Mary Forman

by Prioress Sister Mary Forman

During the Christmas season we hear the titles for the Messiah, whose coming to save all peoples, were outlined in Isaiah 9:5-6a: “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful,” [NAB]. Christ is known as Wonder-Counselor, that is, he will exhibit “remarkable… wisdom and prudence.” 1

Several passages in the First and Second Testaments and speak to the counsel of God. For example Job 12:12-13, 20 speaks of the distinction between the wisdom of elders vis-à-vis that of God: “So with old age is wisdom, and with length of days understanding. With [God] are wisdom and might…counsel and understanding. …[God] silences the trusted adviser, takes discretion from the elders.” Job learned the hard way, after experiencing much adversity and loss, that he was incapable of grasping God’s purposes when, at the end of his crying out to God for an explanation for his suffering, he admits: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. ‘Who is this who obscures counsel with ignorance?’ I have spoken but did not understand; things too marvelous for me, which I did not know” [Job 42: 2-3, NAB]. Job had to learn that while he and his three friends had some degree of wisdom and knowledge, only God had the power to act according to divine wisdom and purpose, neither of which Job had the capacity to grasp because he (Job) was not God. Thus the counsel of God is not graspable by human understanding alone, without the grace of God to enlighten one. 

The psalmist reinforces this awareness, “With your counsel you guide me, and at the end receive me with honor” [Ps 73:24, NAB]; and again, “I will instruct you and show you the way you should walk, give you counsel with my eye upon you” [Ps 32:8, NAB]. Proverbs 2:6-7 reinforces the promise of God: “For the LORD gives wisdom, from [whose] mouth come knowledge and understanding; [the Lord] has success in store for the upright, is the shield of those who walk honestly” [Prov 2:6-7, NAB]. This wisdom (counsel) is something humans grow into, according to Proverbs 19:20: “ Listen to counsel and receive instruction, that you may eventually become wise” [NAB].

In the New Testament, the letter to the Ephesians states: “In God, according to the purpose of the one who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of [God’s] will, we who first hope in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of [God’s] glory” [Ephesians 1:11-12, RSV].

How does one prepare for receptivity to this wisdom/counsel of God? In a Benedictine community, living under the Rule of Benedict, chapter 3, “Summoning the Members for Counsel,” contains the greatest frequency of the word concilium, which can variously be translated as counsel, advice, judgment, consideration, and a gathering for consultation. The leader of the monastery in discerning important matters of the community does so with the counsel of the members [RB 3:2a]. Then the leader weighs the advice [RB 3.2b], in order to choose the best course of action. Benedict supplies a reason for seeking the counsel of all, because “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger” (in rank or age, often the newest member), based on Matthew 11:25, 27, where the Lord reveals to little ones the mysteries of the kingdom. One notes that it is the Lord, source of wisdom, who makes known the better course, sometimes through the least likely member, at least according to human views.

Several warnings in RB 3 guard against all presumption that one’s own opinion is best. No one is to presume to defend one’s views obstinately [RB 3.4]; all are to follow the rule [RB 3.7a] and not deviate from it [RB 3.7b]; no one is to follow one’s own will [RB 3.8] nor presume to contend with the leader defiantly [RB 3.9]. Presumption, along with murmuring (complaining), for Benedict is a key manifestation of arrogance, the opposite of humility. Even the leader must “do all things” realizing s/he “will have to render an account for all…judgments to God” [RB 3.11], even as s/he must follow the rule in all things [RB 3.7a].

Less important matters are discerned and decided based on “the counsel of the seniors,” often understood as the Council and/or leadership team and other consultative bodies in the community. Benedict closes chapter 3 with the words of Sirach 32:24: “Do all things with counsel and you will not repent after it is done” [RB 3.13]. Thus the process of consultation/advice-seeking/weighed consideration is one based on biblical directives and divine guidance.

So, what might such a process say to us in our families, work situations and social interactions? How one seeks and receives the wisdom of others requires a keen listening to the voice of God speaking in oneself and in others and, not infrequently, through the least expected members of the group, in society or workplace environment. Receiving the counsel, in order to weigh the better (or best) option requires discernment, an ability to lay the matter before God, whose Spirit can reveal the potential consequences of the choices before one. Discernment may take time, timing and trust to detect if a potential decision is of God or not, which, in turn may require more consultation and prayerful reflection.

When I was a new candidate in the monastery, I was excited to be included in the Chapter meeting of the sisters. I had not yet been told to wait to express my opinion on the matter under discussion, so I eagerly raised my hand and shared what I thought was the “right” way to look at the matter. Receiving no response, I again raised my hand and reiterated my opinion. Then an older Sister said to me, “Candidate Mary, we heard you the first time. It’s time to hear what others have to say.” It was then that I began to learn that listening is more important than defending one’s opinion on a matter and not to presume that others had not heard me. Over the years I have been learning to recognize that one’s idea(s) can be reframed by others in the room, in a way that is acceptable to the group or left aside because of the discerned listening in the community of those seeking the counsel of God together.  

1 FN Is. 9:5 to NAB (1970: St. Joseph Edition).