Category Archives: Biblical Wisdom Literature

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

Waiting in Darkness

 

The ancient ritual of the Easter Vigil lures me after an absence of several years. The parish church doors open to invite us into the Phrygian darkness of night. We stand scrunched together at the back, among friends whose faces we cannot see, whose voices we do not hear. Then comes the flaring forth of vermilion flame as the Easter fire is birthed from flint. It could be the flaring forth of light at the dawn of this Universe, the primordial moment that the physicists cannot yet grasp.

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The priest uses the new fire to light the great Paschal Candle which stands taller than he does. He intones the ancient chant: three notes rising: “Christ our Light.” From the single flame, the candles held by all who have gathered this night bloom with yellow light, creating a halo that reveals each face. “Christ our Light”.

A cantor sings the “Exultet” the Hymn of Praise to the Risen Christ, echoing the words of Paul: “What good would life have been to us if Christ had not risen?”

Seven Readings follow from the Hebrew Scriptures, telling the old, old tales….

And this is where I begin to feel discomfort. I who love stories, the older the better, find myself rejecting the Genesis account of creation. Once I could overlook its scientific inaccuracies, defend them to others as poetry, not truth. But tonight I am comparing this account with the enchantment of the 13.8 billion year story of the unfolding, evolving, unfinished Universe.

I feel something like revulsion for this strange god who creates man in his own image, adding a woman only for the man’s sake, an after-thought, giving these latecomers dominion over all of life on our planet while forbidding them to eat the fruit of the tree that would give them wisdom.

Finally, pleased with himself, this god decides to take a day off.

When we meet him in the next reading, this god is asking Abraham to make a blood sacrifice of his only son. After the agony he puts the father through (no mention of Sarah, the mother), he says, “I was only testing you…”

As Moses and his people are fleeing from Egypt, this god “covers himself in glory” by drowning a people who were among the wisest who ever lived….

Who is this god?
I do not know him.

Joseph Campbell writes of him as a “local desert god”, a “thunder-hurler”. 1

Indo-European deities encountering warrior gods tended to have their goddesses marry the male gods. Campbell notes that this did not happen among the Semites who ruthlessly obliterated the local goddesses. He points out that a religious tradition with a father god but no mother god is one where we are separate from God, where God is separate from us, from nature. This is a God who is “out there” rather than within us. To find this God we need religious structures, laws, authorities. We are separated from nature, distrusting, even despising our own bodies. Beauty is itself suspect, a distraction, a seduction.

Still in the candle-lit darkness, I am working myself into a state of high dudgeon, wondering why I came, when the tone of the readings alters.

I begin to hear words of undeniable tenderness. I remember why for so many years my favourite biblical passages were the Hebrew prophets who knew, must have experienced, a Presence of Divine Love, what Julian of Norwich calls a Mothering God.

Isaiah invites all who thirst to come to the waters, to come without need of money for what the heart desires…

Hosea’s voice calls back from the desert an abandoned, heartbroken lover.

The seventh reading from the Hebrew Scriptures begins, one I do not recognize, do not remember having heard before.

I listen to words that tell of a presence who guides, who brings light and joy, when we follow… HER.
What is this?
It is the writing of the prophet Baruch.

Later, at home, I find the passage in my Jerusalem Bible:

Listen, Israel, to commands that bring life;
Hear and learn what knowledge means.
…….
Learn where knowledge is, where strength,
where understanding, and so learn
where length of days is, where life,
where the light of the eyes and where peace.
But who has found out where she lives,
Who has entered her treasure house?
…..
Who has ever climbed the sky and caught her
To bring her down from the clouds?
Who has ever crossed the ocean and found her
To gain her back in exchange for the finest gold?
No one knows the way to her,
No one can discover the path she treads.
But the One who knows all knows her… 2

 

And now we are hearing Paul’s words of promise, of hope, of assurance of our own Resurrection: Paul who never met the earthbound Jesus, who was hurled from his horse when the Risen Christ called his name, who fell in love with the Unseen One and spent the rest of his life carrying his message to others, who did not disdain to tell them he was in labour until Christ was born in them.

Suddenly the dark is rent by an eruption of light everywhere, flowers making a garden of the sanctuary, bells ringing. Two clear soprano voices lift in a duet sung in the pure tones of angels, “He is Risen. He is Risen.”

