We are currently reading through some wonderful “Wisdom Sayings” in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. Several of the sayings speak to the relationship between suffering and wisdom. And in this way the foolishness of our age, which is so hyper-focused on avoiding suffering at all costs, is exposed. Perhaps the link of suffering to wisdom is not the most pleasant of associations, but it is no less true for its difficulty. Let’s consider a few of the sayings.
The tone was set in the psalm of the day which says,
Make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart. (Ps 89:3)
In the last portion of my sermon at every funeral, I say to the faithful very plain terms, “You are going to die, and you don’t get to choose when.” I then ask them what are they doing to get ready to meet God.
For indeed in our culture, with all of our medicines and with the fact that many of the elderly die in nursing homes out of our sight, we have tended to ignore the reality of death. And this creates the illusion that death is remote, that we can somehow stave it off indefinitely. To many people, death seems almost theoretical. And in our fallen state, of course we entertain willingly the illusion that death is remote.
And yet in our almost unprecedented ability to maintain this illusion, it is also evident how foolish our collective behavior has become. Many people live with almost no thought that they will one day die and appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and will have to render an account for what they have done. Too many of us have wrongful priorities and spend most of our time and energy in passing, unimportant things. And we spend little or no time on eternal and certain things like death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Too many go on living in unrepentant mortal sin. All of this is foolishness on an almost colossal scale.
When I preach at funerals and say to people “You are going to die,” there is a visible reaction throughout the congregation. Some look anxiously amused; some look annoyed; and a few look knowingly and nod. But almost all are surprised, even shocked to hear something they almost never hear anymore.
As the Psalm verse implies by its logic, this silence about death is at the root of a great deal of the foolishness of our modern age. Many surveys indicate that 75-80% of people are not living in any discernible way that acknowledges that they will die and must prepare for it. Most are not praying; they are not reading Scripture; they are not going to Mass or to any church; they are not receiving Communion; and many are in serious and unrepentant mortal sin. All of this foolish neglect given the judgment that is coming upon them.
Sadly, when they do confront death and find themselves in a church for the funeral of a friend or relative, they are more likely to hear a “sermon” about what a great guy Joe was, but little to nothing of their need to pray for him and to prepare for death themselves.
And thus the verse from the Psalm is indeed poignant, beautiful, and necessary: Make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart.
There then come a number of wise sayings in the book of Ecclesiastes that also speak to this theme.
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to the house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living should take it to heart.
To be sure, there is a time to celebrate and feast. We ought to rejoice with those who rejoice; we ought to celebrate the goodness of God. But as the saying from the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is also a place for mourning and suffering, and in some sense that is better for us.
The text goes on to explain why.
Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser.
Yes, mirth and celebration bring joy, but sorrow and suffering bring wisdom. And though joy is wonderful, it passes in this world. But wisdom perdures and draws us to God. Wisdom is of God, and the things waiting for us in Heaven draw us to that place where true joys—joys that never end—are.
And then text drives the point further home.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth…For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the fool’s laughter.
Yes, jokes and laughter have their moments and they have their place. But too much draws us into foolishness. For the need to laugh, if we are not careful, comes to take on an almost addictive quality.
Any look at the “Comedy Channel” will confirm this. Most of the humor there is becoming edgier and edgier, more and more bawdy, filled with sexual content and the demeaning of many values such as family life, sexuality, and any number of human virtues. Comedians stand before large crowds in theaters and have the audience laughing about such foolish things as drunkenness, adultery, lust, greed, and pornography. Comedians also spent a great deal of time demeaning well-known figures as well as many important human institutions and activities. At most comedy clubs almost nothing is sacred, and people will laugh at some of the most hurtful and hateful things.
And thus the text from Ecclesiastes warns that the heart of fools is in the house of mirth, as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the fool’s laughter. Though mirth has its place, it must be balanced with sobriety and respect—respect for what is holy, decent, admirable, and pure. This is seldom the case with comedy today.
Is this too harsh an indictment? The text from Ecclesiastes goes on to say,
It is better to hearken to the wise man’s rebuke than to hearken to the song of fools;
Yes, some who read this reflection may consider this biblical wisdom to be too “negative,” too judgmental, too rebuking.
Before rushing to judgment, though, one ought to consider that many of us have had a steady diet of “the song of fools.” Whether it is the filthy comedy just described, or the music, movies, and other media of pop-culture, which celebrate things like fornication, rebellion, and gratuitous violence; a steady diet of this sort of stuff is bound to make God’s word seem too severe.
Is the problem God’s Word, which summons us to sobriety, or is it sin, which makes us foolish and hypersensitive to any correction? Light is only abhorrent to those who are accustomed to darkness.
Is God’s word unbalanced, or are we? You decide for yourself. As for me, I will strive to listen to the Lord and seek balance on His terms, not the world’s terms, which are already the outer extreme. God’s Word is the reference, not the world’s excesses.
We must look at more Wisdom sayings next week! Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!
Here’s a song about meditating on what is good, true, and beautiful—things which, having been discarded, are not sought as pearls of great value: