Monday, May 12, 2008

Monday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Choosing The Right Boat

Readings: James 1:1-11; Psalm 119:67, 68, 71, 72, 75, 76; Mark 8:11-13
Picture: CC noprayer4dying

After the fifty days of the Easter season, we recommence Ordinary Time today by beginning the letter of James and by resuming our earlier reading of Mark’s gospel, which had been interrupted by the start of Lent. And, quite coincidentally, a day after our celebration of Pentecost, our readings today invite us to meditate upon what is required of us if we wish to receive the Spirit’s gift of wisdom. At first glance, it may seem difficult to reconcile two aspects in the first reading’s description of the process by which the gift of wisdom is offered and received. On the one hand, God is described as one who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly. And yet, on the other hand, this same God seems to set conditions on the recipients of God’s gift. Only the one who asks in faith gets what is desired. The doubter receives nothing. If God is really so generous, why the apparent bias against the doubter? And what has faith to do with wisdom?

Two aspects need to be considered in pondering this apparent contradiction. The first is the nature of the gift. And the second is the process of reception. We live in an information age and take for granted our own amazing ability to manipulate electronic data. Using a wide array of different technologies, we can now upload, download, store, transmit and reconfigure information in many different ways. So it is quite understandable if, consciously or not, we tend to think of the gift of wisdom in terms of bits and bytes. But wisdom is not to be equated with information. While the latter may yield to manipulation, the former requires humble submission. To invoke another image, while information might be likened to the cargo that one wishes to transport, wisdom is more like the ship that transports it. The first is stationery until moved, but the second tends to move in a very specific direction.

If this is the case, then in order to receive the gift of wisdom, one must be willing to jump aboard ship. One must be willing to change one’s course to match the direction in which the ship is moving. And if one has already boarded another ship moving in a different direction, one must choose between the two. This, of course, is where the doubter runs into difficulties. Such a person is unwilling to choose. In the words of the popular local Chinese aphorism s/he prefers to remain standing on two boats at once (脚蹋两条船), even when they begin to move in different directions. It’s not difficult to see why wisdom remains beyond the reach of such a one.

But there is yet another class of people with whom it is even more difficult to deal. Whereas the doubter might perhaps still be persuaded eventually to choose between the two boats, this latter group has actually already chosen. The Pharisees in the gospel are an obvious example. Their request for a sign from Jesus is only an excuse, a deviously contrived ruse to hide their own stubbornness. They have actually already made up their minds as to the particular kind of Messiah they are willing to accept – someone who matches their own strongly held prejudices. They have already chosen their boat and wish only to arm-twist others, even God, into joining them. Is it any wonder that Jesus’ response is simply to get into his own boat and to sail off to the other shore?

All this is simply a rather long-winded way of describing what St. Ignatius of Loyola offers as the prerequisite, the Principle and Foundation of discernment. In all things, our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created, which is the glory of God and our own salvation (SpEx #23). It is this detachment, this Ignatian indifference, for which we need first to pray if we are indeed to receive God's gift of wisdom.

Which boat will we choose today?


  1. Somehow all my years of conditioning associates the concept of wisdom with age. In the Chinese context we speak of eating more salt than someone having eaten rice. Wisdom cannot be measured and quantified but vindicated by our actions. So we when we see manifestations of someone young behaving wisely, we often comment that the person is wise beyond his years.
    Do we expect the same level of wisdom from a student then we expect from a sage? As we age we are expected to be wise as it would imply that we have chosen along the path guided by our vocation. But this is often not the case when the child in us stubbornly refuses to let go of our wanton ways.
    The Holy Spirit helps us in our choice. In this era of instantaneous aging where we are confronted with information overload and bombarded incessantly, the promptings from the divine is often be drowned out by ambient “noise.” It behooves us to be good examples to our children so they may also learn to pause and listen to the inner voice of wisdom.
    The immutable teachings of our Messiah, when we fully participate at mass, provide somber reminders that the world is relentlessly trying to evangelize us. Our calling is to stay the course, literally steering from the boat we have chosen to travel. By our baptism, we are empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit to be discerning in our choices in face of the onslaught of secularism, consumerism and new age modernism.
    I pray that the boat I’m in can weather the storm and the uncertainties ahead.

  2. Thanks, Fr Chris, for your advice on jumping ship {in a good sense}

    My two take-home points from Fr Chris' reflections today:

    (1)The Pharisees had made up their minds on who the Messiah should be. A closed mind, next to a heart of stone, is the greatest obstacle to us humans. I know; I used to be like that. And now, after five decades plus living with human beings, I have acquired this unenviable knack of sensing a closed mind. One's encounter with the God of surprises is that much limited by a fortress mind and heart.

    (2)Detachment/Ignation indifference. A Buddhist tenet that I deeply admire. If money is the root of all evil, then attachment must surely be the top soil. Detachment / Ig indifference can be worked at. Like love and forgiveness, they are matters of the will.


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