Sophia and Discipline

In her magnificent book, The Search for the Beloved (Tarcher/Putnam New York, 1987) Jean Houston writes:

While the realm of the Beloved may still remain “other”, the distance can be bridged by bringing the extraordinary into the ordinary….

Although being porous to the Beloved increases the capacity to live in two realms, the growth and maintenance of this capacity seems to depend upon the faithful practice of a discipline. Discipline has had a very bad press. We must recognize that the high practice of a discipline gives enormous freedom, and with this freedom comes a greatly increased capacity to love. Often we do not love others, much less the Divine Beloved, because we are caught up with every whim, irritant, and distraction….

Brigid of Kildare taught about the need to focus on the Beloved

Discipline, conscious and mindful orchestration of the pieces of our lives, gives us a capacity to live in the depths as well as on the surface. Ideally, a discipline has a physical, mental, and spiritual component and is practiced each day. If, however, your discipline becomes compulsive…then it is time to consciously change it and do something funny or ironic. (pp. 132-3)

Rabbi Rami Shapiro cites words from Proverbs where Wisdom/ Chochma/Sophia speaks of discipline:

Listen to Me:

Follow Me and be happy.

Practice My discipline and grow wise….

(Proverbs 8: 32-33 NRSV Bible)

Commenting on this in his book The Divine Feminine in Biblical Wisdom Literature, he writes: “To listen, you must first be silent. When you are silent, the narrow mind, the small self of thought and language, melts into the spacious self of clarity and compassion. To be mindful is to be present. When you are present, the distracted self recedes and the greater self emerges. With this comes Wisdom, joy and happiness.”

Sometimes, and I find this usually happens just at the end of the brief listening time that is prayer, Love surprises us with a fresh thought, a somersault of insight, that lifts us to new place.

And when Love is wholly silent and I long for words, I open my book of poems by Hafiz, to find at times a gift that eases my heart. This opened to me on a day when my soul was dark and troubled:

I wish I could show you,

When you are lonely or in darkness,

The Astonishing Light

Of your own Being!

(Hafiz, I Heard God Laughing trans. Daniel Ladinsky)

 Truly, as Wisdom/Sophia/Chochma assures us in Proverbs:

Shapiro writes: You want to be embraced by Wisdom; you desire Her love as much as She desires to love you. A part of you may doubt and question; a part may seek to hide from your desire in cynicism, but at your core you want Her.

I bring joy to those who listen;

I bring happiness to those who are mindful of Me…

Find Me and find life,

Find Me and find grace… 

(Proverbs 8 NRSV Bible)

A single encounter with Wisdom is enough to lift you out of your desperately reasoned ego, and to leave you breathless with love and desire. Wisdom is not a cool intellectual exercise, but a hot embrace. Wisdom is not dispassionate, but the Way of passion. 

 As Rabbi Rami Shapiro explores the question of why Wisdom/ Sophia/Chochma is so little known, he writes:

Wisdom is a woman and women haven’t fared well in the Western religious tradition of the past three thousand years. While you can point out significant exceptions, the norm in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is to downplay the role of women. One way to do that is to ignore the role of the Mother, Chochma, in creation and the life of us creatures.

It is no small thing to note that Wisdom is feminine. The original language of the texts, both Hebrew and Greek, make this very clear: Hebrew Chochma and Greek Sophia are both feminine nouns. The authors of the Wisdom books took this gender specificity seriously and envisioned Wisdom as Mother, God’s consort and bride, the Divine Feminine through which the masculine God fashioned all creation. Further, they saw in the union of masculine and feminine a powerful analogy for the greater unity of all in the ineffable Godhead that transcends our imagination.

Shapiro makes an important clarification around language when he adds:

I do not believe that God is literally male or that Chochma is literally female. We are not dealing with biological facts but with theological archetypes residing within each of us. What is needed is a marriage of the two within the individual.

The unity of these forces creates a new person, the divine anthropos. The fully integrated human is called the sage in these Wisdom books. The sage, regardless of gender, is married to Chochma; he or she is the partner of the Divine Feminine.

Shapiro calls on each of us to become a sage when he writes:

You and I have the capacity to be sages. As you read the teachings of Mother Wisdom, know that She is speaking to you, inviting you to Her home, to Her Hearth, to Her teachings that you may become a sage.

He encourages each of us to find the image of Chochma that most appeals to us:

As the Divine Feminine, Wisdom can appear to you as Mother, Lover, Bride, Sister or any number of feminine archetypal forms… Find the image that best suits you, and allow it to open you to the way that leads to the birth of the divine anthropos within you.

Aside from the feminine identity of Wisdom in Biblical writings, Shapiro believes there is another significant reason why the teachings of Chochma are ignored:

She is intrinsically antiestablishment and nonhierarchical. Wisdom is taught, so the student needs a teacher, but once She is learned there is a great leveling: Teacher and student share the same understanding.

Behold, days are coming…

when I will seal a new covenant

with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah…

I will place My Teaching within them

and I will write it on their heart…

They will no longer teach one another,

saying Know the Lord!

