Wisdom 6:12–16; II Thessalonians 4:13–18; Matthew 25:1–13
Terry Pratchett, a popular science fiction writer, once wrote, “Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.” And that, my friends, encapsulates my life as a young adult. Like many people in that age range, I made some poor choices, and they led me to search for the truth. That search eventually led me to where I’m standing today.
I sometimes think about the wend and wind of the path I’ve taken and wish that perhaps I’d made other decisions. But most certainly, they would’ve led me to a different place. Wisdom is that gift that allows me to see the blessings that can come even through bad decisions. In fact, wisdom helps me to discern that some decisions that seemed bad were simply just shots in the dark made in faith and that led me to a place of peace.
Now, as Terry Pratchett wrote, wisdom can come from personal experience, but wisdom can also be simply a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us without the need of painful experience to drive the lesson home. Wisdom is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, considered the greatest of the gifts of the Holy Spirit by St. Bernard because it acts upon both will and intellect. St. Thomas wrote that wisdom corresponds to and perfects the virtue of charity. King Solomon prayed for such wisdom, when the Lord asked him what he desired: “Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?” Instead of asking for wealth or power, Solomon prayed for wisdom. And so the Lord rewarded him with all three.
Solomon was renowned for his wisdom, and several of what we call the “wisdom books” are attributed to him: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Solomon, from which we get our first reading today.
I love the book of Wisdom. It’s one of the seven books that we Catholics and our Orthodox brethren share, and one of the reasons why the scripture that Protestants use is missing essential aspects of doctrine that the Church has always proclaimed. But that aside, these books reveal a lot about Hellenistic Jewish culture and the context that gave rise to both rabbinical Judaism and early Christianity. This book in particular focuses on the importance of seeking wisdom, of being watchful and waiting for wisdom. From the narrator’s perspective, obtaining wisdom is simply a matter of seeking it: “She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire, whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed, for he shall find her sitting by the gate.”
Does that passage evoke the Holy Huh? for you? You might recall I mentioned the holy “huh?” a few weeks ago. It’s when you read something in scripture and are struck, not by its profundity, but by its oddity. I think this passage qualifies, and here’s why.
We pray for wisdom. We suffer to gain wisdom. We learn wisdom through painful experience. How is it, then, that wisdom is sitting by the gate, right there in plain sight? How does this wisdom make herself known in anticipation of our desire if we have such a hard time knowing her?
How is it that we who supposedly want to be wise can’t see her who wants to be found? If wisdom wants to be found, why do so few of us find her? Or as some people like to phrase it, why is common sense—another word for wisdom, perhaps—so uncommon?
Since I’m hurling clichés left and right today, I’ll suggest that the reason is as plain as the nose on our face. We can’t really see our own motivations unless we engage in some self-reflection, just as we can’t truly see our noses unless we look into a mirror. The problem isn’t that the lessons of wisdom aren’t readily apparent. They’re right there, standing at the gate, waiting to be seen. You can often look at the train wreck of a person’s life and see exactly why they wound up there. The only one oblivious is the one who sits behind the nose and can’t see what’s plainly before his face. If we take no time to look into a mirror at our circumstances and our own complicity in creating them, we will never see wisdom at our gates offering an alternative. Apparently, common sense is uncommon enough.
In the gospel reading, five of the ten virgins don’t have the sense to stock up on enough oil to get them through the night. The five unwise virgins want the wise virgins to get them out of their fix. They could’ve prepared ahead of time, but when their lack of preparedness comes back to haunt them, they expect to get bailed out. They don’t expect to face the consequences of their poor planning.
Many of us live the same way, particularly in matters of faith. We chase after what the world calls wise, what the world values: wealth, acclaim, power. These may prepare us well for a life of ease, but they are no preparation for what follows: death, judgment, Heaven, or Hell. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.” We admire people who possess these material goods, but what good are they if they don’t lead us closer to the truth? If they don’t lead us to the greatest good, which is God? If this is the world’s wisdom, let us become God’s fools, as Paul says again.
And certainly what is wisdom in God seems foolish to the world. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are you when they persecute and curse you in my name. You must die to yourself to truly live. If you wish to be my disciple, you must pick up your cross. Don’t seek the riches of this world, pick up your cross. Don’t strive after what satisfies for only a day, pick up your cross. Don’t chase after that new car, that next promotion, that six-figure income, the big house. Pick up your cross.
That’s the wisdom of God, and it looks like foolishness in the eyes of the world. But what else would we expect from a king who came to us as an infant born in a stable? From a savior who died a shameful death on a cross? From a high priest who gives Himself to us as our food and drink? He came as a sign of contradiction, and still today stands all worldly wisdom on its head. It is that wisdom that saves us now.
I read an interesting story about Fr. Thomas Sherman, a Jesuit priest, the son of General William Tecumseh Sherman, and friend of none other than Fr. Peter DeSmet, an important figure in Idaho’s history. During his time in seminary, he wrote to his sister and said, “What a grand thing it is to be, as it were, shooting straight at one’s mark, living every hour, performing every action in preparation for the great hereafter.” That is the essence of wisdom: performing every action in preparation for the hereafter. Like the five wise virgins waiting for the bridegroom, we need to be prepared.
How do we prepare? As I mentioned earlier, wisdom corresponds to the virtue of charity, so our greatest preparation is in acts of love: love of God and love of our neighbor. In the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding and clothing the poor, praying for the dead, instructing the ignorant, visiting the sick. Volunteer at Corpus Christi House or Interfaith Sanctuary. Help at the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen. Wisdom has taught me that true joy does not come to me when I store up treasures for myself, but when I give myself to others.
Wisdom stands at the gate, but we have to open the gate and let her in.