A Message from Prioress Sister Mary Forman

This spring season we ponder wisdom. Wisdom has a long history in ancient cultures. In the Egyptian and Akkadian cultures, maxims of wisdom were intended for youth to learn from their elders and develop basic virtues to live in society. In the First Testament, wisdom, drawing on ancient maxims, is associated with sayings regarding conduct and observations on how to deal with problems in life. “Wisdom is gained by counsel and instruction…[and] comes from association with the wise.” Ultimately wisdom is a gift of God intended to understand the deeds of God.

Wisdom, as taught in the Christian scriptures, is the summit of all discernment. In I Corinthians 2:6-16, Paul contrasts the bankruptcy of merely human wisdom with the wisdom God has prepared for those who love God. This wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit, “who alone searches the depths of God” and who helps us “recognize the gifts God has given us” (I Cor 2:12). The spiritual person takes on “the mind of Christ” (I Cor 2:16) and so is able to “appraise everything” (I Cor 2:15). Discernment of spirits is one of the gifts God bestows on different individuals for the sake of the common good (I Cor 12:10). In addition, wisdom is mentioned as the way to know God’s will: “we have been praying for you unceasingly and asking that you may attain full knowledge of [God’s] will through perfect wisdom and spiritual insight” (Col 1:9). In Ephesians 1:9, the apostle thanks God because [God] “has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery, the plan [God] was pleased to decree in Christ.”

In the Rule of Benedict, the monastic leader and the deans are chosen for their positions because of the merit of their lives and their teaching of wisdom (RB 21.4, 64.2). This expression, the “teaching of wisdom” is taken directly from Augustine, who uses the term as a metaphor for contemplation; for him, “wisdom is the highest point of contemplation, the most perfect form of love.” Since biblical wisdom is so intimately connected with discerning God’s will, the choice of monastic leader and other officials ought to reflect a capacity to be in touch with God’s will and to manifest that will in their service and love of the community.

As a young sister, I often had difficulties in understanding some of the elder sisters for whom I cared in the Infirmary. One of the elders who assisted in elder care was Sister Annunciata, lovingly called “Nuncie.” One day after a misunderstanding with one of the older sisters, Nuncie noticed my distress and then said, “Sister Mary, you can learn from every sister in this community. Some will teach you that you can become a bitter, old lady; some will teach you that you can become a gracious woman of God. You choose.” That day Nuncie became a wise elder for me, by speaking honestly and clearly about what it means to be a sister. 

A memory that stays with me from my early years in community is the “wisdom” meditation and experience, to which our prioress invited us. Several years ago she gathered us together at a house meeting 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 that attribute 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. 7.22For 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, that is, as a member of the community. In the biblical tradition a “person” 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.

To this day, I never hear this reading from Wisdom 7:22-23 without recalling that experience of prayer in my community. On my good days, that is, on days when I am attentive and alert, I watch for the gifts of wisdom in my sisters. Unfortunately, there are days when I am more aware of my own folly and that of others; yet folly, too, has its lessons to teach us, for we have an opportunity to be humane and compassionate toward what is not yet wise in us.

I invite you, should you choose, to ponder the words of Wisdom 7:7, 22-23, and, in turn, to ask the Spirit of God to grant you that attribute of wisdom God most desires you to live and manifest in your interactions with others. In addition, because gifts continue to grow, like trees in an orchard, you may continue to ask the Holy Spirit to teach you how to be that gift and where it is most needed. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs 3:18 as a tree, as follows: “She is a tree of life to those who grasp her and [one] is happy who holds her fast” [NAB].