An Understanding Mind (July-August 2005)

July-August 2005


An Understanding Mind ©

When we think of the wisdom of Solomon, we picture a talent of epic proportions. For those who know the story, we recall how his special talent guided him in dealing with thorny questions of public administration and rooted the praise that is attributed to him in the Book of Wisdom. (Cf. 1Kings 3ff; Wisdom 6-9)

Such a gift was not taken for granted by Solomon; nor should it be by us.

According to Scripture, God appeared to Solomon in a dream and offered to grant any wish that he might have. Solomon’s response is both surprising and instructive.

To begin with, he might be expected to launch into thoughts about himself and about his desires and ambitions, particularly if we think about the way genie-in-the-bottle stories are often told. Rather, Solomon acknowledged what the Lord had done for his father: You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and an uprightness of heart toward you.

Then, despite his great temporal power, he showed great humility: And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child.

Solomon might have been expected to ask that he be granted a longer life or whatever might have given him more pleasure. Rather, he asked: Give your servant an understanding mind.

He asked for wisdom that would benefit not himself but others: Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people. Solomon asked for wisdom to lead the people according to the ways of God: Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.

Not surprisingly, God was pleased with this response. He said, Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.

He added, I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.

In addition to wisdom and understanding, the Lord also granted Solomon riches, honour and longer life, even though he didn’t ask for these. These were the fruits of keeping the Lord’s statutes; these are the product of better understanding God’s ways, which are always focused on others.

Similarly, God is well pleased when we ask not only for the ability to discern between good and evil for ourselves, but also to guide the way we deal with others.

What is the value of this gift in our own day? After all, you and I don’t lead nations. Why do we need wise and discerning minds?

Quite simply, the answer is because our very lives and those of our family, our friends and our community depend on it.

Our own physical, emotional and spiritual welfare and happiness all depend on our capacity to distinguish between good and evil, amid the confusing signs found in our complex and relativistic world. In Proverbs, we read: Happy the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding (3:13) and also: Happy the man who keeps my ways. (8:33)

If this is so, how do we come to know God’s ways? For Christians, the answer is clear: it is through the word of God. It is as the psalmist said, The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple (Ps. 119:27)

If this is so, is reading and studying the word of God enough? Judging from Solomon’s request, no …not without an understanding mind.

Is it possible to develop an understanding mind on our own? Again, if the story of Solomon is to be trusted, the insight we are to gain is that the mind that understands the word of God only comes from God.

Paul commented on how unlike human ways are God’s ways: O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Rm. 11:33) Yet, Paul had confidence that the Lord would grant the gift of an understanding mind to those who pray as Solomon did. To the Colossians, he wrote: And so, from the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. (Col. 1:9)

In Psalm 25, we hear this prayer for guidance: Make known to me your ways, Lord; teach me your paths. (v. 4)

To even begin to learn the ways of God, how he thinks and the mysterious ways by which he acts, we must first unlearn the ways of this world. The Lord, in fact, said to Isaiah, my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. (Is. 55:8)

That’s why Paul reminded the Hebrews: Today, when you hear God’s word, harden not your hearts. (Heb. 4:7) At first blush, the word of God often seems silly or illogical. We’re inclined to reject it or, at least, resist it …to harden our hearts against it.

After all, how can humility be advantageous in our competitive world? How can fidelity and abstinence make sense in our sexual and permissive society? How can loving our enemy be a reasonable response to clear and present threats to life and property?

None of these things make sense without God’s wisdom. All of these ideas and teachings seem really silly to the eyes of human understanding.

In fact, without God’s wisdom, this advice can be outright dangerous. Without God’s wisdom, humility resembles low self-esteem; fidelity looks like obsession. But with
God’s wisdom, these spell true freedom lived in perfect joy.

Asking God for the grace of an understanding mind in relation to God’s ways is not a pointless prayer. He granted this gift to the apostles at Pentecost. Also, we have evidence that he made this insight available to the disciples who grieved his death on the road to Emmaus.

In Luke’s gospel, we read: Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. (Luke 24:45) In turn, the scriptures gave them insight into God’s ways and how his death was a coherent part of a larger plan …just as humility, forgiveness and all the laws and teachings that we find in Scripture are part of a big picture that we can’t see with our own eyes or even with human understanding.

Though we received the gift of understanding at our confirmation, it needs to be unwrapped and unfolded. It needs God’s ongoing grace and our own ongoing effort to study, to learn and to meditate upon the meaning of God’s word for our lives.

When I wonder about the understanding mind that Solomon prayed for, I often think of Saint Francis. He understood the meaning of gospel teachings better than most. One pope even called him alter Christus, a second Christ.

Yet, he was a man with little education. By all accounts, he was a disarmingly simple man, sometimes even ridiculed as a foolish man. Though he had once pursued ambitious dreams, he gave these up to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

In so doing, he erased the tape of human learning and let the Holy Spirit fill the void with the wisdom of which we speak. It is as though he heard ancient sacred verses with fresh ears and an understanding mind that only God can grant.

Saint Bonaventure, an esteemed scholar as well as a leader of the Franciscan family just a few years after the death of Saint Francis, was a man of towering intellect and of noteworthy piety. In his book about the path that leads to God, Saint Bonaventure referred to his mystical experience meditating upon the insights of Saint Francis.

Here, a philosopher who virtually made a career out of writing and teaching about his theory of knowledge set all of this aside in order to adopt the understanding mind that Solomon received.

Listen carefully with your heart to the beautiful words of Saint Bonaventure, inspired by sacred scripture and filled with wisdom and understanding according to the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

For (our) passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul. Hence the Apostle says that this mystical wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit.

If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervour and glowing love. The fire is God, and the furnace is in Jerusalem, fired by Christ in the ardour of his loving passion. Only he understood this who said: My soul chose hanging and my bones death. Anyone who cherishes this kind of death can see God, for it is certainly true that: No man can look upon me and live.

Let us die, then, and enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination.
– The Soul’s Journey Into God