Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
When we hear the word wisdom and think about those who embody it, the societal archetype often depicts the wise as the sage figure. Oftentimes they are the elders of a community — the grandmothers and grandfathers. Or maybe they are just those who have been around the block a few times, who know their way around things, who have had enough experiences over time to know how it works and what we should and shouldn’t do. The word wisdom is often accompanied with connotations of a kind of quiet strength and resolve. One of our staff members the other day remarked that wisdom is often portrayed as very serious and somber even. And that’s all well and good; there is certainly a place for seriousness in this world especially when it involves matters of justice and equity. But that’s not the whole story when it comes to wisdom — at least how the book of Proverbs tells it. Instead of a serious, old, white bearded man sitting aloof on top of a mountain, Proverbs 8 personifies wisdom as a female identifying figure who even before the beginning of time itself was crying out, rejoicing, playing, and delighting in creation.
After reading Proverbs 8, I invite us to consider what wisdom has to do with creation — especially wisdom portrayed like this?
Exiled from his home country of Vietnam in 1966 for his efforts in opposing the Vietnam war, the recently departed Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, was no stranger to suffering. From braving tumultuous waters on rescue boats in order to save the lives of fleeing refugees, to bearing witness to inhuman treatment and unimaginable loss as villages burned to the ground, unbearable pain and heartache at the hand of oppression were common experiences in Thich Nhat Hanh’s life. Amidst the temptation to despair, though, through many tears and trials, his ceaseless pursuit of compassion led him down the path of becoming a spiritual leader on the world stage of activism and social engagement — ever championing the cause of justice and inspiring others pursuing the same.
As a contemporary forerunner of the mindfulness movement, Thich Nhat Hanh’s legacy in many ways has been quite a simple message: be here, now. Amidst the sorrow and suffering, amidst the joy and beauty, amidst the apathy and confusion, be right here, right now. As he would often teach: breathe in, and know that you are breathing in; Breathe out, and know that you are breathing out, mindful of this moment. If you ever have a chance to watch a video of Thich Nhat Hanh doing anything at all, two things become clear very quickly: one, he has a profoundly deep awareness and appreciation of the present moment and, two, he moves through life with such contentment. Whether he was sitting, speaking, walking, or eating, Thich Nhat Hanh would pay attention to every little detail, taking his time as he contemplated each word, felt each step, savored each bite — usually with a subtle smile on his face that radiated grace and gratitude and playfulness. It becomes clear that Thich Nhat Hanh delighted in life.
Even after experiencing such horror and destruction and marginalization, Thich Nhat Hanh was able to write these words from his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness: he says, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
My sister gave birth to her and her husband’s first child this past Sunday morning at 3:15am. At the hospital, I was able to hold him for my first time, and for that stretch of moments as I cradled him in my arms, I could understand what Thich Nhat Hanh said about the miracle of life. In a world where so much feels out of place, as I held my nephew while gazing into those curious eyes and listening to his little whimpers, for that hour and the hours to come, everything just fell into place. It all made sense in an unspeakable kind of way, and it all was miraculous. This life that I held was a miracle, my sister was a miracle, the trees in the hospital parking lot and the blue sky above was a miracle. There was and continues to be a glow about life, and I have spent more than a few moments simply being aware of and delighting in it all.
What Thich Nhat Hanh says about the miracle of walking the earth, I believe, speaks to his ability to connect with and tap into a reality, a source, an origin and order of things that has been a part of all things since the very beginning and beyond. But sometimes it just comes upon us, right? We find ourselves in a kind of flow with the universe. By no effort of my own, it felt like that’s what happened to me when I held my nephew for the first time and what I think happens when we all have experiences that just utterly take our breath away with life’s beauty. We tap into this primal source, this ground of all of things.
In our scripture for today, this personification of wisdom is asserting her place as a part of the framework of creation even before the very beginning of all things. Before the depths were brought up, before the waters, before the mountains and soils, before the skies and all the creatures, there was Wisdom. If we read the wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures, which includes Proverbs, we see that a lot of these wisdom sayings are very pragmatic and observational — concerned with the right response for specific occasions. Some sayings deal in common sense, others deal in decency and fairness, but in general, the notion of wisdom takes form as a kind of force of discernment, grounding thought and action in the good, the right, the just, the things of God. But what is so remarkable about this passage is the portrayal of wisdom not as some stoic, somber, distant entity, but as a figure who rejoices, who plays, who delights in creation and delights in humanity. That is the conclusion that wisdom comes to while walking the earth – that it is a delight. Before any war, any inequality, any greed, any prejudice, any division, there was wisdom — a force that led Thich Nhat Hanh to deem life a miracle, a force that wrapped me in her arms of unspeakable love for this new life in my arms, a force that deemed existence as meant to be delighted in. That is our original nature, that is the origin of all things, before any other label or role or identity marker. As a creation of God, we are first and foremost a delight to the divine.
What wisdom has to do with creation is show us that there has been an intentionality to creation from the very beginning – an order to things in which justice and love and delight and play reign supreme and essential. It shows us that creation was not some mindless happenstance of coincidence but, rather, that God knew what God was doing in creation, and, through wisdom, knew that what was created was something to be delighted in. Of course, life does not always feel like a delight, though. Sometimes it’s hard to see anything as a miracle. There’s sickness and separation, loss and injustice, all manner of pain. Wisdom being a part of creation from the very beginning and deeming it a delight does not negate the weight of suffering, nor does it call us to naively ignore it. There is a whole book of the Bible entitled, Lamentations. Read the Psalms, it’s not all praise and miracles and delight. Even Jesus lamented and despaired. There is some weight to this life, too. I don’t need to tell you that. No, wisdom’s delight does not call us to ignorance, suppression, or passivity – rather, she calls us to remember. To remember that the origin of all things is not pain or productivity but, rather, play and delight and a flow of wise waters whose spring is love — inviting all creation to come back, to come home, to claim our identity as something to be delighted in and to act accordingly in our relationship to others and to ourselves. In other words, wisdom invites us to remember where we come from.
May we remember that before there was injustice, there was justice; before there was exclusion, there was inclusion; before there was retribution, there was grace; before there was toiling, there was play; before there was hate, there was love; before there was despair, there was delight. May we remember what was before and heed wisdom’s call to work towards what could be and what God promises will be again. And when it doesn’t feel worth it anymore, may we look to the miracles of life both minuscule and massive to empower us to participate in making such a thing possible, inviting all along the way to claim their identity as a beloved child of God whom God deems a delight.