I prayed, and prudence was given me; / I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. / I preferred her to scepter and throne, / and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her, / nor did I liken any priceless gem to her; / because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand, / and before her, silver is to be accounted mire. / Beyond health and comeliness I loved her, / and I chose to have her rather than the light . . . .
Wisdom 7: 7-10
Jesus looking at him loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”. At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Mark 10: 21-2
Yesterday while hearing the words from the Book of Wisdom proclaimed at mass, I was struck by the injunctions of praying and pleading. Prudence and wisdom are given as gifts, but they cannot be received until we truly experience our need for them. The question occurred to me about whether or not I really wanted the gifts of prudence and wisdom because I honestly experienced my lack of them.
It seemed to me that whoever had decided to combine this reading with the gospel of the Rich Young Man was quite inspired. Jesus tells the observant and morally upright young man, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The Rich Young Man is unable to make the choice for wisdom because he does not yet deem “riches [as] nothing in comparison with her.” So for myself, I do not yet want above everything to live “eternal life” with God in the present rather than to postpone it for the sake of the gratification I obtain by the riches of this life.
Today is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila. Perhaps no one else in our traditions writes so accessibly and experientially of the call to union with God. In The Interior Castle, as she begins to relate the movement from the third to the fourth mansions, from a good life lived on our own terms to the possibility of knowing the far greater life that is ours in God, what the gospel terms “eternal life.” She speaks directly to what inhibits this passage for most of us: “The trouble is that since we do not think there is anything to know other than that we must think of you, we do not even know how to ask. Terrible trials are suffered because we don’t understand ourselves, and that which isn’t bad at all but good we think is a serious fault.”
We value far too much, even as absolute, what we think, what we make of our own life, what we do for others and for God as we understand God. So often I live far too much in my own knowing and not enough in the realization of all that I don’t know. The Rich Young Man is a good and observant person. This is why he recognizes that Jesus is the “good Master.” Yet immediately Jesus reminds him that “No one is good except God.” Whatever we know or sense as good pales in comparison to the goodness of God. And of that we are largely ignorant.
Not yet totally understanding the intuition, maybe the inspiration (?), that arose as I heard the Wisdom reading yesterday, I sense a call to live in a stance of praying and pleading for a prudence and a wisdom that I lack. Teresa says that what there is to know beyond what we “think” of God is so far beyond us that we don’t even know how to ask for it. This is really the point. Is there a depth of prayer that is a pleading and a praying for a longing that we cannot even “think”? Can I stand in my own poverty enough to spend my life and my days praying in this way? The Young Man has many possessions and so is unable to respond to Jesus’ invitation. I too have too many possessions. Some of them are material things, but most of all I possess arrogantly my own sense of things, my own thoughts. I don’t know how, and so I fear what it would mean to live in a constant mode of pleading and praying for “ I don’t know what.”
In our Fundamental Principles we read:
At times you will discover
that God’s ways are not your ways,
and God’s thoughts are not your thoughts.
When this happens
try to surrender yourself trustingly
into the arms of your Father,
who knows you,
and loves you.
Most often as I read the words “at times you will discover,” I think that it means that “at times” God’s ways are not my ways, nor God’s thoughts my thoughts.” But that isn’t what the text says. It says that “at times” I will discover a truth that is always the case. There is, in fact, an enormous chasm between my thoughts, my ways and God’s. Wisdom is the bridging of that gap.
This past weekend we joined together as brothers from our local region to share together our own thoughts on the “new reality” that is currently our congregational life. In the course of that time together, the question of what is discernment was raised. The purpose of discernment is to know God’s thoughts and God’s ways. To know them we must pray and plead for them, but the prayer must come out of the realization of our deepest poverty, of our greatest lack. Discernment requires first of all the lived recognition that we don’t know. Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to our transcending St. Teresa’s third mansion, the place of the Rich Young Man, that is of being good, is our therapeutic culture. We can seem unable to distinguish the difference between prideful and shameful self-depreciation and the stark realization of the truth of our profound human poverty. My lack of true prudence and wisdom does not make me worthless. Rather, knowing that lack is the truth of my own poverty and dependence on God.
To pray and to plead for prudence and wisdom is to know what an idiot I am in my arrogance. But it is to do so with a smile on my face. A brother related to me with great appreciation how another brother would say to him, “Jim, you’re wrong. But it’s okay to be wrong.” We are trying to find our way, but the way is dark. As Thomas says to Jesus, “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way.” (John 14:5). He says this, however, in response to Jesus’ saying “You know the way to the place where I am going.” We don’t know where we are going, but we do know the way. Yesterday, I heard in the words of the Book of Wisdom that I have been forgetting that the way is always a way of pleading and praying. It is to follow the Way, that is Jesus, without knowing the destination. To do this, however, requires abiding in the unknowing. It asks of me to divest of the typical and daily arrogance that thinks all there is to know of God is what I think. St. Teresa says, this is the way to pass from the illusory independence of a life of my thoughts and efforts to “eternal life.”
O Lord, take into account the many things we suffer on this path for lack of knowledge! The trouble is that since we do not think there is anything to know other than that we must think of you, we do not even know how to ask. Terrible trials are suffered because we don’t understand ourselves, and that which isn’t bad at all but good we think is a serious fault. This lack of knowledge causes the afflictions of many people who engage in prayer; complaints about interior trials, at least to a great extent, by people who have no learning; melancholy and loss of health; and even the complete abandonment of prayer. For such persons don’t reflect that there is an interior world here within us. Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens, but they proceed in rapid motion, so neither can we stop our mind; and then the faculties of the soul go with it, and we think we are lost and have wasted the time spent before God. But the soul is perhaps completely joined with him in the dwelling places very close to the center, while the mind is on the outskirts of the castle suffering from a thousand wild and poisonous beasts, and meriting by this suffering. As a result we should not be disturbed; nor should we abandon prayer, which is what the devil wants us to do. For the most part, all the trials and disturbance come from our not understanding ourselves.
St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, Fourth Mansions, 9