HUMILITY, CHARITY, WISDOM
READ: I Corinthians 8
Paul writes, “Now concerning the controversy over the matter of food dedicated to false gods. We are well aware that all of us have knowledge; but while knowledge puffs up, love is what builds up. Someone may think that he or she has full knowledge of something and yet not know it as well as he or she should; but someone who loves God is known by God.” – I Corinthians 8:1-3
Historically, Benedictine Christians have placed high value on reading and scholarship. We are said to be people of both the Word and the many words. My own Methodist tradition’s founder, the Oxford scholar Rev. John Wesley, was said to have been a man of one Book and many books. Both traditions brought literacy and education to the poor and uneducated. Both Benedictines and Methodists were people who believed in excellence of mind, excellence of heart, excellence of life, and excellence of soul.
Benedictine monasteries, in an era of mass illiteracy, were well known for teaching reading and writing to illiterate novices and turning many of them into scholars of renown. One of the reasons I was attracted to Benedictine spirituality was its valuing of intellectual pursuits in the furtherance of the Kingdom and in the living the life of Christian discipleship. Yet, with all this emphasis on academic excellence, the Benedictines always reminded themselves to be always souls defined more so by their humility and their charity, and not to be known as intellectual elitists or arrogant academics.
Paul tries to guide his congregation at Corinth through the passionate controversy of their day, the question of religious tolerance between Jewish-heritage Christians and Gentile-heritage Christians. The Church at Corinth was fill with well-educated souls, some of the people educated in the fine points of Jewish Law, others schooled in the latest Greek and Roman philosophy. This was a matter of religious faith; this was a matter of social change change; this was a matter of cultural war. The arguments were heated and the divisions deepening, each side claiming that they understood and the other side didn’t. Lest we think this as ancient controversy, we today, with our own contemporary controversies, too often claim “full knowledge” of an issue when, in truth, we know far less than we realize. We claim we fully understand, when, in fact, we don’t. And in the process … certain essentials are diminished, if not lost … the Christian essentials of humility and charity.
Late one night, maybe even, past midnight, I entered a vast university library in order to do some last minute research. At that time of night, the staffers had all gone home except for the night watchman who watched the door and strolled about the place, now and then. The lights were only half-lit, making this cathedral of knowledge as if it were a ghostly realm of shadows, cast by the rows and rows of bookshelves packed and stacked on four-stories of volumes. The cavernous space echoed with each footstep I placed and each I mildew-inspired cough I made. By the light of a reading lamp, I mined away at my book for the knowledge I needed … to write one more paragraph … on one more page … of one more scholarly paper… that one day would cataloged and added to this mountain of words. At a certain point, something came upon me. I paused, looked around, and took in the vastness of my circumstance. I soon found myself overwhelmed with a sense of how many thousands of books in this library that I had NOT read, and here I sat, one little mind reading one little book in a quixotic quest to fully understand. And as I sat there, almost frozen by the awareness of my knowledge’s humility, I thought I heard God whisper … “Jim, there still so much to learn, but here is a good place to begin.” And that hushed moment and that epiphany of Divine Light was the genesis of my experience of studying with angels … to learn and learn and learn forever out of the vast mind of God, to cherish and revere the questions brought to me by God’s Spirit – even more than the few answers that God would bring to my mind. And to always remember …that true, authentic wisdom comes only by way of humility and charity. St. Augustine said it this way ...”There is something in humility that raises the heart upward; there is something about charity that provides our reasons why.”
Yes, the wisdom of God is not to be found not with those who boast that they understand but by those who seek to understand.
But alas … so many of our controversies of our present day are debated by people who think they fully understand what should be done, what is the right and what is the wrong, what is God’s will and what is not … when, in fact, they do not yet fully understand. How do I know this? Because I witness how scarce is among them, the godly virtues of humility and charity.
Brother Anthony of the Cross