Thinking Anew – The gift of wisdom

This newspaper last Saturday published an obituary of Mervyn Taylor, who was a cabinet minister in the 1990s and also served as chairman of the Labour Party and the party's chief whip. The obituary gave a detailed account of his Polish ancestry, including family members who were murdered in the Holocaust. On hearing of his death, President Michael D Higgins said that he was "one of the most gracious, unselfish and kindest members ever to serve in the Dáil".

Coincidentally on that same Saturday I was talking to a friend, who knew Mervyn for 40 years and had always been impressed by his ability to listen to the views of other people. Our conversation moved on to talk about the meaning of the word wisdom and he felt that his ability to listen and absorb what people told him allowed one to say that he was a wise person. To know a wise person is surely a great gift. And I imagine for most of us we have in the course of our lives have had the good fortune to encounter a wise person.

But what is wisdom? Yes, it’s linked to knowledge and intelligence but it is much more. The wise person knows himself or herself, sees the broader picture, and can apply knowledge and understanding to specific situations. The wise person reads the signs of the times, does not claim to know it all and will admit that we are all on a journey of self-awareness. When we see and experience wisdom we know where have encountered it.

The Hebrew Scriptures, which are central to the Jewish faith, the faith of Mervyn Taylor, have much to say to us about wisdom. In the first reading in tomorrow’s liturgy from the Book of Wisdom (7:7-11) we read: “I loved her more than health or beauty,/preferred her to the light/since her radiance never sleeps./In her company all good things came to me/at her hands riches not to be numbered.” Note the feminine pronoun, she, not he nor it. Those words were written towards the middle of the first century BCE/BC. The authorship is attributed to Solomon. We are all aware of the phrase “the wisdom of Solomon”.


In tomorrow’s Gospel reading, Mark (10: 17-30) writes about the man who lives an exemplary life but when he asked Jesus how is he going to inherit eternal life, he is told to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor. “You will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” Both the man and the disciples were aghast at this reply from Jesus, but he goes on to explain to them that through their own efforts “it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.” Surely that is a fundamental difference between God and us. Our lives bring us on a trajectory that is never fulfilled in this life, but reaches fulfilment in the company of God after our death.

When Jesus tells the rich man to give up his money, he is hinting to him that nothing in this world is ever going to bring us to ultimate fulfilment, as that is only found in God. I think it is in order to say that our lives are like a pilgrimage. We are constantly in process, and hopefully we progress. In Psalm 4 of the Psalter, which is more Jewish literature, we read: “O men, how long will your hearts be closed,/will you love what is futile and seek what is false?”

In moments of self-doubt, in times of dejection and rejection, as in periods of success and triumph, we should remind ourselves that our efforts are always limited. We are finite beings, whereas God is all about the infinite.

Mervyn Taylor said to his children close to his death: “I’ve had a wonderful life, a wonderful wife, wonderful grandchildren, wonderful friends and a wonderful career.”

Wise words indeed, and praising God for being so fortunate. All of that wonder is to be realised in perfect harmony and unity in the company of God.