What is wisdom? We speak of it as a product of age or experience or perception, and we should know it as an uneasy ally of intelligence. It can be, though, an entire enemy to knowledge.
The lectionary readings this last Sunday had us reading Proverbs 1:20-33, where Wisdom “cries out in the street: in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out: at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 'How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you: I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, . . . and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity . . . For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.'” Wisdom, at least for the translators, denotes something different from simple accumulation of information.
The wise course is to avoid cigarettes. It is wise to use moderate language. Prudence is wise, but sensing an outcome by empathy and projection is wise. Wisdom is also reverence and obedience to God.
This year, I have had a 9/11 hangover rather than a 9/11 reaction. I was prepared to let the day slip into the oblivion of time's countless pile, where names and numbers are the follies of desires, but this year it was Tuesday, and it was Tuesday in 2001. I was low that day, mind you, but vaguely. Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday, were worse.
I have had no evolution in my thinking about the month of harrowing begun on the day, as thinking is merely a paddle for the stream. Instead, I have remained in the same position: there are moments of suffering, and suffering is different from pain. This is my position.
Suffering has no agent to blame or object to remove. Suffering does not achieve a thing. (If it does, then it's endurance.) Suffering can never, ever know or achieve a meaning or a lesson itself. The value of suffering comes entirely from grace. (Be very careful with reading that last sentence. When is wandering in the desert forging a nation and the grace of God, and when is conquest by a neighbor the hone of pain? The people involved do not get to decide.)
The lectionary paired this reading from Proverbs with Mark's description of the revealing of the messianic secret 8:27-38: … he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Mark's description is really interesting. When Peter names Jesus as the messiah, Jesus speaks openly of the divine, of the true messiah, of the suffering and humiliation and death and resurrection. Peter wanted to correct Jesus on the meaning of the messiah, for he had knowledge, and Jesus scolded him with a dual statement. First, he was scolding the temptation to conform to human expectations (human kings work like that), but then he was also explaining something that the Gnostics would exaggerate and get entirely wrong: there is God's kingdom, and man's, and the messiah is God's savior of men.
Suffering does not teach the sufferer anything. We who looked with fear, with dread, with sad stones in our throats, at the orange moon permanently crashed in lower Manhattan, where the pile burned night after night, could only pray, volunteer, cry, and cringe. We could not look for Superman to turn the globe around. When the salty smoke came our way, or when the people of Brooklyn endured weeks of the burning buildings and dead blowing a shroud upon them, we did not have faith that the EPA told the truth, nor that we could use duct tape or surgical masks or anything else. When we encountered the abandoned things. . . all those cheerful witnesses to an ordinary person's busy day's aspirations and graven expectations, and as each demanded an homage as much as it demanded back its owner, we could only feel it. Insulting apes, driven blind by instinct, reacted to the suffering and were themselves endured.
Will this make me more wary or prudent? It cannot.
Wisdom shouts at the gate and at the traffic lights. The mentally ill endure suffering for lifetimes, and they neither chose nor were chosen for their lot. The hungry cast shadows around the fed, and they keep their dignity by suffering through insult after insult. The laid off worker was no failure in any way, but the company's failure condemns him in the eyes of others, and so she suffers.
Suffering changes those who go through its course. They know what others do not. They know what a world without a horizon is, and they are less likely to see missiles that appear and destroy as just, less likely to see the support of the weak as a burden for the strong. There is wisdom in that.
However, we have only this as consolation: ours is not to know, even, what purpose suffering serves. We think as humans and see as our eyes allow. Our knowledge forbids our awareness, and there is a scale of justice and a motive of value that is God's alone, and we can have faith in its rightness by honoring those who suffer and judging them not.