Learning Wisdom

Before all other things wisdom was created, shrewd understanding is everlasting. For whom has the root of wisdom ever been uncovered? Her resourceful ways, who knows them? One only is wise, terrible indeed, seated on his throne, the Lord. The Lord himself has created her, looked on her and assessed her, and poured her out on all his works to be with all humankind as his gift, and the Lord conveyed her to those who love him.
Sirach 1:4-10

And when Jesus entered the house his disciples were asking him in private: “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them:”This kind cannot go out by any means except by prayer.”
Mark 9: 28-9

 

Mark’s account in chapter 9 of Jesus’ healing of the possessed boy is, in good part, a teaching on faith. Jesus tells the boy’s distraught father:  “All things are possible to one who believes.” (Mark 9: 23) He then points out to the disciples that they were unable to heal the boy due their own lack of faith. Jesus, however, goes further. He tells the disciples that the way to that greater faith is prayer. We don’t pray because we believe; we pray that we might come to believe, and perhaps more that we might come to the knowledge of faith.

We begin today to read from the Book of Sirach. Sirach tells us that wisdom precedes all creation. It is “before all else that is.” It further says that the Lord pours out wisdom on all creation, including humanity, and “conveyed her to those who love him.” As we read today’s scriptures, we cannot help but reflect on the intimate connection between faith and wisdom. Wisdom is a gift of God to those who love God.

Faith or belief as a social phenomenon seems, so often, to have little to do with wisdom. It is more often a set of doctrinal or dogmatic “opinions” with which one assaults those who do not hold them. These can be opinions of the assertion of God, or of the denial of God. Faith can be assertions of a truth that belongs to only one human tradition or another. It can be the rules or conditions for belonging to one in-group or another. What all of these false senses of faith have in common is that they come out of our dispersed and extroverted modes of living. They are determined in opposition to others who are and think differently. The rabid arguments of some of our contemporary atheists are but contradictions to what they propose to be the tenets of the believers to whom they are reacting. What seems to distinguish “true believers” of any stripe is their vehement opposition to an enemy of one type or another.

Yet, for Jesus, the “power” of faith to heal comes from prayer. It comes from going “within” and remaining there. It comes from abandoning our own sense of certitude that we might become available to the Wisdom that is the very source of creation, including our own being. Jan van Ruusbroec says that it is in “the inward movement of return” that we come to know the “incomprehensible darkness” of the “blissful Unity of God.” Wisdom is to know the unity of all, which is the “Unity of God,” and we come to recognize and realize this unity in darkness by returning to ourselves.

Human beings have a problem with the truth. We readily distort the truth in service to our own needs. The truth becomes what we need it to be in order to get our own way. As Freud saw it, our id is governed by the pleasure principle. The human unconscious knows only discharge in service of the sought after pleasure of the moment. For Freud, “where id is, there ego must be.” That is, we are to become capable of adequately comprehending the reality of the situation outside of us so that we can act appropriately, rather than merely discharging the movements of our unconscious.

Yet the Wisdom of the spiritual traditions is much deeper than the reality principle of our ego. The real truth of things is far beyond what we are able to sense and experience. It is far more than we can know by the efforts of our rational-functional mind and will. We come to know it, according to Ruusbroec, “by means of love and a pure intention.” It is “a divine stirring or touch in the unity of our spirit, an influx and ground of all graces, gifts and virtues. . . This divine stirring is the inmost intermediary between God and ourselves, between rest and activity, between particular forms and the absence of all form, and between time and eternity.” Wisdom is knowing by participation; it is to speak, to act, to work only in accord with what we see the Wisdom of God doing in the world and in us at each moment.

How do we learn Wisdom? Jesus tells the disciples that they were unable to heal the possessed boy because they lacked the faith to do so. As with them, we are drawn more deeply into wisdom through the experiences of failure and limit in life, through those moments where there is nothing we can do. One of the greatest obstacles to true faith is our mistaken use of what we call faith as a means of firming up our own egoic sense of our place in the world. it can become yet another means of our distortion of reality. Here is where we experience the grace of God, the in-breaking of Wisdom, in the experience of our own limits and failures, as the disciples did. Jesus’ word to us, as it was to them, is to enter at such times more deeply into a prayer by which we “turn inward again with thanksgiving and praise, and in blissful love immerse ourselves in essential rest.”

It is a common enough experience that those whose lives have been governed by a closed and willful faith find themselves at some point in a moment of despair. One of my aunts who was a very strong and good woman had, for most of her life, answers to life ready at hand. She lived her faith strongly and in life’s difficult situations seemed always able to contextualize the pain of the moment in the larger story of faith. Late in her own life, however, as death approached, she became deeply depressed. As her strength and vitality ebbed, she was no longer able to force the events of life into her preconceived meanings. Her faith could not make her feel better or stronger. She required medication and even hospitalization during these latter years of her life, as she struggled with the breakdown of life and world as she understood it.

In its own way, such an experience will occur for all of us. Wisdom is not something we attain; it is something that is already within us as creations of God. We find it in our efforts to think and to mold a life. We find it, however, even more when we are brought, often kicking and screaming, back into our life “with God in unity.” As Aeschylus wrote in Agamemnon (in the oft quoted translation of Edith Hamilton):

God, whose law it is
that he who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and in our own despite, against our will,
comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

What we must suffer is our own life and the world as it is. There is Wisdom at the heart of life, as difficult as that is for us to realize. Yet, something in us that desires  to “be as gods” must be broken before we can begin to share in it. Jesus tells the disciples, in the moment of their failure, to pray, to go within. We carry many illusions about ourselves. The good news is that life, finally, will break them down. The task for us is to “suffer” this breaking in such a way that we learn more and more how to pray:  how to attend, to rest, to wait until “in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

We should constantly abide with God in unity, eternally flow forth with God and all the saints in a love common to all, constantly turn inward again with thanksgiving and praise, and in blissful love immerse ourselves in essential rest. This is the richest kind of life I know, and with it we possess the gift of understanding.

Now you should  understand that in this inward movement of return the blissful Unity of God is just like an incomprehensible darkness devoid of particular form. By means of love and a pure intention the spirit turns within in two ways: actively, by offering all its virtues, and in blissful enjoyment, by offering itself above and beyond all its virtues. In this loving moment within there arises the seventh gift, which is the spirit of savorous wisdom. It pervades the simplicity of our spirit as well as our souls and body with wisdom and spiritual savor. This is a divine stirring or touch in the unity of our spirit, an influx and ground of all graces, gifts, and virtues. In this divine touch each person savors his exercises and his life in accordance with the power of the touch and the measure of his love. This divine stirring is the inmost intermediary between God and ourselves, between rest and activity, between particular forms and the absence of all form, and between time and eternity.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II,iv,B

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