Arthur Middleton on wisdom in serpents and doves

St Basil (Feast: 2 January), when bishop of Caesarea, wrote in one of his letters to the bishops of the West in ad 372:

‘Our distresses are notorious…the doctrines of the Fathers are despised; apostolic traditions are set at nought; the devices of innovators are in vogue in the churches; now men are rather contrivers of cunning systems than theologians; the wisdom of this world wins the highest prizes and has rejected the glory of the cross. Shepherds are banished, and in their places are introduced grievous wolves harrying the flock of Christ… Be zealous for true religion and rescue us from this storm’ [Ep. 90].

‘I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ [Matt. 10.16]. This fate awaits the disciples and Jesus wants them to understand that this new kind of war needs strange equipment. They must show the gentleness of sheep against wolves all around them, and exhibit the wisdom of serpents with the innocence of doves. John Chrysostom’s (345–407) homily on this text states that Christ’s power will be better demonstrated when the sheep, mercilessly wounded by surrounding wolves, do not destroy but transform the wolves. More wonderful than destruction is the changing and transforming of the dispositions of the wolves’ minds so that they are reformed.

To attack our enemies like wolves is self-destructing, for he is the shepherd of the sheep and not of the wolves. If we become like a wolf, he leaves us and departs from us, for we have acted in a way that makes it impossible for his power to be seen in us. If we behave like lambs, we are victorious, survive and overcome in a gentleness of disposition in which the whole glory of victory is attributed to him.

This is the way Christ has appointed for his disciples. In making them sheep before wolves rather than more terrible lions, he makes it impossible for anyone to overthrow them. The gentleness of sheep is commended, not their lack of wisdom. A disciple’s wit in all these dangers must possess the wisdom of the serpent, a creature that will let everything go, even let its body be cut in pieces if only it may keep its head. Here Chrysostom holds the old belief that if a snake’s head was preserved, it could grow a new body from the head. So the disciple must give up everything, even life itself, though not his faith. For faith is the head and the root. If that is preserved, we will get everything back, and better than it was before.

So we are not to be simple and guileless, nor just wise and prudent. We must have the wisdom of the serpent so that adversity will not trouble us, and the innocence of the dove so as not to defend ourselves against those who wrong us, nor avenge ourselves against those who plot against us. We are not allowed even to be indignant, for that infringes the innocence of doves.

With our hindsight we can see that things did work out as Our Lord intended, and his will was done. The wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves are evident in the works of the disciples whose human nature is like ours. Fierceness is not overcome by fierceness, but by gentle yielding.