For everyone will know Me,

from the smallest to the greatest. (Jeremiah 31:30-33)

How might this change our way of relating to the Sacred Presence, to one another, to ourselves? 

(Reference: Rabbi Rami Shapiro, The Divine Feminine in Biblical Wisdom Literature, Skylight Illuminations, 2005)

Seeking Sophia

The new is giving birth to the old… the task is to give birth to the old in a new time—to the primordial ancient in a world that is new.  (Peter Kingsley)

Seven years ago, in October 2014, I began this weekly blog dedicated to giving new birth to the ancient knowing of the feminine principle of the Sacred whom some cultures have known by the name Sophia.

Today, I invite you once again to enter this quest with me.

As we set out to find Sophia, the missing feminine aspect of the Holy, we prepare for a long journey, following tracks that are millennia old. We learn to be adept at time travel, at exploring deep dusty caverns of pre-history, at unravelling, then reweaving, threads of ancient stories.

Sophia is nowhere precisely, yet everywhere subtly. Mythologies of many cultures abound with tales of her presence, her power, her sufferings, her diminishments. Old fairy tales hold glimpses of her that are both tender and terrifying. We will need to look into sacred wells, old ritual sites, ruined temples and sanctuaries. We will carefully examine fragments of poetry, shards of pottery, pieces of drums, tiny perfect feminine figures carved of stone, buried in the depths of the earth.

We are living today in the time of the great recovery. What has been hidden is being revealed to us. Scholars of ancient civilizations are writing of their findings: the traces of a sacred feminine presence within the stories, myths and ritual practices of people long vanished.

In A Brief History of The Celts, Peter Berresford Ellis writes of the Great Mother Goddess of the Ancient Celts, revealing the connection between the Celtic Goddess and the great rivers of Ireland, a sacred connection also found in India’s mythology:

the Celts believed their origins lay with the mother goddess Danu, ‘divine waters from heaven’. She fell from heaven and her waters created the Danuvius (Danube), having watered the sacred oak tree Bile. From there sprang the pantheon of the gods who are known as the Tuatha de Danaan (Children of Danu) in Irish and the Children of Don in Welsh myths. (Beresford Ellis p. 162)

Celtic writer Jen Delyth writes of the goddess Anu, also known as Danu and Aine: An ancient figure, venerated under many names, she is known as the womb of life. She is the spark and vitality of life. She is the seed of the sun in our veins. The Great Earth Mother is … the Mother whose breasts are the hills known as the “Paps of Anu” in Ireland. Her hair is the wild waves, the golden corn. Her eyes are the shining stars, her belly the round tors or earth barrows from which we are born. Like the cat, the sow, the owl, she eats her young if they are sick or dying. She is the cycle of life, the turning of the seasons. 

In rivers, waves, and corn, in stars and earth barrows, in the very seasons of our land, this sacred presence is embodied, immersed, implanted in the universe, around above, beneath, within us.

In Women of the Celts Jean Markale offers an overview of the decline of the Sacred Feminine presence as the Jewish/Christian religions became dominant, but he also hints at how her presence survives:

the disturbing and desirable figure of the Virgin Mary with her unexpected names: Our Lady of the Water, Our Lady of the Nettles, Our Lady of the Briars, Our Lady of the Mounds, Our Lady of the Pines. But in spite of the veneration accorded her over the centuries and the public declaration of successive dogmas related to Mary, the authorities of the Christian Church have always made her a secondary character, overshadowed and retiring, a model of what women ought to be. Now the pure and virginal servant of man, the wonderful mother who suffers all heroically, she is no longer the Great Goddess before whom the common herd of men would tremble, but Our Lady of the Night.

Our Lady of the Night! What a lovely, appropriate name for the presence we seek, the One who has so many different names… yet is being rebirthed now in our time.

The ways we are to seek her may seem arduous, but the starting place is deep within our souls: the search begins with our longing for her.

I long for You so much

I follow barefoot Your frozen tracks

That are high in the mountains

That I know are years old.

I long for You so much

I have even begun to travel

Where I have never been before.

(Hafiz, The Subject Tonight Is Love trans. Daniel Ladinsky)

Sophia and the Web of Life

 

 So much has altered since Covid 19 became a pandemic. The   interconnectedness of all of life has moved from a concept to a lived experience fraught with anxiety, yet also with an unprecedented coming together in co-operation across boundaries both geographic and political.  

In the first weeks of the pandemic, there was an already visible effect on our wounded planet. Photos from space showed a clearing in earth’s atmosphere, particularly above northern Italy. Astounded Venetians saw fish, dolphins, white swans swimming in suddenly clear canal water. Bird song was being heard in Wuhan, China, in air cleansed of dense pollution.

That we noticed these early signs of healing of the Earth was due in part to the seeds of new relationships of respect and love between humans and other forms of life planted and nurtured over decades before COVID. Harbingers of this newness: writers, teachers, parents, poets, as well as scientists and naturalists had been calling us into a new relationship with the earth, with all that lives within, on, around her. The feminist theologians, writing in the last third of the twentieth century, used their powerful intellects, their theological training, and their own experience to show that the “objective” masculine theological teachings, thought to apply to all humankind, actually reflected the masculine way to God.

