Merton’s Love Affair with Wisdom-Sophia

 

As I continue to read Christopher Pramuk’s Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2009), I am moved by Merton’s growing, deepening relationship with Wisdom/Sophia. I am discovering that the experience was for him more than an idea, a theological construct. It was for Merton an encounter on the human/divine level that each of us knows as our reality.

 Pramuk writes:”One has only to read the journals from 1957 through 1961 to be struck by the frequency and poignancy with which the Wisdom figure of the Hebrew Scriptures began to haunt Merton’s religious imagination, thanks largely to his close study of Russian Orthodox sophiology . …Merton recognizes in sophiology not merely a speculative theology but a bold theological anthropology, a view of human life, history and culture as bound together in the ‘life story of God.’ ”

 

Thomas Merotn photo

Thomas Merton

Merton wrote: Our life is a powerful Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit, ever active in us, seeks to reach through our inspired hands and tongues into the very heart of the material world created to be spiritualized…  (Pramuk p. 153)

As we saw earlier, Sophia came to Merton in a dream on February 28, 1958 and later on a crowded city street in Louisville. Here is Merton’s fuller account of that experience, shared in a letter to Boris Pasternak (Russian poet, novelist, author of Doctor Zhivago):

“Shall I perhaps tell you how I know Lara, where I have met her?”  Merton asks, then tells Pasternak of his dream:

a very young Jewish girl…embraced me so that I was moved to the depths of my soul. I learned that her name was “Proverb,” which I thought very simple and beautiful. And also I thought: “She is of the race of Saint Anne.” I spoke to her of her name, and she did not seem to be proud of it, because it seemed that the other young girls mocked her for it. But I told her that it was a very beautiful name, and there the dream ended. A few days later I happened to be in a nearby city, which is very rare for us. I was walking alone in the crowded street and suddenly saw that everybody was Proverb and that in all of them shone her extraordinary beauty and purity and shyness, even though they did not know who they were and were perhaps ashamed of their names – because they were mocked on account of them. And they did not know their real identity as the Child so dear to God, who, from the beginning was playing in His sight all days, playing in the world. (Pramuk, p. 150)

A week after his dream of “Proverb”, Merton writes what Pramuk describes as “a love letter of surprising intimacy and devotion”:

How grateful I am to you for loving in me something which I thought I had entirely lost, and someone who, I thought, I had long ago ceased to be… I must be careful what I say, for words cannot explain my love for you, and I do not wish, by my words, to harm that which in you is more real and more pure than in anyone else in the world – your lovely spontaneity, your simplicity, the generosity of your love… In your marvelous, innocent, love you are utterly alone; yet you have given your love to me, why I cannot imagine…Dearest Proverb, I love your name, its mystery, its simplicity and its secret, which even you yourself seem not to appreciate. ( p. 157)

On March 18, 1958, the “Louisville Epiphany”, (as it has come to be known) followed. Pramuk writes that Merton continued to reflect upon the event:

As he later recasts the account in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton is “suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, even though we were total strangers.” Proverb, it seems, had reclaimed in Merton an innocence that he thought he “had entirely lost”, awakening in him a new capacity to “see” and embrace that which remains pure in every person…that “point or spark which belongs entirely to God,” which shines “like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

Pramuk continues:” In the original journal account Merton reflects on his feeling for the women he sees in light of his vow of chastity: It is as though by chastity I had come to be married to what is most pure in all the women of the world…each one secret and good and lovely in the sight of God and to taste and sense the secret beauty of their girl’s hearts as they walked in the sunlight.”

(T)he central theme of Merton’s realization at Fourth and Walnut is the “secret beauty” and “innocence” not only of the women passing by but of all persons, or human beings as such. If any one moment can mark the birth of Merton’s far-reaching Christian humanism, this is it: Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them.” (Pramuk p. 158)

The incursion of Sophia into Merton’s life led to a recovery of a sense of himself which he thought lost. His writings would do the same for others:

“Her subsequent remembrance in his writings is bound to Christianity’s communal memory and experience of Jesus Christ, …her dawning presence in his consciousness also reflects his desire to make old things new, to reinvigorate a biblical and poetic vision of life in which the individual is not lost in the cosmos and in society but found in them. Like Heschel,* Merton sought to awaken the experience of God in a people for whom, like a tree torn from the soil or a river separated from its source, the term “God,” and perhaps even “Christ” had become a name, but no reality.” (Pramuk p. 147, citing Abraham Joshua Heschel in Man’s Quest for God, New York, Scribner’s, 1954)

Merton would write: “If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.” (Pramuk, p.159)

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