Desiring Wisdom

Douglas P. McManaman
Homily: 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 30, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

The first reading from 1 Kings, chapter 3 is packed with meaning. Notice Solomon’s reply to the Lord, who appeared to him in a dream and told him to ask for anything, and it will be his. He said: “But I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act. I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted”. Solomon clearly recognizes his own inadequacy to the task set before him. The nation he’s called to govern is vast, and Solomon knows that he does not have what it takes to serve that purpose adequately, so he asks for wisdom, an understanding heart, in order to judge wisely and to distinguish right from wrong. And the Lord was pleased with Solomon because he did not ask for a long life for himself nor did he ask for the life of his enemies. What he asked for revealed what he loved most: to fulfill the task the Lord has given him, to lead his people to goodness. But to do so, he requires an understanding heart, which he knows he lacks. So he asks for a heart that understands not so much the secrets of the universe, but a heart that understands the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. Moral wisdom. And he gets what he asks for.

If you really want to know who a person really is, there is no need to look to his academic achievements, for example, or the honors and awards he’s received throughout his life. All you need to know is what this person ultimately wants; for you are what you will. You are not what you think, and you are not what you feel, but you are what you will. What do I ultimately want? That’s who I am. And God knows what each one of us ultimately wants.

I remember pointing this out to a mental health patient I was visiting in the hospital many years ago. He was telling me of the struggles he was going through, the thoughts he was battling, the feelings that were the result of those thoughts. He was feeling horrible about himself. I remember at that point quoting Aristotle, who said that you are not what you think (in other words, your character is not determined by the opinions you hold), and you are not what you feel; but you are what you will. Your character, who you are, your moral identity, is determined by your will.

His face lit up. That point was a real source of hope for him. In his mind, he believed that his entire identity was wrapped up in his mental illness, in his thoughts and in his feelings. He knew what he willed to be, but he did not think that was significant. But that has the greatest significance. He was so happy to hear that.

Few people are aware that many saints struggled with mental illness of various kinds. But what defines them is not their illness, but the deepest desires of their heart, which God knows. This first reading reminded me of chapter 6 of the book of Wisdom:

Desire therefore my words; long for them and you will be instructed. Resplendent and unfading is Wisdom, and she is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.

She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her; one who watches for her at dawn will not be disappointed, for she will be found sitting at the gate.

What this means is that if a person lacks wisdom, it is because that person simply does not want it. We always get what we want in life. If we want wealth and a long life, we just might get it. If we want fame and renown, we just might get it. Unfortunately, however, memories fade, money is precarious and life is short. We were created by God for Himself, for eternal life with Him, and this life is about preparing for eternal life. Wealth is not evil, nor are fame and renown. But they are dangerous, because it is very easy for the human heart to set itself on these and make these the center of our lives. But it is the will of God that has to become the center of our lives, and that does not come naturally. It comes through divine grace. And God gives us the grace we need to desire His will first and foremost, but we are free to reject it. We are free to love our own well-being more than the will of God. But the good news is that if we ask, we will receive, if we seek, we will find, and if we knock, the door will be opened to us. Christ assured us of that. In the end, we always get what we want. The problem is we can become our own worst enemy and want what is ultimately going to destroy us. What’s different about Solomon is that he was aware of his own lack of experience. For most of us, it is when we are young that we are most blinded to our lack of experience and the resulting lack of wisdom; we lack a deep sense of our limitations. But Solomon saw this lack that characterizes youth when he was young: “But I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act”, he said. In other words, he already had the wisdom to see this. He asked for wisdom which he already had, at least in part. Which of course proves the book of Wisdom right, that wisdom anticipates those who desire her and shows up at their doorstep at dawn. So there is good news and bad news.

The good news is that the greatest treasures can be and will be ours for the asking; the bad news is that most of us may not have the wisdom to ask for it and seek it. So, if we have the wisdom to understand just that point, all we have to do is ask for a heart that understands what is good and pleasing to God, and it will be ours.