The Gift of Wisdom – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis AlmquistWisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Matthew 25:1-13

Five of the bridesmaids Jesus calls foolish; five he calls wise. It’s not that the five wise bridesmaids knew when the bridegroom was coming. It’s the opposite. They were wise because they did not know when the bridegroom was coming, and so they were prepared for any eventuality. Jesus tells this story about the coming of the bridegroom as a kind of “heads up” about how to live our lives, not just in the end times but all the time: a kind of attentiveness to practice the presence of God all the time. In the scriptures, wisdom is the gift extolled above all others for how to make meaning of life. Wisdom is a deep knowledge, much deeper than simply information. We have today an information glut. As you well know, it’s possible to browse through an almost-infinite stream of information about life with simply the click of a computer key or a television remote control: an endless array of “horizontal information,” surfing life only at the surface, none of which automatically translates into wisdom. Information alone may make us smart, or make us look smart; information alone may breed arrogance; information alone may overwhelm us, information alone may make us conversant in multiple platforms, as they say. (1) Information alone is not wisdom.

Wisdom is not gleaned from this “horizontal axis” but from the “vertical axis,” either from below or from above. Wisdom from above is the higher perspective on life, literally the gift of “oversight.” The psalmist prays, “Lift me to a place that is higher than I.” (2) Or, to flip the metaphor, wisdom comes out of the depths, out of pondering life deeply. The psalmist prays, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord.” (3) It’s not that the wise bridesmaids were wise because they knew when the bridegroom was coming; it’s that they did not know, and knew they did not know. Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist, said that “Wisdom is knowledge plus: knowledge and the knowledge of its own limits.” (4) As we say in slang, someone who is a “know-it-all” is probably not wise. For this reason, wisdom most often comes hand-in-hand with its cousin, which is humility. Humility, the word coming from the Latin humilis “lowly,” literally “on the ground,” from humus “earth.” Wisdom is a humble “under-standing” about life. We read in the Epistle of James, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By their good life, let them show their works in the meekness of wisdom.” (5)

The English words “wisdom” and “vision” come from the same etymological root. (6) Wisdom is a kind of deep seeing, an “insight” in life. Wisdom is not a skill, it does not come on command, it’s not a pill to swallow. Wisdom is a gift from God. Here are several practices that will cultivate the ground of our being for wisdom to grow.

For one, wisdom takes time, time to be attentive to life. Incorporate times to stop, look, and focus, otherwise your life will only be a blur. Parker Palmer, the Quaker theologian, said that how we receive and respond to the experience of our very active lives depends on whether we take time to make our experience transparent. Otherwise it will remain opaque. The soul will black out or burn out, not when people are too busy, but when people not reflective how they’re feeling and perceiving about what’s going on in their life. (7) Wisdom takes time to glean a perspective. God has given you the time of your life. Take the time to live your lifetime. Look deeply at what is, lest you miss the meaning of your life. Take the time to live your lifetime. You’re worth it. And you will cultivate the gift of wisdom.

Secondly, wisdom does not come from getting it right. Most likely, wisdom comes from getting it wrong… and remembering. This is why wisdom and humility are so often coupled together. For one, it’s to remember that we are so prone to stumble in life. So much wisdom can be gleaned from remembering how we got it wrong, or how we are prone to get it wrong. You may have some significant character flaws; you may be prone to blindness in some ways that become clearly apparent in retrospect. I certainly do. It’s so important to remember how we got it wrong or how we’re prone to get it wrong. And then, remember that everyone else has their own version of not getting it right. When you witness someone else’s flaws, remember that but by the grace of God, there go you. And then be helpful; at least don’t be hurtful.

In the early centuries of Christian monasticsm, in the Egyptian deserrt, there is the story of a brother in Scete who committed a fault. The elders assembled, and sent for Abba Moses to join them. He, however, did not want to come. The priest sent him a message, saying: Come, the community of the brethren is waiting for you. So he arose and started off. And taking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand, and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet him, and said: “What is this, Father?” The elder replied: “My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another!” They, hearing this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him. (8) There was an early recognition that there is something about humility and wisdom that goes hand-in-hand: that humility – of being humbled – is a necessary, not sufficient but a necessary condition for one to become wise. And isn’t it so that people who are truly humble and truly wise would, them¬selves, be the last people to know it or see or claim it in themselves.

