Front Row With Francis: What is Wisdom?

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the GospelContinuing with his back to basics approach to catechesis, the Holy Father used this week’s general audience to begin a new series of reflections, this time on the gifts of the Spirit. When you ask people what the gifts of the Spirit are, you frequently hear such things as speaking in tongues, prophesy, healing, etc. This is a sign of just how corrupted Christianity has become, placing trust in external things. Instead, we should rightly understand the gifts to be wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of God. This week the Pope focused on wisdom.

What is wisdom? Going again by the definition of the masses, a wise man is highly intelligent, well read, college-educated, etc. These are all great things to have, but they aren’t wisdom. Francis gives a simple definition of wisdom: “it is the grace of being able to see everything with the eyes of God.” Due to the reality of sin in this world (in the individual and communal sense), man does not see as God sees. (Is 55:8)

If we are unable to grasp wisdom ourselves, how are we to grasp it? The Bible presents two ways of obtaining wisdom from God: through the analogies of a family, and of a spouse. Francis spends time speaking about both. He speaks of the mother who, instead of scolding her children, carefully corrects and explains the truth to them. That is one aspect of God’s relationship to us. In the Old Testament, one of the ways God relates to Israel is that of a loving chastising parent. He never gives them what they truly deserve (damnation), but only punishes them as much as is required to get them to change their heart. (Jeremiah 30:11, Hebrews 12:6-10)

With the marital example, Francis speaks of married couples who let go of their anger, and enter into communion with each other through peace. When I was in marriage preparation classes, the parish priest constantly returned to this aspect of peace. He told us that no matter what we did, we had to make sure the peace of our relationship was paramount. If there is something you want to do that could disturb that peace, you had to let go of your selfishness. Is this the way God acts? The Old Testament is filled with examples of man deserving punishment, but God desiring mercy and peace, not judgment. (Ezekiel 18:23-32)

Another example that the Holy Father could have mentioned is what we call the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament: the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, the Psalms, and the Songs of Solomon. In all of these books, the spousal analogy of wisdom is given, especially in the book of Proverbs.

In the Proverbs, wisdom is never painted as some simple abstraction or a synonym for intelligence. Instead, wisdom is presented as a female who calls the reader to deep union. Wisdom is opposed to the foreign “woman” who likewise calls man to union, but a union which leads to ruin. (It helps to remember that the original recipients of these proverbs were male dignitaries sent to foreign courts.) Wisdom is presented as a person, yet not just any person. For when the world was created, Wisdom was there. (Proverbs 8:22-30) Therefore, it is safe to assume that Wisdom is not just any regular person; it is the Holy Spirit, who was with the Father and the Logos at the creation of the world. (John 1)

Francis hints at precisely this understanding when he states the following about wisdom:

Obviously this gift comes from intimacy with God. For our intimate relationship with God. From our relationship as children with a Father. And the Holy Spirit – when we have this relationship – gives us the gift of wisdom. When we are in communion with the Lord , it is as if the Spirit transfigures our heart and helps it to perceive all his warmth and predilection…. We have the Holy Spirit in our hearts we can listen to him or not. If we listen to him he teaches us this path of wisdom, he gifts us wisdom which is seeing with God’s eyes, listening with God’s ears, loving with God’s heart, judging things with Gods’ judgment.

When we have wisdom, we do more than just become smarter. We begin to (slowly and imperfectly!) take on the attributes of God. While the Pope may use the word “transfigured”, another way to understand this is that wisdom conforms us to the image of the Son. (Romans 8) As we grow in holiness, we become more and more like God. That is the entire purpose of Christianity, to become like God. (The extremely important subject of divinization is a subject for another time.) We see this concept at work in human marriages. When marriages are evidence of a deep communion, spouses see things the same way, judge things the same way, etc. It is part of the dynamic of two people becoming one, where they maintain their own identities, but become conformed to each other. As we grow in prayer and openness to wisdom, we maintain our individuality, but it becomes conformed to God.

When looked at from this perspective, we can see why Francis says it is so important for Christian communities to be packed with those who have wisdom. If we lack the gift of wisdom, we lack the gift of Christ.

Kevin Tierney is an Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane.  He also blogs at http://commmonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com.  You may contact him on Facebook, Google+  or follow him on Twitter @CatholicSmark.