Wiggle Room: Wisdom and the Two Ways

“Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.”  (Jeremiah 21:8)

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)

The notion that there are two ways through the world – the way of life and the way of death – permeates the Scriptures.  They are sometimes dramatically pitted one against the other, and we humans must choose which we will follow.

“O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?”   (Acts 13:10)

And yet the same Tradition which is the Two Ways also is the Wisdom Tradition.  Wisdom is not law, but rather is the Spirit guiding us in how, when and where, with whom and to what degree we can keep the law.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: …  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-5)

The Tradition which says there are only two ways also provides that we have to know what to do when we are in a grey area, when things are not and aren’t supposed to be black and white.  Between black and white there exist gradiation and degrees, some better than others in terms of doing God’s will.  All or nothing thinking has its limits and sometimes causes problems and even evil.  It can lead people to abandon a good way because of a mistake or sin which causes them to think all is lost.  Something is better than nothing is also wisdom.  I may not be able to be perfect but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to do as much good as I can.   There always is repentance and a spirit of humility which confesses persistent spiritual failure.  We fall, and we get up.

We see this Wisdom often in the ascetic literature of the Church.

“Be as eager as you can to love everyone, but if you cannot do this yet, at least do not hate anyone.”    (St. Maximus the Confessor, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 6835-36)

“If you are able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. But if you are not able, then do what you can.”  (Didache, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 645-46)

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The Spiritual Gift of Listening

An old proverb says, “God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we would listen more and talk less.”

“In I Kings 3:9 Solomon is portrayed as asking the Lord for a ‘listening heart’ that he may be able to judge the people of God and ‘distinguish right from wrong.’ He receives the gift of wisdom, and immediately the famous episode of the two harlots is narrated.”

(Roland Murphy, The Tree of Life, p 2)

Choices

Sometimes we come to a crossroads in life where we have to make a decision as to which way to go.  It may not always be clear to us which is the “correct” path because more than one path may seem good to us.  We might decide we don’t want the responsibility for making the “wrong” decision and therefore seek counsel from a spiritual father.  In doing so we might imagine that the responsibility for the decision can then fall upon our spiritual father and all we have to do is obey what advice is given.   But sometimes, the wise spiritual adviser knows it is better not to make the choice for the disciple but rather only to present possibilities and put the responsibility for the choice on the disciple.

A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying, “An inheritance has been bequeathed to me; what shall I do with it?”  Abba Poemen said to him, “Go, and after three days come to me, and I will give you counsel.”  And the brother came, and Abba Poemen said to him, “What counsel shall I give you, O brother? If I tell you to give it to the church, they will make feasts with it; and again, if I tell you to give it to your kinsmen, you will have no reward; but if I tell you to give it to the poor, you will have no further care. Therefore go and do with your inheritance what you please, for I am not able to advise you rightly.” (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2),  Loc. 661-65)

Abba Poemen advises,  yet leaves the choice to the disciple who then bears responsibility for the decision.  Poemen, even though asked by the disciple to advise,  is careful to leave the choice to the disciple and also the responsibility for the decision.

This thinking we also see in our Lord Jesus who teaches using parables.  We have to think about the parables and what they mean and how to apply them to our lives in 21st Century America.  Teaching moral living through parables calls the disciple to exercise their God-given gift of free will and to make real choices in life.  Parishioners aren’t meant to be kept as children all their lives who must be told what to do by the clergy.  They are fully responsible disciples who need to learn the Gospel lessons in order to apply them to every situation and every moment of their lives.  God gave us free will and rational thinking – we are to put them to good use.   If God wanted us to be automatons, He would have created robots, not humans.

Matthew 20

If we constantly speak on contemporary issues and tell parishioners how they must think about everything, we fail to teach as Jesus taught.  We are to teach and proclaim the Gospel in order to empower the parishioners to apply those lessons to their lives, to their decision making, to their life choices.  They need to learn what is essential from the Gospel in order to learn how to apply the lessons to their own lives.   When the preachers decide that contemporary issues are the proclamation, they set aside the Gospel.   As one aphorism has it, “When I preached repentance, nothing happened.  When I preached joy, nothing happened.  But when I preached the Gospel, some repented and some rejoiced.”