After the Celebration of the Easter Eucharist, I greet my friends, set off in the rain for home, awash in questions…. slowly I let them settle in me.

I remember Teilhard’s understanding that we live in an unfinished universe. We each have a part to play in bringing it nearer to completion. I recommit to my calling to invite others to join me in providing a space, a place, for the Sacred Feminine to dwell, embodied within us.

References:

1. Joseph Campbell Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine (New World Library, Novato, California, 2013) p.xxii and pp. 86-87

2. Baruch 3: 9, 14, 15, 29-32

 

Our Journey Towards Radiance: Part Three

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Transmutation, as we have seen, is slow, gradual change occurring over time.

Transformation is sudden. The Irish poet WB Yeats expresses it well:

… changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.

When we experience transformation in our lives, we need to look for guidance from the mystics, writers and poets who have experienced it. We welcome beauty into our lives. We have within us a visionary process which is a source for the re-coding of the planet. All the codings for the life of the unborn future are available in us. We are the recoding, the reset button.

The twentieth century mystic Caryll Houselander writes of her experience of transformation. After a long illness, suffering as well from scrupulosity, she had an experience of God that removed her obsessive fears and gave her a profound peace:

It was in the evening, I think. The room was dark, and the flames of firelight dancing on the wall seemed almost to cause me pain when I opened my eyes….I no longer attempted to translate my torment as particular sins; I had realized in a dim, intuitive way that it was not something I had done that required forgiveness, but everything I was that required to be miraculously transformed.

Interrelatedness: Rather than removing us from concern for others, the experience of transformation fires us with a vision of caring, with a sense of the whole, an invitation from the cosmos to see all of life as interconnected. This is how the mystics see life, how today’s physicists see life. It is what the astronauts experienced when they saw earth from space:

From space I saw Earth –indescribably beautiful
with the scars of national boundaries gone.
Muhammad Ahmad Faris Syria

During a space flight, the psyche of each astronaut is reshaped.
Having seen the sun, the stars and our planet, you become more full of life, softer.
You begin to look at all living things with greater trepidation
and you begin to be more kind and patient with the people around you.
At any rate, that is what happened to me. 
Boris Volynov, USSR

We need an overarching vision that is so simple and alluring that we can see what the world can be…. What does a world look like that really works for everyone? This is an incredible grace and opportunity for us, born on this beautiful planet at this time in history.

 

Radiance: The sun gives off messages as gravitons that pull us to the sun; the sun interacts with the moon and new gravitons feed us; the earth responds with a flood of gravitons…. We are frozen light…

Brian Swimme says that every being you meet holds fourteen billion years of radiance. Radiance is the primary language of the universe. We develop a container that can respond to the beauty of the other. We enter into resonance with the radiance of the universe, and that is the primary form of prayer. You become the radiance that is flooding the world.

Radiance, the tenth Power of the Universe, is celebrated in the Book of Wisdom where Solomon says of the Wisdom/Sophia Presence: I loved her more than health or beauty, preferred her to the light, since her radiance never sleeps. (Jerusalem Bible 7: 10)
She is indeed more splendid than the sun, she outshines all the constellations; compared with light she takes first place, for light must yield to night, but over Wisdom, evil can never triumph.(7: 29,30)

Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist who died in 1955, wrote:

Throughout my whole life during every moment I have lived, the world has gradually been taking on light and fire for me, until it has come to envelop me in one mass of luminosity, glowing from within…The purple flash of matter fading imperceptibly into the gold of spirit, to be lost finally in the incandescence of a personal universe…This is what I have learnt from my contact with the earth- the diaphany of the divine at the heart of a glowing universe, the divine radiating from the depth of matter a-flame. (The Divine Milieu)

Hildegard of Bingen, the astonishing 12th c. abbess and genius, tells us this:

From my infancy until now, in the 70th year of my age, my soul has always beheld this Light, and in it my soul soars to the summit of the firmament and into a different air….The brightness which I see is not limited by space and is more brilliant than the radiance around the sun…. I cannot measure its height, length, breadth. Its name, which has been given me, is “Shade of the Living Light”….Within that brightness I sometimes see another light, for which the name “Lux Vivens” (Living Light) has been given me. When and how I see this, I cannot tell; but sometimes when I see it, all sadness and pain is lifted from me, and I seem a simple girl again, and an old woman no more!

