[This is the text of a talk given to the Thomas Aquinas College community around 2000. In it, I shared what I thought I had learned about wisdom, which I have sought my whole life, from reading the Wisdom books of the Old Testament and the passages about Wisdom in the New Testament, especially St. Paul.]
Thomas Aquinas College is devoted to scholarship in the Catholic tradition…. Rather than compromise the tradition, Thomas Aquinas College meets the secular challenge to Christian wisdom by offering an education that is carefully grounded in the fundamentals of that wisdom…. (Opening description of The College from the Bulletin of Information)
Through its curriculum, classes and other efforts, the College aims to pass on to you, the students, and to us, your co learners, the treasury of Christian wisdom. Not all at once, of course, but through little streams closely followed coupled with sweeping glimpses of the vast ocean the College hopes to set us on the right road to becoming wise. The College takes its direction from the magisterium of the Church, which gives us clearly marked buoys to warn us away from great dangers and points us to the greatest navigators as guides. Let me translate the metaphor: through its Creeds, Conciliar decrees and other instruments, the Church lays down clearly and authoritatively the truth to be held and the errors to be avoided; but for penetration into these mysteries, She points us to the greatest of those whose faith sought understanding: the Fathers and Doctors of the Church — St. Basil, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, St. Teresa of Avila, and so on.
When we consider these great lights of Christian wisdom, something immediately appears to be common to them all which is really odd though it might not strike us so at first. They are all saints. “Of course, they are saints,” you might say; “What did you expect them to be?” But, I would answer to you, why should I expect them to be saints? Christians are canonized because they have loved, not because they have thought. And loved not just in the ordinary manner of even a very good man, but to a heroic degree, “such as no two men of today” could attain, to steal a phrase from The Iliad. Thomas Aquinas is held up to us by the Church as the greatest of her teachers, which could only have happened if he had the extraordinary mind of an intellectual giant. But why should it also happen that he, along with all or nearly all on the list of Fathers and Doctors, should possess the overflowing heart of St. Francis?
Philosophy and experimental science have a common maxim that goes something like this: If something happens always or for the most part, there must be some reason for it. Let me apply it here. If Christian wisdom and heroic sanctity always appear together, there must be a connection. An aphorism attributed to St. Thomas lends credence to this idea. He said, “I have learned more at the foot of the Cross than I ever learned from study.” Consider the countless hours that his great mind poured over the works of Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. John Damascene, and be astounded. Yet it was his hours in prayer before the Crucifix more than anything else that enabled him to become the Common Doctor of the Church.
Tonight I want to explore the connection between charity and Christian wisdom by looking to Holy Scripture, which has a great deal to say about the wisdom that we are to seek. In fact, five whole books of the Old Testament are commonly referred to as “Wisdom literature“; wisdom and truth are prominent themes from the beginning to the end of the Bible. Rather than be prudent and explore one passage or one book on the topic, I am going to be ambitious and take on the whole, or at least most of the Bible, trying to present at least a glimpse of this vast ocean. Such an ambitious project will necessitate not dallying too long over the many troublesome difficulties that could prevent us from reaching the end of the course. The promise of a panorama is often worth a climb, even though the details of the scene remain hazy and vague. And it‘s one virtue of a lecture that you can‘t stop me to object. So without further eloquence, I am going to launch into a two part lecture, first considering wisdom as found in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, secondly looking at a few passages from the New Testament that relate. I will focus on two questions: What is wisdom? Why are the wise also the saintly?
Wisdom in the Wisdom Books
As I said, five books of the Old Testament are generally considered Wisdom Books: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, The Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach. Sometimes the Song of Songs and certain Psalms are considered related to these books, but with a full plate already, I will reluctantly pass them up tonight. I am going to take the five books up in three groups, based on similarities which I will note in each section. One caveat: Since we are only interested in them tonight insofar as they help us to understand wisdom, I will ignore much of central importance in each of the books. First, we will look at Ecclesiastes and Job, next at Proverbs and Sirach, lastly at Wisdom.
“Knowledge begins in wonder.“ So says our wonderful College Bulletin, and the explicit search for wisdom in the Old Testament begins in wonder, too. Before you want to know, you must be puzzled, and Ecclesiastes and Job are designed to puzzle, almost to bedevil, the faithful man who seeks wisdom. When the Holy Spirit challenges faith, He doesn‘t hold back any punches. Much like freshman classes, these books raise great questions, which they hardly begin to resolve. How can we make sense of a man‘s life? What good is it? Is there any reason for the evils he suffers? Is there any real good in the goods he can enjoy?
