For several years, I have been seeking Sophia. Or I thought I had been. What I now understand is that Sophia/Wisdom has been seeking me, luring me under other names, other guises, leading me into a way of living that is a companionship more intimate than I could ever have desired or imagined. What joy to begin to recognize that this Presence of Wisdom, of Love, has somehow been both following my steps and leaping ahead to greet me as I arrive…
This is Sophia’s way. Through the ages she has walked with countless others whom we shall never know. Those who have recorded their experiences with Sophia have left us a priceless treasure, a template for what we can experience for ourselves. As Thomas Merton has done, they speak of the joy of knowing her intimate companioning:
When I go home, I shall take my ease with her, for nothing is bitter in her company, when life is shared with her, there is no pain, nothing but pleasure and joy. (Wisdom 8: 16)
When my friend Ellyn told me that this year’s theme for the annual Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky would be “Sacred Insight, Feminine Wisdom”, I was drawn to attend. For four days, we experienced Wisdom, a fountain of delight, shared by presenters, both men and women, from a wide spectrum of faith traditions.
Sophia’s is an embodied presence, within ourselves, within others. Through the days of the Festival her voice resounded, whispered, sang, laughed, spoke and taught in many accents, many keys, many cultures. From the moment when Hildegard of Bingen’s music filled the Cathedral in Louisville with mystery and beauty, I knew that Sophia would be present within this gathering.
What was Hildegard’s experience of Sophia? Born just before the twelfth century, Hildegard wrote her brilliant theological treatise, “Scivias” in Latin, so in her writings Lady Wisdom is known as “Sapientia”. Mary T. Malone writes of Hildegard’s devotion to “Sapientia”:
Hildegard was fully aware of the biblical tradition stemming from Sophia, a female embodiment of God, which had been allowed to lapse from consciousness with the emphasis on the all-male metaphorical Trinity. For those of us in the Church of today, this is perhaps the most radical part of Hildegard’s teaching, but it occupies well near centre stage in her writings.
(Four Women Doctors of the Church Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 2015, p.27)
For Hildegard, as for so many others among women mystics, a favourite biblical passage was the Book of Proverbs where Wisdom/ Sophia speaks:
Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded,
before the oldest of his works.
From everlasting I was firmly set,
From the beginning, before earth came into being.
The deep was not, when I was born,
there were no springs to gush with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills, I came to birth;
before he made the earth, the countryside,
or the first grains of the world’s dust.
When he fixed the heavens firm, I was there,
when he drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
when he assigned the sea its boundaries
— and the waters will not invade the shore —
when he laid down the foundations of the earth,
I was by his side, a master craftsman,
delighting him day after day,
ever at play in his presence,
at play everywhere in the world…
The Jerusalem Bible: Proverbs 8:22-31
Feminine Wisdom embraces the sacredness of the earth and of the body. For Hildegard, this honouring of Sapientia would show itself in her wonderful teachings on “viriditas” or “greenness”.
Hildegard lived in the Rhine valley and writes with joy about the gardens and orchards of her monastery home. For her, the cycle of the seasons, especially the rising of the sap giving new life in springtime, was a primary metaphor of the spiritual life. Viriditas signified grace, the all-powerful presence of the Spirit….Hildegard saw aridity as the main sign of and metaphor for sin, and moistness and greenness as the principal sign of grace in our lives. We are told that she often concluded her letters with the words, ‘stay green and moist’, which for her meant openness to the Spirit of God. It is an approach to life that takes us right into the twenty-first century, with its emphasis on the environment and on God’s care for all Creation. Hildegard’s references to growing things, to clouds and rainfall and sunshine…are abundant throughout her work. As she worked to tend the sick in the monastery infirmary, Hildegard was intensely curious about the properties and powers of plants, stones and herbs….all part of the greening power of God’s Creation. (Malone, p. 28)
Hildegard’s music was a perfect beginning for the Festival which would have much to impart about “greenness” as an aspect of feminine wisdom.