And so, empowered by the Universe itself, we shine on!

 

Wisdom Imaged in Nature

The ancient writers see in Wisdom’s flowing, all-pervasive presence an outpouring like rain or floodwaters:

Who knows the root of Her?
Who fathoms Her subtleties?
There is only one so wise and so wondrous – God!
He created Her and saw her true nature
God gave Her life and poured Her out
Upon all creation.
She is with you according to your ability to know Her;
For God has given Her to all who love Him.

(Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach 1: 6-10)

Of these wonderful images, Shapiro writes:

Wisdom is the way God lays out the foundation of creation….She is both the field and the rain that nurtures the field.
And just as rain falls on all, so too Wisdom. You do not deserve Her; you do not earn Her. You simply receive Her. And yet…
She is with you according to your ability to know Her. It is as if you were begging for pennies in the street without realizing that your pockets were stuffed with hundred dollar bills. Your love of God and your ability to know Wisdom are connected. Knowing Wisdom is the way you love God, and loving God is the way you know Wisdom.
(pp.18-19 in The Divine Feminine in Biblical Wisdom Literature Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Skylight Illuminations, Woodstock, Vermont 2005)

In the following passage, Wisdom speaks to us of Herself as Cosmic Being:

I am the breath of the Most High,
blanketing the earth like mist,
filling the sky like towering clouds.
I encompass distant galaxies,
and walk the innermost abyss.
Over crest and trough,
over sea and land,
over every people and nation
I hold sway.
(Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach 24:3-6)

Shapiro notes the many water metaphors that hint at Sophia’s nature:
She is poured out, She falls like mist, She rises like clouds. Like water, Wisdom is yielding, and yet, like water She is capable of wearing down the hardest stone. She holds sway not by attacking but by embracing.

In these qualities, Shapiro finds resonance with the “highest good” described in Chapter 8 of the Tao Te Ching:

The highest good imitates water,
Giving life to all without struggle or striving.
She flows in places you dismiss and in this She is like the Tao.

Shapiro adds:

There is no struggle in Wisdom’s way. She does not exert Herself, but simply is Herself. When you act in accordance with Wisdom, you act without coercion. You act in sync with the moment, engaging what is to nurture what can be. (pp. 20-21)

In our time, when we are beginning to grasp the truth that we are all interconnected, it is Wisdom-Sophia who draws us together:

She arises in God
and is with Him forever…
Established before beginnings,
She transcends time.
She is God’s word, a fountain of understanding;
Her ways are timeless, linking each to all,
and all to One.
(Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach 1: 1-5)

Shapiro finds here another parallel with the Tao:

The valley spirit never dies;
She is woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.
She is like a sheer veil, translucent, almost transparent.
Use her; She will never fail.
(Tao Te Ching: Chapter 6)

Wisdom arises in God, and is the gateway to God writes Shapiro. Referencing the Tao, Chapter 11, he adds:

She is the foundation of all things and the Way of all things. Wisdom is both timeless and timely, open to you now and capable of lifting you to eternity. She is the center that holds the periphery, just as the spokes of a wheel share a single hub. (pp. 16-7)

Wisdom is honoured as “Mother” in the Hebrew Scriptures:

I am the Mother of true love,
wonder,
knowledge, and
holy hope.
Beyond time, I am yet given to time,
a gift to all My children:
to all that He has named.
(Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach 24:18)

Shapiro writes: Wisdom is the Mother of quality as well as quantity. Wisdom is the Mother of the metaphysical as well as the physical. Wisdom is not only the Mother of the rose, but the Mother of the delight that arises when you smell one.

Wisdom is a gift to all God has named. The named are the seemingly separate things of the natural world. Until a thing is named, it is undefined and not fully alive. In Hebrew the root of the words “speak,” “word,” and “thing” is the same: dvr. Until the word is spoken, until the thing is addressed, it does not truly exist. Wisdom is the ability to reverse the process, to speak the name in such a way as to return to the silence of God that preceded it. (pp 24-25).

