“Being a ‘Good Catholic’ I had never read the entire Bible, but I wanted to read the Bible—so I wrote this book so I could read the Bible,” says Dr. Christopher M. Bellitto, Professor of History at Kean University.
“And I also wanted to write a book that distinguishes between ‘information’—we are swamped with ‘information’—from ‘knowledge’—and both from ‘wisdom’. Because I noticed that as I passed 45, then 50 years of age—that as I got older I wasn’t necessarily getting any wiser.” (Join the club, Dr. Bellitto!)
Putting all of the above together, Professor Bellitto decided to read the Bible cover-to-cover “expecting it to say, of course, ‘As You Get Older, You Will Get Wiser’ — but that’s not what the Bible says at all. In fact, often times just the opposite rings true and ‘the wise’ are ‘the young’.”
The result of all this self- and Bible-study is the new book Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons From the Bible, Dr. Bellitto’s first book since his 101 Questions and Answers on Popes and the Papacy.
“I really discovered that this disjunct — that age doesn’t equal wisdom — gave the book a different path of discovery,” says Dr. Bellitto, “including self-discovery.”
The book is a sort of anthology of biblical tales, written for believers and non-believers alike. Chapters include “Biblical Paradoxes”, “Gathering Wisdom”, “Being Wise, Being Humble”, “Patience and Humor,” and “A Time to Reap, A Time to Sow.”
Having read the book myself, the over-arching, or perhaps undergirding gestalt is (not surprisingly), “wisdom” which is the first Gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon us on our day of Confirmation, the time we say “Yes” to the Spirit of love, and, naturally, wisdom itself.
“As I get older, I get grayer—and gray hair in the bible is itself a sign of wisdom,” notes Professor Bellitto. “And there’s a midrash passage where Abraham is not getting the respect he deserves, so God gives him gray hair and suddenly the young people (who weren’t giving him the respect he deserved), suddenly start treating him with reverence, simply due to his new gray hair!”
Another gem is the biblical tale of the 18-year-old who is elected president of the Sanhedrin — because he is obviously very wise despite his youth — but he, too, is not getting the respect of the elders. “Asking God for a ‘sign’, he goes gray overnight!”
“Then you get these examples throughout the bible where, whenever a young person does actually speak with wisdom the usual comment is ‘He speaks with the wisdom of An Old Man!’—this is meant as a compliment, of course, and the prophet Daniel is a perfect example of this.”
Professor Bellitto wanted to also look at well-known stories of Scripture, but under this new lens—namely that old age does not necessarily always equal wisdom. “One of the best known books of the Old Testament is that of Job—we all know the story of Job’s sufferings,” whose friends—“Job’s comforters” (the kind of friends who, when things are bad, somehow manage to make things even worse) encourage Job to curse God for the innumerable sufferings that the Almighty has sent upon him, since, obviously Job must have done something to deserve this misery. Job listens to this diatribe—as does a young man, Elihu, who keeps quiet and lets the Elders speak. “Only after the elders have spoken does Elihu let loose: he shows his wisdom not only in his explication [that God’s ways don’t always make sense to us, nor does he have to], but in giving deference to the ‘wisdom’ of Job’s ‘friends’ who are his superior in age — but not wisdom.”
However, Dr. Bellitto’s personal favorite tale is from the Book of Ruth, which “could just as easily be called ‘The Book of Naomi’, the other star in it.” In this short book Naomi née Mara (“the Lord Has Made It Very Bitter For Me”) and Ruth are widows, but Ruth will not leave her mother in law: “it’s the story of a relationship—make that relationships, plural: not only do Ruth and Naomi show what true friendship is, but Naomi gets to play matchmaker when she notices that Boaz is taken with her friend, Ruth.” The respect that Ruth shows for her mother-in-law Naomi is one of the things that attracts Boaz to her. The lesson here is pretty lucid: there is wisdom shown in respecting one’s elders — even if those elders aren’t particularly wise in themselves.
“Ruth and Boaz go on to get married and give birth to Obed—and the friends say, ‘A Son is born to Naomi [the grandmother]’”, which is the heart-warming conclusion to the Book of Ruth.
So “being wise is being is being humble, too,” says Professor Bellitto: “Elihu shows great humility in the book of Job; Ruth displays humility in always having respect for her mother in law.” And of course there is the Marian humility in her assent, “I am the lowly handmaid of the Lord: be it done unto me according to Your Word.”
This book comes at the right time. “Ten thousand Americans will turn sixty-five years old every day until the year 2030,” notes Dr. Bellitto. This ageing demographic, enjoying their “Golden Years”, will see not only themselves in the book (a la the Wisdom of the Aged), but looking back at their lives and the Wisdom they had (or thought they had!) as young people.
“Two of the most important prophets in the Bible—and we should recall that most prophets are younger, men-on-fire-with-the-faith types [cf. Daniel, above, but also Joseph in Genesis]—are the elderly Simeon and Anna, the former who gave us the Nunc Dimmitis when they prophesy about the infant Jesus in the Temple.” Prophecy, it turns out, isn’t just for the young, nor wisdom for the old: Dr. Bellitto weaves a matrix of this seeming paradox which appears at a leitmotif throughout Scripture.
Professor Bellitto is a Church historian who has written extensively on the papacy. He points out that “Pope Francis has spoken of the import of the elderly repeatedly. And then there is the surprising success of the World Youth Days—which the Curia thought would be a disaster—and hundreds of thousands would show up to see this aged Pope [St. John Paul II]. And the young continue to show up now for a ‘new’ old man, in Pope Francis.”
“Pope Francis wants there to be a discourse between the wisdom of the elderly and their long perspective; and the wisdom of youth that have such promise and energy.”
Is this just a respect for the ‘office’ of the papacy? “I don’t think so,” says Dr. Bellitto, “I think that the young—a generation whose seminal event is planes flying into the twin towers—they want solidity, stability—a rootedness—in tradition. And people forget it was pope Benedict XVI who put the Vatican on Twitter!”
Comprised of only seven short chapters — the entire book is only 160 pages long — “I wrote the book to be read by commuters, to be read in short bits,” says Dr. Bellitto. And quoting Pope Francis, Bellitto notes that “Reality is superior to ideas.” So while we grapple with the difficult reality of growing old (and not necessarily growing wiser), we do have recourse to the wisdom of the Scriptures, and what their timeless stories tells us about who we are now.