Jesuit trained, I'm familiar with the "Spiritual Exercises" of St. Ignatius of Loyola, experiencing many retreats based on this holy man's spiritual insights. I most enjoyed the conference in which the retreat master dared us to have a distraction. The meditation revolved around God's gifts.
"No matter what comes into your minds during this conference," the director advised, "simply thank God for it."
The sacred authors who gave us the biblical wisdom writings also would have enjoyed that conference. Their goal is simple: to help people find Yahweh at work in the ordinary persons, things and events of life. They reason that since God created everything, God is present in everything. Nothing in the universe can be a "distraction" for the "wise" followers of God.
Scholars who study wisdom literature -- books that include Proverbs, Canticle of Canticles, Job, Qoheleth, Sirach and Wisdom -- have a special place in their hearts for Sunday's famous first reading (I Kgs 3:5, 7-10), especially for a particular phrase. Yahweh grants Solomon one wish. Surprisingly, the king asks only for a "listening heart." (We modern folk must remember that in the biblical world, people believed they thought with their hearts; feeling came from their kidneys!)
Rev. Roland Murphy points out that such a heart is absolutely necessary for wisdom. Only those with an ability to delve deep into reality are truly wise. They can sense God working in every dimension of their lives. A listening heart helps them experience God's presence in people, things and situations in which others experience only distractions.
Wisdom commentators often remind us that the historical Jesus seems to be rooted in the biblical wisdom tradition. Remember how frequently He speaks about God's kingdom being close at hand. Scripture scholars agree that this "kingdom" refers to God working in our lives right here and now. That's why Jesus constantly uses parables to convey His beliefs.
Parables are stories which first present a statement or truth with which everyone agrees -- like little seeds eventually grow into big trees. Then Jesus applies that statement or truth to God's actions, forcing people to see something they usually overlook -- like the small beginnings of God's kingdom will eventually grow into a huge force in the world.
In the Gospel (Mt 13:44-52), for instance, Jesus presumes only a few individuals ever look and listen carefully enough to discover either the treasures hidden around them or the fine pearls which others overlook. Jesus even sees God's kingdom manifest in the way fishermen catch and separate fish. Matthew's lesson is clear: Those who share the wisdom of Jesus will constantly discover life's valuable things, things which others ignore.
In the second reading (Rom 8: 28-30), Paul assures us that we don't experience God's life-giving presence by accident. We have an actual calling -- a vocation -- from God to do this. But as a Christian, Paul carries the concept of a divine presence in ordinary things one step farther than the wisdom authors of the Hebrew Scriptures.
"We know that all things work for good for those who love God," he writes, "who are called according to His purpose. For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He might be the firstborn among many brothers."
Not only do followers of Jesus discover God all around them, they also discover the image of God's Son in all who profess faith in Jesus.
No wonder Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles recently encouraged his people to leave their song books behind the pew when they come up for communion. He wants them to sing their communion hymns from memory, so they can better concentrate on their fellow communicants -- those individuals whom my teachers warned me were distractions.