The feminist theologians found the heart of the difference between the masculine and feminine ways to be within the perceived dualities found in Greek thought: spirit/matter, sky/earth, thought/ feeling, supernatural/natural, mind/body, spirituality/sexuality, man/woman. More than a separation, there is a perceived hierarchy. Spirit, sky, thought, the supernatural, mind, spirituality, man are viewed as separate from, superior to, matter, earth, feeling, nature, body, sexuality and woman. This is a worldview where God is separate from creation, from humanity. To find this God, we must soar above the human, above the natural world.

 Through the writings of the feminist theologians, I learned that to recover a sense of the sacredness of the feminine would be to recover as well a sense of the sacredness of the Earth, of the body, of feelings, of sexuality.

At this time in the story of our planet Earth, this recovery is vital. The Sacred Presence of Love lives within all of life, within the Earth herself, within the creatures that walk, swim, fly, crawl upon and within her. Only this knowing can give us the courage and the strength we need for the work we are called to do with the Earth as she heals from the ravages of our despoiling of her.

In the sixth chapter of her book, The Web of Life, theologian Carol Christ, who died recently, writes compellingly of this call: To know ourselves as of this earth is to know our deep connection to all people and beings. All beings are interdependent in the web of life….We feel deeply within ourselves that we are part of all that is, but we must learn to speak of what we know. We know, too, that we participate fully in the earth’s cycles of birth, death, and regeneration…. The fundamental insight of connection to all beings in the web of life is experienced by children, poets, mystics, and indeed, I suspect, by all of us, though we may lack the language to express what we feel….(p. 113)

Acknowledging the difficulty of speaking of this deep connection “in the face of criticism rooted in dualistic thinking”, Christ quotes Jewish theologian Martin Buber who wrote of his “I-Thou” relation to a tree:

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: as rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness…

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.  (Martin Buber, I and Thou trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970 pp. 58-59)

In the writings of Susan Griffin we find a recognition of “This Earth” as intelligent and aware: I taste, I know, and I know why she goes on, under great weight, with this great thirst, in drought, in starvation, with intelligence in every act does she survive disaster. (Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her New York, Harper and Row, 1978 p. 219)  

A beautiful reweaving of dualities into wholeness flows from our embrace of Sophia. Once we take our first turning towards a Sacred Feminine Presence, welcoming her into our lives, change begins. In Rebirth of the Goddess (1997), Carol P. Christ writes of how turning towards the presence she names the Goddess altered her life.

If Goddess is an intelligent power that is fully embodied in the world, then the notion that divinity, nature and humanity are three totally distinct categories collapses. If Goddess as fully embodied intelligent love is the ground of all being, then it makes sense to speak of intelligence and love as rising out of the very nature of being and of all beings as intelligent and infused with love. Human intelligence and our capacity to love do not separate us from nature. Instead, everything we are arises from the nature of being, from our grounding in the earth. (p. 123)

Today’s poets and writers are expressing these thoughts in the midst of our new reality. This piece written by Kitty O’Meara expresses the hope we may hold even in the grip of uncertainty, suffering and grief:

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply.
Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in
ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.
    

Embracing the Sophia Presence

Sophiawakens September 24, 2021

As the Autumn Equinox arrives, darkness and light, night and day, winter and summer move into a delicate balance. Following her example, I allow the earth to guide my own balance of feminine and masculine both within and outside of myself. This prompts me to return once more to Rabbi Rami Shapiro, opening my heart to receive his translation of the “Song of Songs”, the Jewish text originally written in Greek somewhere in the second or first centuries BCE. Shapiro, in his book, Embracing the Divine Feminine, traces the history of rabbinical scholarship and offers his own insights into this poem of erotic love which he sees as “a celebration of the union of the seeker of wisdom with Lady Wisdom herself.”

In his Introduction, Shapiro writes: Given the centrality of Chochmah, Lady Wisdom, to this reading of the Song of Songs, we would be wise to take a moment to understand just who she is. According to the Book of Job, Wisdom is the means by which God created the universe. God looked and took note of her. (Job 28:27) In other words, God looked to Wisdom to discover both the form and function of the universe. Wisdom therefore is the very nature in nature.

Curious, I opened my Jerusalem Bible to the Book of Job and found these lines:

But tell me, where does wisdom come from? ….

God alone has traced (her) path

and found out where (she) lives….

When (God) willed to give weight to the wind

 and measured out the waters with a gauge,

When (God) made the laws and rules for the rain

and mapped a route for the thunderclaps to follow,

then (God) had Wisdom in sight, and cast (her) worth, 

assessed (her), fathomed (her). (Job 28:20, 23, 25-27)

Who is Lady Wisdom?

For answer, Shapiro offers his own translation of Proverbs 8: 22-32. (Remember Thomas Merton’s dream of a young girl named Proverbs who was for him the Sophia Presence?)

I am the deep grain of creation,

the subtle current of life.

God fashioned me before all things:

I am the blueprint of creation,

I was there from the beginning,

from before there was a beginning.

I am independent of time and space, earth and sky.

I was there before depth was considered,

before springs bubbled with water,

before the shaping of mountains and hills,

before God fashioned the earth and its bounty,

before the first dust settled on the lands.

When God prepared the heavens, I was there.

When the circle of the earth was etched into the face of the deep

I was there.

I stood beside God as firstborn and friend.

My nature is joy and I gave God constant delight.

Now that the world is inhabited, I rejoice in it.

I will be your true delight if you will heed my teachings.

Follow me and be happy.

Practice my discipline and grow wise.

Shapiro Comments:(T)he Hebrew is clear: the speaker is Chochma, Lady Wisdom, and hence all the pronouns and verbs referring to Wisdom in this passage are feminine. The grammar of this and every passage that speaks of, to, about, or for Wisdom always uses the feminine form.  

Shapiro invites us to consider the qualities of Wisdom usually associated with God. She is the “firstborn” of God and from her come the thousand things of creation. Her way is of truth and justice while her essence is pure delight. Wisdom delights in humanity and one who finds her finds life.

Shapiro compares this with Jesus who said, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6) Paul connects Jesus with Wisdom in Corinthians 1:24 when he writes: Christ is the power of God and the Wisdom of God.

Then Shapiro goes further: What becomes the male Christ in the Christian Scriptures was originally the female Chochmah in the Hebrew Bible.

He continues: Wisdom is the way God manifests in and as creation. Uniting with Wisdom, as the Song of Songs invites us to do, is a way of uniting with the life and the Source from which life arises.

Statue of the Black Madonna with her child in Chartres Cathedral

Why do we personify Wisdom? Shapiro believes it is because “on a deep and subconscious level we know her to be the other with whom we long to unite. She is not an abstraction but our Beloved. She is not to be thought about but physically embraced in a manner that reveals YWVH to us.”

Shapiro offers us his translation of Proverbs: Chapter 9, 1-6:

Wisdom’s house rests on many pillars.

It is magnificent and easy to find.

Inside, she has cooked a fine meal and

sweetened her wine with water.

Her table is set.

She sends her maidens to the tallest towers to summon you.

To the simple they call: Come enter here.

To those who lack understanding they say:

Come eat my food, drink my wine,

Abandon your empty life and walk in the way of understanding.

Shall we accept her invitation?

.

travelling with sophia

Perhaps like you, I have begun to take road trips once more to visit with friends and family. On Saturday I set out with confidence on a journey to Southern Ontario, travelling along roads I’d been taking for more than twenty years. I knew where to find the essentials: gas stations, Tim Horton coffee stops en route, had a mask handy for each time I got out of the car. I had my GPS.

What more was needed?

For several hours, I drove past lush green scenery, towns, landmarks not seen in these seventeen months since COVID took up residence across the planet. There were changes since my last journey: the express route, 407, had been extended to link with the 115 South, shortening the trip by nearly an hour. I was within 30 minutes of my destination, London, Ontario, when I stopped for coffee, found a phone message from my sister warning of a major detour on the 401 for that night only.

Within minutes of my setting out again, a flashing sign warned that traffic ahead was stopped. The three-lane highway became a parking lot, with progress measured in metres, interspersed with stoppages. Full darkness had risen two hours later when we exited onto a side road whose winding ways would lead back to the 401 beyond the construction area.

Soon I was completely lost.

I pulled into a large, empty parking lot to get my bearings, reset my GPS. I backed up, heard the sound of crunching metal. I had backed into a narrow cement pole just a few centimetres above the ground, too low to register on my backup screen, though strong enough (as I would later discover) to deliver a strong punch to my back bumper…

Meanwhile, the confident voice of the GPS, apparently unaware of the detour, was guiding me to the exit to the 401 West. I was driving along in the opposite directions to a long line of cars, vans, giant transports, all leaving the 401.

One car waited while I made a graceless U-turn to join the line…

Two phone calls, combined with a less-trusting return to the GPS, brought me to my sister’s home where she was waiting for me outside her front door…

After a late dinner, after conversation with my sister and brother-in-law, I was alone in the guest room, seated for my evening prayer with Sophia. The tensions, the dangers of that dark journey swept through me. Paramount now was concern about repair costs for the bumper punch.

“WHY did that happen?” I asked.

In response, words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro, written about Chochma (Sophia) rose in me. This is how I remembered them: “Sophia will not tell you why things are as they are, but She will show you how to cut with the grain, tack with the wind…”

As though blown away by a gentle breeze within me, my tensions resolved. I knew I would, on my return, go about the steps involved in having the damage to the car assessed and repaired. Only then did I realize what love and care, what inner guidance, had kept me safe through a harrowing journey, where I did not panic even when I found myself going against the traffic.

