Arthur Middleton on being wise
As William Cowper put it in his poem ‘The Retired Cat’:
‘Beware of too sublime a sense
Of your own worth…’
The more we learn, the greater is the temptation to take ourselves too seriously and present the image of being wise in our own eyes. As we progress through the academies of education and allow them to clothe us in the wrappings of knowledge and academic attainments, we must not mistake the wrapping for the reality. There are other academies—the academies of life. These teach us that the end of all learning is wisdom rather than mere knowledge, and that such wisdom comes when we are prepared to journey over the abyss between thinking and vision, between knowledge about things and immediate perception of things. That journey is a pilgrimage. We are pilgrims whose primary concern is not merely to gather mere facts about this subject and that subject. The pilgrim is concerned to drink from other wells of vision and experience. Here as you seek to learn more about the wholeness of life, not merely in a quantitative sense but in a qualitative sense, your aim will be to become a better and more enlightened person. Be not wise in your own eyes. Become the person in whom the dedicated Christian and pilgrim is merged in the humility of the wise man or woman.
This journey, this pilgrimage, cannot be confined to the streets of our thought processes—it cannot be confined to the rational level. It is a journey that must be lived first and thought about afterwards. The living and the rational go alongside each other on a way on which faith seeks an understanding of the life that is truth. Throughout human history the intimations of immortality have taught us that in some way or other this life must be sought in death, the light must be found in darkness, the ascent must follow and be made possible by a previous descent. Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains a single grain… except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom.
Which brings me to St Paul, who echoes this same spirit in his First Letter to the Corinthians. Here he writes:
‘When I came to you, I declared the attested truth of God without display of fine words or wisdom. I resolved that while I was with you I would speak of nothing but Jesus Christ—Christ nailed to the cross… The word I spoke, the gospel I proclaimed, did not sway you with subtle arguments; it carried conviction by spiritual power, so that your faith might be built not upon human wisdom but upon the power of God. And yet I do speak words of wisdom to those who are ripe for it, not a wisdom belonging to this passing age, nor to any of its governing powers, I speak God’s hidden wisdom, his secret purpose framed from the very beginning to bring us to our full glory.’
That wisdom of God is not a package of ideology, not the wisdom of our own devising eyes. It is a life, at the heart of which is a cross and a resurrection. And all the great teachers emphasize in one way or another this same essential wisdom that is revealed in the cross. They tell us that you must be prepared to enter into darkness if you would find light, you must be prepared to plunge into the dark cloud of unknowing. If you would arrive at vision, you must empty yourself. If you would seek infinity you must be stripped, and to become poor and naked in your own soul if you would have the riches of the kingdom. You must be filled with a sense of your own nothingness before God if you would live with his infinite life.
‘To win to the knowledge of all,
Wish not to know anything.
To win to the tasting of all,
Wish not to taste anything.
To come to the possession of all
Wish not to possess anything.
To win to the being of all,
Wish not to be anything.
Be not wise in your own eyes.’
Those who have come to God in such simplicity of heart and poverty of spirit, adoring his will and putting their lives into his hands, do indeed find a wisdom that is not their own but God’s and it gives them a certitude which nothing can shake. John the Baptist’s moment in prison was a moment of awakening when he sent this question to Jesus: ‘Are you he who is to come or must we look for some other?’ Here is the doubt of the man about to die for his faith—natural, honest, a man concerned for the integrity of his own life and wondering ‘my God, my God, why?’ Yet as Jesus said to the Jew, they did not go out into the desert to see a courtier, a weakling blown by every wind, a peace at any price sort of man, a Mr Pliable. You can see that kind of person anywhere. They went out to see a prophet, a man in the confidence of God, a man with a message from God and with courage to deliver that message. Here was a man with a love for God in his heart, the wisdom of God in his mind and the truth of God on his lips. As the Collect for St John the Baptist’s day reminds us, John boldly rebuked vice. There was no debating with Herod about how far he was missing the mark. Repent, change your mind in such a way that your whole mental and emotional attitude is so profoundly altered that you become a new and different kind of person. That is the cross in human life that must be embraced.