Praying for Contentment

Wisdom, Justice, Divine Intervention and Truth

Wisdom is found in every religious tradition.  Stories which offer a moral, cause us to think about our decisions and priorities in life, or challenge us to see things in a new way help us grow in wisdom and understanding.  Wisdom stories don’t have to follow the laws of physics or be historically true – if they convey a point and cause us to think and reflect on our values, they have done their job.  Below is a prose poem from story-teller Anthony De  Mello set in a Hindu Indian tradition.  It offers us a universal truth not dependent on one religious tradition, and plays upon our wish to win the lottery or have a Genie grant us three wishes, and pokes at our own short-sighted selfishness (even our selfishness in prayer where we attempt to turn God into a Genie whose job is to fulfill our wishes).  Wisdom often brings us out of our dreamy wish-world and into reality.  And as this story suggests, we might all be better off with some contentment and thankfulness for what we have rather than wishing for life on our terms.

“The Lord Vishnu said to his devotee: ‘I am weary

of your constant petitions.

I have decided to grant you any

three things you ask for. After that,

I shall give you nothing more.’

The devotee delightedly made his first

petition at once. He asked that his

wife should die so that he could marry

a better woman. His petition was

immediately granted.

But when friends and relatives gathered

for the funeral and began to recall all

the good qualities of his wife, the

devotee realized he had been hasty. He

now realized he had been blind to

all her virtues. Was he likely to find

another woman as good as her?

So he asked the Lord

to bring her back to life!

That left him with just one

petition. He was determined not

to make a mistake this time, for he

would no chance to correct it.

He consulted widely. Some of his friends

advised him to ask for immortality,   But

of what good was immortality, said others,

if he did not have good health? And of

what use was health if he had no money?

And of what use was money if he had no friends?

Years passed and he could not make up

his mind what to ask for: life or health

or wealth or power or love. Finally he

said to the Lord, ‘Please advise me on

what to ask for.’

The Lord laughed when he saw the

man’s predicament, and said, ‘Ask to

be content no matter what you get.’

(The Song of the Bird, pgs. 142-143)

Minerva: Goddess of Learning

The Wisdom of Listening

In Scriptural Wisdom is often personified (Proverbs 8-9) and presented as being with God at the beginning of creation (Proverbs 3:19).  Wisdom is in the Old Testament a pre-incarnate encounter with the Word of God.  Holy Wisdom (Agia Sophia) Cathedral, the Great Church in Constantinople was dedicated to Christ who is the Wisdom and Power of God (1 Corinthians 1:24).

Christ the Wisdom of God Icon

Wisdom is not law, but rather that spiritual knowledge from God which allows us to understand when to apply the law, and how, and to do it with justice and to the glory of God.  For those who have read enough of my blogs you have seen me use the simile of Stopcomparing and contrasting wisdom and law to a STOP sign.  Every driver knows a STOP sign is the law – it commands the driver what to do when he or she approaches the sign in a car.   But what a stop sign can never do is tell you when to go.  The sign always commands us to stop.  It is only wisdom that can tell us when to go – when it is our turn, when it is safe, when it is the wise and right thing to do.

Wisdom literature is common in the Bible and was used extensively in the early church in catechism.  To this day in the Orthodox Church we continue to read Proverbs during Great Lent as part of the catechetical effort to prepare the new catechumens for their baptism and entry into the Christian faith and church.   Jesus by instructing in parables showed Himself to be a wisdom teacher.  Parables are not law nor dogma, but stories which teach truth about how to live and what to believe.

Wisdom, King David, Prophecy

The post-Apostolic and Patristic age produced their own wisdom literature: the sayings of the desert fathers.  Here we encounter wisdom for small communities dedicated to living the Gospel life; offering through story lessons on how to live in peace and love with one another as Christ commanded us to do.  Two stories from The Paradise of the Holy Fathers edited by Wallis Budge, pp 210 – 211, are below:

One of the old men used to say, ‘Formerly, whensoever we met each other we used to speak words of profit about each other, and we formed companies, and were lifted up into the heaven; but now when we are gathered together, we come to hateful converse concerning each other, and we drag each the other down to the bottom of the deepest abyss.’

And they didn’t even need the Internet and forums to come to hateful converse and to drag each other down!

Instead the desert fathers used adages, aphorisms and apophthegmata to uplift and instruct and to profit one another.  It is a whole lot harder to live by wisdom than by using attack, accusation and abuse in dealing with unity and love in Christian community. Careless words are folly and folly is sin (Proverbs 24:9; Matthew 12:36; Mark 7:22).  We moderns seem to derive some pleasure from abusing one another verbally, but that is not the way of wisdom or of love.

On one occasion whilst Abba Macarius was passing through Egypt with certain other brethren, he heard a child saying to his mother, ‘My mother, a rich man loves me, but I hate him; and a poor man hates me, and I love him’; and when Abba Macarius heard [this] he marveled. And the brethren said unto him, ‘What is the [meaning of] these words, father?’ The old man said unto him, ‘Verily our Lord is rich, and He loves us, and we do not desire to hear Him; our Enemy, Satan, is poor, and he hates us, and we love his hateful things.’ ”

Wisdom is garnered from the simplest of things – even from what a child says to or does.  God is rich in love and yet we don’t want to follow the way of love.  Satan’s poverty is obvious to all, and yet we love to use his methods when we deal with one another.

Wisdom requires us to listen.  In the Liturgy we connect the two:  “Wisdom! Let us pay attention and listen to the Holy Gospel!”

In the book, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women by Laura Swan (pp 30-31),  Wendy Wright is quoted as saying:

“Spiritual listening is a contemplative undertaking and not a problem solving task. It is essentially prayer…Spiritual listening as a contemplative discipline pushes us…to a level of listening beyond our own powers of analysis to the grace and the gift of divine life itself…To listen this way is to listen with heart and mind opened wide. It invites us to be changed along with those to whom we listen.”   

As the Lord said to His servant Job:

“…listen to me; be silent, and I will teach you wisdom.”

(Job 33:33)

When the Book of our Life is in our Hands

I won’t claim to be a writer, though I like to write.  I found the imagery below by St. Isaac the Syrian to be an intriguing way of seeing one’s life – a draft document, a work in progress.  Of course he wrote in a day and a age when once something was in print, it was cast in stone and not easy to change.   He did not know the joy of the electronic document which can forever be updated, corrected and improved.  Despite what technology makes possible, there still is a sense that when something moves from its electronic form to its hard copy print form it becomes more permanent, indelible.  St. Isaac though when referring to a document seems to have in mind official government documents – in his time it would have been imperial documents with the king’s seal.  The documents he is thinking of in his metaphor become official decrees and laws of the empire.    But this imagery has some value to us as we consider God’s Book of Life is an imperial document with the kingdom being that of Heaven.  There is a permanency to the document – once officially issued, decreed, it will remain what it is forever.  Until that time however, we have the ability to change, alter, and improve the story of our life.

God is the author of the book known as the universe, but each of us co-authors with God our lives.  (I’ve also been intrigued by those scientists inspired by our new found ability to read the genetic code who have suggested that in that genetic code and in the human genome we can really see the hand of God with the code being a script recording what was happening to humanity through the vast time in which our ancestors have been part of t his world.)

God is writing the book of the universe’s existence, but allows each of us to write our own chapters within the Book.   As St. Isaac has it the book of our life is for a short while in our hands, and we have the ability to add good things to it.  It is marvelous imagery about how we co-operate with God and shape some of the details which God incorporates into His book of life.

“Our way of life in this world resembles a document that is still in draft form:  things can be added or taken out, and alterations can be made, whenever one wants.  But life in the world to come resembles the case of completed documents that have the king’s seal already upon them, and no addition or subtraction can be made.  While we are still here, where changes can be made, let us take a look at ourselves, and while we still have control over the book of our life, and it is in our hands, let us be eager to add to it by means of a good life-style, and delete from it the defects of our former life-style.” (THE WISDOM OF ST ISAAC OF NINEVEH, p 22)

Christ, St. Peter and the Geese

I heard this story below first from a friend, but then found a couple of versions on line.  You can read one version on Google Books:  Russian Fairy Tales 1916.

It is a very clever story with many lessons and morals.  Be careful what you ask for.

One day Christ and St. Peter are walking together.

St. Peter said to Jesus, “What a wonderful thing it must be to be God.  I wish that just for one day I could be God.”

Christ agreed to his request and told him that for the rest of that day he could be God.

As they approached the village, a young peasant girl was driving a flock of geese into the meadow.

St. Peter began talking to the little girl and she told him that these were her grandfather’s geese and she had to watch them, but now she had to go into the village for it was a feast day.  She began to leave.

St. Peter stopped her saying, “But who will watch the geese when you are gone?”

