Portable Wisdom

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By Charles Hoffacker

I carry in my wallet a small piece of paper with these four statements:

Don’t complain.
Celebrate small joys.
Choose to be noble.
Cling to your source of strength.

From time to time I take out the paper and reflect on these statements, these invitations. This is not a regular exercise, but I do it occasionally. Unoccupied spaces in my day seem to be the best times, such as when I am sitting in a park or traveling on public transportation. Portable wisdom is my name for this practice.

This set of challenging statements comes from a Father Olafsson, who appears to have been a Roman Catholic priest of the 20th century active in Eastern Europe who suffered persecution and imprisonment for his faith. His brief points were distributed at an event held at a Society of Friends meeting house in Washington, D.C. They were presented as Father Olafsson’s Secrets for Survival.

Other sets of challenging statements can be used for portable wisdom. What points should you use? There should not be too many. Five may be the maximum, otherwise each point may lack sufficient opportunity to engage you. These points may originate with someone else. They may come to your attention rather than be discovered through your effort. Allow yourself to be surprised by what you need.

When you find a set that speaks to you, put it on paper. The paper can go in your wallet, purse, calendar, or prayer book. But carrying the paper is just the start. Take the paper out from time to time and reflect on the challenges that appear there.

Another set is the work of Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-82), an Anglican priest and leader of the Oxford Movement whose feast day in the Episcopal Church is September 18. While very little information is available about Father Olafsson, the standard biography of Dr. Pusey amounts to four large volumes. Although he was a prolific author and preacher, this brief text remains popular today while most of his works have become the province of specialists.

If we wish to gain contentment, we might try such rules as these:

  1. Allow yourself to complain of nothing, not even the weather.
  2. Never picture yourself under any circumstances in which you are not.
  3. Never compare your own lot with that of another.
  4. Never allow yourself to dwell on the wish that this or that had been, or were, otherwise than it was, or is. God Almighty loves you better and more wisely than you do yourself.
  5. Never dwell on tomorrow. Remember that it is God’s, not yours. The heaviest part of sorrow is to look forward to it. The Lord will provide.

No evidence indicates that Dr. Pusey or Fr. Olafsson recommended that anyone carry around their sets of challenging points as a spiritual practice.

However, that is precisely what Simcha Bunim (circa 1765-1827) recommends in one of the most famous oral teachings attributed to him. Bunim was a key leader of Hasidic Judaism in Poland and is considered by some to be the father of modern Hasidism. He emphasized authenticity and self-knowledge as the foundation of true piety. Here is that famous teaching:

Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. While feeling low or depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and there find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”

Anybody can practice portable wisdom, drawing from such sources as Hasidic master Simcha Bunim, Oxford Movement leader Edward Pusey, or the mysterious priest Father Olafsson. Carry concise wisdom in writing wherever you go. Remember to read it and reflect on it. Through this simple practice, the Holy Spirit will challenge and support you.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker, an Episcopal priest, lives in Greenbelt, Maryland.


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