Now that I am home, I have found the full passage from Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s book, The Divine Feminine in Biblical Wisdom Literature, that brought me comfort.

To know her, according to Shapiro, is to know the Way of all things and thus to be able to act in harmony with them. To know the Way of all things and to act in accord with it is what it means to be wise.To know Wisdom is to become wise. To become wise is to find happiness and peace:

Her ways are ways of pleasantness…all Her paths are peace. (Proverbs 3: 17) 

Wisdom is not to be taken on faith. She is testable. If you follow Her you will find joy, peace and happiness not at the end of the journey but as the very stuff of which the journey is made. This is crucial. The reward for following Wisdom is immediate. The Way to is the Way of.  

Chochma is not a reluctant guide or a hidden guru, Shapiro writes. She is not hard to find nor does she require any austere test to prove you are worthy of Her.

She stands on the hilltops, on the sidewalks, at the crossroads, at the gateways (Proverbs 8:1-11) and calls to you to follow Her. Wisdom’s only desire is to teach you to become wise.  Her only frustration is your refusal to listen to Her.

….To know Wisdom is to be her lover, and by loving Her, you become God’s beloved as well.

In our becoming partners, co-creating with Wisdom, Shapiro writes:

Wisdom will not tell why things are the way they are, but will show you what they are and how to live in harmony with them….Working with Wisdom, you learn how…to make small, subtle changes that effect larger ones. You learn how to cut with the grain, tack with the wind, swim with the current, and allow the nature of things to support your efforts. She will not tell you why things are the way they are, but She will make plain to you what things are and how you deal them to your mutual benefit.

In the Wisdom of Solomon, Chochma/Sophia is described in words that are not unlike those that define the GPS: “the Global Positioning System that tells you where you are on earth.”   

She embraces one end of the earth to the other, and She orders all things well. (Wisdom of Solomon 8:11)

trasna -the crossing place

The pilgrims paused on the ancient stones in the mountain gap.
Behind them stretched the roadway they had traveled.
Already a far journey… was it a lifetime?
Ahead, mist hid the track.
Unspoken, the question hovered:
Why go on? Is life not short enough?
Why seek to pierce its mystery?
Why venture further on strange paths, risking all?
Surely that is a gamble for fools.. or lovers.
Why not return comfortably to the known road?
Why be a pilgrim still?
A voice they knew called to them saying:
This is Trasna, the crossing place.
Choose!  Go back if you must,
You will find your way easily by yesterday’s fires
there may be life in the embers yet.

If that is not your deep desire, stand still.
Lay down your load.
Take your life firmly in your two hands,
[Gently.. you are trusted with something precious]
While you search your heart’s yearnings:
What am I seeking?  What is my quest?
When your star rises deep within,
Trust yourself to its leading.

You will have the light for first steps
This is Trasna, the crossing place.  Choose!
​.This is Trasna, the crossing place.  Come! 
 
[Sr Raphael Considine PBVM] 

As you look back over these months of COVID, what do you see?

How does your soul’s journey seem to you?

What have you gained?

How have you grown or changed?

What changes do you notice in what you value?

Where are you being called to go next?

These are real questions I’m asking each one of you. I ask them now at this time when sixteen months of the COVID pandemic have brought unexpected challenges to our lives. Many of us are exhausted from the stress of anxiety, the suffering of loved ones, the daily crises erupting through the effects of climate change, economic inequality, political unrest as the ground beneath our feet reveals fissures…

Whether it’s clear in what ways we’ve been changed, our life on this planet has changed, even as the poet Yeats once wrote, “Changed utterly….” Yet as Yeats’ poem continues, “a terrible beauty is born.”

Look at the way compassion is breaking us open, calling us to radical change: we cannot any longer deny the inadequacy of our social fabric, our market driven economy, to solve the crises now arising everywhere, especially in the devastation of our earth-home, our true Mother.

I invite you to reflect on this image of Hecate, Greek Goddess of the Crossroads. Make note of the responses that arise in your heart.

The Wisdom of Plants

Within(Wisdom/Sophia) is a spirit intelligent, holy,

unique, manifold, subtle,

active, incisive, unsullied,

lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp,

irresistible, beneficent, loving to humankind,

steadfast, dependable, unperturbed,

almighty, all-surveying,

penetrating all intelligent, pure

and most subtle spirits;

for Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion;

she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things.

 (Book of Wisdom 7:22-24, Jerusalem Bible)

Where have you recently encountered this mysterious presence that “pervades and permeates all things”? If you are a gardener you have glimpsed her in the long-awaited blossoming of a plant, emerging from winter’s sleep. If you are a grandmother, you have seen her shining in the eyes of a baby. If you are attentive, you have sensed her presence within you in a moment of deep peace, sudden knowing, a release of love or of power that startled you… This is Wisdom/Sophia whom Teilhard de Chardin knew to be within the heart of all that exists, whom Hildegard of Bingen celebrated in song, and Julian of Norwich wrote about in her Revelations of Divine Love, whom mystics like Etty Hillesum found within herself even in Auschwitz, whom poets from Milton to Wordsworth to Blake to Emily Dickinson to Mary Oliver celebrate in words that sing within us… Still we might pass days, weeks, years, perhaps even a whole lifetime, without knowing her.

