We had some readings from the Old Testament, which was written in Hebrew. Hebrew is a language which has masculine and feminine words in it. Most languages do; English is unusual in not having its nouns be feminine or masculine. The word ‘wisdom’ in Hebrew is a feminine word. In the ancient wisdom tradition, wisdom was personified as a woman. ‘She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her.’ In the Greek tradition she is called Sophia, and the Egyptian goddess for wisdom is Isis. In the Hebrew wisdom tradition, wisdom is not simply an adjective to describe humanity, it is a force which has existed from the beginning of time, ‘By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations.’ It is always present, always waiting to be tapped into.
Today we might talk about someone being smart, and by that we may mean that they went to a good school, or they got an impressive degree, or they got a high score on something like an IQ test, but these are all very narrow definitions of intelligence. Intelligence, or wisdom, has much more to do with one’s openness, one’s readiness to grow, one’s willingness to question. The fool, in Old Testament speak, is the person who is not hungry for knowledge, the person who is frustrated when corrected, the person who doesn’t want more. This message today is more important than ever. Our schooling system at the moment is obsessed with tests in a really unhealthy way. So many today are brainwashed into believing that self-worth hinges upon getting good grades, and passing exams. It is all contributing to levels of stress that no child should have to deal with. In the wisdom tradition there is no black and white, no simple duality - it’s all mixed together. Proverbs 14 verse 13 reads, ‘Even in laughter the heart may ache, and rejoicing may end in grief’. This is of course how we all experience the world; we simultaneously carry with us great joys, and our sorrows, our angers, our battles, we have within us great pains which never go away, and we carry wounds as just a normal part of life. We carry the weight of the week we have had, and the expectation of the week to come. Contradiction and paradox are all part of the human experience. We carry it all with us, all the time. Even in laughter the heart may ache, and rejoicing may end in grief.
In the wisdom tradition then the first step is to listen to your heart, to be honest with yourself, to acknowledge all that complexity within ourselves. All those joys stacked upon griefs, that pain in your soul hard up against the delight you find in another’s pleasure. And what of the other that gets under our skin, the grief they cause us? Well it probably says more about us than them. Take the story we started with - the young monk is angry at his elder: How could he carry that woman? The elder has long let it go, but for the young monk it burns and grates within him. If the other brings out anger within us, it may be because there is something unexamined within our own hearts. The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?” The wisdom tradition is about listening to your own heart, being honest about everything which flows forth from your heart, your center, good or bad, all the paradoxes of the self, and resisting that incredibly damaging temptation to deny the reality of yourself, to deny even the very fabric of what makes you you. That incredibly damaging temptation to even hope you were someone else entirely. That is such a destructive line of thinking.
Take the story about the mystic. He has achieved some great feat. We are told it is a feat of mysticism, but it could be anything really, some great insight, some profound idea, some deep spiritual awakening. He is entirely honest, he explains his mundane past which got him to where he is now, and others want to deny it. Why? Because if they accepted this great feat has come from a man with as humble a background as he, then it would require them to acknowledge their own capability, their own power, and potential. Being true to yourself may rock the boat of others. It may require us to cofound others’ expectations. Being true to your own heart can be very trying; it can come at a great cost.
So, we possess a power, a finite amount of energy. The wisdom tradition has a lot of don’ts in it – don’t withhold good, don’t do harm. But really this is all to do with this energy we all possess. Don’t squander it. Don’t put your energies into the bad, when you should be putting them into the good. If you have no cause, no calling, no vocation, then will you simply bleed others dry, suck energy out of the world? Don’t withhold your energy from the good; it can be released to such positive ends. What is Wisdom then? It is to listen to the heart. To become attuned to the paradoxes within, and attuned to the energy we have. To use that energy well, that is wisdom. The fool burns up their energy in a haphazard, unconsidered, fruitless way, chops at trees with blunt axes. How we spend our energy is so important. Find a cause, a calling, and don’t bleed out your energies on the worthless, as the complainers do, as the criticizers do, as the nit pickers do. But grow in wisdom, grow in your ability to spend your energies well. In the wisdom tradition the goal in not a capital T truth, it’s not intellectual correctness, it’s not high grades, or passing the 11+, it’s about right relationship with yourself and with others. Spending your energies well.
Spending energies well has a lot to do with training yourself to say ‘no’ well. It is easy to fill time with busyness, it’s far more challenging to fill your time with being fruitful. Wisdom is about discerning your vocation, your direction, your way, and then honing your energy spending ability to further that way, that cause. It’s so easy to be swept up into black holes of time and energy which go nowhere and achieve nothing. So it’s about discerning your vocation, your way, and it is your way, your calling. Being true to yourself may rock the boat of others, it may be a way impossible for others to even grasp. And if it’s new, then it will baffle and confound, it will be met with resistance. Resistance can be a good indicator that you’re doing something right. So we need to find the greater thing. Don’t lose your precious energy to cheap words, or meaningless battles, or time consuming fruitless enterprises, but find the greater thing.
What’s trying to distract your energy? Stop. Be still. And ask what’s the greater thing. What are the burning and grating thoughts in your head, that you obsess over, that go around and around? Stop. Be still. And ask what’s the greater thing. Running in a hamster wheel, chopping wood with a blunt axe, keeping a sinking ship above the water. Stop. Be still. And ask what’s the greater thing.
Stop. Be still. And ask what’s the greater thing.