Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Wisdom! Let us be Attentive!

You’ll hear that exclamation from time to time during Byzantine liturgical services. It usually precedes the reading of holy Scripture, which is the wisdom of God in human words, and hence deserves our undivided attention. (It can also serve as a sort of wake-up call if you happen to be daydreaming during the service.) I think it was introduced rather early in the history of the Byzantine Churches, evidently because they really did have to call to order the sometimes unruly and boisterous congregations!

I wonder if we have sufficient regard for the wisdom that God has granted us in his word. We hear it so often in church, and maybe we even read it on our own (you do, don’t you?), so the stories and sayings may end up as the “white noise” of our spiritual life: always there somewhere in the background, but not something to which we pay a whole lot of attention. Our liturgy tries to get us to see how precious and holy is the word of the Lord. When the deacon says that we’re about to hear a reading of the holy Gospel, everyone sings: “Glory be to You, O Lord, glory be to You!” And we sing the same after the Gospel has been proclaimed. At Matins (when there happens to be a Gospel reading) there is actually a petition that precedes it, asking that we may be made worthy to hear the holy Gospel. Did you ever stop and think that you might be unworthy to hear the word of the Lord?

The wisdom that is the actual word of God is always available, even if it’s not given sufficient attention—but what seems to be a rarer gift these days is that which is an application of the word to daily life. Wisdom, after all, is not merely knowledge or understanding, or even revelation, but the way to put what is known into practice, in a manner that bears fruit for the kingdom of God. Here we do not speak of the wisdom that is mere philosophy, but the higher wisdom of which St Paul speaks, the wisdom of the Cross, the wisdom of the Spirit of God.

In today’s high-tech, instant-access-to-everything society, it seems that people are less interested in acquiring wisdom than they are in amassing information. There’s more “cash value” to the latter. Schools turn our fewer educated persons and more trained technicians. Information and technology can fuel a civilization, but only wisdom can keep culture alive.

Sometimes people ask me how I’d like them to pray for me (isn’t that nice?), or what it is I need. My answer is almost always the same: wisdom. If you have that, you have all you really need, because then you know how to live, how to see things, how to behave and to make decisions. You know how to deal with people and how to remain peaceful in tumultuous times and trying circumstances. You know yourself and you are disposed to hear the word of the Lord. You gain the prudence to avoid harmful excesses, and you acquire a taste for what is good, true, and beautiful.

Let us be attentive, for wisdom is still available to those who seek it. There are many hymns to the surpassing value of wisdom in some of the books of the Old Testament. Seek and you shall find. In this chaotic and unquiet age, it is most helpful—and even imperative—to acquire wisdom, the foundation of a life well-lived.