Wisdom teaches her children and gives help to those who seek her. Whoever loves her loves life, and those who seek her from early morning are filled with joy. Whoever holds her fast inherits glory, and the Lord blesses the place she enters. Those who serve her minister to the Holy One; the Lord loves those who love her. Those who obey her will judge the nations, and all who listen to her will live secure. If they remain faithful, they will inherit her; their descendants will also obtain her. For at first she will walk with them on tortuous paths; she will bring fear and dread upon them, and will torment them by her discipline until she trusts them, and she will test them with her ordinances. Then she will come straight back to them again and gladden them, and will reveal her secrets to them.Sirach 4:11-18
It is somewhat striking that in our time we speak so little, and even think so little, of an aspiration to become wise. For much of humanity’s history, cultures and societies would so desire to identify the wise persons among them and to seek their guidance. These would become revered by their society because of a sense that they knew something about the true significance and purpose of human life and, perhaps, could communicate this wisdom to others. Our society, on the other hand, reveres the wealthy and the powerful. If we look at who is given recognition and memorialization in our culture, we see that it is the wealthy, without regard for the degree of their virtue and wisdom.
Because of these pulsations in our culture, the Wisdom books of the scriptures might seem remote and inaccessible to us. The way in which they actually personify Wisdom and perceive her as feminine may well, at first glance, feel foreign to us. Today’s reading from Sirach actually describes for us the ways of Wisdom in the wise person. Who is the wise person in the understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures? We learn this in the initial verses of the Book of Psalms. In Robert Alter’s translation, we read:
Happy the person who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,Psalm 1:1-2
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
But the Lord’s teaching is such a one’s desire,
and the Lord’s teaching this one murmurs day and night.
Wisdom is to desire God’s way for one’s life and to spend one’s life “murmuring” (meditating on) God’s teaching. It is to see each moment of one’s life as a call from God and an appeal for response. Thus, it is, in the deepest sense, to live “responsibly.” Yet, while wisdom thus requires faith in God, it is not somehow otherworldly. When Jan van Ruusbroec speaks of the gift of what he calls understanding, he says: “The persons upon whom he works in this way have no need of revelations or of being caught up above their senses, for their life, their abode, their conduct, and their being are already in the spirit, above their senses and above their sensibility.” So we can understand that what distinguishes a wise person is his or her ability to recognize and respond to reality, to the truth of things. It is in the truth that the will of God is to be known.
Every personal and human problem that we experience is somehow due to a failure to live in the truth. From our own intra and interpersonal conflicts to our global threatening follies, it is our inability or refusal to live in reality that causes the problems. Thomas Merton, for one, asks the question “Are there five persons in the world who see things as they are? They are the ones holding the world together.” Mystifyingly enough, there is little that is more difficult for us as human beings than seeing the truth of what is. We live in a time that gives us a striking example of this. Our own science tells us that we are facing an impending global catastrophe of our own making. And yet, we refuse to act appropriately. When a truly appropriately radical response is offered, it is countered with the claim that it is too expensive. Yet we spend immoral amounts of money on defenses against largely imagined foes. We experience daily similar refusals to face the truth and to respond as called for because what is asked is difficult for us. And so we contort the reality to fit our own unconscious needs and fears.
What keeps us from becoming truly wise is that our false or pride form, our self-created personality stands between us and reality. Moment by moment we experience the world as filtered through our own highly defensive and self-protective perspective. There are documents showing that scientists for Exxon-Mobil knew decades ago of the impact of the burning of fossil fuels on the earth’s environment. From that moment, that corporation and others devoted enormous amounts of work and money toward developing a strategy of denial of this truth. In the personal realm, we do a very similar thing. We are forever devising ways of excusing and self-justifying in service of our fears of what the truth will ask of us. And so, to be wise is not to waste those energies of ours that are capable of facing reality and responding to it, of doing God’s will, on evasion and excuses, but rather to trust in a radical faith that we can always do what reality and God ask of us.
