Wisdom for the New Year

May 06 2003 | by

AS WE BEGIN a new year I want to reflect on the meaning of wisdom in the life of St. Anthony. I often think of St. Anthony as a wise person. For me wisdom is associated with age. Although he died when only in his thirties, St. Anthony was an exception to this rule. He was incredibly wise beyond his years.

What is wisdom? Wisdom is one of those words both hard to pin down and, at the same time, drenched with meaning. The dictionary has many definitions of wisdom. Wisdom is defined as 'knowledge of what is true or right coupled with good judgement.'

The dictionary also speaks of wisdom as 'scholarly knowledge or learning'. This latter definition of wisdom seems unsatisfactory to me. One can know a lot and still not be wise. Some professors are akin to textbooks wired for sound. However, this does not mean that they are necessarily wise.

Wisdom for me implies learning plus character. A wise person makes good decisions, much like King Solomon whom we read about in the Old Testament. The Latin word for wisdom, sapientia comes from the Latin verb, sapere which means to savour or taste. Wisdom, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, means to have a 'taste' for heavenly things, that is, to sense the divine in everything. The wise person is the one who looks for, desires, and experiences God first hand in his/her own life.

More precious than gold

The Old Testament says that wisdom is more precious than gold and is hidden from the eyes of all living things. In Job 28:23 we read 'God understands the way to it.'

Surprisingly, the Book of Proverbs speaks of wisdom in feminine terms. The Hebrew term for wisdom is hokmah and is feminine. Key biblical passages for understanding the meaning of wisdom are Proverbs, chapters 1, 3, and 8. In Chapter 1 wisdom is called a prophet and a street preacher. Proverbs 1:20 says that 'Wisdom cries out in the street; in the square she raises her voice.'

In Proverbs chapter 3 we are admonished to distrust our own insight. A connection is made between wisdom and fear of the Lord (Proverbs 3: 7). Here we read 'all that you may desire cannot compare with her (wisdom).' Wisdom and prudence are called life for the soul. (Proverbs 3:22)

The book of Proverbs constantly speaks of wisdom as a person. 'By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just.' (Proverbs 8:15) Wisdom is also thought of as an attribute or quality of God, the image of God's goodness. We find this idea expressed in the book of Wisdom 7:25-26.

Wisdom is said to be the first of God's acts long ago, constituted before the beginning of the earth. Wisdom is God's delight, 'rejoicing before him always'. (Proverbs 8:30) Whoever finds wisdom finds life and obtains favour from the Lord. Conversely, 'those who lack wisdom injure themselves; all who hate me love death.' (Proverbs 8:36)

Spirit and life

At times wisdom and God are synonyms. In 1 Corinthians 1:24 Christ is called the wisdom of God. Christ contains within himself 'all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,' according to Colossians 2:3. In the church's liturgy some of the wisdom texts from the Old Testament are applied to Christ, who is the wisdom of God. Other liturgical texts call Mary, the Seat of Wisdom, who acted in partnership with God in bringing the divine wisdom into this world in the person of Jesus.

There are several reasons why I consider St. Anthony a wise person. First, St. Anthony had a profound knowledge of Scripture. In the Prologue to his work, the Opus, he writes, 'Just as gold excels all other metals in excellence, so does the knowledge of Sacred Scripture surpass all other forms of knowledge. He who does not know Sacred Scripture possesses no knowledge.'

The knowledge Anthony had of Scripture was not mere book or intellectual knowledge. Rather, for St. Anthony the words of Scripture were 'spirit and life'. By reflecting on the word of God and allowing this word to transform his heart, St. Anthony became wise. His was an experiential knowledge of God based on imbibing the scriptures and making them his own.

It was particularly important for preachers to have a thorough knowledge of Scripture. In his Sermo for the Second Sunday of Lent, Anthony contrasts Matt. 17:1 (where it says that 'Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves') with Exodus 24:12. In the latter passage it says, 'The Lord said to Moses, 'Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for your instruction.''

Anthony's comments on Exodus 24:12 are instructive. The preacher is enjoined to 'Come up to me on the mountain,' because the mountain's height represents the loftiness of a holy life. Preachers should use the ladder of divine love to climb this mountain. It is there that they will find the Lord. They will only find the Lord, though, if they practice what they preach.

Second, St. Anthony was wise because he spent his entire life putting God first in his life. He knew only too well that holiness is not something we do on our own. Rather, it involves opening our hearts to God's action within us. In other words, St. Anthony was wise because he knew that God was the source of grace and holiness. The Holy Spirit makes us holy, transforming us from self-centered to other-centered.

When he was Provincial of the Province of Romagna in Italy, St. Anthony did not lord it over the friars. Instead, he was a true 'friar minor' or lesser brother. He considered himself the servant of all the friars in his province rather than their superior. That is why he commanded such respect from all the friars in his Province.

The humility of St. Anthony was truly outstanding. Anthony comments on Luke 1: 14-15 'He shall be great before the Lord,' in his Sermo for the feast of St. John the Baptist. Anthony observes 'what a person is before God, that he is and no more.' These words of Anthony seem to capture the meaning of humility. Those who are humble are conscious of the infinite abyss or gap that separates them from the Almighty. The humble realise that by themselves they are absolutely nothing. This is precisely how St. Anthony saw himself, viz., as nothing compared to God. This was part and parcel of Anthony's wisdom.

One can ask the question 'How is wisdom learned?'. This in itself is a matter of wisdom and cannot be reduced to a simple formula or programme that one can put into action. Perhaps wisdom is best learned by looking carefully at the lives of those we consider to be wise. That is why we have reflected on the life of St. Anthony.

Making good

In looking at the life of Anthony it seems to be the case that wisdom is the art of making good out of what life throws at us - obstacles, barriers to our growth, loss, grief and suffering. Those who are wise know how to rise above the ups and downs of life.

Take the case of St. Anthony. Anthony had his share of woes. He joined the Franciscan Order to do missionary work among the Saracens. En route to Morocco he took sick and could not continue the mission. What a disappointment that must have been to him. Then, he set sail for Portugal, got blown off course and wound up in Sicily. Instead of despairing at his bad luck, he was wise enough to see the hand of God in his life. He journeyed to Assisi for the general Chapter of the Order.

He did not know what the next step in the Order would be for him. Luckily he was asked to join one of the northern provinces of the Order and began his life as a friar doing menial tasks. That all changed when he was asked to preach at the ordination in Forli. The friars saw his tremendous gift for preaching and asked him to do apostolic preaching in northern Italy.

Anthony had a real struggle on his hands in combating the Cathari and Albigensian heresies. They, too, used Scripture as their final court of appeal. Anthony had his hands full in countering their arguments. He won people over, in part, because of the holiness of his life. He treated his enemies with kindness and they were blown away by his humble love.

St. Anthony also had to struggle against the wealthy money-lenders in Padua who charged exorbitantly high interest rates to lend money. These same men demanded that those who were unable to repay these high-interest loans be hauled away to jail. It was not easy for Anthony to buck these high and mighty men. Despite the cost, St. Anthony had laws enacted that prevented those who were unable to repay their loans from being put into prison. All of this certainly took an emotional toll on the saint.

As we start a new year, we can certainly look to the example of St. Anthony in learning how to be wise. By looking closely at Anthony's life we learn how to rise above the ups and downs of our daily existence. We discover that wisdom entails making good out of what life throws at us.

Updated on October 06 2016