Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
With its white marble glistening in the hot sun, the ruins of Athens’ acropolis towers over the city below. From ancient times, the Parthenon has crowned the acropolis. It was the greatest sanctuary of the most important city of classical Greece. This magnificent temple housed the 40-foot statue of Athena, the virgin goddess of reason and the city’s patroness. Art historians consider this statue of Athena as one of the greatest achievements of sculpture. Covered with more than 1,500 pounds of solid gold, this statue was the single greatest financial asset of ancient Athens. However, the Parthenon is much more than the repository of this precious cult image.
The Parthenon is a living monument to the values and ideals of ancient Greece. The Greeks strove for symmetria, i.e., the balance and harmony of part to part and each part to the whole. They strove for perfection. And the Parthenon, with its faultless proportion, precision and balance, is the apotheosis of this striving. By honoring Athena, the female god of wisdom, within such a perfectly constructed temple, the Greeks acknowledged that they needed wisdom to achieve the perfection they sought not only in art, but in life as well.
It belongs to the human spirit to strive for perfection. We are always searching for something greater, for more knowledge, more practical and theoretical know-how in order to improve our human condition. But, we need not just knowledge. We need wisdom. They are not identical. It is one thing to know how to do something. It takes wisdom to know when to do it. Wisdom guides us in the use of our knowledge. Two individuals may know how to wield a knife. A fool uses it to inflict harm and even death on someone. A doctor wisely uses it to bring healing and life to another.
So many discoveries in medicine and science have given us great knowledge. We know so much more than our grandparents about the miracle of conception and birth. But, some people use that knowledge foolishly to destroy God’s precious gift of life. We have a greater knowledge of the physical universe and know how to harness the power of the atom. Wisdom insures that we use that power for energy and growth and not for destruction and death. We desperately need wisdom.
King Solomon is the most famous biblical example of wisdom. At the age of 12, when he was about to be anointed as king, he prayed not for wealth, fame or success. He asked God not for a long life and happiness. No. He asked for wisdom. God answered him, saying “I do as you request. I give you a heart so wise and discerning that there has never been anyone like you until now, nor after you will there be anyone to equal you” (1 Kg 3:12).
Wisdom was not something Solomon acquired. It was not merely natural intelligence. It was something more. It was a gift from God who gave him the ability to see beyond circumstances to the truth. That is why, immediately following God’s bestowal of the gift of wisdom, the Scriptures record Solomon’s famous judgment given to two prostitutes. Both women had given birth. One child died. Both women came to him, each claiming that the child that lived was hers. Solomon discerned which was the true mother (cf. 1 Kg 3:16-28). He was, indeed, the wisest of men.
Wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (cf. Is 11:2). It equips us to deal with the practical details of life in light of God’s ultimate purpose for his creation. The gift of wisdom enables us to judge the things of this world as God sees them. “It is simply this: Seeing the world situations, conjunctures, problems, everything with God’s eyes… Often we see things as we want to see them or according to our heart, with love, with hate, with envy. Wisdom is what the Holy Spirit does within us so that we can see everything with God’s eyes. This is the gift of wisdom” (Pope Francis, General Audience, April 9, 2014).
By the gift of wisdom, we see beyond the particulars of success and failure, trials and triumphs, joys and sorrows of everyday life to the plan of God who orders all according to his good will. Our minds are lifted above the mundane to contemplate divine truths. No matter what the level of our formal education in the faith, with the gift of wisdom, we can reach a profound knowledge of the divine.
Enlightened by the gift of wisdom, we judge rightly between morally good acts that lead us to God and evil acts that distance us from him. We recognize ourselves and others as called to the supernatural dignity of becoming sons and daughters of God. We see others and love others more and more as God sees and loves them. We direct our human thoughts, feelings, words and deeds according to the ultimate destiny that God has for all of us. We are not held captive to the ideology of a particular age, but truly enjoy the freedom of the children of God.
Wisdom is not just one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is the first gift that Isaiah the prophet lists as given to the Messiah (Is 11:2). It has the place of primacy among the gifts of the Holy Spirit because it is essential for living life as it was meant to be, in friendship with God and in harmony with all creation, even as Jesus himself lived. In our increasingly secular age, wisdom is a gift most desperately needed!