Awareness comes with opening our eyes to the wonder, the surprising joy of this presence within and around us. On Sunday I removed my skeptic’s cloak, went out to the garden to seek the presence of wisdom in a plant. Carefully following the guidance on a CD by Starhawk, I first asked the plant’s permission to befriend her, then sensing her agreement (truly!) I imagined myself small enough to enter her leafy greenness, to experience life from within her. Here is what I later recorded:

This plant in my garden is awakened by the sun’s appearance in the east, inviting her to live a new day. I recalled suddenly the words of Ezechiel: “Live and grow like the grass in the fields”.  Was this the plant’s wisdom for me?  I turned towards the south whose warmth engenders life within this plant, asking for what I needed to engender new life from within. I turned west, towards the winds loved by poets that ruffle the leaves of this plant, soothing, caressing.  I remembered friends whose gentle winds of love sustained me through times of inner turmoil. I faced north, the place of transformation. What is north for this plant? Winter, I thought, imagining her glossy green leaves brittle, brown, broken. Winter when she must let go of all she cherishes, feeling it blown away by cold winds until nothing remains but her buried roots. Under the snow-covered garden, she endures the long wait through darkness until her new life emerges with spring. Would she know about spring? I found my thoughts turning to my own life, to the way I resist recurring cycles of loss and transformation, as though I too were ignorant of the way spring must follow winter. I looked at my plant, admiring her steady presence, her calm acceptance of the rhythms of life…. As plants have been for thousands of years, she has become my wisdom-teacher.

Since that encounter, I have been foraging through bookshelves, seeking to know how others have met this mysterious sacred presence. In Goddesses and the Divine Feminine by Rosemary Radford Ruether (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005) I found a story from the life experience of Carol P. Christ, a writer whose work has been an inspiration to me.

(Carol Christ) went through a period of deep depression in the early 1990s. An intense love relationship had ended. She felt unable to write, experiencing writer’s block. Feelings of isolation and failure and the fear that she was unlovable resurfaced and brought suicidal thoughts. She even felt abandoned by the Goddess and was angry at her. The refrain, “no one loves you, no one will ever love you, you might as well die” echoed in her mind. She spent most of her time renovating a newly purchased apartment in Athens, hoping to welcome her parents to Greece for their first visit. Instead, she received word that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer.

Christ’s trip back to her parents’ home to be with her mother in her dying days became a revelatory turning point. As her mother died, Christ felt bathed in an ambiance of love and experienced the deepest nature of the universe as embodied love. This experience decisively resolved her uncertainty as to whether the Goddess was simply a metaphor for oneself or the sum total of an indifferent “nature”… or whether the Goddess represented an embodied personal power within and beyond us who cares for us. Christ now felt that she had the experiential basis for clearly choosing the latter view. (p. 287)  

Carol Christ identifies as Goddess this embodied love, this mysterious presence whom others call Wisdom Sophia. Call to her by any name you choose. She will be there.

a visit to the sophia

Let’s turn our thoughts to the presence of Sophia, She who has been called the beating heart of the planet. Mary Malone’s poetry offers us images of Sophia inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures.

For Sophia is the splendour of eternal light

And immaculate mirror of God’s majesty,

And image of God’s goodness…

For she is more beautiful than the sun,

And above all the order of the stars.

Compared with the light, she is found before it…

Therefore she reaches from end to end mightily

And orders all things sweetly.

“A Visit to the Sophia” is a short guided meditation from Jean Houston’s book, Godseed. We settle ourselves comfortably, preparing for this sacred journey:

After a long spiraling journey upwards, you find yourself at the very top of a high mountain. You go inside the mountain to a path that travels downward in a spiral. Moving along the path down and around within the inner mountain spiral, you pass scenes of your own life, from your earliest infancy. You see or sense yourself being born. Continuing on the path down and around, to your earliest childhood, you see yourself taking your first steps, forming words, reaching out and grasping things, learning to feed yourself. Further down you see yourself learning to tie your own shoes and attending your first days at school. Continuing down, you see yourself learning games and reaching out to other children. As you continue, you see yourself growing up fast and learning many things. You see your adolescence. Further along you observe stages of your life until today………..

Suddenly you find yourself at the very bottom of the inside of the mountain. There you discover a door of baked mud. Going through it, you find that it leads to a hallway and to a door of water. You pass through the door of water, and it leads to a door of fire. You pass through the door of fire, and it leads to a door of winds. You lean against the winds and pass through. This door leads to a door of bronze, and you pass through. This door leads to a door of silver. You pass  through the door of silver and find a door of gold.

At the door of gold there is a shining figure who says to you: “Through this door is the Sophia. Through this door is the Wise One herself, the incarnation of Wisdom. When you pass through this door, you will be in the presence of the Sophia. There you must ask your question. You may see her or you may sense her. But know that she is there. She who is Wisdom itself.” When you are in her ambience, whether you see her or hear her or sense her or feel her, ask your question. Her answers may come in words or in images or even in feelings.

