It is a fact that all of the world’s great religious traditions prize wisdom — even though they may understand wisdom differently and offer alternative strategies for attaining it. Some religions see wisdom as the ultimate goal of human life, and honor those who are wise as sages. Early Christian writers argued that they were the true philosophers (philosophy is, etymologically speaking, the “love of wisdom”) because they knew Christ who is the “wisdom and power of God” (I Corinthians 1:24).
Undoubtedly, this universal focus on and appreciation for wisdom suggests it is an attribute worthy of examining and seeking out in our daily lives. I offer this reflection.
As I mentioned, wisdom is valued in religious tradition. But of course, it can be understood in a non-religious way. It is commonplace to distinguish being intelligent from being wise. Human wisdom comes to us in the form of aphorisms and proverbs, which crystalize what experience teaches. We all understand that and a fool and his money are soon parted, for example. But wisdom is not synonymous with intelligence nor brilliance. In fact, we can point out many people in history who were brilliant, but terrible as human beings. Yet, a wise person is usually seen as a good person.
When we began to consider the Biblical literature pertaining to wisdom in my undergraduate theology course, I would often ask the students if they knew a wise person — not a smart person (smart people are a dime a dozen at a place like Notre Dame), but a wise person. Some students would name a parent. But more often than not they would name a grandparent. That answer always struck me as making a lot of sense.
Grandparents don’t always have a lot of formal education, but they have been shaped by a lifetime of experience. They know what it was like to work for a living; they have seen illness and death up close; they have the vantage point of a long life permitting them to know what is important and what is not; they have lived through a life attached to a spouse and, in so doing, learned what love means over the long haul; and, finally, like Socrates, they know what they do not know. With age comes “real” as opposed to “notional” knowledge, as Cardinal John Henry Newman once distinguished it. And that “real” knowledge is a cousin of wisdom.
Wisdom is accrued by a maturing of intelligence refined by life experience, by trial and by error. Wisdom derives from an acquired humility that comes from a long life shaped by all kinds of human interactions, both desired and undesired. It also comes from having experienced a fair slice of human history. Rarely is wisdom found in the young (with some exceptions of those called “wise beyond their years”) for the simple reason that they have not lived long enough, nor have they seen or experienced enough of life. The kind of intelligence that we can call “wisdom” cannot be taught in the classroom nor conjured up in a laboratory. Nor do all elders possess it.
Wisdom emerges as intelligence refined by experience. Religiously speaking, it is worth remembering that the Catholic Church numbers wisdom as the first of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Solomon, who was known as being wise, prayed for the gift of wisdom, and God rewarded him, in a wonderful phrase, with “a wise and discerning heart” (I Kings 3: 12). The late Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, frequently said that his favorite daily prayer was, “Come, Holy Spirit,” which was a shorthand way of saying that he prayed for the gift of the Spirit called wisdom. Those of us who were fortunate enough to know Father Ted recognized that the Spirit showered him with that gift.
It is a profound grace to have such persons in our lives. They serve as emotional or spiritual signposts on the way. We should treasure knowing such persons and be thankful for having them in our own personal orbit.
Of course, we also would like to become wise persons, or at the very least, we should love to grow in wisdom. Like Solomon, we should begin by praying. To seek wisdom is to seek truth richly adorned. How fortunate the children who were raised by wise parents. How fortunate are we on the rare occasion when we are governed by wise public figures. How blessed are those of us who enter our life’s work and find it advised and shaped by wise mentors and guides. At the very least, we should pray to be able to discern the difference between vagrant opinion and true wisdom.
Wisdom may come to us when our natural instinct is to encounter a wise judgment as something that, naturally speaking, we are inclined to resist. Jesus often said things against which his audience rebelled. It was hard for his hearers to accept that the last would be first, or that the Samaritan was the true neighbor or that taking up a cross was an authentic way of living. It is one of the more poignant moments in the gospels when Jesus is resisted because what he said was true but demanding. Many of us are like Peter, who denied Him when there was a risk to our perceived well-being.
But as we can see by the lessons of Christ, encountering wisdom offered by a wise person may come at a cost, but the cost is worth it.
Lawrence Cunningham is a retired Notre Dame theology professor who writes regularly for this magazine.