Because I am writing this reflection on the 8th of August, the Feast of St. Dominic, I will share with you my thoughts on “study,” the one pillar of Dominican life from which no friar is ever excused from doing. The other three pillars are “prayer,” “ministry,” and “community” which could be postponed for the sake of study.
For me, the benefit of study is wisdom. But it seems to me that wisdom is a lost virtue for us today, especially for those of us who were born after World War II. We have grown up immersed in information, obsessed with technology, and addicted to quick fixes. Unfortunately, we confuse the use of information and technology to make quick fixes with being wise.
“Wisdom comes from experience,” goes an old saying. But the deeper truth of this saying is reflected in the words spoken by the Canadian physician Dr. Kerr L. White (1917-2014): “Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.” Dr. Kerr was thinking of how a doctor who exercises bad judgement and makes poor decisions is likely to experience more illness, more complications and, through those experiences, hopefully develops better medical judgment. Unfortunately, when it comes to the practice of medicine, that experience can come at a high cost for both patient and physician.
A biblical example of mutual collaboration between wisdom and experience is found in the story of the Passover. Moses gave the Israelites careful instructions preparing them for the night when the angel of death would pass over the land of Egypt. If the people were wise enough to put their faith in the promises God had given to Abraham and Sarah and follow Moses’ instructions, they would be saved. If they were unwise and did not, they would experience and mourn the death of their firstborn like their adversaries, the Egyptians.
But this brings up another wisdom saying from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Interestingly, Moses had the “wisdom” to use Santayana’s saying long before it was ever thought of to encourage the complaining Israelites through the rugged desert towards the Promised Land.
When it comes to one of many Dominican perspectives on wisdom, I like to think about Thomas Aquinas, OP (1225-1274). Aquinas believed that intelligence consists of knowledge about reality and wisdom appears when we metaphorically apply the reality to ourselves so that through metaphors we come to have self-wisdom.
For example, think about water and how the properties of water like being hot or stagnant, flowing or boiling, freezing or warm, or refreshing apply to you and who you are. When I do this, I come to know that when a person approaches me, I can appear cold as ice until I hear what he or she has to say. Then, I might respond with flowing excitement, with boiling anger, or with a stagnant “O.K.” When I remind myself to be as as fluid as water and to have faith in the promises of God, then self-wisdom is given to me.
There is a story about a woman who visits an eastern holy man in search of wisdom. After traveling far to find him, she sits at his feet and launches into a long account of all the paths she had trod so far in her search for wisdom, how she came to know she should seek him out, and what she hoped to gain in her time with him. As she talked, he handed her a tea cup and started pouring. Eventually, the cup started overflowing, but he did not stop. Finally, she pulled back her cup, and shouted, “What are you doing?” Skirting her question, the holy man replied, “Wisdom is always pouring itself into you, but you must empty yourself to receive it.”
In the Dominican tradition, study tells me that I am truly empty so that wisdom can find a home.
Fr. Bob Kelly