To acquire knowledge one must study, but to acquire wisdom, one must observe – Marilyn vos Savant
I love learning. If I’m really interested in a subject, I want to know everything I can about the subject. Unfortunately, not all of my school classes, from kindergarten through college, really fascinated me that much. One summer between elementary school and high school, something got me interested in Astronomy, and I spent the whole summer researching, making star maps, and trying to identify stars and constellations I could see from my back yard but without a telescope. To this day, I can still spot Orion far faster than I can the Big Dipper. Another summer, during college, I spent almost a month camping with a friend in a relatively isolated but not remote area, visiting cemeteries, talking to people whose families had lived there for generations, finding out about why their community was different than the rest of the area. That was great fun, and tremendously satisfying.
Learning is essential for everybody. It’s one of the most important things we do in life, both in and out of formal educational institutions and organized tutoring. Sir John Templeton once said, “A day without learning is a day wasted. There is so much to learn and so little time to learn it.” Evidence of this is thinking about how many times a day or even a week, we consult resources such as Google, even if for nothing more than as a help to solve a crossword puzzle.
We learn to survive disasters such as floods, earthquakes, etc., by watching documentaries, reading articles, or listening to experts. We want to be nurses, doctors, engineers, teachers, lawyers, managers, experts on a specific topic, or to build on a basic understanding of a subject or job where we already have a rudimentary knowledge, all in the attempt to improve our lives and those of our family members. Online education has become one of the fastest-growing forms of learning in the world. Even if the sum of new things we learn in a day is to fix a faucet or use an ATM at the bank or store, we are wiser than we were just a few minutes before we tried, whether or not we are successful, to do the new thing.
Wisdom is a slightly different kettle of fish, however. Wisdom can come from learning or knowledge, but it also comes from experience and often an insight, an epiphany perhaps, that adds a new layer or a flash of understanding that was not there even a blink of an eye before. Being wise is often a trait attributed to the elders of a group. There is a recognition that with age comes recognition of the long lives they have lived and the experiences they have had. Until recent generations, most have not had access to advanced educational programs, so their skills have served as their instruction. Many cultures that revere their elders’ wisdom seem to be those who are closer to their roots, the earth, and their traditions.
During Advent, we sang a verse of the hymn that began “O Sapientia” or “O Wisdom.” It pays tribute to the wisdom that comes from the mouth of God, an understanding that comes not from age and experience but from whom we consider the source of all knowledge. God’s wisdom has been present since before the world was made. Did God know everything at that time? It seems from several parts of scripture that God learned from experience or even from the words of God’s own creations, so, in my very humble opinion, I believe God still learns, probably a thousand steps ahead of us. I admit I could be wrong, but it makes sense to me.
We use “Wisdom” as one of the appellations for the Holy Spirit. In Hebrew and Jewish studies, “Shekhinah” is a name frequently used for “Spirit.” The Greeks used the name “Sophia.” Both Sophia and Shekhinah are feminine word forms, although the Spirit is commonly referred to in the masculine.
In this season of Epiphany, we often hear about the sudden flashes of insight or understanding that we call wisdom. Wisdom regarding the true desires of Herod to know the location of the Christ Child showed the Magi what was happening and how they should respond by going home a different way. Prophets in the Bible were given new insights and instructions in dreams or appearances of angels, often changing the opinions and thoughts of the human recipients quite radically. New inventions, new ways of doing things, new understandings frequently come as sudden flashes of thinking and comprehension that help advance learning, the sciences, and even the arts. A person’s mind may have been chewing on an idea or concept for some time when, all of a sudden, somehow, a thought comes that resolves any problem or connects the separate parts into a workable whole.
Wisdom, learning, intuition, inspiration – all are words that can indicate the change of mind and heart. In our Christian life, it is something for which we hope and pray. We may find that meditation and contemplation help us to still our minds so that God can get a word in edgewise, a concept that is usually something we need to think about, act on, or work through. Ideally, we should seek new wisdom and new learning through daily prayer and regular attendance at church or study sessions, but sometimes an ordinary everyday experience or the reading of something can provide the spark that we need. It could be something minimal, but could also be or lead to something that could change the world.
This Epiphany season, I am going to try to increase my knowledge (learning) and insight (wisdom). Instead of dulling my mind with reruns and mind-candy, maybe silence and learning to stop the hamster cage of my mind are what I need to bring new epiphanies. I’ve had epiphanies before, and they have been mind-altering and sometimes life-changing. I think I need to work on experiencing more, with help from God, Jesus, and especially Spirit, whether I call her Sapientia, Shekhinah, or Sophia, the aspects of light, wisdom, dwelling, and presence are gifts for which I ask.
Most of all, I must try to learn something new every day. Otherwise, what good can I do for the world? I might as well push up daisies from the underground parking lot we call the cemetery. I guess I’d best get busy because while daisies are pretty and I’ll be doing that at some point in time, I don’t need to rush it. That’s my epiphany for today.
Image: St Sophia (Novodevichiy), (17th C ?). Found on Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. Her domestic fur-kids, Dominic, Gandhi, and Phoebe, keep her company.