Ecclesiastes immediately raises what the Preacher seems to consider as the ultimate question facing the wise man: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?“ (1:3) He never finds a real answer to this question, as he foreshadows in his opening, despairing cry: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!“ (1:2) In his life, he tells us, he has surveyed everything men do; he has himself tasted all the pleasures that men desire (1:12, 2:1ff.). They all fail to give meaning to man‘s existence. Even his own wisdom he judges finally to be Abut a striving after wind“ (1:17).
The tragedy of man‘s life, which the wise man discovers and faces, is death. No matter what good he may enjoy now, death will rob him of it all.
How the wise man dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind. (2:16 17)
The fool will deceive himself and ignore this fact; but since man‘s greatest desire is to be eternal, no man can find rest in the goods that he will ultimately lose: “God has put eternity in man‘s mind….“ (3:11) The goods men seek are themselves always liable to be lost even now; death will rob every man of his goods and turn them over to a worthless heir.
From this, we can see that the real wise man. If such a man could be found, would be the one who understands the purpose of man‘s life. But the Preacher is wise in a way precisely because he realizes that death is an insuperable barrier to human happiness and human understanding of life:
All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, ‘I will be wise‘; but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it? (7:23 24).
Because of death, faith seeking understanding fails; all that is left is faith:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. (12:13)
Fulfill your duty, “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ibid.) But what good can be expected from this judgment remains unknown to the wise man. Yet, in spite of the fact that it does nothing more than to reveal the vanity of human life, Qoheleth considers wisdom the greatest of goods. “Who is like the wise man? …a man‘s wisdom makes his face shine….“ (8:1) Why? Because, “The wise man has eyes in his head, but the fools walks in darkness….” (2:14) While the fool immerses himself in the muck of goods that will cheat his desire, the wise man knows that he must resign himself to God, accepting what comes from Him even though he has no hope of finding satisfaction in it.
Why must the path to wisdom have such a bitter beginning? Let us consider it in the light of the promises associated with the Old Covenant, promises reiterated many times also in the Psalms. What blessings are the faithful promised in the Torah? Chapter 26 of Leviticus lays them down as clearly as anywhere else:
If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you rain in due season, abundant harvests, bread to the full, safety in the land, victory over enemies, many children, and I will make my abode among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. (26:3-11)
The wise Preacher now knows that all but the last will fail to satisfy man; the last remains a mystery.
Although Job doesn‘t claim to be a wise man, he is in anguish for much the same reason as Qoheleth is tempted to despair. What good is man‘s life? The difficulty Job faces in answering that question is not death simply but the fact of suffering. Why does the good man suffer? What possible sense can be made of senseless suffering? For seven days he sat silent in the ashes pondering that question in the agony of his soul. His failure is proclaimed in the heart wrenching cry that finally erupts from him:
Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night which said, ‘A man child is conceived.‘ (3:3)
Job‘s problem really goes beyond that raised by Ecclesiastes. It isn‘t simply, “What good is man‘s life if he suffers?” although that is certainly a part of it. Far surpassing that difficulty is the question, “Why has God done this to me?” For Job is in no doubt about who is cause of his suffering, which not only racks him with bitter pain, but makes him look like a sinner to all his friends.
Surely now God has worn me out; he has made desolate all my company. And he has shriveled me up, which is a witness against me….He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me; my adversary sharpens his eyes against me….[Omitting a reference to Our Lord‘s suffering.] I was at ease, and he broke me asunder; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he set me up as his target, his archers surround me. He slashes open my kidneys, and does not spare; he pours out my gall upon the ground. (16:7 13)
Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov could not address God more accusingly.
The wisdom Job seeks is to understand the plan of God in the suffering of the innocent, and conversely, in the success of the wicked. But, like the Preacher, he knows he is doomed to failure. To paraphrase chapter 28: “Although man can dig deep into the darkness of the earth to find the treasure of silver and gold, he cannot find wisdom; it cannot be known by the living.“ But God possesses wisdom, and it was present in the very acts of creation. To quote:
God understands the way to [wisdom], and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens. When he gave to the wind its weight, and meted out the waters by measure…then he saw it and declared it; he established it, and searched it out. (28:23 27)
So the wise man according to Job would be the one who understands the plan of God in allowing, even bringing about, the suffering of the innocent. Only God Himself knows his plan: Job, like the Preacher, must be content with faith:
And he said to man: ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.‘ (28:28)
The story of Job gives hope that God will vindicate and succour the innocent who suffer, but why he permitted it in the first place remains a mystery.
