Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Four Griefs of Wisdom

With much wisdom comes much grief: and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecc. 1:18). Long have I pondered the meaning of your enigmatic words , O Solomon. Why should the possession of wisdom and knowledge bring me to grief? If, as the Proverbs say, “Wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (Prov. 2:10), then in what sense is knowledge sorrowful? How can its attainment be a source of both delight and distress?

The degree to which wisdom brings delight or distress is relative to one’s spiritual orientation. Here is manifest the great duality of the human experience, which the Scholastics used to say is lived in statu viae—“in a state of journeying.” For we are not yet what we shall become (cf. 1 John 3:2); so long as we sojourn on this earth, we are wanderers straddling the boundary between two worlds. Of the flesh, we live in the spirit. Born of earth, we long for heaven. We pilgrimage towards “a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Behind us is the City of Man, before us the City of God. We have one foot in each world, like the angel of the Apocalypse who “set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth” (Rev. 10:2). While we are in the flesh we must satisfy the obligations of both worlds, until the Day of Judgment commits us irrevocably to one City or the other, and the wheat is separated from the tares.

Here we see why the attainment of wisdom can bring joy and sorrow, for the City of God and the City of Man are in antithesis. They are not only divergent destinations, but each have their own contradictory value systems as well. What makes one great in the City of God is despised in the City of Man, and what brings success in the City of Man excludes one from the City of God. Money is the currency of the City of Man, while prayer is the currency of the City of God. Power is esteemed in the former, meekness in the latter. Pride motivates in one, humility in the other. The City of Man is built upon selfishness, the City of God upon sacrifice.

Thus, if we grow in the virtues that are valued in the City of God, we will find less comfort in the City of Man. With each passing day our status as pilgrims will become more evident. We feel more profoundly our position as outsiders in this world. With Christ, we learn to say, “My kingdom is not of this world”; with St. Paul, we profess that “here we have no lasting city” (John 18:36; Heb. 13:14). We imbibe these words deeply, appropriating them to our own experience and making them the pulse in our veins. The things of this world make less and less sense to us. We perceive life as “this, our exile,” as the classic Marian hymn Salve Regina calls it. The greater our orientation towards the Kingdom of God, the greater our estrangement from the things of this world.

Alternately, if we adopt the values of the City of Man, the things of God are repugnant to us. The Gospel seems like foolishness. Christian ethics are misunderstood or scoffed at. Prayer and spiritual things appear silly. Seeking God feels like a waste of time. The deeper we enmesh ourselves in the ways of the world, the less relevance the Gospel of Christ appears to have to our lives. It seems an embarrassing relic from an age deemed less sophisticated. Such are those oriented towards the City of Man; these persons cannot be expected to appreciate the spiritual richness offered in Christ Jesus. For, “the carnal man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).

In the myths of ancient Greece, we read of the prophetess Cassandra. She was given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo, but the same god capriciously cursed her for resisting his amorous advances, decreeing that she should prophesy truly but nobody would believe her words. Cassandra was thus blessed and cursed: blessed with the ability to know the truth but cursed by its constant rejection by those with whom she shared it. Is this not like the dilemma faced by those who seek the Kingdom of God? For the very act of drawing closer to God estranges us further from the world. Like Cassandra whose gift of prophecy ensured she was ignored, our commitment to the Gospel becomes an occasion of mockery to the world, the more so to the degree we advance in the spiritual life. Those who love Christ are all Cassandras in this world.

Now the meaning of Solomon’s words become apparent. The wisdom of God brings us delight insofar as we progress towards the City of God, but the estrangement from the world it engenders also saddens us. But why does it sadden us? “To get wisdom is better than gold” says Solomon elsewhere (Prov. 16:16). If this is the case, should we not rejoice in the wisdom of God? Why should estrangement from the world bring us grief?

There are four senses in which estrangement from the world brings us grief as we draw closer to God.

First, at the beginning of our conversion, we grieve because we struggle to let go of the delights that bind us to our old life. We are accustomed to living according to our passions; we miss the pleasures of worldly living, even as the Israelites longed for the fleshpots of Egypt during the Exodus (cf. Ex. 16:3). Our friends continue to live in the manner they are accustomed, but we can no longer do so in good conscience. We must put distance between ourselves and our old life, but this also distances us from old friends. Sometimes there is resentment., “The way of the Lord is unfair” (Ezk. 18:29) we may say, as we see the wicked prosper, or the dissolute live lives of given over to pleasure with no apparent consequence. We feel stretched, longing for the kingdom of God but still feeling the seductive pull of the kingdom of man. This grief is a kind of trial, the outcome of which determines whether we advance in the service of the Lord or whether we are one who “puts his hand to the plow and looks back”, proving we are unfit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62).

The second type of grief is the sadness we feel at our own shortcomings. We have walked with the Lord for some time, we have made some progress in the spiritual life. The impetus of our original zeal has carried us a little way. But we have also experienced considerable setbacks; we have come to fully internalize the Lord’s saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). With St. Paul, we cry out, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:15,18-19). Often this type of grief arises from disappointment with ourselves, emerging out of the chasm between what we are and what we wish to be. In more enlightened souls, this grief becomes less about falling short of our own ideals and more about falling short of God’s standard. Fortunately, this kind of grief is purifying, as it nurtures our humility and teaches us to lean not on our own strength, but on the Lord.

The third grief occurs when we find ourselves frustrated at the unbelief, irreverence, and perversion we see in the world. We desire the glorification of Christ and His Church and are deeply saddened at the world’s rejection of Him. Sometimes our grief is a burning indignation, and we are tempted, with the disciples, to say, “Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54); other times it is more of a weeping lament for the stubbornness of the world, like our Lord expressed when he wept over Jerusalem (cf. Matt. 23:37). We have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord and we desire nothing more than that the whole world should do the same; their refusal to do so is a source of pain to us. This is the grief of the saints who wept for the sins of men and offered tearful prayers of reparation for offenses against God.

The fourth grief comes from the persecutions and trials that are heaped upon us. St. Paul warned Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). When we think of persecution and martyrdom, we usually think of authoritarian governments, or the Roman tyrants of old. But most persecution a Christian faces in his day-to-day life comes not from the government, but from his friends and family. Either through ignorance, insensitivity, or hostility, it is those closest to us who wound us most. Did not our Lord warn as much? “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household” (Matt. 10:34-36). We recall the words of Zechariah, “These are the wounds I received in the house of my friends” (Zech. 13:6). We grieve at the sarcastic comments, the little barbs, the misunderstandings, insults, and dismissiveness that comes from those we love. How we wish they would see what we see! How we grieve that we could not all be united in a single love. “How good and pleasant it is when brethren dwell in unity!” (Ps. 133:1) That it cannot always be so is a source of continual grief. We would die of sadness if it were not for our Lord’s promise that we who suffer such things for His sake are blessed (cf. Matt. 5:10)

Thus are the four griefs of Christian life that accompany those who grow in wisdom. Aside from the first (which passes as we mature), these griefs will all only intensify proportional to our closeness to the Lord. As we grow in the wisdom of God, the duality of living in two worlds pulls upon us, and in that tear is found grief.  “With much wisdom comes much grief, and he that increase knowledge increases sorrow.”


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Grace and Peace to you Amigo, Christ is Risen!🔔 ☦️🔥🌐⛪⛲