What do we want more than anything else? What is behind the drama of our desire? What will make us happy?
These, of course, are the questions of philosophers and mystics. In quiet moments, after sudden joy or loss, they stalk our inner stillness. In creative moments, they launch imagination into soaring poetry and myth or the higher reaches of science and technique.
The courtly enlightenment in the Book of Wisdom echoes many of the answers that have cast their spell on human consciousness. Power and authority present themselves as escape from our dire contingency. Abundance of gold beckoned emperors and conquistadors. Health has monuments built to its promise: “If you have health, you have everything.” Beauty has its troubadours arid marketeers. Even the splendor of intellect impressed the Stoic as a way out of pain and insufficiency.
Yet there is a higher wisdom.
I preferred her to scepter and throne. And deemed riches nothing in comparison with her. ... Because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand. ... Beyond health and comeliness I loved her, And I chose to have her rather than the light, because the splendor of her never yields to sleep. (Wis 7:8)
Abundance of riches, whether of mind, heart, or property, never seems to ease the hunger. We live in fear of losing our power, be it physical or mental. Money does not buy joy. Beauty, so skin-deep, lasts half as long. There are disenchanted intellectuals. There are “pictures of health” burdened with miserable lives.
Even success. Even if we somehow mount the pedestal of “self-made men and women,” we invariably harden. We become consumed with our judgments about others who have not done as well with their endowments, we think. Amazed by our strength and success, we nevertheless are often puzzled why it is so difficult to encounter God, the plaything of our egos.
The higher wisdom is a deeper wisdom. Like God’s very word, it “is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates and divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the reflections and thoughts of the heart. Nothing is concealed from him; all lies bare and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.” Wisdom’s word digs to the bottom of our existence. It spreads beyond the heights of our desire.
“What must I do for eternal life?” Our achievements are not enough. Our virtues are not sufficient. Even our keeping of the commandments seems not to still the question. We have kept all these things.
“Jesus looked at him with love.” Thus he looks upon the longing of us all. He speaks: “There is one thing you lack. Go and sell what you have and give to the poor; you will then have treasure in heaven. After that come and follow me.” At these words the man’s face fell. He went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Somehow, the very things we keep, the gifts we cannot bear releasing, hold us in a grip of sadness.
There is a double melancholy here. We are sad at not being able to let go of all the assets we once thought protected us and ensured our safety; for we now know that what we imagined was security is somehow bondage. Our locks and guards have fastened us in.
Sadder still, we know we can never become safe enough, anyway. Try as we may to channel our infinite desires into retirement plans, we are haunted by our fragile bones and blood. There is no insurance policy strong enough to prevent death. No Rock of Gibraltar to secure us. No provident company that can prevent the pain of our humanity.
This is why it is so difficult for a rich person, a person with many securities, to enter the condition of blessedness. We must somehow become small, rather than big, to pass through the “needle’s eye.”
Whatever that phrase of Jesus means, it suggests an unnavigable journey, an impossible task. So who can be saved?
No one. Not by one’s own providence and power. The only way to heaven is to let go of earth. The only way to life is to let go of the womb. When we are born, we fall into an even greater dependency. Life is harrowing and precarious, compared to the comfort of the womb. So it is that to be born into eternal life we must loosen our tight clutch on all the securities and gifts we hold so dear.
It is almost impossible for a man or woman secure in rich endowments to understand such mysteries. What need, after all, is there to call upon the God who made us, the God for whom all things are possible?
For the poor, whether in things or spirit, it makes lovely sense.