You now have four minutes of clock time, equal to all the time you need, to be in the presence of the Sophia and ask your question and receive her answers.

     Thanking the Sophia for her wisdom and kindness, and knowing that you can always return to visit her again, begin now to go back through the door of gold, the door of silver, the door of bronze, beyond the doors of winds, of fire, of water, of earth, beyond the spiral of the stages of your own life, reaching the top of the mountain. Now take the spiral path back down from the mountain. Find yourself here in this moment. Open your eyes, sit up and stretch, and if you wish share your experiences by writing them in a journal, or perhaps making a drawing or sketch.

The Morning After the Dark night of the soul

As we prepare to emerge from the darkness of COVID, these teachings from Jean Houston offer guidance.

October 21-23, 2016: Jean Houston is to facilitate a program entitled, “The Morning after the Dark Night of the Soul”. Early on Friday morning, I set out for the eleven hour drive to the Rowe Conference Center in Massachusetts. The way takes me through mountains softened through millennia to rounded hills. Trees wear autumn colours so achingly beautiful that I want to stop the car, to embrace them. The narrow road curves, dips, climbs. Quite suddenly a sharp hairpin turn opens to a space to park, to take photos…

 

Full darkness has descended when the car’s headlights pick up the small wooden sign: “The Rowe Center”. Over a narrow bridge that spans a swift-flowing brook, I enter the grounds. In the central farmhouse, a dinner of eggplant parmesan, fresh-baked bread, vegetables, salads and apple crisp awaits.

In a great circle that embraces the dining tables, I join fifty others as we sing a blessing, “Simple Gifts”.

The words pierce through my dazed fatigue, startling me into joy: “To turn, to turn, will be our delight, ‘til by turning, turning we come round right.” I know my coming here is the grace for which I’ve been yearning. Before setting out, I’d written my desire: to be spun around, turned to face a new direction….. 

After dinner, we walk from the farmhouse along the path that climbs through the woods to the building that holds the meeting room.

Jean Houston welcomes us, assuring us that, “in the dark night, an enormous gift awaits you.” The music begins. We dance our way into a weekend of teachings, processes, insights, profound inner experiences, one on one conversations   spinning our lives into joy.

Jean Houston: “In the dark night an enormous gift awaits you.”

Using as loom the stages of the mystical path as described by Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism, 1911) Jean weaves together the present darkness of our planet, our personal lives, with the light that sustains the Universe, holding each of us in a fabric of beauty. We’re immersed for a time, brief, endless, in the heart of the spirituality that we’ve been longing to experience, to embrace.

Part of the dark night today, Jean tells us, is way beyond the personal self: this catharsis of refugees, war, weather, the breakdown of systems is “a ritual of initiation that life gives us to deepen”.

Jean turns to Connie Buffalo, her working partner, a member of the Anishnabe/Ojibway People, “How do your people deal with the dark night?”

“We walk in two worlds,” Connie responds. “We know ourselves as timeless beings, called to become more for the good of all people.”

“Mythologize the dark night. Don’t pathologize it.” Jean is introducing the theme when an urgent question from a participant requires a shift:

“What are we to do about the violence, the racism now erupting in our country?”

“The way is love,” Jean responds. “Be there and love. Drop down into the center. Let the facts fall away. Speak essence to essence. (In) very deep seeing, you see the levels of beingness in the person that are not normally seen. Practise going off automatic and into the essence.”

We learn about the practice of deep seeing, first by watching as Jean engages with volunteers from among us, then by working with one another in pairs.

Jean begins by asking the first volunteer to speak of a quality she dislikes in herself. “People say I’m a know-it-all,” the woman responds. Jean invites her to      step back a bit, to shake her body, loosening the posture of protection.

In the silence, Jean looks at her. “You are a pattern-keeper,” Jean says to the woman, explaining that one who sees and knows the higher pattern calls others to honour it in their behaviour.

The women nods, smiles, walks back to her place as one who has received a gift, one who sees that her darkness has light within it.

Jean explains that we have within us a “daemon”: our essential self. This daemon  keeps us in a state of negative life, a darkness, until the inner self has become strong enough to be seen in its fulness. Winston Churchill stuttered when he was young; his voice was protected by his daemon until it would be needed to save Britain. “The daemon protects you until you’re ready.”

Seeing deeply requires us to drop our ego, to focus on the other, Jean says, inviting us to experience this process of deep empathic seeing, working with a partner, someone we don’t know in the room. I’m surprised at the way this process opens my eyes to see the beauty and light in a stranger, the way it shows me the light beneath my own darkness.

Sunrise : “Look deeply to discover what’s trying to emerge”

“We’re looking at the other side of the dark night,” Jean says. “Look deeply to discover what’s trying to emerge.”

