Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 23, 1998
The gifts of wisdom and understanding
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
Few persons have written as eloquently on the difference between simply being bright and full of information as opposed to being wise, as has the American philosopher, James Hillman.
He ends his recent book with these words:
"For it is hard to get it through our hard heads that there can be messages from elsewhere more important to the conduct of our lives than what comes through the Internet, meanings that don't slide in fast, free and easy, but are encoded particularly in the painful pathological events that perhaps are the only ways the gods can wake us up" (The Soul's Code, p. 278).
Wisdom and understanding are indeed given us by God and are revealed through faith and pain. God, it seems, can wake us up and teach us the deeper things only through some kind of pathological stretching.
I suspect that this dynamic, and no mere accident of grammar, accounts for the fact that Scripture personifies wisdom as feminine, Sophia; after all, women's bodies are more naturally attuned to the earth and its stretching than are men's and it is their bodies that stretch in childbirth.
The wisdom of God enters the world in ways quite other than the Internet. Mary, the figure of Sophia, standing under the cross of Jesus, helpless but pondering, manifests wisdom.
What then are wisdom and understanding, as gifts of the Holy Spirit?
Generally, in the classical manuals, they are defined essentially as follows: Wisdom, as Clement of Alexandria once put it, "is the knowledge of things human and divine and their causes." Knowledge (Gnosis) is understood to be the more practical application of wisdom. But what really does that mean?
Perhaps a good way to begin is by the Via Negativa, namely, to highlight what wisdom does not mean: Wisdom is not about knowing a lot of facts, about having a huge bank of information, about high intelligence, academic degrees, scholarly publications, or about being faster and more knowledgeable than your peers on the information highway.
One can be brilliant, have a doctorate, publish books, cure diseases, and invent computer programs and not be wise. Conversely, one can be academically and computer illiterate and be very wise. It happens all the time. Real education, and even more so wisdom, is not about who can access and manipulate the most information.
What is wisdom? Scripture assures us, it is first of all a person, the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit is a fire, a love, a way of seeing, that comes to us on the basis of getting caught up in what passes between the Father and Son in the Godhead.
Scripture also tells us that its cost is far more than the cost of any computer, book or university degree. The cost of wisdom is nothing less than the giving up of one's own will, self-renunciation, death to one's ego, so as to let what flows through God - gratitude, delight, love and forgiveness - flow in us.
The sign of wisdom is a change in the way we see, in eyesight. Hugo of St. Victor used to say: "Love is the eye." That, in caption, is the definition of wisdom, seeing through the eyes of love and faith, seeing beyond what we could see simply if we look out at the world through minds and hearts wounded by hurt, jealousy and ambition.
And the capacity to see in this deeper way cannot be acquired through any kind of academic learning or scientific reasoning, good though these can be in themselves. Wisdom is insight and insight cannot be learned. One cannot reason or study one's way to wisdom. Why not?
Because wisdom, whether it be in the mind or heart, is not so much a question of acquiring knowledge as it is of putting one's mind and heart under the love and will of something. Someone, beyond oneself.
On their own, distorted by neediness and hurt, our minds and hearts see, as Paul so beautifully puts it, as through a glass, darkly; everything is seen and understood off the mirror or our own needs and hurts. Having wisdom, Sophia, the Holy Spirit, in us depends upon having a mind and a hear that are under something other than themselves. Wisdom is more a question of unselfishness than of intelligence.
Acquiring wisdom, therefore, is not so much a question of learning facts or indeed of learning anything as it is of self-surrender. The saints have always said this, from Bonaventure to Mother Teresa.
The wisest person you know is not the one who knows the most but the one who is least selfish. That is a spiritual axiom. Wisdom enters the world when someone, through painful pathological events, has let the gods wake him or her up.