Sophia as Archetype of Spiritual Wisdom

Sophia: Who or What is She? Where may we find Her? How might we come to know Her?

These questions draw me here to my computer each week. For the past fifteen months, I have been offering you what can only be a whiff of Her presence, a hint at Her activity in our lives, a suggestion of how She longs to befriend and guide us, how She seeks us as co-creative partners in Her work.

I have offered you a few of my own experiences, but mostly I have shared with you the discoveries of other seekers. Through their luminous writings on Sophia as She emerges in the Hebrew Scriptures, in ancient stories and mythology, in poetry and mystical experience, they continue to open new portals, new ways of knowing and experiencing Sophia in our own lives.

Today I share with you insights from Jean Shinoda Bolen’s 2001 book, Goddesses in Older Women. As I read it last evening by the fire, I found my awareness of Sophia expanding through seeing her as an archetype. It was Carl Jung who taught us that we hold within us ancient knowings/images inherited from our earliest ancestors: archetypes of mother /lover /friend/warrior/father/son/wise one/ teacher/daughter… and so on. In The Search for the Beloved (1987-1997) Jean Houston writes of a realm where these archetypal guides dwell, a place of myth and symbols, of sacred time and sacred space, a “container of that which never was and is always happening.” (p. 24)

(I)t is the place where the self joins its polyphrenic possibilities, including the gods and goddesses and their courts. In Sanskrit these celestial beings are referred to as yidams, the personified “rivers to the Ocean of Being.” The gods — Athena, Asclepios, Sophia, Shiva, Quetzalcoatl, and thousands of others — are those forces that have been crystallized in human cultures and worshipped as personalized emanations of a greater unknowable and unnameable power. Sometimes they assume a humanized form, as did Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, and Zoroaster. We may feel a particularly loving resonance with such beings who have been elevated to godhood. By virtue of this identification, we are evoked to become much more fully what we can be in the depth and breadth of our existence. (pp.24-5)

Jean Houston’s description is helpful as it places Sophia in a sacred realm, beyond the human/historical and yet accessible to us, “as the contact point for sacred time and sacred space”. (p. 24)

Now when I turn to Jean Shinoda Bolen’s writings, I have a clearer sense of how Sophia appears in our lives as Archetype of Wisdom. And I recall the frisson I experienced when I read in She Who Is (Elizabeth Johnson, 1992) the suggestion that Jesus was himself the embodiment of the Sophia archetype! Johnson writes that Jesus lived the qualities of Sophia as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, but his historical entry into time was during a period when a woman would not be accepted as a spiritual teacher.

In Goddesses in Older Women Bolen speaks of Sophia as “a forgotten goddess figure within a monotheistic, patriarchal religious tradition that denies feminine divinity” (p.25) Describing Sophia as “the archetype of spiritual wisdom or soul knowledge,” Bolen writes:

Sophia’s wisdom is insightful, it is what we know through gnosis….Gnostic or noetic…knowledge is what is revealed to us or intuitively perceived as spiritually true. I think of gnosis as what we “gknow” at a soul level, it’s what we know “in our bones”…. At a soul level, we can know that we are spiritual beings on a human path, or know that life has a purpose, or know that we are loved, or know God, or know that we are part of an interconnected universe. (p. 26)

For Bolen, “gnosis” is “an intuitive process of knowing oneself at the deepest level” akin to the Jungian concept of connecting to the Self where with soul knowledge we sense our life as meaningful. “What we know through a connection with the Self is divine wisdom,” Bolen writes. “This is a wisdom that isn’t the exclusive possession of authority above us; it is the wisdom that dwells in us and is everywhere.” (p.27)

What we call “women’s intuition” is also an aspect of gnosis. Bolen writes:

Far from mysterious, it’s a combination of noticing what is going on and processing what we are noticing in an intuitive way. It has to do with knowing people, of assessing character, of seeing through the façade – it’s insight into the presence or absence of soul. The click! insight that sees the underlying sexism or power politics in a situation is gnosis. The Aha! that happens when something important to you suddenly makes sense is gnosis. The moment when you know that your spouse is unfaithful, is gnosis. That inner twinge of a guilty conscience is gnosis. (p. 27)

Bolen concludes her reflection on Sophia as Archetype of Spiritual Wisdom or Gnosis with these words:
Growing older and wiser is a lifelong process that accelerates in the third phase, especially if you heed gnosis in yourself. This is how the archetype of Sophia becomes known to you. She is a way of knowing, a source of inner wisdom as well as an archetypal wisewoman. When Sophia dwells in you, you perceive the soul of the matter or soul qualities in others. (p.27)

Next week: “Sophia the Mystic”

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