All posts by amclaughlin2014

Member of Community of Grey Sisters of Pembroke; Masters Degree in Religious Communication, Loyola University, Chicago; Author: Called to Egypt on the Back of the Wind (2013) Planted in the Sky (2006) both published by Borealis Press, Ottawa Canada www.borealipress.com Retreat facilitator: The Wooing of the Soul (2013) The Sophia Salons, beginning in February 2016, offer journeys to one's own inner wisdom for small groups of women. For information: amclaughlin@sympatico.ca

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.

Sophia and Teilhard de Chardin

Born in 1881, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin lived, studied, worked and wrote mainly in the first half of the twentieth century. As a scientist, he knew Darwin’s work in Evolution; as a paleontologist, he spent time excavating the story of evolution inscribed within the earth; as a mystic he was captivated with the wonder of an unfinished universe being drawn from within into a radiant future by a sacred presence of love.

Teilhard was convinced that until theology fully embraced the concept of an evolving universe, it would remain inadequate, crippled by its outdated worldview. He wrote: “Who will at last give evolution its own God?”

In the sixty plus years since Teilhard’s death, science has taken massive leaps of understanding, and theology is only beginning to catch up. In From Teilhard to Omega (edited by Ilia Delio, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 2014), thirteen scholars take up Teilhard’s challenge.

“Sophia: Catalyst for Creative Union and Divine Love” by Kathleen Duffy, SSJ, offers us a glimpse into Teilhard’s relationship with Sophia.

Though a dedicated scientist, Teilhard calls on his mystic and poetic gifts to describe divine love at work in the cosmos. In his book Writings in Time of War (translated by Rene Hague, London: Collins, and New York: Harper & Row, 1968), Teilhard writes of a feminine presence drawn from the wisdom literature of the Bible, particularly the Book of Proverbs, (8: 22-31).

Teilhard’s poem opens at the beginning of time, at the moment when Sophia is embedded into the primordial energy that is already expanding into the space-time of the early universe. Only half formed and still elusive, she emerges as from the mist, destined to grow in beauty and grace (WTW, 192). As soon as the first traces of her presence become apparent, she assumes her mandate to nurture creation, to challenge it, to unify it, to beautify it, and ultimately to lead the universe back to God. With this mission as her guide, she attends to her work of transforming the world, a world alive with potential. (Duffy p. 27)

Duffy reweaves Teilhard’s poem, working through its shining threads new insights from science, wisdom literature and the work of many “who have contemplated the divine creativity at work at the heart of matter”.  Duffy names the feminine presence in Teilhard’s poem “Sophia”, from the Greek word for Wisdom.

 

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“Who then is Sophia?” Duffy asks. Her magnificent response to this question is worth the price of the whole book. Here are segments:

She is the presence of God poured out in self-giving love, closer to us than we are to ourselves, ever arousing the soul to passion for the Divine. From the very depths of matter, she reveals herself to us as the … very nature of God residing within the core of the cosmic landscape.

Attempting always to capture our attention, Sophia peers out at us from behind the stars, overwhelms us with the radiance of a glorious sunset, and caresses us with a gentle breeze….Shining through the eyes of the ones we love, she sets our world ablaze.

Sophia is the mercy of God in us….She sits at the crossroads of our lives, ever imploring us to work for peace, to engage in fruitful dialogue, and to find new ways of connecting with the other. She longs to open our eyes to the presence of pain and suffering in the world, to transform our hearts and to move us to action. (pp. 31-32)

Duffy says that Teilhard experienced this presence “with nature, with other persons, and with the Divine”:

He began gradually to recognize her everywhere — in the rocks that he chiselled, in the seascapes and landscapes that he contemplated, and in the faces of the dying soldiers to whom he ministered during the war….Teilhard came to know Sophia as the cosmic Love that is holding all things together. (p. 33)

Teilhard came to understand that Sophia can be known “only in embodied human actions”.