And thirdly, to cultivate wisdom is to remember that we are not God. Wisdom is seeing deeply, but there is a limit to our vision. We should not presume that we will be omniscient or omnipotent. We have very creaturely limitations. We ourselves are not the source of wisdom; we are the recipients of wisdom. Jesus, in the New Testament, is called “the wisdom of God,” (9) the one “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.” (10) By clinging to Christ, we tap into this divine wisdom. (11) Wisdom is finding the Way. Wisdom is being able to figure out what really matters: like even if you come in last you can still be first; that if you lose everything you gain everything. Wisdom is both a dying and a dawning. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Like for every-thing there is a season: a season for fall colors and for spring tulips and lilies of the field, the sparrows in the air, the grass on the field. And you remind yourself, “well, if these other creations are being sustained, then why should I be anxious about my life?” (12)

Wisdom is getting the picture. Jesus is pictured as the incarnation of wis¬dom. Jesus was recognized by both prelates and paupers to be so learned, and yet he lived and spoke the truth so simply. “The Kingdom of God,” he would say, “well, it’s like a pearl; it’s like a treasure in a field.” (13) “I’m like a vine,” he would say; “you are branches…” (14) “You know how happy an old woman would be if she found a coin she thought she had lost…?”  (15) “I have some good news and some bad news,” he said. “The bad news is you’re as lost as sheep; the good news is I’m the shepherd; you don’t have to find yourself.” (16) Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, could have lived and taught many different ways, but we hear him, again and again, wide eyed, going right to the core of the matter, speaking with wisdom’s profound, childlike simplicity. Wisdom is made real to us in Jesus.

To cultivate wisdom you need not read another book, watch another Ted talk, visit another monastery, earn another academic degree, travel to the ends of the earth. Be where you are. Say “yes” to life on the terms that God is giving you life just now, remember from whence you’ve come, regard others kindly and compassionately, pay attention to your life. An ancient monastic counsel for cultivating wisdom is, “the cell will teach you all things.” The cell – where a Brother alone abides in the monastery – is a place profound encounter with God, the source of all wisdom. Don’t distract yourself; don’t anesthetize yourself; don’t run away. What you need, and what you need to understand, will be given to you, as much as you can bear where you are. The one thing that will likely help is a soulmate – someone whom you trust, who says their prayers, and who will listen to your own understanding to confirm whether you are gleaning wisdom… or grasping after folly.

Again, from the early centuries of Christian monastic, in the Egyptian desert, Abbess Syncletica, a wise woman of holy memory, said that “those who want to light a fire first are plagued by smoke, and the smoke drives them to tears, yet finally they get the fire they want.” (17) Out of the refiner’s fire of life comes wisdom, if you desire it. So we heard this morning in our first lesson, from the Wisdom of Solomon: “Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate.” (18)

  1. “All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
  2. Psalm 61:2.
  3. Psalm 130:1.
  4. Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997) Austrian psychiatrist The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1975, p. 142
  5. James 3:13.
  6. The English word “vision” comes from the Old English witan “to know;” Gothic weitan “to see.” “The English word “wise” comes from the past participle adjective wittos of the Proto-Indo-European root weid- “to see,” hence “to know.”
  7. “Action and Insight; An Interview with Parker Palmer,” published in The Christian Century, March 22-29, 1995; pp. 326-329.
  8. The Wisdom of the Desert, trans. by Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Book, 1970; p. 40.
  9. I Corinthians 1:24.
  10. Colossians 2:3.
  11. In the Scriptures, intimacy with wisdom, wisdom herself, is not distinguished from intimacy with God.
  12. Matthew 6:25-30.
  13. Matthew 13:44-45.
  14. John 15:4-5.
  15. Luke 15:8-9.
  16. Luke 15:3-6.
  17. Ibid; p. 55.
  18. Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-14.

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