In today’s reading from Sirach we learn how it is that God forms us in wisdom. “For at first she will walk with them on tortuous paths; she will bring fear and dread upon them, and will torment them by her discipline until she trusts them, and she will test them with her ordinances.” We grow in wisdom by “fear and dread” and the “torment of discipline.” To perhaps oversimplify to some degree, we become wise by failing and learning from the failures. This is a humbling, if not humiliating, truth for us. Our false form of life is called the “pride form” by Adrian van Kaam because pride is the source of its construction. Like Adam and Eve in the garden we are ashamed at our nakedness, at our creatureliness. Our spiritual core which aspires to be at one with all and with the Holy, we tend to misinterpret as a call to “be as God.” But we are not the creator, and so we must spin a web of illusion in order to maintain our prideful self-understanding.
Thus, it is reality that brings “fear and dread” upon us. Our ways are not straightforward but tortuous because we are busy maintaining our own falsehoods. The torment of the discipline of Wisdom is the torment of humble purification of those illusions of ours. Thus it is that Wisdom will torment us until she can trust us, says Sirach. For most of us must undergo much reformation and purification before we can be trusted.
As we attempt to work with others on a common project, we rather quickly discover that our project is not, in fact, so common. Although we may have an external definition of the project, as we try concretely to implement it, we soon discover that in fact we each have our own project. So, we speak of family life, or community life, or a shared mission, and as we attempt to together live out that life and mission, we see that we are not perceiving the same reality. Each of us tends to see the purpose, the goal, the work itself through the filter of our own pride form. It is, in a real sense, that each of us, in our falseness, is an obstacle to even perceiving let alone carrying out the common project. So we develop frustrations and conflicts with each other, often serious enough ones to derail the possibility of a common response to the call.
At this moment the call requires a newly focused response. It would require the courage within and among us to confront the truth of our own pride. It would demand of us a true inter-formation that well might bring fear and dread upon each of us as we are confronted with our own selfishness and illusion. It will require of each and all of us to be honest about our mistrust of each other, a mistrust evoked by the falseness of each of us, so that as together we are being broken open, we may come to trust the truth of our common creatureliness, fearfulness, and woundedness. The common project is a reality, but until we cease reacting to it out of our prideful and self-interested perspectives, we shall never see its truth. To be wise is to see and to know what is real and what that reality asks of us.
Van Ruusbroec tells us that we all have this wisdom and understanding within our souls, but that it is God who “makes it be silent or speak.” In the social sphere, it is difficult to be courageous enough to face our own falseness and to confront the falseness of others. In fact, it well may be a courage that we are unable to muster through our own wills. Van Ruusbroec reminds us that this courage is a gift of God to us. It is the work of the Spirit among us. As with every spiritual gift, in order to receive it we must die to our powerful desire to control our own life and to make our own way. Wisdom comes, we hear from Sirach, through the tormenting teaching that “the harshness of life” brings to us, and the “fear and dread” that evokes in us. If we allow ourselves, however, to be taught by the discipline of Wisdom and so forsake our most cherished illusions about ourselves, we shall then be disposed to receive the gift of Wisdom and understanding that God wills to give us. We must forsake being the Pharisee in the front of the temple exalting himself and awaken to the publican in us who in his humility and perhaps humiliation begs the Lord for mercy.
By means of interior affection and a loving inclination, together with God’s faithfulness, the second stream [of Christ’s coming] springs forth from the fullness of grace in the unity of the spirit. This stream is a spiritual resplendence which infuses its light into the understanding and reveals many kinds of distinctions, for this light truly makes manifest the distinctions among all the virtues. This, however, does not lie within our own power. Even if we constantly have this light in our souls, it is God who makes it be silent or speak, God who can reveal it or hide it, bestow it or take it away, at any time and in any place, for it is his light. He therefore works in this light when he wills, where he wills, upon whom he wills, and what he wills. The persons upon whom he works in this way have no need of revelations or of being caught up above their senses, for their life, their abode, their conduct, and their being are already in the spirit, above their senses and above their sensibility. It is there that God shows them what he wills as being necessary either for them or for other persons.Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II, ii, B