But the righteous man, though he die early, will be at rest. For old age is not honored for length of time, nor measured by number of years; but understanding is gray hair for men, and a blameless life is ripe old age. (Wisdom of Solomon 4:7-9)
Today in the Church we honor the memory of St Nicholas the Wonderworker. The quote above is from one of the Scripture readings for Vespers on the eve of the feast of certain saints. The reading reminds us that wisdom is not merely the result of a long life of experience, but is a spiritual state for those who make it a priority in their life to seek God’s righteousness and kingdom (Matthew 6:33). The wise person seems to have a wisdom beyond his or her years.
If we seek first honor and glory from our fellow humans, we may never attain wisdom. St Nicholas made God’s Kingdom his priority. He became legendary throughout the world, and many legends, meant to be edifying, developed about him, embellishing his life and making him a favorite saint of children (and sailors!). The stories may not be historical, but they can teach about virtue just as fables do. The story below is not about St Nicholas but it uses a clever twist and some humor to help us see wisdom rather than to seek fame and fortune.
The Emperor of China sent ambassadors to a hermit living in the northern mountains. They were to invite him to become prime minister of the Kingdom.
After many days of travel the ambassadors arrived. The hermitage was empty! But nearby in the middle of the river was a half-naked man, seated on a rock, fishing with a line. Could this be the man the emperor thought so highly of? Inquiries at the village proved it was. So they returned to the riverbank and, as respectfully as they could, attempted to attract the fisherman’s attention.
The hermit waded through the river and stood before the messengers, barefoot, arms akimbo.
‘What is it you want?’
‘Honored sir, His Majesty the Emperor of China, having heard of your wisdom and your holiness, has sent us with these gifts. He invites you to accept the post of prime minister of the realm.’
‘Prime minister of the realm?’
‘Yes, respected Sir.’
‘Yes, respected sir.’
‘Is His Majesty out of his mind?’ said the hermit as he roared with uncontrollable laughter, to the discomfiture of the ambassadors.
When he was able to control himself, the hermit said ‘Tell me – is it true that mounted over the main altar of the emperor’s Chapel is a stuffed turtle whose shell is encrusted with sparkling diamonds?’
‘It is, venerable sir.’
‘And is it true that once a day the emperor and his household gather to do homage to this diamond decorated turtle?’
‘It is, sir.’
‘Now take this turtle here, wagging his tail in the muck. Do you think this little fellow would change places, with the turtle in the palace?’
‘No, he would not.’
‘Then go tell the emperor that neither would I. For no one can be alive on a pedestal.’
(Anthony De Mello, THE SONG OF THE BIRD, pp 126-127)