Sophia reflects light and goodness as a mirror of the divine:

She is God’s spotless mirror,
Reflecting eternal light,
and the image of divine goodness.
(Wisdom of Solomon 7: 24-26)

Shapiro comments: The Mirror of God reflects all things and is none of them. She reflects whatever is: good and bad, hope and horror. Wisdom is not one thing or another, but the Way to deal with all things in their time. (pp. 30-31)

 

Weaving our Days with Wisdom-Sophia

Being faithful to a spiritual practice of deep listening brings about a change in our daily living. We notice a presence of Loving Wisdom that embraces us in the ordinary moments of each day, assisting in decisions and choices, lifting our spirits when clouds obscure our inner light, opening us to see the beauty in the life, the beings, around us. She befriends us in every activity, every aspect of our lives.

As Rabbi Rami Shapiro unpacks the Wisdom Literature of the Bible, we learn that the sages who honour Sophia/Chochma have known this guidance, this companionship for millennia.

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)

 

Commenting on this passage, Shapiro writes: This is what Wisdom can make of you: a friend and prophet of God. A friend of God is one who dwells in Wisdom. A prophet of God is one who shows others how to do the same. To dwell in Wisdom is to see the ground from which all things come. To see the ground is to open yourself to what is rather than what you desire. Opened to what is, you engage the Way of things in this very moment. Things arise from the conditions that precede them, but options are always present. The prophet works with the current embedded in the conditions to nurture justice rather than injustice, compassion rather than cruelty. (pp.32-3 The Divine Feminine in Biblical Wisdom Literature Rabbi Rami Shapiro Skylight Illuminations. Woodstock Vermont 2005)

 

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“To dwell in Wisdom is to see the ground from which all things come.”

Long before the words about Wisdom Sophia were recorded in the Bible, long before recorded history of any kind, Wisdom was present in the human heart, though never possessed fully:

The first human did not know Wisdom fully,
Nor will the last ever fathom Her.
For Her mind is more spacious than the sea,
Her counsel more deep than the great abyss.
(Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach: 28:29)

Wisdom cannot be contained, Shapiro writes, and that which cannot be contained cannot be known completely….Wisdom is the ground out of which you come, and cannot be separated from your self …. You can no more know Her than your nose can smell itself or your ear can hear itself. Wisdom is not a thing you can know but a Way you can follow…. The way to follow Wisdom is to surrender narrow mind to spacious mind— the mind that knows to the knowing itself. (pp. 26-7)

Yet Wisdom’s overflowing presence extends far beyond the humans who honour her:

She is more beautiful than the sun,
And the constellations pale beside Her.

Compared to light, She yet excels it.
For light yields to dark,
while She yields to nothing.
She stretches mightily throughout the cosmos,
and guides the whole universe for its benefit.
(Wisdom of Solomon: 7:29-8:1)

Reflecting on this passage, Shapiro comments: What is to your benefit? To be wise, to immerse yourself in the Way of Wisdom. Wisdom’s desire is for you; She wants what is best for you, and that is for you to embrace Her. (pp.34-5)

Wisdom is not only all-pervasive, but also timeless:

Before time,
At the beginning of beginnings,
God created Me.
And I shall remain forever.
(Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach 24: 9)

Referring to the English language translation of Genesis:

In the beginning God created…(Gen 1:1)

Shapiro writes: This is a misreading of the Hebrew. A more precise translation would be, By means of beginning, God created… Creation is the stuff of beginnings. There is no beginning unless there is something that begins.
Wisdom is said to have been created before beginnings. This shows the limits of language, for in fact this cannot be. If She is created, then there is a beginning. What, then, is this Wisdom Who was created before the things of creation? She is the pattern of creation, the Way of God’s unfolding from eternity into time. (pp. 22-23)

Wisdom is the earth’s foundation,
and understanding the sky’s pillar
She is the divine order patterning all creation,
from the ancient oceans to this morning’s dew. (Proverbs 3: 19-20)

Reflecting on the way Wisdom patterns all creation, Shapiro writes:

Wisdom is not separate from creation; She is the order of creation. She is the grain of wood, the currents of wind and sea. Everything rests on a metaphysical order, a principle that patterns all reality. While the world you encounter is impermanent, the principle of Wisdom is limitless. To know Wisdom is to know the current in the midst of the chaos….There is a guiding principle that orders even that which appear as random. That guiding principle is Chochma….

