wisdom vs. knowledge

The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord. Isaiah 11:2. 

Memorizing the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit was part of our catechism lessons growing up, especially when preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation. In all honesty, I’ve always struggled to differentiate between wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. Teaching them to youngsters was even harder. The definitions are filled with theological acrobatics and subtleties, and my brain fails me every time. Perhaps I haven’t been given a big enough dose of the gifts to understand them!

The difference between wisdom and knowledge is something that I’ve pondered often; not from a theological point of view but from every day, practical experience. We all know people who might have book smarts but aren’t the wisest folks around. And, we also know women and men of deep wisdom who don’t have a list of degrees behind their name.

Wisdom requires taking knowledge and experience and using it holistically to see how it fits into the bigger picture. It requires pondering and critical thinking. Yes, it requires intuition, but I believe intuition comes from reflecting on past and present experiences. Intuitive people are thinkers, and thinking goes beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge and facts.

Here’s an example. Our daughter`s physical therapy studies included a heavy work-load of anatomy and physiology courses. She observed how some students memorized and crammed for the exams, but lost the knowledge by the next day.

For our daughter, a white board and markers were her study buddy. She not only wrote out definitions over and over, but she constantly drew diagrams of relation. She didn’t feel she truly learned a concept or process until she understood how it fit into the bigger picture. To this day, she can rattle off complicated physiological processes and explain the cause and effect of an ailment. But, she also has the gift to formulate it into simple enough terms that even I can understand.

The need to go beyond knowledge to seek deeper wisdom is important in our faith lives. And, it’s important in our religious conversations. Our faith is of the mind and the heart, and we need to connect them both.

Apologetics is a form of defending the faith by becoming well-versed in Scripture and the theological teachings of the Church. A lot of hard work goes into attaining a solid grounding in the Bible and Catechism. But, sometimes it turns into an intellectual exercise in right and wrong, black and white. This is apparent on some online discussion boards. You are wrong, and here’s the proof. What don’t you understand? End of discussion!

On the other hand, rooting our faith in a vague spirituality, based only on the heart while excluding the mind, does not equip us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1Peter 3:15)

Our efforts at dialogue can be stifled when we don`t stop and try to understand how the other is thinking. For some souls, an authoritative answer is all that is needed. Other souls have a need to question, to try to understand how a specific belief or teaching fits into the bigger picture; or even question if it actually does. Again, a combative debate will seldom change minds and hearts. But a respectful dialogue will deepen the conversation rather than try to stop it in mid-stream.

Our Calendar of Saints is filled with great intellectuals. But, it is also filled with women and men who had a deep understanding of the gospel message of love and service. Their wisdom was reflected in the simplicity of their words and actions. Thérèse of Lisieux, Francis of Assisi, Brother André, Mother Teresa of Calcutta are just some examples of holy women and men of wisdom.

Our own lives are blessed with truly wise souls.  The parents who you still depend on for advice. Your children. (When did they get so wise?) The family doctor who uses their knowledge to treat the whole person, and not just the symptoms. The priest who welcomes and invites and not condemns. The spouse or friend who is able to look beyond the tangled mess of emotions and help you to see things in a different light. Here`s to them all!