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She started out front and center, right in the throbbing heart of the city. Her voice rang boldly in the public square. She beckoned and she persuaded, poured all her heart and beauty and passion into pleading words, she offered without discrepancy holy gifts and invaluable teaching, and she gave it all away for free to poor and rich alike. But the townspeople loved their own ways and didn’t like having her there to interrupt and to distract. So they kicked her out. Shut down her voice and stopped up their ears. Spurned her, ignored her, threw stones and drove her out.
She let them drive her away. She did not lose her spirit, for no one could rob her of that, but she left town and took her spirit and her gifts with her. She kept watch over the city from a hilltop faraway and laughed when they began to miss her. She played hide and seek with the few brave souls who ventured out to find her again. She knew they only half-wanted her, and while she’d always been bold and gracious, she’d never been easy or cheap, and thus she remained evasive, though never entirely lost.
Today’s story recounts the departure of Lady Wisdom.
When I read these first few verses about Wisdom calling aloud out in the open, raising her voice in the public square, crying out from a busy street corner, making speeches from the city gate . . . I am greatly perplexed. Every time I have ever wanted to make a wise decision, I have had to search long and hard. I have had to hunt to find Wisdom, wrestle back the monsters of my ego to free her. In my experience, it is hard work to uncover wisdom. And here she is the book of Proverbs, just as open and accessible, loud and obvious as can be. Why can’t she shout into my life like that, so that I don’t have to work so hard to hear her?
Well, she doesn’t cry aloud anymore because we silenced her! Plain and simple, that’s what the story tells us. We shut Wisdom up (or at least, refused to listen), and she carried her voice elsewhere, and with her departure, distress struck our wisdom-voided world.
That’s how the book of Proverbs begins: exhorting us to gain Wisdom, warning us that Wisdom is elusive, and reminding us it is own darn fault that she went into hiding in the first place.
People like the book of Proverbs for its concise advice—chapter after chapter you’ll find verse after verse you could crochet on a pillow. But the proverbs are not sound bytes to save for a rainy day. They are not tricks for success when the going gets rough. They are not post-it-note reminders to keep you on track. Not at all. The proverbs are breadcrumbs on the trail to find Wisdom. One saying alone isn’t enough for nourishment; it’s the trail that matters, the pursuit, the movement deeper and deeper and deeper. You aren’t after clever morsels; you’re after Wisdom, and she cannot be invoked with a pretty phrase. But she can be followed, if you observe the trail.
It’s not so surprising that Wisdom is hard to come by; we’ve learned that much from life experience. The startling thing in this poem is to find out that Wisdom is, in fact, a bit saucy. You spurn her, she spurns you. You quit listening, she quits talking, or at least, she directs her speech elsewhere.
And Wisdom laughs, laughs at your distress. I do not envision Wisdom laughing spitefully with a Cruella de Vil cackle, as if she delighted in evil. I imagine instead the amused laugh of a free-spirit, of one who knows there is a fullness to life beyond the limitedness to which we constrain ourselves by rebuking her wisdom. She’s not caught up in our systems and games and power struggles, so she smiles broadly when we get stumped by our own constructs. Wisdom weeps too, of course, for the ones who get trampled through no fault of their own. But she laughs when the tramplers get tripped; our tragedies are her comedy, as fate is so often in her favor, willing us to acknowledge we are lost without her wisdom. She won’t make you listen to her words or her logic, but her spunk isn’t so easily ignored. Her spirited passion is a force to be reckoned with, even after you’ve kicked her out of town.
We see in this poem that Lady Wisdom starts out full of invitation and promise but by the end of the poem she is aloof and mysterious, distant, willingly secretive. And the book of Proverbs poses to us this question: Will you go looking for her?
There are plenty of wisdom parodies parading around town, smug in her absence. Lots of people settle for these fakers with their easy quick answers, flashy clichés and popular promises of prosperity. Some townspeople recognize this fraudulent wisdom for the sham that it is and expend all their energy trying to drive those goons out or at least make people quit listening to them.
Only a rare few pack their bags and set out on foot to find the real Her. Even fewer keep up the chase when they realize how much of a maze it is out there and how long (a lifetime they say) it will take to find her.
But what the long-time Wisdom seekers will tell you is that although you never quite lay hold of her like a prize, never manage to snatch her up for your own consumption, the longer you seek, the more readily you spot her. Your tracking abilities improve, of course, but at times you’ll swear she sought you out to whisper her secrets to the wind, just close enough for you to overhear. Sometimes she’ll linger, right in your line of vision, long enough for you to gaze, to shudder, to transform.
They even say that sometimes Wisdom dances right back through the middle of town, though she always wears a disguise. Sometimes she dresses up like a beggar, other times as a child. There’s a glint in her eye that she cannot hide, and the few who catch her eye stop in their tracks and repent. Most everyone drives her back out of town without even knowing who she really is or they simply ignore her altogether.
One time, she came in the form of carpenter’s boy from Nazareth, the scandalous son of an unwed mother, and that time it was just too much and the townspeople called for a killing and drug him to a hill. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” cried Wisdom. Legend has it that though the brutality was fearsome that day, Wisdom lived on.
To this day, she can still be spotted, drifting in forgotten places, sharing melodies with the children, flitting here and there like spirit. Those who listen to her live in safety, without fear, like a child in a mother’s arms. It is no child’s play, though, this safety, because Wisdom often demands that you do dangerous deeds just because it’s the right thing to do. But she does provide that distinct kind of safety that comes from having a bit of her spunk, a bit of her insight, a bit of courage planted inside you.
I wrote a tribute to Lady Wisdom, or maybe it’s my map, and I would like to read it to you: