Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Way of Wisdom

"A Cloud of Unknowing"
- Days before Christmas -

According to ancient Christian tradition, in these last few days before Christmas the church prays for the "Gift of Wisdom" to come upon us:

O Wisdom
reaching from one end to the other
Come and teach us the Way!

Wisdom is a highly- prized virtue in Christianity as well as in almost all of the major world religions. The problem is that it’s pretty hard to “pin down” what wisdom really is and what pursuing wisdom really means, trying to define wisdom is like trying to define love.  And yet, while I am unable to define it, at some deeply intuitive level I think I am able to recognize wisdom when I see it.

In some sense, for me it’s often easier to see what wisdom is “not.”  Wisdom is not necessarily a characteristic of old-age - I know plenty of older people who I would not recognize as being wise.  I also know that wisdom is different from an accumulation of a great deal of knowledge.  I have met several people in my life who never even made it out of high school who were far wiser than many of my college professor friends.

I remember reading some recent social scientific research about what it means to be wise.  In the “wisdom study,” the researchers avoided definitions and instead suggested some of the characteristics of wise people - the manifestations of wisdom. In these last days before Christmas when the church focuses on the way of wisdom, I find this research to be very insightful. It helps me more carefully articulate what it is that I see in myself and others when I recognize the presence of wisdom:

Wisdom is manifested in a willingness to embrace failure along with success. People who think they are perfect or expect perfection in others can never be wise.

Wisdom is manifested in people who are empathic. When the gaze of one’s life is not focused inward but looks outward and when people can see the world from the vantage point of other human beings, wisdom is present.

Wisdom is manifested in comfort with ambiguity and paradox. The ability to see “shades of gray” rather than to rigidly think in terms of “black or white” is a sign or wisdom.

Wisdom in manifested in simple living. Wisdom shows up in people who aren’t overly attached to anything in their lives, don’t horde what they have and are willing to share.

Wisdom is manifested in acts of compassion. Kindness to others, mercy and forgiveness, sacrificial acts for the welfare of others - these are all symptoms of wisdom.

I think the church prays for the “gift” of wisdom at this time of year because you can’t actually pursue wisdom like you would pursue a college degree; rather you seek wisdom by having an open heart and an uncluttered mind.  We find wisdom by being open and awake to whatever comes to us in every singe moment of every single day. In a very real sense we don’t search after wisdom rather wisdom searches after us. We find wisdom when we are open to receiving the “gift.”

I am reminded of a Zen master’s response to a student who comes to him seeking the way of wisdom:

The student asked: ‘Can I study the Way?’
The teacher sat quietly and responded,
‘the more you study it, the further you will be away from wisdom.’
Now confused, the student asked the master.
‘but if I don’t study it, how can I know it?’
The master responded;
‘to find yourself on the way of wisdom,
open yourself as wide as the sky.’


I think this is some pretty good Zen advice to help me on my way to Christmas.

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