The purpose of intelligence & wisdom


Each spring universities around the world graduate young men and women who are astonishingly brilliant. At Notre Dame’s commencement this past June, for instance, two young men, Caleb “CJ” Pine, and Jose’ Alberto Suarez were honored with the title valedictorian and salutatorian respectively. Mr. Pine graduated with a 3.92 grade point average and Mr. Suarez with a 4.0. Both, of course, were also members of various scholarly societies. I had the good fortune of watching and listening to each of their commencement addresses. These two men were certainly smart, but when they described what they hoped to do after graduation it became evident that they were not simply interested in making a name for themselves. They hoped to make the world a place where everyone would have the opportunity of advancement that they had experienced.

I would like to think that the success of these two young men involves two human characteristics: intelligence and wisdom. It seems obvious that both are intellectually brilliant as were many of their classmates who graduated a few points lower on the academic scale. What interested me, however, was the wisdom they demonstrated when describing their hopes for the future. Neither boasted of a forthcoming brilliant career; rather, they spoke of ways they might be able to make these years of education benefit the lives of others around the world.

So, what should we say regarding those two words — intelligence and wisdom — that we use so often in common conversation? Intelligence, obviously, is that human ability to understand something, to separate it from or compare it to something similar. It is the brainpower we are born with that guides us safely throughout our lives and helps us find our place in the world community.

Wisdom, on the other hand, is an instinct that we grow into gradually throughout our life by observing the hidden, the veiled and the unseen. In a sense, it is a divine gift by which we gradually come to notice mystery all around us and use it for the good of all. In short, each of us is born with the ability to learn, whereas wisdom is the way we use our intelligence with prudence, depth and good judgment.

Turning now to the two assigned Scriptures for this Sunday, we find wisdom described as feminine and personified. Jesus tells the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, some of whom were wise enough to provide oil and lamps for the wedding feast while the others lacked foresight and found themselves outside in the dark.

We should not imagine one group simply as ignorant and the other as graduate scholars. The story is not about intelligence or the lack of it but rather about insight, about imagining the circumstances and planning ahead for the future.

So, perhaps there is a lesson in this parable for those of us who go about our daily tasks, not even imagining that there may be some astonishing epiphany happening right here, right now under our very noses. Jesus said it best at the end of the parable: “Keep your eyes open, for you know not the day nor the hour.” That’s wisdom.

Nov. 12 Scriptures

Wisdom 6: 12-16

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Matthew 25: 1-13

The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese. He now lives in Notre Dame, Ind.

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