Commandment 7: Distinguish Between Good And Evil (The Wisdom of Creation)

How do we cling to the tree of life?

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Introduction from Fr Michael

One of the wonderful things about Margaret’s articles on Creation is that she challenges the potential gap that can arise between our “life of faith” and our life in the world.  Not for us, she will argue below, the hour offered to God on a Sunday and then the remaining hours of the week lived to serve ourselves.  Margaret, though not a Catholic herself, presents us with a fully Catholic vision of a life suffused with the Spirit of God, a life anointed by the Spirit of Wisdom.  The purpose of this divine animation is not to make us “feel good”.  It may bring us blessings and peace, but it may equally unsettle us and stir us into action.

Wisdom is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed. Proverbs 3:18 (ESV)

The tree of life was in the centre of the Garden of Eden, and Adam was told that he could eat from any tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ‘the forbidden tree’.  The LORD God intended human beings to be nourished with Wisdom, the fruit of the tree of life, but the subtle serpent offered Eve a choice, and she chose to eat from the forbidden tree.  The serpent, whom St John called the great deceiver (Revelation 12:9) made his tree seem more attractive: almost the same as the other, but with freedom to choose good or evil.

The story of Eden is about disobedience, but more especially it is about our attitude to knowledge.  Do we use it in obedience to the word of the LORD, or do we value ‘choice’ above everything else?  This is one of the great questions of our time, cleverly marketed as ‘freedom’.  There is easy access now to all manner of knowledge, and that knowledge has potential to be good or evil.  It becomes good or evil according to how the knower chooses to use it, but responsibility is rarely mentioned in the clamour for ‘freedom’.  

Those who cling to the tree of life have already chosen Wisdom rather than the knowledge that can be used for good or evil, and the Bible says that those people will be happy, a word that can also be translated ‘blessed’.  It was the word Jesus used when he taught the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the merciful… ; blessed are the pure in heart… ; blessed are the peacemakers …’ (Matthew 5:3-12).  Jesus also warned that the people who chose Wisdom would not have an easy life; they could expect persecution. 

How true!  The way of life based on Wisdom was never the way of the world.  St Paul used the image of Wisdom’s tree of life when he wrote: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control’ (Galatians 5:22-23).  We recognise Wisdom and the tree under another name; the Holy Spirit, the great gift at Pentecost.

Isaiah says that the Spirit was given to the LORD’s Anointed, and in fact it was given when he was anointed.  There is a lovely old legend, known to the early Christians, [ed: The “Life of Adam and Eve” to which Margaret has referred in previous articles, and which Pope Benedict has used in his homilies] that the perfumed anointing oil came from the tree of life, that it was Wisdom giving herself.  St Paul wrote about ‘the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ’ that Christians carry with them.  This means knowing Christ, but also knowing in the way Christ knows, seeing things as He sees them. (2 Corinthians 2:15).   

The One Spirit has many facets: ‘the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD (Isaiah 11:2).  ‘Understanding‘ could also be translated ‘discernment, knowing how to distinguish’; and ‘fear’ would be better translated ‘reverence’.  All these qualities affect the way we think, and this is the sign of anyone led by the Spirit, those whom Jesus called ‘the children of Wisdom’ (Luke 7:35). 

Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire
And lighten with celestial fire
Thou the anointing Spirit art
Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart. (Attributed to Rabanus Maurus, translated by John Cosin)

When St Paul described the fruits of the Spirit he also listed their opposites, the way of life that Spirit-filled children had left behind: ‘fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, murder, drunkenness, carousing and the like’ (Galatians 5:19-21).  The great deceiver has rebranded all these, and many of them would now be called ‘having a good time’.  A chosen lifestyle in a free country.

St Paul saw the state of things in his time and knew that creation was caught in a system that was going nowhere; he used the words ‘futility’ and ‘bondage to decay’ (Romans 8:19-21).  He saw that creation needed people led by the Spirit to set it free.

Breathe on me, Breath of God;
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love the things you love,
And do what you would do.

Breathe on me Breath of God,
Until my heart is pure
Until with you I will one will
To do or to endure. (Edwin Hatch)

The Breath of God is yet another name for the Spirit who came at Pentecost and restored the manifold gifts.  Prophecy, visions and dreams are mentioned in Acts 2:17-18, quoting the words of Joel 2:28, but these were not to make us fanciful dreamers of impossible dreams.  This was to open our spiritual eyes, to see what things could be and should be.  

We know that some American Christians like to ask, “What would Jesus do?”  One very effective adaptation of this was to ask “What would Jesus drive?”  In other words: what would Jesus teach about the problems we face today of pollution, over consumption, economic injustice, environmental degradation – the list is long and terrible. 

We need to hold fast to our first principles, cling to the tree of life and what it represents, and then use our opened eyes to see things differently, and our changed minds to speak differently about what we see.

Breath on me Breath of God
My will to yours incline
Until this selfish part of me
Glows with your fire divine.

Reflection and Action point

“St Paul saw that creation needed people led by the Spirit to set it free.”  It is very fitting, in the month that will close with the dawning of the season of Advent, that the Church’s traditional prayers began with the words, “Stir up”.  On the last Sunday after Pentecost (when we now celebrate Christ the King), the opening prayer was

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is God himself, in his Spirit of Wisdom, who can truly “stir us up” to the kind of action that will set creation free.  But we can open ourselves to this wisdom by stirring ourselves into action.

Margaret herself gives us an action point: “We need to hold fast to our first principles, cling to the tree of life and what it represents, and then use our opened eyes to see things differently, and our changed minds to speak differently about what we see. ”  Perhaps we might use the first verse of the hymn that she quotes to “cling to the tree”, and pray that our eyes will be opened to see as Christ sees so that we might truly distinguish between good and evil:

Breathe on me, Breath of God;
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love the things you love,
And do what you would do.

A prayer

It is apt that the traditional opening prayer for the first Sunday of Advent asks God to stir himself up, to protect us from the consequences of our unwise actions:

Stir up your power, we beseech you, O Lord, and come,
that with You as our protector we may be rescued from the impending danger of our sins;
and with You as our deliverer, may we obtain our salvation. 
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.