TO YOU WE PREACH CHRIST CRUCIFIED..., THE POWER OF GOD AND THE WISDOM OF GOD TO THOSE WHO ARE CALLED (1Cor 1: 23). In this sentence St. Paul presents Jesus as identified with the important attributes of God, His power and His wisdom. In fact, he considers him as their very embodiment. The wisdom that Jesus incarnates is infused with the very power of God which was responsible for creation itself as well as redemption. For the world was created in wisdom by the power of God's almighty Word. At the same time, St. Paul, basing himself on his own experience, turns the wisdom of this world on its head by preaching the crucified Christ as the true wisdom established by God to confound the pride of humans. These concepts remain basic to any adequate view of the human condition today for they concern the veritable way to arrive at the perfection of the human person. Only the truly wise can be happy for only they are in harmony with God, His Providence as manifested in creation and His plan of salvation as revealed in the death and resurrection of His Son.
The Bible in all its parts inculcates wisdom. The term in found some 300 times in the books of the Hebrew Canon and an additional fifty times in the Deutero-canonical work of Ben Sirach. In addition it is the major theme of the Greek work known as the Book of Wisdom, a text which was composed very near the time of Jesus' mission of preaching and so manifests the importance of this topic for Israel during Jesus' life time. The word wisdom covers a multitude of .meanings: they range from skill at some craft to the highest attainment of mystical knowledge. Wisdom is also ascribed to God as an inseparable characteristic. On other occasions wisdom is personified, portrayed as a companion to God, or as a child playing in His presence, in the world of His making.
There are certain books of the Hebrew Bible that give greater prominence to Wisdom than do the five books of Moses, known as the Law, and the collection of prophetic writings, though both the Law and the Prophets include considerable teaching on wisdom. Such works as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job and a good number of the Psalms form the body of the wisdom literature of the recognized inspired Hebrew Scriptures. For Catholics the wisdom literature includes, among others, the two deutero-canonical works mentioned above, Ben Sirach and the Book of Wisdom, both of which are cited in the liturgy rather frequently.
These works, with the exception of the Psalms, have received relatively little scholarly attention; by far most of the commentators on Scripture have treated of the law, the prophets and the psalms. Although many- and Cistercians were prominent among them- often cite various of the more striking passages from the wisdom books and give much importance to the theme of wisdom in their spiritual writings, relatively limited formal study was given to this area of Scripture in the earlier periods of the Church's history. Two of the more extensive books treating of this theme of wisdom, Proverbs and Ben Sirach, found no noteworthy commentators until quite recently. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure and some others in the 13th century were notable exceptions. They followed in the wake of the early Cistercians, notably William of St. Thierry and St. Bernard after him, who had reflected in some detail on the topic of wisdom and gave it prom inence in their teaching on the spiritual life.
In modern times, on the other hand, archeological discoveries stimulated a considerable interest in the topic of wisdom which persists to the present. Concern with human development and interest in the meaning of man's life on earth have also contributed to the current attention being given to this theme. In any case, all of us to do well from time to time to give some thought to the issues covered by the topic of wisdom in that it is concerned with the perfection of human functioning and the full development of those faculties that constitute us in our relation to God and our eternal destiny.
For wisdom, even considered as a divine attribute, has a bearing on such issues as happiness, the nature of our human race and the meaning of life. Jesus speaks as a teacher of wisdom, for example, when he raises ultimate issues as he did when he asked: "What price will a man give for his soul?" The answer, he implies, is that nothing in this world is sufficient to purchase it; God alone is the measure of our worth. To lose all else to gain this treasure is true wisdom.
The perfect human being as presented in the New Testament is a person who by faith in Christ crucified has received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and thus acquires a heavenly wisdom. This gift can be enhanced by study, reflection, and prayer as well as by fidelity to God's will in daily life. But it remains the case that true wisdom is a divine gift; however, it is one that does not substi tute for human endeavor, but rather renders our striving for truth and a worthy life efficacious. Until it is acquired through a particular grace and cultivated by personal effort the believer remains in some measure imperfect, unfulfilled. Wisdom is closely associated with the full development and deployment of the individual's natural endowments. There is no substitute for this gift which is also an achievement. All the virtues make their contribution to the attainment of wisdom; no one of them can be lacking to the person who scales the heights. Indeed, without wisdom virtue itself remain imperfect. As the abbot of Clairvaux states it:
For, although wisdom is powerful and virtue is sweet, to give the proper signification to these words, vigor is what shows forth virtue and tranquility of soul with a certain spiritual sweetness demonstrates wisdom.... And so to stand, to resist, to repel force with force, which is deputed to the parts of virtue, is honor to be sure, but also hard work... But whatever virtue works out, wisdom enjoys, and what wisdom orders, deliberates and moderate, virtue puts into effect (Sermo XXIII.7 in Cantica PL 183: 1191).
