What is Wisdom?

The Rev. William C. Redfield
Trinity Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, NY
The Last Sunday of Epiphany—Year C—February 10, 2013

Luke 9:28-36

The most obvious and automatic follow-up question to my announcement that I am about to retire and leave my position as rector here at Trinity in order to engage in more explicit and wider circles of Wisdom work is: “What the heck is Wisdom Work?!”

A good question.  But the answer is a little involved.  I hope this is a helpful offering in an ongoing conversation about my future plans.


Life in this time and place is built on many layers of assumptions.  For instance, for the most part our culture thinks that the best financial configuration is a capitalistic free market system, that everyone has a right to own a gun, that self-interest is the best motivational system for our moral and economic system, that science brings us to deeper truth, that prisons reduce crime.  The list goes on and on.  (I actually have come to question all of these assumptions, but that’s not the point I’m making here.)  So ubiquitous are the manifestations of these assumptions that for the most part we don’t even question their truth or the source of their authority.  These and other such assumptions lead us to conclude that more is better, that bigger is better, and that faster is better.  Step by step we are being led down a road that is leading us to more selfish, violent, and materialistic life.

But is that really the direction that we truly want to travel?

All you have to do is to visit a developing country to see that life can actually be very different.  There you may find that those previously hidden and unquestioned assumptions stand out in bold relief.  For there, you may discover, that time is a more precious commodity than financial gain, that cooperation and helpfulness are valued more than competition, and that generosity trumps selfishness and creed.

My point is not to naively and romantically paint poorer countries in a brighter or better light, for abject poverty can batter the human soul as much as fantastic riches can turn the human heart to stone.  My question rather is this: Where is the place from which we can more realistically draw conclusions about such matters?  From where, in other words, does Wisdom come?

As Christians, we might reflexively assert that our religion provides that place.  But, while I agree that it can, I wonder how much it really does.  The history of religion in general and of Christianity in particular has been checkered to say the least.  Indeed, the number of human beings slaughtered in the various names of God is too large to even fathom.  Or on a more parochial level, how often do we hear stories of clergy and congregations behaving badly—all while everyone is singing hymns of praise to God and reciting prayers for peace.  But all of this may not be the fault of religion per se or certainly of any of the great spiritual teachers whose lives and works gave rise to the various religious traditions; it may be more the result of our failure to live the lives to which they invite us.  The question, though, is why.  I will get to that.

Indeed, we may have the deep sense that Jesus himself embodied this Wisdom.  In fact it is true that the primary title given to Jesus was that of a moshelim, that is, a master of Wisdom, and he did teach in mashal, that is, parables and Wisdom sayings.  And he himself seemed the epitome of Wisdom, moving through life with a heart overflowing with compassion, generosity, and love.  Clearly, however, not everyone caught on to either his Wisdom actions or his Wisdom teachings.  Some of his listeners got it, but many more did not.  And even the people, who did at times seem to get a grasp of the Wisdom he was conveying, were not always able to maintain it.

By the way, I am not talking about moral uprightness here.  Although that was often the spin that others put on his teachings, Jesus’ Wisdom was never actually about that.  Jesus, the Wisdom master, did not so much implore his listeners to be better and more upright citizens; instead he coaxed and implored them to awaken.  Similarly, he never preached a straight and narrow moral life to be lived in this life in order to gain entrance into a heaven in the next life.  Instead, he invited his listeners to wake up to the kingdom of heaven right here in the present moment.  But while many were fascinated with his Wisdom teaching and drawn to his powers of healing, the sad truth is that he actually had mixed success in winning hearts.

The friends and followers who did seem to grasp the Wisdom of the master seemed to have done so because their level of being was raised—at least temporarily—to a point where they could resonate to the frequency of the Wisdom he was teaching and transmitting.  Maybe because their desperation drove them to an extreme point of openness and vulnerability, maybe because their desire was so great, maybe because they had somehow coaxed their hearts into a state of open receptivity—whatever the reason—his truth touched the very depths of their hearts.  From this higher level of being—like a tuning fork—they came to vibrate at same frequency as the Wisdom master, and they saw just as Jesus saw.  His teachings and his very presence provided a sort of divine alchemy that brought them into a deeply pervasive sense of union.  Through this experience they were transformed from the inside out.

But those people who approached Jesus with skepticism, criticism, and judgment—well, they didn’t get his Wisdom at all.  Instead of being able to match his level of being, they sought to bring Jesus down to their own level.   Consequently, they were blind and deaf to his teaching and even closed to his healing.  Because they were not able to rise beyond the strong gravitational pull of their own small-mindedness, they simply could not grasp Jesus’ Wisdom.

It seems, then, that openness to the full depth of the Gospel Wisdom requires the receptivity of a certain state of mind or a certain state of being.  Without that, the Wisdom of Jesus cannot be received.  We simply need to grow beyond the small mind—because unless or until we do, we will end up twisting and distorting this Wisdom substantially.  In fact, when you run the deep Wisdom truths of Jesus through the small mind alone, all you get is a deeper entrenchment in what you already believed in the first place.  Profession of a certain set of beliefs without accompanying transformation ends up not amounting to much at all.

Unfortunately, this understanding has become tragically overlooked and misunderstood here in the West.  Starting with the bitter doctrinal controversies of the third and fourth centuries, the Church has made our faith too much a question of mental belief, and our tradition has become far too influenced by creedal and doctrinal statements of belief and not steered by actual spiritual truth that is born out of experience.

Wisdom work, then, is an effort to correct this and to bring our Christian faith back to its essential experiential underpinnings.  It’s not that grace is being ignored, denied, or even undervalued; it’s more that, if we are to be instruments of the reception and transmission of God’s love, we have a responsibility to tune our instruments.

Thus, much of Wisdom work involves growing beyond our smaller minds in order to enter our larger minds (or our hearts, really).  Indeed, the word for “repent” in the Gospel, more than meaning, “feel really sorry for your sins” means “transform yourself by coming into your larger mind” or heart. (Marcus Borg)

Or maybe all of this is better conceptualized by thinking of the operating system of your computer.  We’ve been chugging along using the more limited operating system of the smaller mind (also called the ego); but that operating system is only capable of specific operations on a certain level of life.  Great for choosing which kind of spaghetti sauce you want to buy at Wegman’s, but not so good for grasping the meaning of life’s wholeness.

The kingdom of which Jesus speaks requires us to employ another operating system that can perform operations of a different order entirely.  When this system is up and running—and, by the way, we all come fully equipped with this other operating system, which we may call the heart operating system—a whole new way of seeing is possible and higher levels of being are accessible.   But the work of Wisdom is not to cancel out the egoic operating system of the smaller mind; it is rather to help us to bring this other operating system on line and then to integrate the two.

All of that is pretty conceptual, I realize.  So let me be more practical.  How do we do this?

Wisdom work, as I have come to understand and experience it, has two major components: attention and surrender.  Attention methods help us to more deeply connect to the energy field within and around us.  Through specific practices we learn to see and experience life more accurately and more directly.  To do this we usually need to get out from beneath the dominant sway of our own personal story.  You see, the story of “me” always puts me in the middle and insists that everything be judged and evaluated in terms of how it affects me.  But that keeps us focused on the surface of things.  With attention practices, we learn to see and experience what lies underneath that.

Surrender is the practice that Jesus perfected in his life.  By refusing to clutch or grab anything in life and by declining to brace against anything, he allowed everything to come to him and flow through him.  In this counterintuitive approach he found the gateway to union with God.  Practice in surrender methods (which includes both meditation practices and other more active practices) we work to pattern this gesture of surrender into our very being.  And we discover that this gesture connects to that in us that lives beyond death.  And it is the surrender of Jesus that becomes the bridge that can take us there.  But it’s not that surrender in this moment brings us a resulting reward in the next.  The truth is in the gesture and the letting go movement itself.  Learn that gesture and bring it into multiple aspects in your life and you will have found a passageway to the kingdom.


On this the Last Sunday of Epiphany we hear the story of the Transfiguration.  The three disciples see Jesus in a transformed and transfigured state.  But the secret of this Gospel story is not just that that reveals Jesus’ glory; we too are capable of the very same.  We have been born into lives that desire to be transfigured and transformed.