Because God is the witness of one’s inmost self; and the sure observer of one’s heart and the listener to one’s tongue. For the Spirit of the Lord fills the world, is all-embracing, and knows what a person says.
Wisdom 1: 6-7
In one of our most frequently repeated prayers, “Come Holy Spirit,” we pray that by the gift of the Spirit “we may always be truly wise.” What exactly are we praying for when we ask God to make us “truly wise”? As we suffer the experience of living in a cacophonous culture, one where it seems more often than not that might or power makes right, it can seem that the very idea of “wisdom” is somewhat quaint and anachronistic.
In 2004 the journalist Ron Suskind wrote an essay in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.” In that essay, he relates an interview with Karl Rove, a political advisor to President Bush,
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.
If reality is what we make it, the wisdom of the great traditions is meaningless. For, as we read today, we live in the sight of the One who is the creator of all, whose Spirit fills the entire world, and so to whom we are responsible for our words, actions, and the form we give to our lives. We receive form from the Spirit who created us, and we are responsible to form our life and the world in accordance with the truth of the one who fills the world and who knows us and the truth of who we are. Karl Rove tells Suskind that if he’s “smart” he will study the world that the most powerful create. Yet, today we hear that if we’re “wise” we will be attentive to God’s truth, and we shall devote ourselves wholeheartedly to speaking and doing in accordance with that truth.
Wisdom is a lived knowledge of the truth. One of the great contributions to human development and flourishing that democracy and egalitarianism offers is the giving of a voice to each and every member of society. One of the difficulties in its incarnation and implementation, however, is due to our human tendency to sloth or what the spiritual tradition terms acedia. For to make good and wise decisions requires discernment. The truth of things is not always immediately obvious to us, and our own superficial opinions are far too often based on our prejudices, our senses of craving and aversion. Without a willing commitment of love to the truth of things, the measure of “truth” can become degraded to mere opinion. If the public sphere becomes but the clashing of diverse opinion, then the determinant of direction, of the common “truth,” becomes a matter of power. It is the most powerful rather than the most truthful position that holds sway.
In the scriptures of all the great wisdom traditions, “wisdom” is based on relationship. In the Book of Wisdom, we read that “God is the witness of one’s inmost self” and that “the Spirit of the Lord fills the world.” A human person is, then, wise to the degree that she or he lives in accordance with the truth of the inmost self to which God witnesses and in harmony with the Spirit of the Lord that “fills the world.” “For it is only in harmony that you will grow, that your community will grow, that the love of God will grow in your world, and that the reign of God will grow to completeness.” (Xaverian Fundamental Principles) The Bhagavad Gita tells us that the relationship to Reality we are to have is that of loving willingness: “One who acts for my sake, / loving me, free of attachment / with benevolence toward all beings, / will come to me in the end.”
Adrian van Kaam terms this love, to which the scriptures of the world’s great spiritual traditions call us, “consonance.” It is when we “sound with” the depth dimension of reality that we are wise and loving. This includes reality in all its dimensions. It is, in Wisdom’s terms, a sounding with our “inmost self,” and it is, what the Bhagavad Gita terms “single-minded devotion.” Throughout literature, the wisdom figure is seldom the most powerful in physical or social terms. Often in Shakespeare, for example, it is the fool who speaks the truth. In contemporary American literature, Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird is such a wisdom figure. He is very much a person of his culture who suffers the effects of the racial prejudice of his surroundings, and yet, he takes a stance, fruitless in its results, for the truth of the innocence of a falsely accused man. He refuses to deny that reality, even in the face of the pervasive prejudice and ignorance of his cultural world. Very often the wise person is presented as something of a solitary, standing outside of the pulsations of her or his culture.
To grow in consonance and in wisdom is hard work for us. It requires of us a detachment from all that we readily take for granted, from all the “common sense” of the world around us. It demands of us a “single-minded devotion” to the truth that we must “means test” in solitude and silence. Discernment is a work of the spirit in us. To be discerning means to go beyond our cravings and aversions, our fears and our lusts, our pride and our self-depreciation. To discern we must take our true place in relationship to the world and realize that we live to serve the world and not to be served by it. We are not the arbiter of the truth. Rather we are responsible to the truth and to the One who is the truth. St. John of the Cross describes our true place when he says that we are to do nothing except in obedience.
This, of course, is the very opposite of imposing our will on the world, to creating reality by means of our own power. The current state of our environment, of the dire poverty of so many of our brothers and sisters in the world, the violence that dominates our relationships to each other at the physical, social, religious, and economic levels are all symptoms of our prideful and arrogant attempts to create our own reality. We learn how to live in the world and we become wise in the scriptural sense when we allow our lives to be formed by the demands of God’s reality on us.
Recently Pope Francis reiterated his traditional and orthodox belief on the primacy of conscience. As he did so, however, he distinguished conscience from “one’s ego that thinks it can do as it pleases.” Such discernment is very difficult. It is far too easy for us to make gods of ourselves, to conflate doing what we please with the demands of reality. At least in Western society, we have received very little formation in the kind of formative self-presence by which we recognize the witness of God in our inmost selves. True integrity, and thus wisdom, can only come from the recognition of our responsibility to God. We develop our conscience, in the way Pope Francis calls us to, by attending deeply to the words and the teachings of our traditions but then appropriating these uniquely in light of our unique and original life call. Finally, only we can do that.
All of creation speaks its truth to us, but it does so in a unique relationship with our “inmost self.” The Bhagavad Gita tells us that we cannot recognize the Lord “by study or rites or alms or ascetic practice.” It does not say that all of this is not important, but that it is finally only by “single-minded devotion,” by love that we can see the Lord as the Lord truly is. So, our separation from the truth of reality is also alienation from ourselves. Perhaps we are losing our capacity for compassion and replacing it with relations of power to the degree that we are losing our capacity to be truly present to ourselves. Perhaps we exert ourselves to create our own outer reality because we cannot live with our own inner reality. Wisdom and integrity are inextricably linked. To see honestly and truly requires that we first be honest with ourselves. Being thus put in and living out of our true and real place, we shall then spontaneously turn toward God, fall in love, and place ourselves in service to God and God’s reality.
Not by study or rites
or alms or ascetic practice
can I be seen in this cosmic
form, as you have just seen me.
Only by single-minded
devotion can I be known
as I truly am, Arjuna—
can I be seen and entered.
One who acts for my sake,
loving me, free of attachment,
with benevolence toward all beings,
will come to me in the end.
Bhagavad Gita, 11: 53-55