Wisdom is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of God’s goodness. Although alone, she can do all; herself unchanging, she makes all things new. In each generation she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets; for God loves only the one who lives with Wisdom.
“The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.”
In 1 Corinthians 13:12, we hear the voice of St. Paul (for native English speakers most familiarly mediated in the magnificent language of the King James Bible): “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” To know ourselves as we are known would be to know ourselves as God knows us, something, Paul tells us, that will not fully be so for us until we are transformed in death. Yet, what we call the “contemplative stance” is the way of being in the world that is openness to receiving, to the degree it is possible for us, God’s vision of things in the present. As we read today in the Book of Wisdom, “Wisdom is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of God’s goodness.”
Because we are such a highly functionalized people, it is difficult for us to think about contemplation other than as an activity or technique of our own, a something that we do. We picture it as something like the next to last scene of the television series Mad Men when the protagonist Don Draper, having lived a quite dissolute and tormented life throughout the series, is pictured sitting in the lotus position reciting the mantra “Om!” Yet, the practices we associate with contemplation are but means to the clearing of a space in us that we might receive the Wisdom of which the scriptures speak.
One of the most striking teachings of the Book of Wisdom is that “wisdom” is not an abstraction or a matter of our cognition, it is rather that which inheres at the heart of all creation. It is the image of God’s goodness that is manifest in all the different forms which creation takes. It is the creative energy that is the “untarnished mirror of God’s active power” and the “spirit” of creation that is always, as Hegel says, taking on new forms. As Wisdom says, “Although alone, she can do all; herself unchanging, she makes all things new.” To the degree we participate in Wisdom we recognize the “untarnished mirror of God’s active power” and so are able to respond in consonant accord with it.
In today’s gospel from Luke, Jesus tells us that the coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed. It is not there or here; it is rather among us. We look about ourselves somewhat frantically seeking for Wisdom, yet it is among — and within — us. When many of us, certainly myself, think back on our adolescence, and even in my case well into young adulthood, we may be struck by the level of self-consciousness in which we lived, and often which we suffered. I remember as a young man once speaking to someone about how I felt as if I was always outside of myself looking in and judging myself. I was always trying to gauge how I looked to others and always ready to feel shame that I was somehow not meeting up with the demands of who or what I should be. Over time I began to realize that, since Wisdom “passes into holy souls,” and as the Kingdom of God is not out there but within and among us, I could never begin to see life more clearly as long as I lived outside of myself. If I was outside looking in, I could never know what wisdom and spirit were moving within me and how my life was being directed and renewed in what I was actually going through. Wisdom was not to be found by looking here and there, but only by being “in that place within” where the same Wisdom that was my life and the life of the world were one.
The Tao Te Ching admonishes us, “If you aren’t free of yourself/how will you ever become yourself?” As long as “I” was preoccupied with myself, I could never even begin to become myself. The truth is “myself” is never a thing, a reified object to be investigated and worked on. As spirit, as participant in Wisdom, we, as all things, are constantly changing and being made new. Transformation is not a singular event but a continual process. When Jesus tells us that it is in losing ourselves that we find ourselves, he is echoing the even more ancient words of the Tao Te Ching, “. . . in putting himself last/the sage puts himself first, and in giving himself up/he preserves himself.”
To have a contemplative stance in the world is to be present from the inside of ourselves. It is to cease putting ourselves, as Thomas Merton says, between ourselves and the world, between ourselves and God. It is forgetting ourselves by ceasing to put ourselves at the center of things. It is our self-obsession that tarnishes the mirror of wisdom by which we are able to see and to participate in “God’s active power” within and among us. It is anxiety about ourselves that creates our resistance to the inevitability of change. If we were “truly wise,” we would know that there is an unchanging Wisdom, and yet that unchanging Wisdom is always making all things new. Forms rise and fall. This includes our form. When we are outside of ourselves and objectify ourselves, then the fact that our form falls, that we change and die, is a horror to us. When we are within, however, living out our lives contemplatively, then we experience the unchanging within our very changing. We participate, in faith, hope, and love, in the continual changing of ourselves and our world, realizing that it is the work of Wisdom.
Such a “contemplative stance” changes everything for us. Our ego’s will to manage and dominate life and world is stilled, and we instead participate in and serve the work of Wisdom in our world and in the life of others. We live in right-relationship to all that is. To the degree we participate in and abandon ourselves to Wisdom, we shall become servants of Wisdom for others. We act not out of our own anxieties and compulsions, but rather we see and respond to the work of “God’s active power” in the other and in the world. As the Tao reminds us, “There’s a reason heaven and earth go on enduring forever:/their life isn’t their own/so their life goes on forever.”
Heaven goes on forever.
Earth endures forever.
There’s a reason heaven and earth go on enduring forever:
their life isn’t their own
so their life goes on forever.
Hence, in putting himself last
the sage puts himself first,
and in giving himself up
he preserves himself.
If you aren’t free of yourself
how will you ever become yourself?
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching #7, trans. David Hinton