In the dark night of the soul, Jean explains, ordinary life shuts down so that deep life can reconstitute itself. If you could see it, it couldn’t happen. It’s like the caterpillar within the cocoon. Its cells turn into a moosh, a soup, until the new imaginal cells combine, become strong enough to emerge as a butterfly.

On the drive back, I know I’ve returned to the deep self once more. I’ve been spun around by my friend and teacher Jean to face into the firelight, into the joy. When I step out of the car beside my home, the stars above me are dancing with delight.

Where and how do you find light in the present darkness on our planet?

What emerging butterfly will we see after this dark night?

What do you see now?

Archetypes in myth

“What Would Maisie (or Robin or Psyche ) Do?”

“Archetypes are many things,” Jean Houston writes, “– primal forms, codings of the deep unconscious, constellations of psychic energy, patterns of relationship. Our ancestors saw them in the heavens, prayed to them as Mother Earth, Father Ocean, Sister Wind. They were the great relatives from whom we derived, and they gave us not only our existence, but also prompted our stories, elicited our moral order.”

Many of the stories we love best are indeed prompted by archetypes, characters whose life struggles, choices, suffering, triumphs, illumine our lives. They are, Jean writes, “our connection to the wider reality…. (they) bring to us the inspirations, ideas, supports, strength to engage in our lives/our tasks with greater capabilities.”

Last week, we saw how the story of “The Great Stone Face” by 19th century author Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrates the power of an Archetypal Story to offer guidance for a lifetime. In the 21st century, English writer Jacqueline Winspear saw in her imagination her fictional character, Maisie Dobbs, emerge fully created from a London Underground Station. In the series of books which follow Maisie’s development as ”Psychologist and Investigator”, through the 1920’s and ‘30’s in London, Winspear presents a character so compelling that her readers tell her that Maisie has inspired them with guidance for difficult times in their own lives. That led Winspear to publish What Would Maisie Do? (Harper Perennial, New York, 2019), a Journal with quotes from the stories of Maisie Dobbs followed by blank pages for her readers’ reflections.

Have you one or more archetypal stories, perhaps heard in childhood, whose characters and their choices continue to guide you? You may have forgotten the original tale; yet, you are still influenced by it.

For me and my siblings, the story of Robin Hood with his band of adventurers in England’s Sherwood Forest was archetypal. Each evening at bedtime, our father would weave a fresh tale, made up in the telling, about Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and the merry band who robbed the rich to give to the poor.

When, as an adult, working in women’s spiritualty, I encountered the power of stories, especially very old ones, to illumine lives, I was re-enchanted. The great storyteller from Chicago, John Shea, came to speak at Ottawa’s University of Saint Paul. Afterwards, I approached him to ask, “How is it that stories, especially ancient ones, hold such power to transform us?”

“Three things,” he began. “First, the stories are very old. No one knows where they came from originally. Second, there’s the power in the one who tells the story. Third is the power within the one who hears and understands the tale.”

Later, I would learn more about archetypal stories from Jean Houston. In her book The Search for the Beloved (Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1987, 1997), Jean tells the ancient Greek Tale of Psyche and Eros. For 21st century women, this tale offers wisdom about the feminine way to approach difficult, seemingly impossible tasks.

Psyche, a mortal woman, has fallen in love with Eros, son of the goddess Aphrodite. In her desire to see the face of her lover, Psyche goes against his insistence that she must never look at him. As he sleeps, she lights a candle to gaze at him.

Psyche in Cupid’s Garden Paining by Waterhouse

At once he disappears. Aphrodite, jealous of her son’s love for a mortal, offers to break the spell that separates the lovers. She imposes three seemingly impossible tasks on Psyche. One of these is that the young woman must gather golden fleece from treacherous rams. Psyche weeps in despair, knowing the rams will surely kill her (as Aphrodite intends).

Reeds growing in the nearby river, symbols of the feminine, advise her. Guided by the moon, rather than the all-revealing light of the sun, Psyche is to approach the rams while they sleep. She is to take their fleece not directly from them but rather from the nearby bushes, where tufts of the golden fleece have been snagged as the rams passed by… Psyche completes this task in the feminine way: following the wisdom of moonlight and indirection.

How It All Works

“Archetypes are organs of Essence, the cosmic blueprints of How It All Works,”  Jean Houston writes elsewhere. “As major organs of the psyche, archetypes give us our essential connections, and without them we would lose the gossamer bridge that joins spirit with nature, mind with body, and self with the metabody of the universe…. Because they contain so much, archetypes bewilder analysis and perhaps can only be known by direct experience.

“Working with myth and archetype, we discover that we are characters in the drama of the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. In this discovery we push the boundaries of our own human story and gain the courage to live mythically ourselves and to help heal our world.

Redeem the unread vision of the higher dream

“At this we startle, we shake. The scope of this dream demands that we live out of our true essence, which is always too large for our local contracted consciousness to contain. I find that it requires many mythic adventures of the soul to reloom body and mind. But such is necessary if we are to return to everyday life with knowledge gained in the depths that can be put to use to redeem the unread vision of the higher dream inherent in both self and society.” (Jean Houston on Archetypes)

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives