Where Wisdom is to be Found

July 15, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using Ecclesiasticus 1.1-12, Psalm 119 at Evensong on Sunday 15th July 2018, St Swithun’s Day.

May I share with you a case study from the charity of which I’m a Trustee? It’s called the Footprints Project and it’s about rehabilitating ex-offenders. This is a study of a woman who here is called Caitlin:

Caitlin was released from prison after serving 12 years. Having spent all of her adult life in custody Caitlin found adjusting to life on the outside extremely challenging. She contacted Footprints to ask for help. Caitlin was spending the majority of her time at home, her confidence and self-esteem were low and she suffered with anxiety when leaving the house.

In the beginning, she cancelled several appointments with her mentor to avoid leaving her home. Her mentor persevered and eventually they started to gain Caitlin’s trust.

Because of Caitlin’s license conditions, she was limited to the work that she was able to partake in. She was declined work due to her criminal convictions and her confidence and self-esteem deteriorated further.

She was put forward for an Equine Assisted Learning Programme and completed the six week course with Footprints, in partnership with Tower House Horses. Throughout the course Caitlin made huge progress and her confidence and self-esteem grew each week. Caitlin has learned to believe in herself and generally has a more positive and optimistic outlook on life. She feels she is now in a position to apply for full time employment and her mentor will support her to do this.

We all enjoy success stories, but what made my ears prick up was the mention of the equine assisted learning programme, which can roughly be translated as being with horses – not usually riding them, but simply being with them, developing a relationship with them. Now there’s one member of our congregation who will immediately understand this  – Anne PB, for those who know her  – but the rest of us may time to consider that the relationship between man and horse has evolved over 6000 years and that horses are creatures of enormous emotional intelligence and instinct. In fact these creatures have been used since the 1950s as a way of helping people get in touch with their own emotions, overcome mental health issues and learn new life-skills. You’ve heard of hypnotherapy, but this is hippotherapy, the Greek for horse being hippo!

We are pondering all this because St Swithun was thought to be wise. He was probably a counsellor to King Egbert and a tutor and friend to his son, Aethelwulf. St Swithun’s day, then, is a chance to reflect on what wisdom is and how we grow in wisdom, and that’s certainly the theme of today’s anthem.

The text, set to music by Philip Moore, is a combination of verses from Ecclesiasticus Chapter 1 and Psalm 119. The words on page 12 of the order of service come from Ecclesiasticus and the rest on the following page are from the psalm, which offers an intimate and serene response to what has been revealed about the nature of wisdom in the first part.

The message, boldly stated at the start of the anthem, is: ‘all wisdom comes from the Lord and is with him forever’. Those of us of mature years and in positions of dignity in the venerable community of the church would dearly love to be wise, to have some wisdom under our belts; but wisdom from beginning to end belongs to God. Wisdom is something that can only ever be loaned to us.

The mysticism that begins to surround the idea of wisdom in the Old Testament, which is further developed in Christian thought, is that this wisdom is foundational and primordial to all creation. There isn’t just a seam of meaning squeezed narrowly into the fabric of creation; creation rests on, is rooted in, wisdom.

This begins to make sense of the therapeutic power of horses. Horses haven’t got the gumption to be self-consciously wise; their wisdom consists of being acutely adapted to their environment, which includes the need to relate sensitively to humans. One could say the same about dogs, but we may find wisdom incarnate in all parts our Blue Planet, say, in the way in which a crab knows how to avoid the octopus.

We might just call this instinct, but our human wisdom goes beyond the instinctual. We have conscious knowledge not only of our environment, but also of our creator. In the anthem the solo baritone reminds us of this, as he moves from the question of the roots of wisdom to the author of wisdom himself: ‘there is one wise and greatly to be feared, the Lord sitting upon his throne.’ As his voice soars, so we see the Lord high and lifted up in glory, beyond our comprehension, dispensing the gift of wisdom.

Wisdom is never ours; it dwells with and among us as sheer gift. But paradoxically, as soon as we realise this, then the gifting of wisdom can begin in the fear of the Lord, in taking nothing for granted, nothing as our right.

This is what’s so masterly about the final section of the anthem from Psalm 119, which evokes a monastic chant – the tone is serene, trusting and prayerful. Those who seek wisdom are seeking God – no more, nor less – his word, his instruction, his mind – and nothing gives them more pleasure than this search, which is not a frantic search for a lost or elusive object, but a seeking and desiring to be fully present to an enveloping reality, which embraces us as surely as the waters cover both crab and octopus.

The life of the praying seeker of wisdom is about handing over all initiative to God. The fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of all wisdom, but wisdom tells us that we cannot even properly fear God by ourselves. Godly fear is also a gift: our fear has to grow out of a sense of awe at his greatness, and of our responsibility before him, which is why we must never stop thanking God for this building, designed and built precisely to inspire this awe and wonder, in king and commoner alike. Prayer and worship set us before God as those who confess and desire our beginning and end to be in him.

St Swithun’s role in society reminds us that a prayerful life doesn’t mean a life of enclosure. As we pray, we will find the roles and responsibilities which we are called to inhabit, and to realise how best to serve and be served within the whole glorious ecology of God’s works. Wisdom is everywhere to be found, not only in the great affairs of church and state for which we pray so often, but in the smallest and outwardly insignificant elements of our lives.

Those who seek God’s wisdom might choose to emulate the humility of St Swithun, who we are told asked to be buried outdoors where others could tread over him; or perhaps, given that we’ve already been on the seabed in these last minutes, we might choose to emulate the deliciously named sea cucumber – God’s own marine vacuum cleaners, sucking up sediment and extracting from it any organic matter. The wise will move carefully and gratefully over whatever terrain they are given, however unpromising it may seem at first, because in every situation God’s wisdom is to be found, ready to be discerned, de-ciphered and digested.