Duffy concludes her illuminative essay with these words:

Sophia was the source of Teilhard’s life…. Her constant care for creation during so many billions of years gave him confidence she would continue to be faithful… Teilhard vowed to steep himself in the sea of matter, to bathe in its fiery water, to plunge into Earth where it is deepest and most violent, to struggle in its currents, and to drink of its waters. Filled with impassioned love for Sophia, he dedicated himself body and soul to the ongoing work needed to transform the cosmos to a new level of consciousness and to transformative love. (p. 34)

 

 

 

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.’ ”

 

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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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The Lure of Sophia

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”.

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Malone writes:

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.

 

Sophia and Thomas Merton

A mysterious presence introduces herself to us in the Hebrew Scriptures without revealing her name. In the Book of Proverbs, she tells us:

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;
….
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…

Solomon speaks of this presence as “Wisdom”(Hebrew, “Chochma”, Greek, “Sophia”)

Although She is one,
She does all things.
Without leaving Herself
She renews all things.
Generation after generation She slips into holy souls
Making them friends of God, and prophets,
for God loves none more than they who dwell with Wisdom.
(Wisdom of Solomon 7: 27-28)

While in Louisville Kentucky attending the “Festival of Faiths” in late April, a visit to Thomas Merton’s Hermitage on the grounds the Abbey of Gethsemane, reawakened my fascination with this man whose writings reveal him to be poet and prophet, mystic and theologian.

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Thomas Merton’s Hermitage on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemane

Yet Merton remained an alluringly earth-bound human being, passionately engaged with the darkness and suffering of the 1960’s, seeking to create within his own being a wholeness between East and West, Christianity and other faiths, black and white, feminine and masculine aspects of God.

This latter aspect of his life and work was the greatest surprise of my re-enchantment with Merton. It arrived by way of a book: Christopher Pramuk’s Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2009)

Today I sat by the river to read the opening chapter of Pramuk’s book. When I began to write, I called this Reflection, “Thomas Merton and Sophia”. But that didn’t seem right. I changed it to “Sophia and Thomas Merton”. Already in Chapter One I had discovered that the initiative in the relationship came from Sophia who “slips into holy souls/ making them friends of God and prophets.”

So how did Sophia slip into Merton’s soul? Pramuk tells us it happened in the final decade of his life, before his sudden death in1968. Sophia came to him in dreams, and in a variety of human presences…

First, there was a dream (February 28, 1958) in which a young Jewish girl named “Proverb” came to embrace him….
She then came to him in the crossroads of a great city ( March 18, 1958)

Of this epiphany Merton would later write:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people. That they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien from one another even though we were total strangers…There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Thomas Merton Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

Pramuk continues:
(Sophia) found him again in the burning woods near Gethsesmane (March 19, 1959), this time in the face of local farm children, “poor little Christs with…sweet, sweet voices.” Over a year later (July 2, 1960) on the Feast of the Visitation, she came in the guise of a nurse, whose gentle whispers awakened him one morning as he lay in the hospital.

Merton writes:
“… and it was like awakening for the first time from all the dreams of my life – as if the Blessed Virgin herself, as if Wisdom had awakened me. We do not hear the soft voice, the gentle voice, the feminine voice, the voice of the Mother: yet she speaks everywhere and in everything. Wisdom cries out in the market place — ‘If anyone is little, let him come to me’.”

Pramuk cites two passages in Merton’s Journal in the winter of 1965 that show his nearness to Sophia:
Merton wrote on his fiftieth birthday, January 31, 1965… from Wisdom 8:16: …”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.” Though he complains of suffering bitterly from the “fierce cold all night, certainly down to zero,” he expresses joy in the fact that “I woke up in a hermitage!” Then hearkening to the Wisdom text, Merton wonders: “But what more do I seek than this silence, this simplicity, this ‘living together with wisdom?’ For me this is nothing else…”

(February 4, 1965) “Last night I had a curious and moving dream about a “Black Mother.” I was in a place (where? Somewhere I had been as a child…) and I realized that I had come there for a reunion with a Negro foster mother whom I had loved in my childhood. Indeed, I owed, it seemed, my life to her love so that it was she really, and not my natural mother, who had given me life. As if from her hand had come a new life and there she was. Her face was ugly and severe, yet great warmth came from her to me, and we embraced with great love (and I with much gratitude). What I recognized was not her face but the warmth of her embrace and of her heart, so to speak. We danced a little together, I and my Black Mother, and then I had to continue the journey I was on…”

Pramuk comments that what Merton recognized in this dream was the same “presence”, he was striving to recognize in everyone: the warmth of her embrace and of her heart.

… (O)ne of the most striking themes in all these encounters is Merton’s experience of himself as the object of Wisdom’s attention. Her embrace is transitive… breaking in “from her to me,” yet coming in the form of this concrete person or thing before him right now: the flight of an escaping dove, a lone deer feeding among the trees outside the hermitage, the faces of passersby on a busy street corner. For she is “playing in the world, obvious and unseen, playing at all times before the Creator.” (Pramuk: pp.13-16)

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Thomas Merton and Sophia

While in Louisville Kentucky to attend the “Festival of Faiths” in late April, I had the good fortune to visit the Hermitage in the woods near the Abbey of Gethsemane where  Thomas Merton ( Father Louis) would go for times of solitude and prayer, nature walks and contemplation which nourished his soul and inspired his writings on Spirituality and Justice.

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Thomas Merton’ s Hermitage in the woods near the Monastery of Gethsemane, Kentucky

Though I knew of Merton’s life and writings, of his fierce cries for Social Justice, his passionate opposition to the Vietnam War, while visiting Gethsemane I learned of a poignant footnote to his life. In December of 1968, Merton had been on a pilgrimage, his quest to integrate insights of both Western and Eastern religious thought. While attending a monastic conference in Bangkok Thailand, Merton died suddenly. His body was transported home to the US in a plane carrying soldiers who had died in the Vietnam war.

But I was to learn something that was of immense importance to my own quest for the Sacred Feminine Presence: Merton had written compellingly of Sophia. I brought home from the Festival of Faiths Christopher Pramuk’s book: Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2009)

Pramuk tells of a visit made by Merton to an artist friend, Victor Hammer, in nearby Lexington. Hammer was working on a triptych with a  central panel showing the boy Christ being crowned by a dark-haired woman. When Merton asked his friend who the woman was, the artist replied that he did not yet know. Merton said, “She is Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, who crowns Christ.”

At Hammer’s request, Merton expanded on this insight in a letter written May 14, 1959:

The first thing to be said, of course, is that Hagia Sophia is God Himself. God is not only a Father but a Mother….(T)o ignore this distinction is to lose touch with the fullness of God. This is a very ancient intuition of  reality which goes back to the oldest Oriental thought…. for the “masculine-feminine” relationship is basic to all reality — simply because all reality mirrors the reality of God.

Pramuk continues to quote from this letter where he senses Merton writing in a stream of consciousness as though his friend’s question had opened ” a kind of conceptual and imaginative floodgate”:

Over the next five or six paragraphs, he identifies Sophia as “the dark, nameless Ousia (Being)” of God, not one of the Three Divine Persons, but each “at the same time, are Sophia and manifest her.”  She is “the Tao,the nameless pivot of all being and nature …that which is the smallest and poorest and most humble in all.” She is “the ‘feminine child’ playing before Him at all times, playing in the world.’ (Proverbs 8) ”  Above all, Sophia is unfathomable mercy, made manifest in the world by means of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   

Merton identifies Sophia as God’s love and mercy coming to birth in us.”In the sense that God is Love, is Mercy, is Humility, is Hiddenness, He shows Himself to us within ourselves as our own poverty, our own nothingness (which Christ took upon Himself, ordained for this by the Incarnation in the womb of the Virgin) ( the crowning in your picture), and if we receive the humility of God in our hearts, we become able to accept and embrace and love this very poverty which is Himself and His Sophia.” 

(Christopher Pramuk : Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton pp.193-4. Quotes from Merton are from“Witness to Freedom”: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis, ed. William H. Shannon ( New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995)  

In 1962, six years before his death, Merton composed a poem to “Hagia Sophia/ Holy Wisdom” in the form of the Monastic Office, a  Prayer recited in Community to mark the times of day: Dawn: The Hour of Lauds; Early Morning : The Hour of Prime; High Morning; The Hour of Tierce; Sunset: The Hour of Compline.

