The Vindication of Wisdom – Br. Keith Nelson

Zechariah 9:9-12;
Romans 7:15-25a;
Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ [i]

There are some who listen and follow, who find her dwelling and hold her fast. But there are many in the broad places of the world who ignore her. The marketplace is for many things, but not for wisdom. They don’t bother to look up from their tiny screens. Nimble fingers text and tweet faster than hearts can pause and feel.

‘We played the flute for them, but they didn’t dance. We mourned, but they didn’t wail.’ [ii]

With each comment thread, the bitter bickering shrinks the circle. Wisdom has not played by the rules.

He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.[iii]

Jerusalem, Jerusalem! he cries, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing.’ [iv]

When the words of Wisdom finally find their target, the reaction is visceral. As one body united for the first time and the last, they cry: ‘CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!’[v]

Yet – Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.[vi]

Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Or, in Luke’s version, Wisdom is vindicated by her children.[vii]  In books such as Proverbs and Job, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, we encounter God’s Wisdom personified as a Woman of great gentleness and strength, offering food and drink, shelter and instruction, scorned by the masses but taking her stand nonetheless. In the book Sirach, the wise elder instructs a disciple: “Listen, my child, and take my advice, do not reject my counsel: put your feet into [Wisdom’s] fetters, and your neck into her collar; offer your shoulder to her burden, do not be impatient of her bonds… For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”[viii] In the gospels of Matthew and John, we bear witness to a Spirit-led conversation between this multifaceted tradition of personified Wisdom and the early Christian experience of Jesus Christ. For us as for them, Wisdom is Jesus, the embodiment of all good things in Wisdom’s treasury and the incarnation of God, the source and ground of Wisdom. This Jesus is without doubt a Savior to be worshipped and an exemplar of how we are to act in the world. But he is also a Teacher of the heart, what today we are calling “inner work.”

This Jesus has immediate bearing on you and I, because the Church in exile has a precious opportunity to further become a school of wisdom – a training ground, a laboratory, even a boot camp for the inner work of the Spirit. We are stuck in-between; we are stricken in conscience; we overflow with questions; we contend with demons. These circumstances are compelling us toward inner work, whether we like it or not. Here are just some of the questions I hear followers of Jesus asking, both beyond this monastery and within it: “How can I learn to be still? How can I make peace with a solitude I did not choose? How can I help my neighbor? How can I overcome the racism etched on my bones by my ancestors? How should we live? What does God desire? How is God involved? How can I love a God who is so mysterious? What is the Church called to become?” These are the questions of those who hunger and thirst for wisdom. These are questions that, asked with the right depth of intention over a lifetime, make saints. An invaluable orientation for living these questions through with depth, integrity, and faith is this portrait of Wisdom and the wise in the eleventh chapter of Matthew.

So here are a few things we notice: Wisdom’s worth is proven by actions; wisdom is as wisdom does. The wise are spiritual adults because, paradoxically, they have embraced their infancy in the sight of God. This posture of simplicity and trust belongs to those to whom the Son has chosen to reveal the Father. They have a share in the mutuality and reciprocity between Father and Son. Yet they are not possessed of any special or superior knowledge in their own right. They are grateful recipients of revelation as God wills, and accept the hiddenness of God.

Wisdom does not dither in childish games. Wisdom shows no sympathy for the manufactured drama or power plays of the immature, because these lead to death. “This generation” is Matthew’s repeated shorthand for those who first resist then tragically persecute and destroy Wisdom. They refuse to sit at the feet of a Master – either of John in the desert or of Jesus at the banquet table. They refuse to sit still in the inner room of Matthew 6, before the “Father who sees in secret.” [ix] But on the street corners they pray loudly for others to hear. “They do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.”[x]

Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. But these deeds are the fruit of humble listening to the Teacher, and they are Wisdom’s deeds, not ours. Long training in the art of listening was the bedrock of ancient learning, both Jewish and Greek. It is anything but passive. “Pay attention to how you listen,” says Jesus, and “let anyone with ears hear,” which presumes that not everyone had acquired them.[xi] I am sometimes asked how the contemplative life can be reconciled with the gospel imperative to seek and do justice. To me, there is nothing to reconcile here. If contemplative listening is authentic, God will be heard, the conscience will be moved, and the need of the suffering Other will become clear – or will prompt further listening and a refined set of questions. If you are in the habit of listening to people, you’ll know the discipline it can take to remain centered in that primary stance of wholehearted presence and availability without succumbing to the secondary layers of our own commentary, our desire to rescue or problem-solve, or even the subtle temptation to augment another’s ego. This discipline is Wisdom’s yoke. Wielded as a tool, it cannot be other than a tool for justice.

In the utter mystery of God’s economy, I am coming to believe that we will see this time of global plague and its myriad impacts as a catalyst of unfathomable renewal. “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope,” proclaims the prophet Zechariah, “today I declare to you that I will restore to you double.” [xii] Interpreting the signs along the way bears an uncanny resemblance to the encounter with biblical Wisdom. Ben Witherington writes:

Studying Wisdom literature requires patience and time. Since so much of Wisdom literature involves indirect speech (metaphors, similes, figures, images, and riddles) rather than straight-forward propositions or normal discourse, one is obligated not merely to read the Wisdom material but also to ruminate upon it. It is the sort of literature that more often than not seeks to persuade by causing the audience to think, rather than simply demanding assent to its world-view. [xiii]

Straightforward propositions and normal discourse are the building blocks of a functional human society. But metaphor, simile, figure, image, and riddle “urge the mind to aftersight and foresight.” [xiv] This is discourse that sharpens intuition: our capacity to receive truth directly from the unconscious within, and our sensitivity to revelationfrom the Holy Spirit “that blows where it will.” [xv] This is how Jesus teaches, though each generation manages to domesticate not only what Jesus teaches but how.

You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.[xvi] The signs of these times are causes and conditions calling for nothing less than the spiritual evolution of the human family: the full flowering of our capacity for Wisdom. That evolution – and I do not use that word lightly – depends upon the many small choices that lie within our power in this excruciating time, pregnant with so much potential.

Offer your shoulder to her burden, do not be impatient of her bonds… For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.[xvii]

For you – and for countless, unknown children of God.

[i] Proverbs 1:20-22.

[ii] Matthew 11:17.

[iii] John 1:11.

[iv] Matthew 23:37.

[v] Matthew 27:22-23; Luke 23:21.

[vi] Matthew 11:19b.

[vii] Luke 7:35.

[viii] Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 6:22-30.

[ix] Matthew 6:6.

[x] Matthew 23:3-4.

[xi] Luke 8:18; Matthew 11:15; 13:9; 13:43; Mark 4:9; 4:23; Luke 8:8; 14:35.

[xii] Zechariah 9:12.

[xiii] Ben Witherington III. Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom. c. 1994, Augsburg Fortress (3).

[xiv] T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding.”

[xv] John 3:8.

[xvi] Matthew 16:3.

[xvii] Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 6:22-30.

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  1. Margaret Dungan on July 15, 2021 at 13:32

    Dear Br.Keith,

    Thank you so much for these words so help full and important at this time.
    It is an amazing gift and insight.

    Margaret Dungan

  2. Jane Nash on July 15, 2021 at 08:37

    “We will see this time…as a catalyst for unfathomable renewal.” Thank you Br. Keith.

  3. M. Lockhart on July 15, 2021 at 07:14

    Amen, and thank you for the reminder. So challenging!

  4. Cristina Milne on July 21, 2020 at 19:07

    Dear Br.Keith,
    Thank you so much for this beautiful work! It moved me to reflect on my own contemplative listening
    experience, and see how I can improve it as a tool for justice.
    God bless you and the brothers.

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