Proverbs and Sirach
If human wisdom is simply fearing God and keeping His commandments, a part of it must be knowing that keeping His commandments is no simple task. How hard it is to know how the man who fears God should behave in the day-to-day business of life, with its myriad of perplexing situations that ever offer a temptation to willful blindness and rationalization!
Knowing our ignorance and foreseeing our difficulty, God offers to man the books of Proverbs and Sirach. These books have a completely different feel than Ecclesiastes and Job: the passionate, tortured, mysterious dialectic of the latter offer a striking contrast to the plodding, tedious, detailed instruction of the former. No subject is too big or too small for their Polonius-like advice: how to behave with wives, children, friends, enemies, king, pauper; Sirach even devotes a whole chapter to dinner manners. If human wisdom simply consists in keeping God‘s commandments, it is still worth a book or two in Holy Scripture.
Yet Proverbs and Sirach offer hope where Ecclesiastes and Job despair. The Preacher‘s conclusion, “The end of all: Fear God and keep His commandments,“ gives way to the famous line of Sirach: “To fear the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.“ (1:14) Let me emphasize “beginning“. The fear of the Lord is not all; it is the beginning of a road that the author assures us will lead to Wisdom. Wisdom is not unattainable. The author of Proverbs presents wisdom to us under the figure of a woman who cries out to us to seek her, and promises that she will come when we turn away from the busy-ness of the market and the earthly city and pursue her.
If you cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding….then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom…he stores up sound wisdom for the upright. (Prov. 2:3-6)
The last part of this quotation offers some reason why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For the Lord gives wisdom to the upright. The wisdom that makes sense of the life, sufferings and death of men, which they cannot attain on their own, God has promised as a gift to those who faithfully follow His commandments. (See Sirach 6:37) So Jesus ben Sirach says,
If he has faith in her he will obtain her….For at first she will walk with him on tortuous paths…and will torment him by her discipline until she trusts him, and she will test him with her ordinances. Then she will come straight back to him and gladden him, and will reveal her secrets to him. (4:16-18; see also, 6:19-22)
Qoheleth in vain sought wisdom through study and wide experience; Job prayed for wisdom in the midst of suffering and received a knowledge of his vast ignorance. Sirach and Proverbs promise that the secrets of wisdom will be revealed to those who follow the Law of God.
But the road is often “tortuous“, and perhaps its difficulty is the reason why both books not only exhort their reader to follow the commands, but also try to inspire them with a passionate love of the wisdom that is the goal of their striving. Well aware that the maxims of the wise man are boring to the young, and living according to the maxims at first seems drudgery, even painful, (6:20) the authors present Wisdom as a woman surpassingly desirable, for whose sake the paths are trodden.
She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her….Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. (Prov. 3:15-18).
Without desire, wisdom shall not be obtained. Sirach tells us: “He supplied her to those who love him.” (1:10) And the desire will not cheat us; its consummation is sure.
Reflect on the statutes of the Lord, and meditate at all times on his commandments. It is he who will give insight to your mind, and your desire for wisdom will be granted. (Sirach 6:37)
Perhaps this is why the book of Proverbs, which begins with nine chapters exhorting us to pursue wisdom, and then spends 20 chapters giving detailed advice about daily life, ends with a beautiful chapter on the blessings of the faithful wife. The life of the man who fears the Lord and walks in His ways is not that of a courtly lover who always pursues but never attains; it is a life to be consummated in a union with the most precious of spouses, wisdom, who brings all blessings with her.
So far then, we see that these books of Scripture go beyond Ecclesiastes and Job in teaching that Wisdom is attainable, as a gift from God, to those who follow His commandments. This gift is sure if it is desired ardently enough to lead us to pursue it through the arduous testing of a life lived in accordance with the commandments.
This confirms the claim made from experience at the beginning of the lecture. It is no surprise that the wise men of the Church are holy, for God has promised that He will give wisdom to those and only those who fulfill the commands and passionately love wisdom. So faith confirms experience. But still faith and experience seek understanding. Why should God decree thus? Is there an intrinsic connection, or is this the whim of God?