Here is how Merton’s  Prayer at Dawn begins:

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness  and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.  

I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.

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Icon of Sophia, Holy Wisdom, in Merton’s Hermitage Chapel

Mary Magdalene: “Go to my brothers”

“High on an escarpment crowning the medieval walled city of Vezalay France, stands the magnificent basilica of St. Mary Magdalene”. That is how Episcopal priest and writer Cynthia Bourgeault opens her book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene (Shambala, Boston and London, 2010). Bourgeault spent Holy Week of 2005 with the young monastic order in residence at the Cathedral of Vezalay. Here she had a stunning awareness of Mary Magdalene’s presence in the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus. She tells us:

This mixed community of men and women monks is well known for the imagination and beauty of its liturgy, and toward the end of the Good Friday Liturgy I witnessed an unusual ceremony that changed forever how I understood my Christianity….

The late afternoon shadows were already dimming the cathedral when we finished with communion, followed by the traditional stripping of the altar. And then came the ceremony I am speaking of. Two of the sisters brought forward a small corpus – the crucified Christ figure that traditionally hangs on Roman Catholic crosses. It was carved in wood, about two feet long. Tenderly they wrapped it in the altar cloth, laid it on the altar, and placed beside it an icon of the Shroud of Turin (the portrait of Jesus allegedly imprinted on his original burial shroud and revealed through radiocarbon dating). They set a small candle and incense burner at the foot of the altar. And then, as sunset fell, one of the monks began to read in French the burial narrative from the Gospel of Matthew.

Enchanted by the mystical beauty of all this – the smell of the incense, the final shafts of daylight playing against the great stone walls of the cathedral – I allowed the sonorous French to float by my ears while I drifted in and out, catching what I could. I heard the description of Joseph of Arimathea asking for the body of Christ, wrapping it (just as the sisters had just done) in a linen cloth, laying it in a tomb. And then out of the haze of words came “et Mary Magdalene et l’autre Marie restaient debout en face du tombeau…”

That’s when I did my double take. Mary Magdalene was there? That was in the scripture? Why hadn’t I ever noticed it before?
Thinking that maybe my French had failed me, I went back to my room that evening, took out my Bible, and looked it up. But yes, right there in Matthew 27:61 it reads: “And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.”

Suddenly the whole picture changed for me. I’d thought I knew the tradition well. …. How could this key point have escaped my attention? No wonder Mary Magdalene came so unerringly to the tomb on Easter morning; she’d stood by in silent, unflinching vigil the whole time Jesus was being laid to rest there. Maybe she never left…. Since that moment I have literally not heard the Passion story in the same way. It inspired me to go back to the gospel and actually read the story in a new way. (pp.5-6)

Bourgeault reflects further that much of what we know of Mary Magdalene has been absorbed “through the dual filters of tradition and the liturgy, which inevitably direct our attention toward certain aspects of the story at the expense of others.” (p. 6)

Turning to the Gospels directly, Bourgeault focuses mainly on John’s account of the resurrection.

mary_magdalene by Sieger Koder

Mary (Magdalene) arrives alone at the tomb in the early hours of the morning to discover that the stone blocking the tomb has been rolled away. She hurries off to find Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” who race each other to the site, discover the tomb empty and the grave cloths rolled up, and return home in bewonderment. After the two of them have gone their way, Mary stays behind, weeping beside the tomb. Then, in a unique and immortally reverberating encounter:

She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not recognize him. Jesus said, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and answered him, “… if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him and I will go and remove him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him, “Rabboni” – which means Master. Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me; you see I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brothers and say to them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

So Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord, and this is what he said to me. (John 20:14-18)

Bourgeault continues:

It is on the basis of this announcement that Mary earned the traditional title of “Apostle to the Apostles.” The first to witness to the resurrection, she is also the one who “commissions” the others to go and announce the good news of the resurrection. (p. 8)

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Mary Magdalene: statue on the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral, England