Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wisdom's Wisdom

The first reading in the Daily Office last week and this week has been from the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon. It's one of the so-called apocrypha = hidden things, defined in the "Outline of the Faith" of the Book of Common Prayer [p. 853] as "a collection of additional books written by people of the Old Covenant, and used in the Christian Church.

These books, also referred to as deuterocanonical books, are works included in the Septuagint, or ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures with additions, or in the Old Latin and Vulgate translations. They are not, however, included in the Hebrew text which constitutes both the canon for Judaism and the Protestant Old Testament. Article VI of the Articles of Religion describes the apocrypha as "...the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth not apply them to establish any doctrine..." John Cosin (1594-1672), English churchman, native of Norwich, England, and bishop of Durham from 1660 until his death in London in 1672, commented on the apocrypha in his A Scholastical History of the Canon of the Holy Scriptures, saying: "...That they who first put these Deutero-canonical or Ecclesiastical books into the volume of the Bible, did not thereby intend to make them equal to the Books of Moses and the Prophets, but only to recommend them unto the private and public reading of the Church, both for the many excellent precepts and examples of life that be in them, and for the better knowledge of the history and estate of God's people from the time of the Prophets to the coming of Christ..." (Chap. XIX)   Cosin, incidentally, also played a prominent part, at the convocation in 1661, in the revision of the Prayer Book, and tried with some success to bring both prayers and rubrics into better agreement with ancient liturgies. He administered the Diocese of Durham successfully for 11 years, using a large share of his revenues to further the Church's interests, and to establish schools and charitable institutions.

Getting back to the Book of Wisdom, it's been particularly interesting reflecting on the passages in light of both the international and American religious, social and cultural background of late. "Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth...wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul...the sound of grumbling does not go unheard. Beware then of useless grumbling, and keep your tongue from slander; because no secret word is without result...Do not...bring on destruction by the works of your hands...the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them..."

Wisdom exposes the false values and twisted thinking of people who are in it for their own greed and gain, with little or no thought to the efficient and peaceful functioning of society, and the common good of all. "For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves...'Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist...Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes...Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this is our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless'..."

The high cost of such mean spiritedness and irresponsibility is hinted at by Wisdom, when, in the end, reality becomes apparent and clear: "The righteous who have died will condemn the ungodly who are living, and youth that is quickly perfected will condemn the prolonged old age of the unrighteous. For [the unrighteous] will see the end of the wise, and will not understand...they will be left utterly dry and barren...their lawless deeds will convict them to their face...they will be shaken with dreadful anguish of spirit they will groan, and say, 'These are persons whom we once held in derision and made a byword of reproach -- fools that we were! was we who strayed from the way of truth...We took our fill of the paths of lawlessness and destruction...What has our arrogance profited us? And what good has our boasted wealth brought us?...So soon as we were born, ceased to be, and we had no sign of virtue to show, but were consumed in our wickedness..."

The writer of the Book of Wisdom seems to have attained an understanding of how things really are: "I also am mortal, like everyone else...when I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; my first sound was a cry, as is true of all...For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out. Therefore I pray, and understanding was given me;...the spirit of wisdom came to me. I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her...all gold is but a little sand in her sight...I loved her more than health or beauty...I learned without guile and I impart without grudging...for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals..."

In magnificent poetry, the author continues to extol Wisdom, noting the features which draw one to It: "Wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me..." He characterizes Wisdom as the source of intelligence, holiness, uniqueness, clarity, invulnerability, goodness, beneficence, humanity, steadfastness, certainty, freedom from anxiety, and true power. Wisdom, he says, is "more mobile than any motion...she pervades and penetrates all things...nothing defiled gains entrance into her...she renews all things...against wisdom evil does not prevail...she orders all things well.

On a spiritual level, Wisdom is "the breath of the power of God...a spotless mirror of the working of image of God's goodness...God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom..." Nevertheless, human beings seem to keep misreading the signs which are all about them. "For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. Yet these people...perhaps go astray while seeking God and desiring to find God...For while they live among God's works, they keep searching, and they trust in what they see..." Idolatry becomes "the beginning and cause and end of every evil...", resulting in lying, living unrighteously, committing perjury, swearing oaths and expecting no harm.

It's the human condition, the story of us all, the constant daily struggle in which we all engage: to do the right thing, and to avoid the wrong: to come to maturity and true wisdom. The Wisdom writer's ultimate message for us is one of faith, hope and love. "But you, our God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are yours, knowing your power...because we know that you acknowledge us as yours. For to know you is complete righteousness...For in everything, O Lord, you have exalted and glorified your people, and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places."   

1 comment:

John-Julian, OJN said...

Ah, what a beautiful paean of praise for Wisdom—some of the most beautiful writing in Holy Scripture! And,of course, "Wisdom" has always been seen to be the feminine: so no wonder Julian connects the Son to Wisdom and then calls him "Mother".

Thanks again for your offering, Father.