As we have made it through one complete week of the New Year, we can consider our spiritual renewal – whether or not we made New Year’s resolutions, the beginning of a year is a good time to reflect on our spiritual life and commitment. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We Orthodox engage in evaluating our lives in the sacrament of confession, in our daily examination of conscience, in meditating upon the Scriptures and spiritual writings, in our liturgical services, in our talks with our Father confessors and with our fellow Christians.
Here is a meditation from St. Francis of Assisi on how virtue drives out vice. We might use this to combat both sins of commission and sins of omission.
“Where there is charity and wisdom
There is neither fear nor ignorance.
Where there is patience and humility,
There is neither anger nor disturbance.
Where there is poverty with joy,
There is neither covetousness nor avarice.
Where there is fear of the Lord to guard the house (cf. Lk 11:21),
“When we want to correct someone usefully and show him he is wrong, we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view, and we must admit this, but show him the point of view from which it is wrong. This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question.” (Blaise Pascal, in Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 39)
Robert Morris’s painting, Private Silence/ Public Violence, which I saw some years ago at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, is certainly timely. The many recent reports of sexual misconduct by famous people shows how people keeping silence enables public violations/ violence to take place. The #Me Too Moment has blossomed, rightfully disgracing some while empowering others. Pascal writing in the 17th Century points how change can take place – by showing people from what point of view their behavior is wrong.
One of the multitude said to Jesus, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But Jesus said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:13-15)
Wisdom is as an essential element of our Scriptures and Tradition as is any set of rules or rubrics that have been offered to the faithful. And yet, Wisdom is often given a secondary place in the pedagogy of the Church as many in leadership roles prefer to lay down the law of God rather than to wrestle with Wisdom. In the early Church they relied on the Book of Proverbs as a manual for instructing catechumens, to prepare them for baptism and living the life in Christ. To this day the Orthodox continue to read Proverbs during Great Lent as a source for wisdom in living in a fallen world.
Besides the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, there also emerged in the early centuries of the Church’s history the Wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers – not lives of the saints but wise sayings designed to make us think about how to live the Gospel. This wisdom literature is related to the parables that Jesus taught in which He did not give law, but rather offered instruction for all believers to ponder. The parables like the wisdom sayings often have a hidden, deeper meaning to them.
The following story from the desert fathers gives us a sense in which wisdom was understood to be different from the Law. Law involves a more black and white thinking while wisdom considers how and when to apply the law or when it is correct to vary it. For example, a stop sign is the law. But that stop sign can never tell the driver when to go – to take that action requires wisdom. In this story a monk wants to know what to do with an inheritance he has received. Perhaps he was trying to avoid deciding himself what to do so he wouldn’t make the wrong choice. He wants the monastery abbot to decide for him – not to give him a word, but give him a rule. Abba Poemen wants the monk to learn to live the Gospel himself. Poemen offers an answer to the monk in terms of wisdom: he tells the monk what to do by not telling him what to do.
A brother asked Abba Poemen: “A legacy has been left to me; what shall I do with it?” The elder said to him: “Go away and come in three days then I will tell you.” He came as he had directed him and the elder said to him: “What am I to say to you, brother? If I say to you: ‘Give it to a church,’ they will have banquets there; if I say: ‘Give it to your relative,’ there is no reward for you; but if I tell you: ‘Give it to the poor,’ you will have no worries. Do whatever you like; this is not my business.” (Give me a Word, p. 233)
Poemen shows the monk he has actually considered his request about the inheritance. Giving the money to the church is a good thing, but he realizes it will cause the church community to celebrate and waste some of the money by benefiting no one but themselves. He could simply give the money away to relatives and be free of it himself, a noble thing, but of no spiritual benefit to the monk. Or, the monk could give the money to the poor and not worry about it any more, though humanly speaking people might fear the poor wouldn’t use the money wisely. Any of the actions could be proper for a monk because the monk is freeing himself from the cares of wealth. Each possibility could be good and each has a downside. Poemen is telling the monk to free himself of the inheritance, but refuses to give the monk a rule about it. The monk is going to have to decide for himself how to fulfill the Gospel commands. There may not be just one right answer, only one choice pleasing to God. Poemen, however, refuses to burden himself with the inheritance!
A brother came to see Abba Poemen and while several of them were sitting round, he praised a brother for hating evil. Abba Poemen said to the one who had spoken, ‘What does it mean to hate evil?’ The brother was surprised and found nothing to say in reply. Getting up, he made a prostration before the old man, and said, ‘Tell me what hatred of evil is?’ The old man said to him, ‘Hatred of evil is to hate one’s thoughts and to praise one’s neighbor.
A brother went to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘What ought I to do?’ The old man said to him, ‘Go and join one who says “What do I want?” and you will have peace.’
Abba Joseph related that Abba Isaac said, ‘I was sitting with Abba Poemen one day and I saw him in ecstasy and I was on terms of great freedom of speech with him, I prostrated myself before him and begged him saying, “Tell me where you were.” He was forced to answer and he said, “My thought was with Saint Mary, the Mother of God, as she wept by the cross of the Savior. I wish I could always weep like that.”’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 187).
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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 comparing 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.
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!”
“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.”
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)