play and wisdom

art by lynn

art by lynn

One thing I especially enjoy during my yearly retreat at the monastery, is the celebration of the divine office at 3:15 AM. In the dark, in the middle of the night, half awake, I gather in the huge quiet space with the monks to celebrate the beginning of the new day. Once there was a reading from Thomas Aquinas, “The Contemplation of Wisdom.” As the new year begins, I find myself returning to this piece. And I always find it lovely that Wisdom is described as female.

“ ‘Run ahead into your house and gather yourself there and play there and pursue your thoughts.’ (Ecclus. 32.15-16)

“The advantage which the study of wisdom has is that it is to a greater degree self-sufficient in pursuing its business with us. When we are engaged in outward activities we need many things to help us, but in the contemplation of wisdom we work all the more effectively, the more we dwell alone with ourselves. So, the words cited above call us back to ourselves: ‘Run ahead into your own house,’ that is, be anxious to return from external things to your own mind, before anything else gets hold of it and any other anxiety distracts it. That is why it says in Wisdom 8.16, ‘I will enter my house and rest with her’, with wisdom, that is.

“The first requirement, then for the contemplation of wisdom is that we should take complete possession of our minds before anything else does, so that we can fill the whole house with the contemplation of wisdom. But it is also necessary that we ourselves should be fully present there, concentrating in such a way that our aim is not diverted to other matters. Accordingly the text goes on, ‘And gather yourself there,’ that is, draw together your whole intention. And when our interior house is entirely emptied like this and we are fully present there in our intention, the text tells us what we should do; ‘And play there.’

“There are two features of play which make it appropriate to compare the contemplation of wisdom to playing. First, we enjoy playing, and there is the greatest enjoyment of all to be had in the contemplation of wisdom. As Wisdom says in Ecclus. 24.27, ‘My spirit is sweeter than honey.’

“Secondly, playing has no purpose beyond itself; what we do in play is done for its own sake. And the same applies to the pleasure of wisdom. If we are enjoying thinking about the things we long for or the things we are proposing to do, this kind of enjoyment looks beyond itself to something else which we are eager to attain. If we fail to attain it or if there is a delay in attaining it, our pleasure is mingled with a proportionate distress. As it says in Proverbs 14.13, ‘Laughter will be mixed with grief.’ But the contemplation of wisdom contains within itself the cause of its own enjoyment, and so it is not exposed to the kind of anxiety that goes with waiting for something which we lack. This is why it says in Wisdom 8.16, ‘Her company is without bitterness”(the company of wisdom, that is) ‘and there is no boredom in living with her.’

“It is for this reason that divine Wisdom compares her enjoyment to playing, in Proverbs 8.30, ‘I enjoyed myself every single day, playing…’ each single day meaning the consideration of some different truth. So our text goes on, ‘Pursue your thoughts,’ the thoughts, that is, by means of which we obtain knowledge of the truth.”

There are many good suggestions in this piece, such as the need to “take complete possession of our minds before anything else does.” He describes the spirit as sweeter than honey… not something heavy to lift. And I am personally finding the centrality of play as he describes it, a helpful one in my own life right now. We often think we have to be serious, and somber, in order to pursue things that are worthwhile. But in this passage, Thomas urges a playful attitude. I am finding that this kind of attitude is necessary in my life just now. A new year of play and hopefully some wisdom – sounds good to me.