The little girl skipping away said, “God will watch them.”

Jesus pointed to St. Peter and told him, “That is you today.”  And while Christ also went into the village to celebrate the feast  for the rest of that day St. Peter had to stay in the field and watch the geese.

He never asked to be God again.

The Source of Social Evil and the Good of Society

Humans throughout history have tried to comprehend why evil and social chaos occur.   I found it interesting to compare the thought of the Jewish work The Wisdom of Solomon (scholars place the writing 100 -10BC)  with the Hindu writing the Bhagavad Gita (which scholars place ca 200BC – 200AD).   They are thus roughly contemporary writings though from different parts of the world and with different religious assumptions.

The Bhagavad Gita offers at one point an explanation of what is the cause of evil and the disintegration of society.   It blames the intermixture of castes – intermarrying of men and women of different castes which thus leads to the total destruction of family and society.  It is a vicious cycle dragging families and society to hell.

“When the family is destroyed, the ancient laws of family duly cease; when law ceases, lawlessness overwhelms family; when lawlessness overwhelms the women of the family, they become corrupted; when women are corrupted, the intermixture of castes is the inevitable result.  Intermixture of castes drags down to hell both those who destroy the family and the family itself; the spirits of the ancestors fall, deprived of their offerings of rice and water.  Such is the evils of those who destroy the family: because of the intermixture of castes…”  (Bhagavad Gita)

Wisdom, Justice, Vice, Crime and Corruption, Slander, Deception, Despotic Power

The Wisdom of Solomon on the other hand blames the ruination of society on idolatry: the worship of false gods.

“Everything is mixed together: Blood and murder, theft and treachery, depravity, unfaithfulness, tumult, perjury,  confusion over what is good, ingratitude, corruption of family, breakup of marriages, disorder, adultery, and debauchery.  For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning, cause, and end of every evil.”   (Wisdom of Solomon 14:25-27)

The chaos that results in both works is similarly portrayed – the breakdown of family life which leads to all manners of evil.  Both would say the problem is a breakdown in traditional religious values which results in total social dysfunction and destruction.

Roman Philosopher Cicero (10b-43BC) writing in a similar time period wrote, “In all probability, disappearance of piety toward the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all the virtues.”  Once piety towards the gods disappeared he said, “life soon become a welter of disorder and confusion.”

We could also compare these teachings with another that comes from about the same time:  the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   Jesus taught:

Christ the Wisdom of God

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  (Mark 7:21-23)

Christ places the source of evil as the human heart – not in society, nor in Satan, but in each human being.

If we had no other texts from the these religions to consider but what is mentioned above we might conclude that in Hinduism the antidote to evil is the adherence to traditional cultural norms:  it is adhering to traditional cultural values which will preserve society from evil.    In the Jewish text, there is also a call to faithfulness to tradition with a clear notion that false religion must be cast out in order to maintain the purity of society and its goodness.  In Christ, while there certainly is an appeal to Jewish tradition in terms of what is considered sinful and thus detrimental, He places the purification of society in the heart of each person.  It is through personal repentance of sins that evil is defeated.

This Square Peg Finds Its Place at Last

(I thought the end of the year an appropriate time to share this poem I penned.   It is all poetically true, and as we come to the last day of the year, it is apropos too.   Some think death too morbid a subject to ever be addressed, but as a priest I do funerals and so think about death.  Besides, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “All it takes to die is to be alive.”  Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet after being stabbed by a sword is asked if the wound is serious, he replies, “No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor as wide as a church door; ‘ Tis enough,’ twill serve.  Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” I guess if the Bard can poetically spar and parry with death while having a bit of fun with it, I can as well.   I had to memorize that Shakespearean line in 9th grade – 43 years ago – and finally decided to put it to use.  Mrs. Russell should be proud that her efforts to force us to memorize things has not been forgotten.)

This Square Peg Finds Its Place at Last

Through time across earth’s face

I sojourned to find that place

In which I might fit, but no.

It’s the last place I want to go.

A place for rest, not recreation

My final worldly destination.

Though in life I found no place on earth

Where I fit in since my time of birth.

There is a place to call my own

Wherein I’ll rest my weary bone.

That place some time ago was booked

Reserved but the date was yet overlooked.

The fees for the lot were gravely paid

As were the wages by the one they slayed.

In life my soul found no rest or peace in sin,

The end is where the square peg at last fits in.