What is Wisdom?

IN THE WISDOM of Jesus, Son of Sirach, commonly called Ecclesiasticus we read this :

Wisdom raises her sons to greatness and gives help to those who seek her. To love her is to love life; those who rise early to greet her will be filled with joy. He who holds fast to her will gain honour; The Lord’s blessing rests on the house she enters.

The Way of Wisdom

St. Paul spoke of God’s wisdom in Christ. (1 Cor. 22-23) “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom [human], but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” God’s wisdom is concrete not abstract, not ideology but life lived in a certain way. It is the baptismal life – the way of the wisdom-folly of the death and resurrection of Christ, that Jews found a stumbling block and Greeks thought foolishness. Immersed in this way of living the Desert Fathers found themselves enabled to perform heroic acts of self-abnegation. They proved St. Paul’s words, “All things work together for good for those who love God” (Roms 8.28). Like Abraham they sought a better homeland.

It requires the plundering of one’s possessions to possess something better and more lasting and this is the hardest and first step. This includes more than material possessions because God can come like a thief in the night and like Job we find everything gone as everything linked to existence seems to disappear. It is the way to that poverty of spirit necessary to see God. Then with God we can let go of the things in us that are contrary to God. A selfish will cannot pray to God with a pure heart, Thy will be done. If you want true freedom where only one will rules, you must stop clinging to your own freedom. People will think you are a fool, but does that matter if you are honoured in the sight of God. Divine honour comes when we have crushed the “ego-trip syndrome” that does things to invite the veneration of others.

Examples of Wisdom’s Way

A monk from Egypt settled near Constantinople. The Emperor visited him incognito. After prayer the monk invited him to a meal of bread, salt and water. Afterwards the Emperor, who thought the meal excellent, revealed his identity and, from that day on began to honour the monk. The monk fled because such honour might be a pitfall on the way to the wisdom-folly of the cross. Many in Christian history have made themselves fools for the sake of Christ – the CurĂ© D’Ars, Fr. Wainwright in London Docks, Mother Theresa and many ordinary people who are trying to live in this kind of way. The wisdom of the world will never understand it.

The wisdom-folly of Crucifixion always leads to resurrection. St. John of the Cross described it like this. Imagine a log fed into the fire. At first the log groans, becomes black, crackles, gets rid of its impurities and it is not a beautiful sight. However, gradually, it becomes like the fire which is purifying it until it becomes fire itself in its red-white fragrance. That describes the way in which the Holy Spirit works, guiding us on the way of wisdom-holiness, and then infusing with his own life those who surrender themselves to him.

St. Anthony’s struggle was a painful purification in combat with the forces of evil until everything in him was overcome, including his body. It was the passion of Christ working in him, the marks of the Lord Jesus in his mortal body so that in his earthly life he experienced the glory of Christ’s resurrection. He became charismatic in the sense that he was a permanent receptacle of the Spirit whom he could now give to others. Here is human nature, wounded by sin, restored and redeemed. Anthony had no education in the proven wisdom of this world. yet he had discernment, an insight into everything, no uncouth manner but a gracious and courteous disposition. His speech was so seasoned with a divine salt, and everyone was disarmed by his charm. What we witness in Anthony is a gift from God. Hidden away in the mountains for years God makes those who belong to him become known everywhere. This promise God gave to Anthony at the beginning. Like Thomas Merton who entered the monastery of Gethsemani to disappear from the world and found himself universally known throughout the world, so Anthony went into hiding but God shows him, like Merton to everyone as a torch pointing the way.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, in the diocese of Durham, and Tutor of St. Chad’s College, Durham.