Let‘s turn to our second question. What is the wisdom that is promised? Proverbs and Sirach both describe wisdom in words wondrous and strange. Let us return to the book of Job for a minute. Recall that in his anguish, Job frequently calls upon the Lord to come before him and explain His actions. Job‘s wish is granted; the Lord appears to him in the whirlwind. But the Lord immediately addresses Job with a question that dashes all hope of explanation: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?“ Job is literally dumbfounded by this question.
But in Proverbs and Sirach, Wisdom is presented as person who answers, “I was there!“ First Proverbs:
When he established the heavens, I was there…when he marked out the foundation of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman. (8:27-31)
Then Sirach: Alone I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven and have walked in the depths of the abyss.
So Wisdom has all the answers that Job sought; it knows why all things were made, for it was not only present at the moment of creation, but it was at work in creation “like a master workman“, or as the Douay translation reads, “I was with him forming all things.“
Wisdom was with God in creating, but what is it? Is it God Himself? In these works, the relationship between God and Wisdom is unclear. As the opening of Sirach makes clear, wisdom properly belongs only to God:
All wisdom comes from the Lord and is with him forever….There is one who is wise, greatly to be feared, sitting upon His throne. (1:1, 8)
This makes us think that wisdom is divine, one of the attributes of God. It was at work in all creation, it is with the Lord forever, it is, as Sirach says elsewhere, “from eternity“ and “shall not cease to exist“. (24:9) And yet, both Proverbs and Sirach clearly state that wisdom is not God, but a creature. “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.“ (Prov. 8:22 [Translation difficulty]) “From eternity, in the beginning, he created me, and for eternity I shall not cease to exist.“ (Sirach 24:9).
The portrayal of wisdom in these books is indeed wonderful. The wisdom that is promised to those who fear the Lord and walk in His commandments is something beyond the ken of men – an eternal creation of the Lord that contains an understanding of all His works, that can open to our eyes the secrets of creation, including the strange and terrible fate of men doomed to death and suffering. And yet it is strange. How can it be eternal and yet a creature? If it is not God, how could God create through a creature? Didn‘t He create all things from nothing?
The Wisdom of Solomon
If God revealed Himself in a veiled, prophetic way in the Old Testament, still at times the light beneath the veil is so bright as to shine through with almost perfect clarity. Isaiah‘s prophecies of the new covenant and the suffering servant, for example. The book of the Wisdom of Solomon, compared with rest of the Wisdom literature, seems to shine with similar clarity. Unlike the questioning works of Ecclesiastes and Job, or the loosely structured, aphoristic works of Proverbs and Sirach, the book of Wisdom is a tightly structured argument that presents the mature reflection of Israel on its history and mission and offers solutions to some of the greatest difficulties faced by Job and Ecclesiastes.
The book of Wisdom, written in the person of Solomon, summarizes certain points we have seen so far. Solomon recognizes the vanity of the natural pursuit of wisdom:
For what man can learn the counsel of God?….For the reasoning of mortals is worthless, and our designs are likely to fail….We can hardly guess at what is on earth, and what is at hand we find with labor; but who has traced out the heavens. (9:13-16)
But, like Sirach, Solomon teaches us to hope that Wisdom will be given to those who seek her.
Who has learned thy counsel, unless thou hast given wisdom and sent thy holy Spirit from on high? And thus the paths of those on earth were set right, and men were taught what pleases thee, and were saved by wisdom. (9:17-18)
So God has given some men Wisdom, the knowledge of His counsels in laying out the heavens and the earth. Solomon agrees basically with Proverbs and Sirach on how to get wisdom. However, unlike Sirach, who emphasized the torment of the paths to wisdom, the book of Wisdom expresses Solomon‘s own experience: To get wisdom is simple; only two things are necessary. First, to love her:
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. (6:12-13)
So, “The beginning of Wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction….“ (6:17) Second, the lover of wisdom must know to whom wisdom belongs, and pray for it.
But I perceived that I would not possess wisdom unless God gave her to me and it was a mark of insight to know whose gift she was so I appealed to the Lord and besought him (8:21) …and the spirit of wisdom came to me. (7:7)
So Solomon teaches that wisdom is attained through love and prayer, which is consonant with what we‘ve already seen. But on the question, What is wisdom?, he takes a different, though not unrelated, approach. According to Solomon, wisdom is, above all, the knowledge of the goodness of God and of his power. Let me begin my proof of this with a quotation in which wisdom is not explicitly mentioned.
