Growth is the law that prevails in the spiritual life. It is not a "one size fits all" program, since we all commence the process from different starting points, we keep at it for varying lengths of time, and we have differing arrival places, depending on God’s designs for us and our cooperation with Him.
Our scriptures today present one scenario of what this looks like. It features the beginning of the book of Sirach within the wisdom tradition that was honored in ancient Israel. It clearly focuses on the prominence of wisdom in God’s designs for those for whom wisdom is a calling-which presumably is most of us. Sirach is laudatory of wisdom, situating it at the very beginning of creation, giving it an overarching role in the creation process, almost identifying it with God Himself. This is an encomium to wisdom that suggests it as a requisite in the lives of us all. And we gratefully note that God bestows it upon us all.
So far, so good. But we know from our track record that there’s something amiss in our appropriation of wisdom. If we possessed our fair share of it, we certainly must wonder why it is not more in evidence in the way we lead our lives. Thankfully we have today’s gospel of Mark in which to frame an instructive picture of wisdom in operation. As frames are prone to do, this frame sets limits to the attractive picture of wisdom that Sirach provides.
In the first place, Mark presents some of Jesus’ disciples in a quandary before a significant problem confronting them, the plight of a young lad possessed by the devil and grievously tormented by him. This situation has driven the boy’s father to desperation, and he has approached the disciples, seeking their help for the boy, to no avail. The disciples don’t know what to do. They don’t display the kind of wisdom that Sirach speaks of in the earlier reading. And even the father, at wits end, evidences a faltering conviction that Jesus can do something about the situation, when he exclaims: "If you can do anything…" Jesus seems nettled by this remark of the father, mimicking in reply: "’If you can!’" So the father too labors under a less than desirable portion of wisdom, until challenged by Jesus: "Everything is possible to one who has faith." And that triggered in the father the requisite wisdom required: "I do believe, help my unbelief!" And Jesus casts out the demon.
So we see wisdom in the process of being achieved, in this account. Not all at once, but bit by bit. And later on the disciples got the formula from Jesus on how to gain its fullness: prayer (and fasting).
We celebrate today the memorial of St. Peter Damian who, as a Doctor (a learned one) of the church, excelled in acquiring, and using, the kind of wisdom that Sirach proposes to us today. St. Peter Damian was an 11th century professor, prior and bishop who wisely used his gifts for the good of the church of his day. His accomplishments offer another frame featuring wisdom at work, giving us hope that we too, each in our own frame of reference, can display the wisdom Sirach proposes today.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.