Who is the wisest person you know? Not an easy question to answer. But I suspect it is not the most educated person you know. Although a good education helps us to avoid some of the pitfalls of folly and foolishness. Perhaps it is not even the smartest or cleverest person you know. And of course we dont have to be well schooled to have street smarts. But thats not necessarily wisdom. While I may like to think that the richest people I know were wise enough to get all their wealth, thats probably not so. And even the oldest person may not be the wisest. We know there are a fair gaggle of old fools around. As I quoted from the poem by Robert Fulghum last week, "Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday school."
T.S. Eliots oft-quoted lines from his poem The Rock, "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" helps us see that knowledge, facts and information and wisdom are not all the same thing. The ancient book of Proverbs says the same.
So who is the wisest person you know? I dont think it is going to be just one person, but rather the kind of person or people who have a way of being in the world that is broader, deeper, richer, simpler and more engaging that we often meet in our daily life. But to have a true encounter with wisdom, with the wise person, what is most often necessary is a relationship with that person.
My grandmother was the wisest person I knew. Maybe it helped that I was 12 years of age, but the conversations we had around the kitchen table were the equivalent of discussing Platos Apology, or David Humes Treaties on Human Nature, well not quite, but it was that everyday kitchen-table wisdom which talked about life and living and all its proclivities that gave me an appreciation that wisdom comes from a life well lived.
I think wisdom is often the way we act rather than just what we say. Some may remember this story which was a part of a sermon told by Rev Margaret Russell when she and her husband spoke here at TUC:
His name was Bill. He was in his early twenties and had wild hair, and wore a T-shirt with holes in it, blue jeans, and no shoes. This was literally his wardrobe for his entire time at college. He was a very, bright young man, and became a Christian while attending college.
Across the street from the campus was a church with a well-dressed, very conservative congregation. One Sunday, Bill decided to go that church to worship. He walked in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair.
The service had already begun and Bill started down the aisle looking for a seat. The church was completely packed and he couldn't find a place to sit. People began to look a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Bill got closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized there were no seats, he just squatted down right on the carpet. By then the people were really uncomfortable, and the tension in the air was thick.
About that time, the minister realised that from the back of the church, an elder was slowly making his way toward Bill. Now the elder was in his eighties and he had silver-grey hair, and was wearing a business suit. He was a deeply committed man to God and to the church. He walked with a cane.
As he started walking toward this young man, everyone was saying to themselves that you can't blame him for what he was going to do. How could you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand that sitting on the floor in church just isnt appropriate.
It took a long time for the man to reach the front of the church. The church was silent except for the clicking of the man's cane. All eyes were focused on him. You couldn't even hear anyone breathing. The minister couldn't begin the sermon until the elder did what he had to do. And then they saw this elderly man drop his cane to the floor. With great difficulty, the old man lowered himself and sat down next to Bill on the floor so that Bill wouldn't be alone.
Everyone was choked up with emotion. When the minister gained control, he said, "What I'm about to preach - you will never remember. What you have just seen - you will never forget. Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some people will ever get read."
Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars. She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servants, and she calls from the highest point of the city, "Let all who are simple come to my house! To those who have no sense she says, "Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight."
Its no accident that the personification of wisdom in the book of Proverbs is female or feminine. She has built her house; she is precious above jewels: Lady Wisdom is seen as something to be attained, the highest of all virtues. Interestingly and paradoxically, in the book of Proverbs folly or foolishness is also personified as female. It seems as if Proverbs, unlike any other book in the Bible, pictures life through the experience of the feminine.
Wisdom is the ability to see the whole picture and not be locked into the minutiae or the mere present moment of living. My young brother got into some trouble with the police in his early teens, something that would never have happened to me! My grandmother said, "Oh well, hes still young enough to learn from his mistakes." She always saw the bigger picture of life. I think thats why the book of Proverbs makes the point that, and Ill use the traditional language, "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding."
Of course it is not the knowing about God, as if God were an object we can know like all other objects; it is the relationship with the ground of our being and being in communion with that which holds and sustains everything. The word 'fear' is a problem for us in the 21st century: it carries such a negative sense. But it is that experience of being overwhelmed by something that is beyond imagination and comprehension. The word awe or respect is sometimes used, but they dont convey the depth or the power of fearfulness.
The religious group that preceded the Quakers were called the Shakers or the Quaking Shakers. When the presence of God came upon them it was so powerful, so fearful, that they would begin to shake, hence their name. The pathway toward wisdom does not begin just with study and knowledge, it begins with an encounter with the presence of God, the holy, the divine and the sacred. That which is beyond my present experience. And from that beginning a life of wisdom grows.
There is no textbook on how to live a wise and worthwhile life. There is much wisdom in the Bible and in other ancient books. But real wisdom comes from the living and the learning of everyday life. But there is one truth about wisdom that is essential: its value is in being completely committed to it. In Proverbs chapter four it is said, "Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding." Though it costs all you have
And later in Proverbs chapter four:
Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or turn away from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.
So how do we get wisdom and not just be satisfied with good knowledge and information about things? Where can we find the wise words to live by? Let me suggest what my 60 years of often unwise living have given me. This is I suppose a kind of creed that I live by
.or rather that I seek to live by. And most importantly it changes from week to week:
"Wisdom has built her house Leave your foolish ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight."