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Renewal Series: Wisdom Renews All Things

I am a perfectionist. There. I said it.

I was going to qualify the statement and say, "I have perfectionist tendencies," but that would be softening the truth. I'll not soften the truth: When I encounter something flawed, I want to efface it, eradicate it, start anew. I like clean slates. Even as a child, when other children collected coins or action figures, baseball cards or dolls, I collected erasers. Erasers sweep away everything, the good and the bad; they give me back that clean paper so that I can design from scratch.

When it comes to relationships, however, this perfectionist instinct is wrong on so many levels. I know this. My mind and my heart tell me so because everyone and everything is flawed. We all come broken. Abandoning or disowning relationships because of human flaws costs us dearly, though I have been sorely tempted of late to yell, 'I quit!' or 'It's over; I'm leaving.' I know that leaving behind such relationships, however, can also mean leaving myself behind, for by eliminating or denying that which is flawed, I would simply guarantee that there is nothing of which I am a part and no one to whom I can relate. None of us can find ourselves or be ourselves outside of relationships, and there is no way of being in relationship except that we live with flaws. Flawlessness as a standard is a guarantee of homelessness and loneliness, a guarantee of a life cut off from both community and creation.

I build things, not physical buildings, but you can think of what I do in this way. It is hard to explain. I craft with care, each part arranged just so. These things that I build are meant primarily for other people, but they are also a part of myself. As a result, however, they are also an invitation to frustration and potential alienation. When something I have built has failed or been rejected, it can feel as if I am a child and a bully has come and knocked down all my wooden alphabet blocks, blocks that I had carefully arrayed in a high rainbow tower and which are now scattered on the ground. In such moments, I am, I fear, too ready to give up on both the project and the people involved — too ready to let the tears and the perfectionism justify walking away. Like all people, however, I crave friendship and a sense of deep belonging. And so I ask, how do I renew my building projects when I feel ready to give up on the relationships which they are supposed to serve?

This is the question that I have been asking myself. Last week, however, as part of a writing group, I read the Book of Wisdom (part of the Deuterocanonical books in the Catholic Bible) for the first time, and I had one of those rare textual encounters of the sort that drove me to become a professor of literature. It was the flash of recognition that comes when one has read just the right thing at just the right time and it feels as if that text was written just for me. Every day for the past seven days, I returned to this passage:

There is in Wisdom a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against Wisdom evil does not prevail. (Book of Wisdom 7:22-30)

"Wisdom renews all things." How could that be true, I pondered. On an abstract level, 'renewal' seems like it is an impossible thing, especially when considered in its parts: 're,' to do or make again, and 'new,' that which is brought into first existence. Logically, nothing in the human sphere can truly be made new again, for newness is a creative act, an act reserved to God who is first mover. What I realized while reading and rereading, however, is that renewal is not an oxymoron but rather a certain kind of relationship predicated on translation of God's creation from person to person, expressed above as wisdom's movement from one generation to the next. I realized, moreover, that people around me have been handing my blocks back to me one-by-one from the moment of my tower's toppling. Renewal is not always something sought; sometimes, it is proffered.

I received my first block back when I found myself among kindred friends talking over a common book, and another in the bright promise of a future class co-taught with brilliant minds; one in the image of the courage of the Spartans at Thermopylae after teaching a humanities class and another after a particularly good office hours with some of my digital humanities students; one when I had the chance to share a devotional with our community and a dozen more in the form of letters and notes from colleagues. As I received these blocks from such moments and from such people, blocks which had heretofore been so rudely scattered, ones which I did not have the wherewithal to recollect myself, I discovered that the others were still around me — scattered and imperfect remnants of the thing I had so lovingly built. I discovered that I am ready to pick up a few of those blocks myself. Chastened, and I hope wiser, too, I have realized that I have more to build and I have lost nothing. I have learned that renewal is that special act of wisdom that allows a person to affirm relationships, even as we work through our own flaws and the flaws of a past not of our own choosing.

Citations come from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, Oxford University Press.

Jennifer Smith J. A. T. Smith is an Associate Professor of English, Coordinator of Digital Humanities, and the Associate Director of the Center for Faith and Learning. She researches and writes on medieval literature and theology, teaches Western cultures, and organizes things. She also takes special delight in writing and receiving long letters.