Monday, March 2, 2009

The Wisdom of Conversion

“At the same time I warn them that to have the mirror of the external world placed before them is of little significance unless the mirror of the mind is cleansed and polished. Therefore, O child of God, awaken yourself first to the remorseful sting of conscience before you raise your eyes to those rays of wisdom that are reflected in its mirrors. Otherwise it might happen that the very act of looking on these rays might cause you to fall into an even more treacherous pit of darkness.”
– St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum

Aristotle once said, “All men desire to know.” Whether this is true or not is of little consequence for me. That people desire to know, simply generally speaking, is enough to begin with. For it is clear that in all cases, from the moment of our birth to the inevitable moment of our death, we are engaged with the world and this engagement requires a certain understanding and a certain meaningful grasp of the world around us. The mind is, from start to finish, thrown out upon and among the objects of the world and the persons we encounter in the world; and all the hopes and longings of the human heart are acted out amidst this maelstrom of the exterior world.

If, then, we cannot avoid a certain attempt to understand the world, at least in order to survive in it, and more importantly to flourish in it, then one can admit that knowledge holds a certain importance as something of a universal goal among all persons. Knowledge, however, is one thing. Wisdom, something else entirely. Wisdom is concerned not with an understanding of the facts of the world, not an understanding of what this particular object before me happens to be or how it might be used, and it is also not the possessing of a particular theory of the world and how it works. Wisdom penetrates deeper than this. And this is why so many of the most knowledgeable people in the world can nevertheless fail utterly in wisdom. Wisdom, and the pursuit of wisdom, is something different entirely from the pursuit of knowledge, however much a certain knowledge might be necessary for wisdom to be born.

What makes wisdom different, one might ask? For one thing, knowledge implies nothing about how we live our lives. It implies no action at all. It simply implies a certain resonance of our concepts with the world. Wisdom, on the other hand, supplies the meaning and direction of how we live in the world. Wisdom, above all else, is concerned with life and with action. Knowledge, merely with the static character of having certain facts readily available. Thus, knowledge without wisdom is meaningless. Without wisdom, all we have are lifeless facts and our lives are lived out with the same aimlessness of a ship without its rudder.

Those who would live out a life of meaningfulness, a life of direction, must be seekers and lovers of wisdom. These are those we once might have called philosophers, the first to be called lovers of wisdom. But, those lovers of wisdom are perhaps long dead; philosophers today, and in fact for many generations, have made themselves men of science and nothing more, intellectuals of the worst variety in all their hypocrisy. But if the philosophers as philosophers have nothing to say about wisdom, then how is wisdom to be achieved at all? Where are we to turn for it and to whom are we to go?

The world is the always already given fundament of all knowledge and we are always left with the world before us. It makes sense that we should start there. But, as I have said, wisdom is not a matter of knowing the world. Our knowledge is already operative to the extent that the world appears clearly. But the mind on its own cannot peer around the indistinctness in which the world appears because all knowledge is first and foremost structured by the way in which we live out our lives. That is to say, when we desire to live out our lives in a particular way, we tend to interpret the world according to those desires. Thus, the man who longs for power and wealth interprets the meaning of the world in terms of what will furnish these ends. If, however, we are to attain wisdom, if we are to grasp meaning, to acquire the direction in life which only wisdom can give, then we are faced with a fundamental task.

The world can only be given in its ultimate meaningfulness when, as Bonaventure says, the mind is disposed to reflect it most clearly, or one might say, when the mind is sufficiently free from its vicious desires and expectations for the world to see the world itself and how the individual is called to live. In short, wisdom cannot be attained by the vicious individual. Wisdom will always elude the man and woman of hatred, of egoism, of resentment. To the extent that one seeks to be wise, one must also seek to be good. But, this implies an alteration in the very direction of one’s life; it involves a dynamic movement in which both straightforward viciousness as well as contented mediocrity must be abandoned altogether. Total conversion is the only road to wisdom. It is only on the road to perfection, with the burning desire for total conversion of heart that the mind is itself perfected and disposed for wisdom, a wisdom which goes beyond knowledge and which provides a direction for life and seizes upon a meaning which gives life its sense.

We have entered into the season of Lent. The time in which we go out into the deserts of the spirit in search of the wisdom of the children of God through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; the time in which we become men and women of authentic and intense desire, when we become desirous of wisdom itself. May you all have a very blessed and fruitful season of Lent, that the mystery of Easter might complete you in wisdom, faith, and perfection. God bless you all.

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