate and other times seeming to be her harshest critic. Seeing a priest at the podium was fascinating.
But secondly what impacted me even more was the words of the prayer spoken by the priest. They were remarkably straightforward, short, and biblical. It was from the “prayer of Solomon” from the Old Testament’s Book of Wisdom, chapter 9.
Wisdom 9 is so simple and stunning in its beauty. The prayer itself is an elaboration of a key moment in the story of the history of the Israelite kingdom. King Solomon has inherited the Kingdom of his father David the King. The Lord comes to Solomon in a dream and says, “Ask what I shall give you.” Solomon responds, “Give thy servant an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9).
God is pleased and Solomon is filled with wisdom to govern well.
The prayer in Wisdom 9, prayed on January 20, 2017 by Timothy Cardinal Dolan, adds more detail to Solomon’s prayer. Here are three key points and warnings imbedded in the prayer:
- That all human authority is a created thing and therefore human authority finally answers to the Creator (“You have made all things by your word”)—a warning against leaders becoming tyrants or autocrats.
- God generously shares his own governing authority with the human race (“You have formed man to have dominion over the creatures you have made”)—a warning against seeing human beings simply as beasts.
- Wisdom stands for humanity’s happy and loving participation in God’s government of the world, and therefore is a key to human prosperity (“Wisdom knows your works…and what is pleasing in your sight”)—a warning against seeing God as a tyrant or a rival to human flourishing.
These warnings demonstrate how practical the biblical concept of wisdom is. We all know too well how dicey things become when the three warnings above aren’t heeded.
Though we Americans rightly celebrate the separation of church and state so that government leaders don’t meddle in the work of religious groups, a prayer for God’s wisdom for our leaders is crucial indeed. There nonetheless exists no realm of creation which stands outside of the entirety of creation. All things, including “secular” politics, remain under the egis of God’s governance. So Wisdom is required for political leaders of every level—perhaps especially at the highest level where the stakes are equally elevated.
Wisdom 9 caught my attention, too, because every Saturday morning on the third week of the month, Catholic priests read and pray it. Praying it on Saturday reminds us of the paradox that the ultimate image of the leadership and true governance was Holy Saturday, when another king called “David’s son” strangely shepherded his people by giving his life and lay cold and dead in a tomb.
That’s certainly a bizarre way to lead. But this is in fact wise leadership if officials lead best by the selfless love embodied in the sacrifice of Holy Saturday. The wager in the prayer for wisdom is that what finally governs creation is selfless love. Only wisdom can see that clearly.
This is apparently why God accepted Solomon’s prayer. He was asking to receive wisdom for the good of his people and to lay aside his own (potentially selfish) concern for himself, so God granted him the necessary gift.
That’s why a Catholic priest, Cardinal Dolan, lumbered up to the microphone and led the USA in praying for the same Wisdom to be given to our new president.
Join me in praying Wisdom 9 that the same wisdom may be given and received once again.
Solomon’s Prayer for Wisdom
“O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy,
who have made all things by your word,
and by your wisdom have formed humankind
to have dominion over the creatures you have made,
and rule the world in holiness and righteousness,
and pronounce judgment in uprightness of soul,
give me the wisdom that sits by your throne,
and do not reject me from among your servants.
For I am your servant the son of your serving girl,
a man who is weak and short-lived,
with little understanding of judgment and laws;
for even one who is perfect among human beings
will be regarded as nothing without the wisdom that comes from you.
You have chosen me to be king of your people
and to be judge over your sons and daughters.
You have given command to build a temple on your holy mountain,
and an altar in the city of your habitation,
a copy of the holy tent that you prepared from the beginning.
With you is wisdom, she who knows your works
and was present when you made the world;
she understands what is pleasing in your sight
and what is right according to your commandments.
Send her forth from the holy heavens,
and from the throne of your glory send her,
that she may labor at my side,
and that I may learn what is pleasing to you.
For she knows and understands all things,
and she will guide me wisely in my actions
and guard me with her glory.
Then my works will be acceptable,
and I shall judge your people justly,
and shall be worthy of the throne of my father.
For who can learn the counsel of God?
Or who can discern what the Lord wills?
For the reasoning of mortals is worthless,
and our designs are likely to fail;
for a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
We can hardly guess at what is on earth,
and what is at hand we find with labor;
but who has traced out what is in the heavens?
Who has learned your counsel,
unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus the paths of those on earth were set right,
and people were taught what pleases you,
and were saved by wisdom.”