But thou, our God, art kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy….To know thee is complete righteousness, and to know thy power is the root of immortality. (15:1-3)
These themes, knowledge of God‘s merciful loving kindness, and of His power, dominate the whole book. The bulk of the work is devoted to distinguishing wicked fools from wise saints. The ultimate source of the folly of men and nations is idolatry, the worship of things made by the hands of men. “For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.“ (14:27) Since idols are dead, lifeless, in dignity far beneath the man who makes them (15:16-17), they have no power, nor do they see or care about the wickedness of their worshipers. Their lack of providence gives their devotees licence for every form of wickedness, even to the swearing of false oaths by them: “…for because they trust in lifeless idols they swear wicked oaths and expect to suffer no harm.“ (14:29) Soon such men cease to believe in the gods altogether, and make the fatal mistake of thinking that all is chance and life ends with death:
…We were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts. (2:2)
This error leads them to all manner of debauchery and, in the extreme of wicked folly, to the oppression of the righteous man whose own life condemns them.
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law…. (2:12)
And so they persecute him and kill him. (2:20)
But the righteous man has knowledge of God (2:13). He knows that God sees all things, even the hearts of men. (1:6) He also knows that through His power, in His loving kindness for His children, God will not allow his sons to suffer ultimate disaster. He understands that the sufferings God sends him at the hands of wicked men are to test him like gold in the furnace, so that he might be worthy of God‘s gifts. (3:5-6) Even the fear of death does not shake this conviction, for he knows that death has no power over him. God‘s power will make him immortal, and God‘s love will shower him with the glory of an eternal crown.
But the righteous live forever, and their reward is with the Lord; the Most High takes care of them. Therefore they will receive a glorious crown and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord, because with His right hand he will cover them, and with his arm he will shield them. (5:15-16)
So the wise man knows God‘s providential care and power to save him from all harm. But wisdom is more than the wise man‘s knowledge of God; it is also the very Providence of God at work since the fall of man to save all men from ultimate disaster. The last 10 chapters of the book are devoted to showing the saving work of wisdom from Adam to the Exodus. Above all was wisdom manifested in the salvation of Israel from bondage in Egypt. God‘s loving kindness was abundantly shown to the Israelites in the many miracles wrought on their behalf, and His power was shown in that he changed the very nature of the elements to serve them.
For the whole creation in its nature was fashioned anew, complying with thy commands, that thy children might be kept unharmed. (19:6)
Israel, in reflecting on its own history, can see the wisdom of God in His loving care for them. Further, Israel can understand that, through its trials and the mighty works that God performs on its behalf, God is preparing it to fulfill its mission as God‘s son, “through whom the imperishable light of the law was to be given to the world.“ (18: 4)
We can see from the survey so far that, in this book, as to some extent in Sirach and Proverbs, Wisdom has many appearances. Wisdom is that which God gives to men so that they might know His plan for them. It is also God‘s providence at work in history, and, let me add, in the very act of creation (7:22). Finally, although really firstly, it dwells with God. More explicitly than Sirach and Proverbs, the author of Wisdom sees wisdom as more than His plan for creation – it is something of or intimately from God Himself.
For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty….She is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. (7:25-26)
In his teaching, Solomon does not speak of Wisdom as created, but rather as some sort of procession (breath, emanation), and a reflection (mirror, image); she comes forth from the power of God and images His goodness.
Let me quickly summarize what we have learned about wisdom from these works of the Old Testament. All the works agree in presenting wisdom as an understanding of the providential plan of God in creation. This is what Job and Ecclesiastes seek but cannot find, but Proverbs, Sirach and Wisdom promise will be given by God to those who seek. This understanding is variously presented as with God from eternity, as at work in the creation of the world and the salvation of man, and as dwelling in individuals as a gift from God. The book of Wisdom goes further than the others in identifying wisdom with the knowledge of the power and goodness of God, so that we see His plan for creation as a manifestation of His own divine attributes.
We also see that wisdom can be attained by men. Not through the natural efforts of Ecclesiastes, but through the gift of God. God gives this gift to those who fear Him, who love wisdom with all their hearts, who are disciplined in following the commandments and who pray ardently for her.
Our conclusion from all this is that revelation confirms our original survey of the experience of the Church – holiness is indeed a prerequisite for wisdom. It is no wonder, then, that the Fathers and Doctors are also saints. And yet, why this should be so still remains a question for faith seeking understanding. Is there any other reason than God‘s fiat that the understanding of His plan for creation should be given only to those who love wisdom, follow the commandments and pray for her?
