Sr. Maria Pacis Polakovic, RSM is a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan. She currently serves as the directress of novices at the community’s Motherhouse in Alma. Originally from Denver, Colorado, she entered the community in 2009, making perpetual profession in 2017. In addition to Alma, she has served in Rome and Winona, Minnesota.
“Ask, seek, knock”
“Happy the man who finds wisdom.” (Prov 3:13) In teaching his students, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Among all human pursuits, the pursuit of wisdom is more perfect, more noble, more useful, and more full of joy.” (“Summa Contra Gentiles,” Book I, chap. ii) If this is true, just what is wisdom and how can we pursue it so as to obtain it?
In this article, we will consider the multifaceted forms of wisdom — wisdom as an intellectual virtue, wisdom as the highest of the philosophical sciences and wisdom as a gift of the Holy Spirit. We will examine the subtleties between the wisdom of this world and the wisdom of God, Christ as our wisdom, and how to grow in wisdom.
When colloquially speaking about wisdom, many today would perhaps consider a wise man to be one who is learned, one who knows a lot about the world and has a lot of experience and possibly one who sees deeper into the reality of things. In his work entitled “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle teaches that the intellectual virtues (wisdom, understanding and science) are habits that perfect the intellect, that consider the truth of things as they are and they are acquired by human effort. They develop and grow in a person over time through learning and experience. Wisdom is the highest of the intellectual virtues as its grasp is more universal and it considers the higher things.
Highest of Philosophical Sciences
In another work, “Metaphysics,” Aristotle teaches that wisdom is the highest of the philosophical sciences. While the various sciences and arts inquire into particulars in different areas such as carpentry or biology, they cannot answer questions that transcend their limited inquiry such as the “why” of things. What’s the cause of this or that, what is it and what is its purpose? In a sense, wisdom considers the big picture and knows how everything fits together in an ordered whole. To have an understanding and knowledge of the highest cause, that which sets all other causes in order, that is to be truly wise. That highest cause, that first mover, is God himself.
Gift of the Holy Spirit
Within the Christian tradition, Saint Thomas Aquinas further teaches how wisdom is also one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For him, wisdom considers the highest cause and orders and judges things according to the divine truth and the divine laws. (“Summa Theologiae” II-II, Q. 45, art. 1) It seeks “God’s ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) This gift is imparted by the Holy Spirit to all baptized souls in the state of grace. This wisdom, according to Saint Thomas, has a kind of connaturality or union with divine things, which presupposes both faith and charity in a person. As an acquired intellectual virtue, wisdom can judge aright about Divine things and is obtained through learning and human effort, but it is the gift of wisdom to have a kind of harmony with divine things which stems from a union with God in charity. Thus, the gift of wisdom is higher than the intellectual virtue of wisdom because it “attains to God more intimately by a kind of union of the soul with Him.” (“Summa Theologiae” II-II, Q. 45, art. 3) This gift, as Saint James tells us, “is from above.” (James 1:17)
Worldly Wisdom vs. “Wisdom from above”
Throughout Scripture, we encounter these dichotomies: the wise man versus the fool, the wisdom of this world versus the wisdom of God, the unspiritual man versus the spiritual man. Saint James clearly lays out for us the different types of wisdom, exhorting the faithful:
“Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. Wisdom of this kind does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.” (James 3:14-17)
Saint Thomas Aquinas, reflecting on worldly wisdom, notes that the worldly wisdom — that which is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” — is a wisdom that is fixed upon an improper end. ( “Summa Theologiae” II-II, Q. 45, art. 1) It is seeking its end in external goods, goods of the body, or one’s own excellence. What does that mean? It means that it is ultimately ordering and judging things according to its own standard, not God’s. Certainly, we can see how that leads to “disorder and every foul practice.”
The wisdom which is from above is that which is set upon one’s proper end, which is God himself. Ultimately, do I know myself as a creature? Do I know that I am created by God to know him, serve him, and love him in this life, so as to be with him in the next? Am I serving God or myself? The wise man shows his wisdom, according to Saint James, “by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
The Paradoxical Wisdom of Christ Crucified
Saint Paul, too, addresses the question of the wise man. For him, it is all about Christ, “who became for us wisdom from God.” (1 Cor 1:30) Eloquence in speaking, having all knowledge of the learned, having all strength and power is worthless before the wisdom of God revealed in Christ crucified. The cross of Christ is the ultimate paradox — a God-man who was crucified for our redemption and sanctification. This is true wisdom for those who have faith, those “who are being saved.” (1 Cor 1:18)
Throughout time, and certainly in our culture today, we are often lured by the wisdom of this world — a wisdom that seeks one’s own comfort or luxury, one that seeks self-satisfaction in security or one’s own gifts and talents, a wisdom that is self-sufficient. Pain becomes the ultimate enemy rather than sin or fear of what displeases God. It is subtle often, and it gently prods, “How can that cross be good? How can this suffering be God’s plan? How is it possible to forgive that offense?” As Saint Paul reminds us, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor 1:25) As Christ is the wisdom of God, look to him and find wisdom.
Growth in Wisdom
Growth in wisdom is simply stated — “But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it. But he should ask in faith, not doubting.” (James 1:5-6) Saint Thomas Aquinas, in a famous sermon called “Puer Iesus” (“the child Jesus”), reflects upon the reality that the Lord “advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” (Luke 2:52) As “everything that the Lord did or suffered in the flesh is an instruction and an example for our salvation,” Saint Thomas writes that four things are necessary to grow in wisdom: “he should listen willingly, seek diligently, respond prudently, and meditate attentively.” Listen to those who are wise in faith. Make the search for wisdom a priority. Lovingly offer the wisdom you have received with others. Meditate on the Word of God, meditate on Christ. Think about him, speak about him and through the spirit of faith allow him to be revealed within you.
If the pursuit of wisdom is one that is more perfect, more full of joy, more noble, we see that, according to Saint Ambrose, “When we speak about wisdom, we are speaking of Christ.” (“Liturgy of the Hours,” vol. III, Thursday of the Sixth Week) Pursue Christ in faith! Who more exemplifies the blessedness that comes from the pursuit of wisdom than our Blessed Mother? She is said to have “kept all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51) May she teach us about true wisdom, as she carried him in her womb and reigns with him forever.