Using the metaphor of a game of dice, Shapiro suggests:

The extent to which you fixate on any one throw is the extent to which you are lost in chaos. As you step back and see the pattern, you are free to engage the game with equanimity. (pp. 14-5)

 

Sophia:Discipline as a Way of Love

Of (Wisdom) the most sure beginning is the desire for discipline,
care for discipline means loving Her… (Wisdom 6:17 Jerusalem Bible)

These words about discipline from the Wisdom Literature of the Bible have been with me in recent days. As I thought about them, I noticed how I have come full circle with the concept of discipline. When I was young, I accepted it as a denial of pleasure, like giving up candy for Lent, harsh but ultimately good for me. Later, I rejected that self-denying approach to life, embracing joy and a sense of being loved without having to “earn” it through sacrificing what I enjoyed. In recent years, I have discovered discipline in a new way, a commitment to “showing up” in a relationship with the Beloved each day…

Reflecting on this, I recalled a story that shows discipline as a requirement of love. Here is an excerpt from The Little Prince :
The fox…gazed at the little prince for a long time. “Please tame me!” he said.
“I’d love to,” replied the little prince, “but I don’t have much time. I’ve got friends to find and lots of things to understand.”
“You only understand the things you tame,” said the fox. “People no longer have the time to understand anything….If you want a friend, tame me!”
“What do I have to do?” said the little prince.
“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “Sit down in the grass a little way away from me, like this. I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye and you won’t say a word. Language is a source of misunderstanding. And each day, you can sit a little closer.”
The next day, the little prince returned.
“It would have been better if you’d come back at the same time,” said the fox. “If you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then from three o’clock I’ll start feeling happy. The later it gets, the happier I’ll feel….but if you come at any old time, I’ll never know when to feel glad in my heart…we need rituals.”
“What’s a ritual?” said the little prince.
“Something else that is too readily forgotten,” said the fox. “It is what makes one
day different from another, or one hour different from the other hours.”
(from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1943; English translation, 2010 by Ros and Chloe Schwartz)

This wisdom from the fox echoes the teaching of spiritual writers that we must be willing to show up, at the same time each day, or at least at some time each morning and evening, for perhaps a quarter hour. During this time, we need to be willing to wait, to listen, to quiet the inner chaos of anxiety or questioning, of self-reproach or self-justification, just to allow ourselves to be in the silent presence of Love.

In her magnificent book, The Search for the Beloved (Tarcher/Putnam New York, 1987) Jean Houston writes:
While the realm of the Beloved may still remain “other”, the distance can be bridged by bringing the extraordinary into the ordinary….
Although being porous to the Beloved increases the capacity to live in two realms, the growth and maintenance of this capacity seems to depend upon the faithful practice of a discipline. Discipline has had a very bad press. We must recognize that the high practice of a discipline gives enormous freedom, and with this freedom comes a greatly increased capacity to love. Often we do not love others, much less the Divine Beloved, because we are caught up with every whim, irritant, and distraction….Discipline, conscious and mindful orchestration of the pieces of our lives, gives us a capacity to live in the depths as well as on the surface. Ideally, a discipline has a physical, mental, and spiritual component and is practiced each day. If, however, your discipline becomes compulsive…then it is time to consciously change it and do something funny or ironic. (pp. 132-3)

Shapiro cites words from Proverbs where Wisdom/Chochma/Sophia again speaks of discipline:
Listen to Me:
Follow Me and be happy.
Practice My discipline and grow wise….
(Proverbs 8: 32-33 NRSV Bible)

Commenting on this, he writes:
To listen you must first be silent. When you are silent, the narrow mind, the small self of thought and language, melts into the spacious self of clarity and compassion. To be mindful is to be present. When you are present, the distracted self recedes and the greater self emerges. With this comes Wisdom, joy and happiness.

Sometimes, and I find this usually happens just at the end of the brief listening time, Love surprises us with a fresh thought, a somersault of insight, that lifts us to new place. And when Love is wholly silent and I long for words, I open my book of poems by Hafiz, to find at times a gift that eases my heart. Like this verse, found on day when my soul was dark and troubled:

 

I wish I could show you,
When you are lonely or in darkness,
The Astonishing Light
Of your own Being!
(I Heard God Laughing trans. Daniel Ladinsky)

Truly, as Wisdom/Sophia/Chochma assures us in Proverbs:

I bring joy to those who listen;
I bring happiness to those who are mindful of Me…
Find Me and find life,
Find Me and find grace…
(Proverbs 8 NRSV Bible)

The Little PrinceThe