Delving Deeper into Merton’s Poem to Sophia: The hour of Terce

July 2, 2018

With Christopher Pramuk as our guide, we explore the deeper meaning in Thomas Merton’s poem to “Hagia Sophia”, or Holy Wisdom. You may wish to first scroll down to last week’s entry to read what Merton wrote for “The Hour of Terce” or “High Morning”.

Pramuk begins by noting that at the hour of High Morning the Sun as “Face of God” is “diffused” mercifully into the softer light of Hagia Sophia, which shines not on all things so much as from within them, speaking “to us gently in ten thousand things.”

But then there follow “lyrical passages of naming and unnaming” as Merton “struggles to say exactly what or who Sophia is.”

Sophia is the unknown, the dark, the nameless … Perhaps she is even the Divine Nature, One in Father, Son and Holy Ghost…This I do not know. Out of the silence, Light is spoken.

Pramuk cites Susan McCaslin (“Merton and Hagia Sophia” in Merton and Hesychasm: Prayer of the Heart: The Eastern Church , Louisville KY Fons Vitae 2003): “The efforts to name Sophia, to catch her in the net of language” lead to unnaming for “words and names are  inadequate before mystery. Sophia herself becomes the unknown, the dark, the nameless….God is not an object of knowledge. The God who is male and female, father and mother, is simultaneously neither male nor female, transcending gender categories.”(248-49)

Pramuk notes a shift in tone “a new confidence and seeming clarity” when Merton writes: Now the Wisdom of God, Sophia, comes forth, reaching from “end to end mightily.” Sophia chooses to be the unseen pivot of all nature…that which is poorest and humblest, that which is most hidden in all things and yet quite manifest, for it is their own self that stands before us, naked and without care.

“She is the feminine Child playing in the world, obvious and unseen, playing at all times before the Creator….She is God-given and God Himself as Gift.”

christ-sophia-by-merton-001

Thomas Merton’s drawing of Christ unveiling Sophia

McCaslin notes that while a feminist reading of the text could find “the identification of the feminine with mercy and tenderness” a problem, there is no “subordination of Sophia to a masculine God.” McCaslin sees qualities of tenderness and mercy attributed to God the Father as well as the exercise of power by Sophia when she crowns the Logos and sends him forth into the world. Gender metaphors are “interconnected and interchangeable” in the poem, “an expression of two aspects of a single dynamic at play, like Wisdom at the foundation of the world.” In Merton’s fluid metaphors, Sophia “is not just the feminine face of a masculine God, or a masculine God with feminine attributes (God in a skirt) but an active power permeating all things.” (McCaslin p. 253)

Pramuk finds this section of Hagia Sophia striking in its cumulative layering of positive images that have long been separated in the Christian imagination, only rarely emerging in conjunction – “Jesus our mother (from Julian of Norwich), “He is Father and Mother,” We call her His ‘glory,'” “she is the Bride and the Feast and the Wedding”—Merton carries us beyond the dialectic of positive/negative theology into a kind of mystical third moment, where idols are shattered not in the silence of negation but in the plenitude of affirmation, unity-in-difference and ecstatic praise. In short, Merton ushers us into a mosaic experience of God brimming with positive content, spilling over its linguistic containers. (Pramuk p. 204)

Though our world seems to prefer darkness to light, Pramuk notes that Sophia is received by many as “the secret wellspring of beauty, creativity, and tenderness.”

Merton writes: “In her they rejoice to reflect him. In her they are united with him. She is the union between them. She is the Love that unites them…All things praise her by being themselves and by sharing in the Wedding Feast.”

Pramuk continues: …the softer light of Hagia Sophia casts the veil joining heaven and earth in a particular kind of radiance, which “would almost seem to be, in herself, all mercy….the mercy of God in us, the mysterious power of pardon (that) turns the darkness of our sins into the light of grace”. Indeed, as mercy, “she does in us a greater work than that of Creation: the work of new being in grace, the work of pardon, the work of transformation.” Echoing the Wisdom literature of the Bible and St. Paul’s theology of adoption in Christ, the poem here ascribes to human beings the highest place of honor and responsibility in creation, an honor that bears with it, however, a painful kenotic sting. (Pramuk 205)

Pramuk sees this call to self-emptying as described in Merton’s prayer on the Vigil of Pentecost: Our call to “to help bring peace to the world,” to learn the way “of truth and nonviolence”, and to bear the consequences that follow.

Last week i invited you to read the Hagia Sophia sections for the Hours of Terce and Compline and to seek in your own heart a resonance with the images, ideas and thoughts from Thomas Merton’s heart . Now that you have read this commentary, looking at the Hour of Terce through the eyes of Christopher Pramuk and Susan McCaslin, what new insights most attract you?

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