by Prioress Sister Mary Forman
We continue our series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11:2-3 with the first gift — wisdom, which we will distinguish from knowledge, another spiritual gift. We begin with knowledge, which “in Hebrew… is to experience,” where to “‘know’ is equivalent to …’feel’” or to possess as in the sexual knowledge of one’s spouse (Gen 4:1). Knowledge in the Bible can also mean to be skilled, as in the wise are “experienced in the art of living.” In the Christian scriptures, to know means “to be willing to recognize, to accept” matters like commands by obeying them (Lk 19:12), “to accept the will of God” (Rom 2:18), “to know the grace of God or Jesus Christ” (Col 1:6) “and to acknowledge it (Gal 2:9).” All these notions are not so much the philosophical understanding of knowledge, that is, “an intellectual apprehension of reality”.4 In the Gospel of John “knowledge and love grow together,” where “the two naturally enrich each other,” such that knowledge is associated “with vision (Jn 14:7-9), emphasizing its experiential quality”. Thus, biblical knowledge is heart knowledge more than it is head knowledge because the heart is the center of the person’s psychic, intellectual and moral life.
Now we turn to wisdom, a vital reality of the spiritual life. Fundamentally, wisdom — sophia in Greek and sapientia in Latin from sapere, meaning “to taste, to savor” — is a universal reality, going beyond the boundaries of culture, religion and historical periods. In its beginnings, wisdom was international in character and enjoyed a wide exchange in wise sayings across the pluriform cultures of the ancient world. It was thought in ancient cultures “that wisdom could be learned only by instruction; it was the collective sum of experience, and the young…learned it by docile attention to …elders or not at all.” Many times the wisdom of the sages was written down in dialogue form: for example, a person’s dialogue with one’s soul, or the dialogue between master and disciple, as exemplified by the apophthegmata of the desert tradition, or even Benedict’s prologue, of which we only have the master’s advice, with the disciple’s question: “How may I be saved?” being implied. A third example of dialogue is that of the personification of a human quality, like the dialogue of human misery shown in Job.
The element, which the Israelites added to the understanding of wisdom from the many cultures around them, was that of faith in Yahweh, who alone was considered truly wise. God’s wisdom is exhibited in creation (according to Job 38-39). Moreover, divine wisdom consists of knowledge of how to do things and of the knowledge lying behind creation;9 and it appears “personified as a woman, born of God before all ages and active with God in the work of creation (Prov 8:22- 30).” “Wisdom is also personified as a woman who gives instruction (Pr 8:1-21) and as the heavenly being who descends to dwell in Israel.”
Although wisdom can be learned, ultimately it is a gift of the Holy One (Pr 2:6). “The beginning or essence of wisdom is the fear, or rather, awe of Yahweh, without which there is no true wisdom (Pr 1:7, 9:10; Job 28:28)….The peak of wisdom therefore is understanding of the deeds of Yahweh, especially [God’s] judgments (Je 9:11; Ho 14:10).” Most of the wisdom literature of the Jewish scriptures is concerned with the problems of the individual person and draws attention to the daily life of one who seeks unity and integrity to one’s life, while avoiding “the disintegration of folly.” Many wisdom sayings pose wisdom as opposite to folly, in the form of the “Two Ways.”
In the Gospels, Jesus is “the wisdom of God” (Luke 11:49; 1 Cor 1:24) “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3) and who is portrayed as “the authoritative teacher of wisdom.” In the epistles, God alone has true wisdom, which is too deep for [hu]man[s] to search out (Rm 11:33; 16:27) and is manifold (Eph 3:10). Ultimately for Paul, true Christian wisdom is Christ–Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:18, 22; 2:2), the wisdom of God considered by the world to be folly (1 Cor 1:24). Therefore, the wisdom of God in Christ is revelation, unattainable by human searching; it is a hidden wisdom with a secret purpose- -the salvation of humankind, and made known by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:7-10).
Several years ago the prioress of my community at the house meeting one night gathered us together to pray for wisdom. She invited us to listen to the words attributed to Solomon and while we listened we were to allow our hearts to be moved to request one of the gifts of wisdom. She then invited us to ask God for thatattribute of wisdom, which God particularly desired each of us to receive. She prayed as follows:
7.7Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. 7.22 For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, 23beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent and pure and most subtle. [RSV Wisdom 7:7, 7:22-23]
After she read this passage from Wisdom and we each prayed for that gift of wisdom we felt God desired to bestow on us, she invited us to hold the memory of this prayer in our hearts for a month at least. We were not to tell anyone else what we had prayed for, but to proclaim the gift by how we lived our lives, in mindfulness of what we had been granted. In other words, we were to share the gift by our deeds and by our asking the Spirit to guide the unfolding of the gift. The gift was given to each one, not as an individual, but as a person. In the biblical tradition a “person” (in Hebrew nephesh) is a network of relationships, of connections, of delicate interactional dynamics with others. It was to be in the living of the gift that we would come to identify wisdom in our midst.
I invite you to pray over this passage and ask the Holy Spirit to visit you with an aspect of this gift of wisdom, which the Divine One desires you to receive and to experience its unfolding in your life.
John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc./London: Collier Macmillan Pub- lishers, 1965) s.v. “Know, Knowledge,” 485.
Most of the following is taken from a conference, “Find- ing God by Listening,” given at St. Gertrude’s L.I.V.E., September 14, 2020.
M. Basil Pennington, “Wisdom,” p. 1042, in The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, ed. Michael Downey (Colleg- eville, MN: A Michael Glazier Book/The Liturgical Press, 1993).