Merton’s Poem to Sophia

Hagia Sophia is a prose poem that celebrates divine Wisdom as the feminine manifestation of God. Structured in four parts based on the canonical hours of prayer, it is Merton’s most lyrical expression of “Christ being born into the whole world,” especially in that which is most “poor” and “hidden.” It is a hymn of peace. Christopher Pramuk in Sophia: the Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2009

 Reflecting on Merton’s poem to Sophia, Pramuk writes:

What would it feel like to walk and pray with a God who is not fixed like a Great Marble Statue in the elite or far-away spaces where power is exercised but who enters without reserve into the stream of our humble tasks, decisions, and everyday commitments? Such a God—Sophia—would ignite our hope, the capacity to breathe, and to imagine again.

“Gentleness comes to him when he is most helpless and awakens him, refreshed, beginning to be made whole. Love takes him by the hand, and opens to him the door to another life, another day.”

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O Wisdom, bear us this day in the silence of your friendship, and help us awaken healing and hope in Your world, beginning with our very selves. O come, Sophia, come.

In an earlier reflection we looked at The Hour of Lauds. The second part of Merton’s poem is based on the Hour of Prime:

The Hour of Prime (prayer at the first hour of daylight: 6 am)

O blessed, silent one, who speaks everywhere!

We do not hear the soft voice, the gentle voice, the merciful and feminine.

We do not hear mercy, or yielding love, or nonresistance, or non-reprisal. In her there are no reasons and no answers. Yet she is the candor of God’s light, the expression of His simplicity.

We do not hear the uncomplaining pardon that bows down the innocent visages of flowers to the dewy earth. We do not see the Child who is prisoner in all the people, and who says nothing. She smiles, for though they have bound her, she cannot be a prisoner. Not that she is strong, or clever, but simply that she does not understand imprisonment.

The helpless one, abandoned to sweet sleep, him the gentle one will awake: Sophia.

All that is sweet in her tenderness will speak to him on all sides in everything, without ceasing, and he will never be the same again. He will have awakened not to conquest and dark pleasure but to the impeccable pure simplicity of One consciousness in all and through all: one Wisdom, one Child, one Meaning, one Sister.

The stars rejoice in their setting, and in the rising of the Sun. The heavenly lights rejoice in the going forth of one man to make a new world in the morning, because he has come out of the confused primordial dark night into consciousness. He has expressed the clear silence of Sophia in his own heart. He has become eternal.

Though at Lauds, we have been awakened by Sophia, “refreshed, beginning to be made whole”, by the Hour of Prime, Pramuk notes, “Wisdom’s invitation has been roundly spurned. In this hour of “prime efficiency” We do not hear the soft voice, the gentle voice, the merciful and feminine. As Merton writes elsewhere, “We face our mornings as (people) of undaunted purpose” and we do not hear the blessed, silent one, who speaks everywhere.

Pramuk suggests that the poem questions us: “Can anyone still hear the song of Nature made wise by God’s Art and Incantation? Who sees the uncomplaining pardon that bows down the … flowers to the dewy earth? Yet Sophia remains the candor of God’s light, the expression of His simplicity, recreating herself in generous splendor – natura naturans—moment to moment, year after year, despite human disregard and exploitation.” (Pramuk in Sophia p. 199)

 

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the uncomplaining pardon that bows down the … flowers to the dewy earth

Pramuk notes that the image of “the Child”, one that Merton returns to often in his writings is  “the secret beauty within every person’s heart, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.”  (p.200)

The Child has been taken captive and yet:  She smiles, for though they have bound her, she cannot be a prisoner.

Pramuk takes this further: No matter how badly the divine image in humanity has been mocked and desecrated, there remains an elemental goodness and divine light rising up in the hidden fabric of countless lives that can never be extinguished. Often in conditions that would merit hatred and despair, love abounds and overflows in human hearts, resisting “the Unspeakable”. As Merton professes in an impromptu prayer offered in Calcutta, shortly before his death, “Love has overcome. Love is victorious. Amen.” (p.201)

Describing the ending of The Hour of Prime as “lyrical”, Pramuk writes that it invokes “the Spirit of gentleness and creativity, truth and nonviolence that lives hidden in all things. This fount of action and joy – one Wisdom, one Child, one Meaning, one Sister flows out from the roots of all created being and awaits our yielding consent. When we say yes, our lives become the life story of God, and our simple acts of love fill the vast expanses of the universe.  (p. 202) (phrases in italics from Merton’s Disputed Questions 1960)

The stars rejoice in their setting, and in the rising of the Sun. The heavenly lights rejoice in the going forth of one man to make a new world in the morning, because he has come out of the confused primordial dark night into consciousness. He has expressed the clear silence of Sophia in his own heart. He has become eternal.

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