A final comment before moving on to the New Testament. We might be tempted at this point to think that these books are speaking of some sort of mystical wisdom, given by God through visions and ecstacies, and not the kind of wisdom that a theologian such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas possessed. Certainly they speak of wisdom as a gift of God, which cannot be attained by study and experience alone. However, Proverbs and Sirach, at least, don‘t distinguish this wisdom from that of the learned man. Proverbs opens by stating that its purpose is in part to bring the wise man to be able to understand the mysterious sayings of the wise. And Sirach is adamant that the wisdom he speaks of can only be attained by those who have leisure to study the Law and to gain wide experience through travel (38:24- 39:5). So while the wisdom poured out by God might not be identical with theological wisdom, it is certainly necessary for the learned man to have in order to understand the plan of God.
Wisdom in the New Testament
Having glimpsed wisdom in the shadows it casts in the Old Testament, the time has come to look at it in the light of the New Testament. Hopefully, the outlines we have seen in the shadows will make it easier for us to see in the light.
St. Paul speaks of wisdom more than any other New Testament author. In fact, we might call St. Paul, “The Apostle of Wisdom“. Paul himself frequently speaks of his apostleship in the language of wisdom and mystery. He tells the Corinthians,
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Cor. 4:1)
And he writes to the Ephesians:
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given…to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things…. (Eph. 3:8-9)
The plan of God for creation has finally been revealed, and Paul has been chosen by God to bring all men to understand the plan. For this reason, Paul sees that the conversion of his hearers is not enough; conversion is only the beginning of his labor. He cannot rest until he has brought his newborn sons into the full understanding of the mystery that Jesus has revealed to him. As he tells the Colossians,
And so, from the day we heard of [your faith], we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding…increasing in the knowledge of God. (1:9-10)
And a little later in the letter he speaks of his great labor in bringing them to Christian adulthood:
[Christ] we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me. (1:28)
So insistent is Paul on the importance of wisdom that he scolds those of his children who have failed to attain spiritual maturity, whose understanding has not developed as it should. For instance, he tells the Corinthians:
…Among the mature we do impart wisdom….But I brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. (1 Cor. 2:6, 3:1-3)
So it is natural for the Christian to become wise; his spiritual maturity is closely connected to his growth in wisdom. Christians are essentially contemplatives. The mystery of God‘s plan has been revealed to us and, if we have a living heart, we long with the angels to gaze upon it.
But what are we to contemplate? St. Paul epitomizes the mystery in a famous passage in First Corinthians:
…But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1Cor. 1:23-24)
What a wonder: that the great and mighty wisdom of God should be found in two words! “Christ crucified“ is the wisdom of God.
But does this make sense in the light of our survey of the Old Testament? We saw that the wisdom of God is His plan for creation. Can we say that of Christ crucified? Indeed we can, for Christ crucified is the very reason for the creation of heaven and earth. In one of the most famous Scriptural passages on the mystery of Christ, Paul tells the Colossians that Christ is the beginning and the end of creation:
…In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth…– all things were created through him and for him….He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Col. 1:16-18)
“All things were created for him“; all has been arranged so that in everything Christ might be first. Napolean might have said, “I have a plan to make a great monument to myself, L‘Arc de triomphe;“ God has said, “My great plan is make Christ; all creation shall be for His glory.“ For among all the wonders of creation, material and spiritual, it is only of Christ, who is the Son of God, that can God fittingly say, “He is my Beloved.“ (Cf. Eph 1:6; Matthew 3:17)
In choosing to take on such an ambitious project, I have not made myself a good example to juniors pondering theses topics. But here I will give a good piece of advice: Have someone read your theses over carefully before your defense. Fearing the grilling I am no doubt going to get soon, I had a learned colleague peruse my draft. At this point he said, “You have shown that Christ is the end of creation. But you said that Christ Crucified is the end. How do you show that?“ In Paul‘s letter to the Ephesians, he makes the central importance of the Crucifixion clearer. God wills to glorify Christ, and He glorifies Him by uniting all things in Him through the redemption wrought by His Crucifixion.
In [the Beloved] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1:7-10)
So “Christ Crucified“ indeed epitomizes the plan of God for creation. In the Old Testament we saw this plan in three different aspects or moments: With God from all eternity; at work in salvation history; and present in the those who love and pray for it. Are all of these true of Our crucified Savior? Let us begin with the first. Certainly in His divine nature, the Son of God is with the Father from all eternity. But even as Incarnate, the idea of Christ was present to the Father in His Word from all eternity. In the idea of Christ, the Father took delight, and so brought forth all that was, is and will be. So when Paul told the Colossians that “all things were created through [the Son] and for him“, he was referring existentially, we might say, to the divine nature of the Son (the Word through whom was made all that is), but also ideally to the yet to be created Incarnation of the Son. In other words, as the magnificent chapel already exists in the mind of the architect (even if nowhere else) driving him on to the completion of his labors, so Christ Incarnate was at work before all time in the mind of God.
This might be why Paul, when introducing the Colossians‘ passage quoted earlier, recalls the teaching of Proverbs and Sirach that Wisdom is the first of all creatures. Like wisdom, Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation….“ This is true in two senses corresponding to Christ‘s two natures. As the Word, He is image; as Christ, He is God‘s image made visible; as Word, He is author of all creation; as Christ, He is the first-born of creation. (Let me note here that this interpretation has some difficulties. But, as I said before, you aren‘t allowed to object. Just yet.)
So the idea of Christ crucified existed with the Father from all eternity, and, in the second aspect of wisdom, it was the driving force behind the creation of the world, and the forming of the people Israel. What about the third aspect of wisdom – does Christ crucified come to dwell in the hearts of men so that they might understand the wisdom of God? Yes. In fact, Paul says to the Colossians that “Christ in them” is the mystery that was hidden in God for ages:
To [His saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:27)
In all ways, then, Christ crucified is the wisdom foreshadowed in the Old Testament. And Paul has said that we must strive to become wise. So we must strive with all our might to understand Christ crucified. What shall we learn if we ponder on it night and day, if we kneel at the foot of the cross with St. Thomas? Let us look at another passage from First Corinthians.
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:20-21)
According to this passage, the business of the wise man is to come to know God. According to Acts, when Paul visited Athens, the city of the great philosophers, he told them that God created all men so that “they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him.“ (Acts 17:27) But his experience in Athens made manifest to him that the wise men had failed. Although they had reached the truth that God is not one of a pantheon of idols, but the Creator and Ruler of all things, they ridiculed him when he proposed his great mystery to them, that the crucified Christ had risen from the dead. As he wrote to the Corinthians years later, their ridicule revealed their own folly. For their own efforts after wisdom could not reveal God. Only through the cross of Christ is God fully revealed.
So when we kneel at the foot of the Cross, we see the culmination of God‘s plan for salvation. But more importantly, through this plan, we see God fully revealed. The wisdom of God is this: that He would make Himself fully known through His act of saving those who believe in the folly of Christ crucified.
Why should God choose this means for His self-revelation? Because in this way He reveals His merciful love to an extent impossible through any other means. If St. Paul is the Apostle of wisdom, even more is he the Apostle of grace. As he introduces the mystery of Christ in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells them that God has saved them in Christ precisely so that His grace might be revealed and praised.
He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Eph. 1:5-6)
A synonym for grace is “favor“. Among God‘s many favors to us, the first and foremost is the fact that He loves us in the face of our sinfulness. As he wrote to the Romans:
Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:6-8)
So God‘s magnificent plan has finally been revealed, that He should manifest His love by sending His own Son to save us through His death on the Cross. And Christians must make it their daily aim to come to comprehend this mystery. Yet Paul says to the Ephesians that this love surpasses all knowledge. How then do we become wise? Paul tells the Corinthians that there is a person who fully comprehends the inner mysteries of God, namely His Spirit who, like wisdom in the Old Testament, can answer “I was there.“
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,“ God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man‘s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. (1 Cor. 2:9-12)
Since we have received this same Spirit, we too can come to understand the love that God has bestowed on us, if we allow the Spirit to complete his work in us. When the Spirit is given to us, he gives us a share in the resurrected life that Christ now enjoys (Rom. 8:9-11). If we allow Him, He will continue to develop that life in us, transforming our sinful natures so that we become through and through images and likenesses of God. So Paul tells the Ephesians:
Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24)
The essential element in our transformation into likenesses of God is found in love. As Paul writes in the letter to the Romans,
…God‘s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:5)
The Holy Spirit brings many gifts, but the most important is love. (See also 1 Cor. 13.) As he transforms us according to that love, we can begin to comprehend the love that God has revealed through the cross of Christ. As St. Paul says:
…I bow my knees before the Father that…he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. (Eph. 3:14-19)
We can now see why it is that Christian wise men must be saintly. Christian wisdom is above all the understanding of the plan of God to reveal His merciful love through the death of Christ. But His love surpasses all possibility of human understanding. Only through the transformation of our hearts by the love poured into them by the Holy Spirit can we begin to comprehend its unsearchable riches. As we grow in love, or rather as love grows in us, extending its roots into the deepest, darkest corners of our hearts, we become other Christs, and can taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Before I move into the conclusion of the lecture, I feel I have to deal with an objection that you might have at this point; I certainly did after I re-read my lecture this morning. I would rather not raise it, since I am not sure of my answer, but I can‘t not. Here it is: Why not say that the Holy Spirit is the wisdom of God, especially since the 1 Cor. text you cited describes Him in terms very similar to those applied to Wisdom in the Old Testament books: “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God“?
I don‘t want to deny that this might be appropriate, and that some of texts we considered might apply also to the Holy Spirit. But I think that, if we follow closely the language of Scripture, it is more appropriate to say that Christ is the Wisdom of God who works through the Holy Spirit to bring Himself to be in the world. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the means by which Wisdom created the world and prepared the people of Israel for the coming of the Savior through the Law and the Prophets; He overshadowed the Virgin Mary to bring Wisdom to birth in her womb, and having been sent by the resurrected and glorified Christ, He is at work bringing Christ to full maturity in us. This last point St. Peter makes in his sermon on Pentecost:
Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, [Jesus] has poured out this which you see and hear. (Acts 2:33)
The Holy Spirit, then, is not properly the wisdom of God, but the means by which Wisdom works in the world and in our hearts. Our Lord seems to indicate this when in John‘s Gospel He calls the Holy Spirit, “The Spirit of Truth“:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak….He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14)
The Holy Spirit begets Truth in us, for He takes the Wisdom that is proper to Christ and brings it to birth in us through love.
At last we have climbed the grade and reached the overlook, as it were. The details remain hazy and many areas call to us for further exploration, but we are able to gaze out over the vista. What do we see? In a way, you might say we see a dialogue going on. Ecclesiastes and Job begin the conversation by asking, without hope, to understand how the plan of God for creation makes sense of death and suffering. Proverbs and Sirach encourage them to have hope, for, if they will follow the commandments in faith, God will give to them a share in the Wisdom that is with Him forever and was at work in creation. The Book of Wisdom tells them that, if they could but understand the love and power of God manifested in His providential care of Israel, they would realize that death and suffering are not the end, for God will give an eternal crown to those who are faithful to Him through the trials of this life.
St. Paul enters this conversation as the messenger of God, declaring, “Ecce, Agnus Dei! Behold, the Lamb of God! Behold, the Wisdom of God!” The Crucified Christ is the Wisdom of God, who provides the most profound answer to Job and Ecclesiastes. In the Resurrected Lamb we see what Solomon had foretold — that God’s power and love would overcome suffering and death. But more than that: we see the ultimate reason for suffering and death. It is true that these evils are a result of the Fall of Adam, which itself finds its origin in the first lie of the Devil. But this is not the ultimate reason, for God would never have created angels and men that would fall if He had not determined the good these evils would serve. But in His infinite wisdom, He ordained that suffering and death would be permitted that He might manifest His merciful love through the suffering and death of His Only-Begotten Son. Though Job could not understand this, his suffering was the means by which he could share in the life and mission of Christ (“filling up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ”), and become a fitting intercessor on behalf of his spiritually immature friends.
Listening to this conversation, we have been able to give at least some account of why wise Christians are holy. In the second book of On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine tells us that the ascent to wisdom is made through attaining perfection in the practice of mercy, until we can say that we love even our enemies. For we have seen that to understand the Father as He has revealed Himself to us is to understand His mercy to us, His former enemies. In order to understand this love, we must become like it, so that our study will be guided towards its proper end by our own experience of the merciful love of God flowing out from us to our friends, acquaintances, masters, servants, various human sources of irritation and exasperation, and, finally, to our outright enemies.
Our growth in this love is a matter primarily of opening our hearts to the work of the Holy Spirit in prayer and sacrament. It is no accident that at this College we do everything possible to encourage participation at Mass, to promote frequent Confession, and to celebrate with great solemnity and joy the reception of the other Sacraments. Not only is this our duty as a Catholic institution, but it is essentially connected to our pursuit of higher education. For without it we shall fail to come to know the surpassing love of Christ and so fail to make a proper beginning on the road to wisdom.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:7-8)