Leaving aside the other forms of wisdom let us examine at some length certain aspects of the role it plays in the spiritual life as taught by our Cistercian tradition as well as some modern ar eas where the theme of wisdom remains of particular interest. For one thing, wisdom has a bearing not only on divine matters but also on human. In fact, St. Augustine, who more than any one else introduced the topic of wisdom to the Western world, early in his life as a Christian defined wisdom as "knowledge of divine and human matters (Contra Academicos 1.6.16)." He understood that as faith deepened and progressed it leads to understanding, and he earnestly sought and prayed for this gift. Some thirty years later, however, he found the necessity to alter his defias to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom as such. He saw science as related to action with knowledge as its goal; whereas wisdom is the fruit of contemplation and bears upon eternal things. (Cf. Dict. de Sp. 14: 104 s.v. sagesse for this and the following). The way to attain both these virtues is Christ himself, as he states in his work On The Trinity:
Our science then is the Christ; our wisdom is also the Christ. It is he who implants in us the faith which deals with temporal matters, he who reveals the truth that bears upon eternal realities. It is by him that we go to him, tending by science to wisdom (XIII.19.25).
True wisdom properly so called, he further expounds, "is a participation in divine light. It is called wisdom of man in such a way as to be also the wisdom of God (ibidem XIV. 12. 15). Augustine's teaching on wisdom is closely linked to his views on The Happy Life. Few there are, he observers, who attain to true happiness (cf. De Beata Vita I.1). He is keenly aware that the search is a demanding one and requires perseverance over time. Yet he is confident it can be arrived at, for it is one with the possession of truth. "We have not yet arrived at our standard of truth, and, though God is now our Helper, we are not yet wise and happy (op cit., 4.35 PL 32: 976, cited in V. Bourke, Augustine's Quest for Wisdom, 74-75)." Meantime, already the confident search for truth enlightened by faith and aided by reason imparts a measure of contentment and gives meaning to life that partakes in a manner of the happiness it seeks.
Thus, even though a degree of dissatisfaction characterizes the life of faith, yet that very restlessness serves to stimulate the believer to continue the journey seeking to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries faith offers to reason. This restlessness differs altogether from that which Au gustine knew prior to his conversion. In that period of his life he remained within the obscurity of the land of unlikeness. There he could not see the path clearly enough to advance with a sense of hope, knowing he was moving in the right direction. This lostness that he describes so vividly and at length is one of the points of contact between Augustine's experience and that of the people of our century. Sinclair Lewis has well characterized this feature of the American experience as it expressed itself in the first half of the twentieth century.
"Essentially , I think, you are like myself, Carol; you want to go back to an age of tranquility and charming manners. You want to enthrone good taste again." "Just good taste? Fastidious people? Oh- no! I believe all of us want the same things- we're all together, the industrial workers, the women and the farmers and the negro race and the Asiatic colonies and even a few of the Respectables. It's all the same revolt, in all the classes that have waited and taken advice. I think perhaps we want a more conscious life.... We want everything. We shan't get it. So we shan't ever be content (Main Street, 219 The Library of America, 1992).
This is the condition of those lacking wisdom. Wisdom and true happiness consist in the attainment of a more conscious life, that is to say, with an awareness of the living and eternal truth and beauty that Augustine came to recognize as the God revealed by the Incarnate Word. To live by faith is already to be conscious of the living God who is the transcendent measure of our happiness and so who alone confers the contentment of fulfillment. This consciousness of already belonging to the true world where God is all in all arises from a participation in that world by the gift of the Spirit, imparted with the grace of faith.
There are of course degrees of consciousness as there are various measures of participation in the divine life both in this world and in the next. St. Thomas Aquinas considered that wisdom represented a certain eminence of knowledge which confers on the wise man the capacity to judge and order others in that field of competence. Thomas considers that there are two modes of judging, by affinity with divine things, which is a gift of the Spirit; the other is through theo logical knowledge which is obtained by study.
Already St. Gregory the Great had associated the concept of wisdom, sapientia in Latin, with taste, sapor. This line of thought was pursued by William of St. Thierry who developed it further. He understood that when God commands us to love him with the whole mind he means us to attain to the fruition of wisdom. He then explains that
Wisdom is properly situated in the mind.... For the mind is a certain power of the soul by which we adhere to God and enjoy Him. This enjoyment is found in a certain divine savor (sapor) and thus it is that sapientia (wisdom) is derived from sapor (taste). For wisdom consists in a kind of taste. No one can worthily express this taste save the one who merits it "Taste and see that the Lord is sweet (Ps. 33:9)." By this taste the Word of God is savored according to the Apostle and so are the riches of the world to come (Heb. 6: 5) For now we ought to inquire in more subtle detail as to the nature of that taste that has the savor by which wisdom is tasty (De Natura et Dignitate Amoris, 10: 28 PL 184: 397 cd).
