Knowing and Willing

When the king had spoken with all of them, none was found equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; and so they entered the king’s service. In any question of wisdom or prudence which the king put to them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his kingdom.

Daniel 1:19-20

“I tell you truly: this poor widow has contributed more than all of them. For all these gave their gifts out of their abundance. But this woman contributed out of her poverty everything that she had to live on.”

Luke 21:3-4

We are coming to an end of both another liturgical year and calendar year. As we do so, it is natural to ask oneself if, having been given another year of life, one is any the wiser for it. To reflect back over the year past is to experience gratitude for those ways in which we have grown in wisdom and grace as well as age and to experience sadness and repentance for all the times where we lived merely by habit and repetition.

In today’s reading from Daniel, we hear that three of the young Israelites who had been brought into servitude to King Nebuchadnezzar proved to be superior in wisdom and prudence to all others. We are told of the young Daniel’s resolution not to defile himself and of his ingenuity in remaining true to the Law. In some significant way, then, Daniel’s diligence in keeping and practicing the law is related to his growth in wisdom and prudence. Likewise, Jesus recognizes true wisdom in the poor widow who gives “out of her poverty everything that she had to live on.” Both Daniel and his companions and the poor widow grow in and exemplify wisdom as a result of living out of a singleness of purpose, out of what the tradition calls “purity of heart.”

If I ask myself what has been the great obstacle to growing in wisdom and grace in the past year, I would have to say it is distraction and dispersion of thought, of feeling, and of will. It is a matter of wasting and losing my time pursuing whatever grabs my attention in the moment, without being responsible for my life and my time, my attention and my energy with a singleness of purpose and wholeheartedness of response. It has no doubt always been the case that the pursuit of wisdom is challenging and far too seldom followed. Yet, in our time there are so many more stimuli that summon our attention and disperse our thoughts and feelings. As I reflect on the amount of time I have spent in front of one screen or other over the past year, I am sadly aware of how little of that time has increased my awareness, insight, and capacity to love. As I think of the volumes of information I have ingested over these past months, I realize that only a very small percentage of it has served the consonant formation of my life and world.

As Daniel focuses his attention and efforts out of his resolution not to defile himself, he is forming his world around his single intention of serving the Lord and keeping the Law. As he focuses on one aspect of his life formation, his eating and drinking, he acts in service of the growing integration of his life in all its aspects with his true call and destiny. From our contemporary perspective, it is easy to question why one would place such significance and so exert so much energy on a specific regulation or rule. For us, there is so much that is offered and so many ways to find gratification in life, that everything can seem quite relative.

Given the multiplicity of objects of desire in our lives, at least I often find myself willing the most gratifying object of the moment. Many of my work days are spent on the most urgent (rather than the most important) demand of the moment, and my leisure hours are largely lost to the least demanding mode of engagement. In an age of multi-tasking and countless devices for entertainment and diversion, the very possibility of a coherent and integrated life can seem a quaint impossibility. While the promise of technology had been greater freedom and sense of responsibility for use of our time, it has become often precisely the opposite. While its promise had been more leisure and so potentially more creativity and enhancement of spirit, it has more often resulted in increased work hours and a more passive and less engaged use of leisure. We are now able to work at any time of the night or day, and we are most likely to spend our leisure passively watching or listening on our devices. If I reflect on the hours of the past year, I must acknowledge that far too often I “pass” the time rather than choosing how to live it.

The poor widow is among the most striking and challenging figures of the gospel. Whereas we, in our state of dispersed consciousness, roam the world of the senses seeking what we can devour to satisfy them, she gives away the little she has and contributes “out of her poverty everything she had to live on.” She is not seeking for herself, but rather, out of a trust born of singleness of purpose, is willing to give away all that she has. This is only possible for her because of her wisdom, that is because of her living awareness of her relationship to all that is. She knows who she is and what is her true place int he world. Thus, she knows the truth that God cares for us as for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. She lives a life of connection, of integration, of consonance with the world, both human and cosmic. And so, she knows the truth of interdependence, the reality that those who give will receive. So, she does not worry about gathering and accumulating possessions, or experiences, or status, or good feeling. She lives for God and God alone.

In the scriptural sense, wisdom is not primarily a matter of cognition. It is “knowing” why and so how we are to live. It is the knowledge of what we live for. It is a knowing that is a willing. To grow in wisdom is not only to know why but to know how we eat, and work, and rest, and love, and give of ourselves, and plan and structure our days. It is to choose what we do today and how we do it in light of our willing of God’s will in our lives and in our days.

Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything under heaven. To be truly wise is to live the moments of our lives in consonance with the call of those moments. It is to do or not do what is to be done or not done in each moment. To reflect in sadness over the lost moments of the gift of this past year is to realize that those moments were lost by me precisely because I did not will my life in them. Instead of saying “yes” to them, instead of willing what God willed in them, I let them pass; I wasted them. In those moments I was a fool. I was not watching and waiting for the Lord and God’s call to be available for God to be more present in my life and through me to the world. To be wise is to recognize that every moment is one of call and response. It is an opportunity to say “yes” to God in the way that only each of us can. It is to will love in each moment and at all times.

The more we practice willing the one thing necessary at each moment, the wiser we become. Young as they are, Daniel and his companions grow in wisdom by practicing fidelity to the Law in everything, small and large. They live precisely the opposite of relativism. Everything is important because it is a part of the one thing that is necessary. So, too, the poor widow. The call of the moment is to give what she has. She knows, because she trusts, that all will be given her besides. She will be cared for as she cares. What we always have to give, despite our poverty, are the moments of our lives. We can give them, by living them, generously and willingly, or we can “let them pass” will-lessly. May we receive each moment as the gift it is, and return it willingly and lovingly as all we have to live on.

The person who in truth wills only one thing can will only the Good, and the person who wills only one thing when he wills the good can will only the Good in truth. Let your heart, therefore, will in truth only one thing, for therein is the heart’s purity.

In a certain sense only a few words are needed to describe the Good. The Good, without condition, qualification, or compromise, is absolutely the only thing that a person can and should undecidedly will. The person who tries to will anything else will discover that he does not truly will one thing. It is a delusion, an illusion, a deception to try and do so. For in his innermost being he is, and is bound to be, double-minded. The Good alone can be willed as one thing.

Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere, 54-5

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