World Youth Days, 2002, have just ended and, from every appearance, were a wonderful success. Hundreds of thousands of young people descended on Toronto for a week and, under the gaze of world television, colourfully, publicly, and energetically celebrated their faith. The city was sometimes taken aback. How can this be happening? We live in a secularized culture and it’s assumed that the young don’t have any faith. Then this, ancient faith and youthful energy wedded together and publicly displayed! As one newspaper editorial put it, “It’s enough to upset your balance. How do you keep your secular perspective in a world awash with faith?.”
Moreover central to this gathering of nearly a million young people was a feeble, largely physically-disabled, 82 year-old man, John Paul II. The young people came to celebrate their faith, but they came, perhaps more than for any other reason, to meet this man. Why? At one level, of course, the appeal is obvious. He is, after all, the Pope. But such wide appeal also begs some questions: Why is this man, who is almost the antithesis of what youth normally idolize, so stunningly popular? Why are all these young people, so full of energy and health, drawn to old man who walks around in ancient robes?
There is, of course, the appeal of his office, perhaps the most symbolically revered in the world. There is too his personal sanctity and charism. He’s a gifted man. But there is something else, something important to name, operative here too. Besides being a religious event this was also a human one. Something happened here that, ideally, should be happening a lot more often, namely, energy and wisdom were meeting and doing to each other what God and nature intended.
In an ideal world, energy should be enlivening wisdom and wisdom should be admiring and initiating energy. What’s meant by this?
Simply put, energy is what drives our planet in terms of natural motivation, youthful dreams, physical health, physical beauty, colour, sexuality, and raw intelligence. Wisdom is what holds the community together at its centre, teaches it meaning, and helps it to cope with suffering and death. These are very different things, not to be confused with each other. They are also carried and brought to the table by different constituencies: Youth carry and bring the energy, elders carry and bring the wisdom.
And they need each other. Raw energy, like a stream of gushing water, needs to be channelled. Left to itself, not directed by wisdom, it generally destroys rather than brings meaning. Uninitiated energy is generally individualistic, ego-seeking, and the source of jealousy. That is why something can wonderfully energetic, colourful, beautiful, funny, brilliant, witty, sexually robust, and bursting with physical health and, at the same time, in no way connected with anything that holds community together at its centre.
The reverse is also true. Wisdom needs energy. Left to itself wisdom soon becomes grey, colourless, sexless, lifeless, and expressive more of the diminished physical capacities that come with age and handicap than of the pulse that God and nature put into our hearts and instincts. That is why something can be deep, sage, and capable of revealing secrets hidden since the beginning of time and yet seem totally unconnected to our life-pulse, our sexuality, and our aches and yearnings. It’s not for nothing that we colour wisdom grey.
Tragically, in our day and culture, wisdom and energy are rarely brought together and live almost as enemies. We never mistake Jerry Seinfeld for Henri Nouwen, Madonna for Mother Theresa, Alanis Morisette for Therese of Lisieux, Jay Leno for Billy Graham, or Mick Jagger for John Paul II. We look to the one for energy and to the other for wisdom. That’s unfortunate because God is the deep source of both the energy of the one and the wisdom of the other.
The marvel of World Youth Days is that they brought these two together. Energy and wisdom met, had a party, prayed together, informed and initiated each other. John Paul II got to do what every elder, male or female, is meant to do, bless, challenge, and direct young energy, even as he was coloured, enlivened, and delighted by it. And the young pilgrims there got to do what every young person is meant to do, fill the air with dreams and surround those dreams with robust, lively, colourful, healthy, physically-beautiful, sexually-young-and-yearning energy, even as all of that is challenged, directed, and blessed by what’s wise, aged, grey, and full of secrets that still need to be learned.
Most of us are neither as old as John Paul II nor as full of life and colour as the youthful pilgrims who met with him. What’s our job? To be both, pope and pilgrim, to do what the pope did, admire and direct youth, even as, like the youthful pilgrims, we humbly bring all that’s robust and energetic inside us to the wells of wisdom to learn there some of the deeper secrets.