The first observation William makes as he carries out this project of discoursing on the nature of wisdom is that no one would ascend the various stages that lead to this most eminent of virtues, unless wisdom herself sought the one who seeks her and showed herself cheerfully on the way. If William was the first to emphasize that wisdom is a kind of taste, that is to say, the fruit of formative experience, made possible by Divine wisdom which is identified at times with Christ at other times with the Spirit of God, he does not stand alone in this teaching. St. Bernard, quite possibly influenced by his friend's doctrine, makes the same association between sapor and sapientia. No less than William he insists on the association of wisdom with experience and specifically with affection for divine things. He speaks of this subject in more than one of his Sermons.
Instruction makes one learned; affection make one wise.... It is one thing to know God, quite another to fear Him. Nor is it knowledge that make one wise but fear, which also alters his disposition....... It is well said that the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord (Ps 110: 10). For then for the first time the soul savors (sapit) God when he affects it to fear, not when He instructs it to know.... Taste (sapor) is that which makes for wisdom (sapientia) (Sermones in Cantica 23: 14 PL 183: 891-2).
In one of his last sermons (Sermones in Cantica 85: 8) Bernard takes up this theme once again, having reflected on it further.I
f anyone should define wisdom as love of virtue, he would seem to me not to deviate from the truth. For where there is love there is no hard labor but rather good flavor (la bor non est, sed sapor). In fact, perhaps sapientia derives its name from sapor, for when it is sprinkled upon virtue like some spice, it renders savory what was before tasteless and harsh. Nor would I think it reprehensible were one to define sapientia as sapor boni, that is, a taste for what is good... Happy is the mind that the taste for the good has vindicated totally for itself, and hatred for evil. This is what it measns to be reformed according to wisdom. (ibid.8, 9).
A major purpose of our monastic way of life is the development of such a taste for divine realities and, specifically for the mysteries revealed by the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Obviously this entails a process of conversion, of cleansing and of cultivating the inner senses, that of taste in particular. These observances include the whole gamut of practices that make up our Cistercian way, manual labor as well as lectio, meditation and contemplation. That we undertake these endeavors with a deliberate view to wisdom is not without its own particular advantage and meaning. For one thing, it is illusory to believe we can enter upon the transformation implied in such a profound transformation as is required by wisdom without self-knowledge. Mere experience itself is ambiguous; it leads to wisdom only on the part of those who learn to recognize its limits as well as to discern its possibilities and over time the patterns that disclose its relations with others and so its fuller significance. All too often experience proves to be more of a limiting of life and perception rather than a window looking out to fresh possibilities and unsuspected horizons. How much of life become routine, bound by the past to the same familiar perspectives that shut out the light hidden in the depths of things and especially of persons.
The learning of wisdom not only focuses on the ultimate goal, it also attends to the dispositions of mind and heart required to remain on the right path, in touch with the rays of truth that become visible as one proceeds. The pursuit of wisdom means remaining open to new insights, learning through self-criticism, and from opportunities as they arise. Plato had already understood the need for self-criticism in view of changing the hearts's dispositions in so far as they are at variance with true values. He considered the greatest obstacle to wisdom to be a discord between what a person feels pleasure and pain in, and what his reason presents to him as desirable. Wisdom he presents as a harmony between the two, that is between our spontaneous reactions and our values. When we find pleasure only in what we recognize to be truth, we are wise. (cf. Laws 689)
At the same time, consciousness expands as one advances on the way to wisdom so that percep tion becomes more subtle and broad. For this to happen we must work at discerning in our self day by day the various attitudes and emotions that block out fresh insights, and, having recognized their baneful influence, put them aside and strive to take on a more open, courageous receptivity to the truth of things and of persons. We cannot enter upon this arduous labor for long without realizing our need for a higher light and strength than we dispose of. Thus self-knowledge soon leads to heart-felt prayer for the gifts of the Spirit. The Lord will not withhold these graces if we persevere in seeking them.
>The search for wisdom remains today as important for our human kind as ever it was even though is apparently little recognition of its fundamental role in the pursuit of a fulfilled life. Certainly monks belonging to the Cistercian tradition have a special opportunity to revitalize the interest in acquiring the true wisdom that leads to eternal life and a sharing in the beatitude of God Himself. This wisdom is at bottom the wisdom of the cross of Jesus; better stated, it is the wisdom that Christ crucified and risen embodies in his person. Only by our adhering to him do we enter into that universal harmony with all those whom God has chosen for Himself. This is the wisdom of the children of God, revealed by the Word made flesh and imparted to us by the Spirit of Holy Wisdom given to all those who put their trust in him and obey his law with love and humble service.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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