Category Archives: Biblical Wisdom Literature

The Divine Feminine in the Song of Songs: Part Six

In his book Embracing the Divine Feminine: Finding God through the Ecstasy of Physical Love –The Song of Songs (Skylight Paths publishers)  Rabbi Rami Shapiro, explored the story of Eve, seeking insights into what her choices reveal of the Wisdom/Sophia/ Chochmah/Shekhinah presence within her. Now he turns to the Song of Songs.

Who is the woman whom we meet in this erotic love poem whose very existence in the Sacred Scriptures has led to so much controversy? Shapiro notes that like Eve, whose Hebrew name Chavah is really a title that means “mother of all the living,” the woman in the Song of Songs has a title, rather than a name: the Shulamite (Song of Songs 7:1).

Once more examining the Hebrew to seek a meaning that the text does not offer, Shapiro notes that the root letters of Shulamite – sh- l- m – “are also the root letters of the Hebrew words shaleim and shalom, wholeness and peace.”

He continues:

If, as I am positing in this book, the female Beloved in the Song of Songs is Chochmah, Lady Wisdom, and Lady Wisdom, like Chavah, is the mother of all things…then we might understand the Shulamite as the Woman of Shaleim and Shalom, the Woman of Wholeness and Peace. The same title could be given to Chochmah in the book of Proverbs, for it is through her that the whole of creation happens, and all her paths are peace. (3:17)

“Lady Wisdom calls us to share a feast with her in the book of Proverbs (9:2-5). Lady Wisdom as the Shulamite is the feast in the Song of Songs. The Shulamite is called a garden in the Song of Songs (4:12), and hence union with her is returning to the Garden from which Adam was exiled. That is to say the Song of Songs completes the story of Eden by showing us the way back to the Garden.”

Shapiro writes eloquently of sexual intimacy as the way that one achieves “unitive knowing”. He quotes Alan Watts:

The full splendor of sexual experience does not reveal itself with a new mode of attention to the world in general. On the other hand, the sexual relationship is a setting in which the full opening of attention may rather easily be realized because it is so immediately rewarding. It is the most common and dramatic instance of union between oneself and the other. But to serve as a means of initiation to the “one body” of the universe, it requires…a contemplative approach. This is not love “without desire” in the sense of love without delight, but love which is not contrived or willfully provoked as  an escape from the habitual empty feeling of the isolated ego. (in Nature, Man and Woman, New York, Vintage Books, 1970 p.188)

Shapiro adds: “In other words, love must be spontaneous and unrestrained, and sex must be no less so. This is the love the Shulamite, Lady Wisdom, the archetype of the Divine Feminine, shares with her lover in the Song of Songs.”

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“Isis and Osiris” artwork by Susan Seddon Boulet

For Shapiro, the Song of Songs is the Jewish equivalent of Maithuna, the Sanskrit word for union, often spoken of in the context of Yoga “more specifically the union of the self with the All, or Atman with Brahman.” He adds that in the Song of Songs, in the words of Phyllis Trible,“eroticism becomes worship in the context of grace.”(God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1978) p.165

“The union of self and other and of self and All is a given. You are at this very moment part of the infinite singularity that is reality. You may call this Brahman, God, Spirit, Tao, Mother, or any number of other names, but the simple fact is, as the Chandogya Upanishad, one of the great texts of Hindu philosophy, put it over twenty-six hundred years ago, Tat tvam Assi: You are That.

Shapiro quotes Thich Nhat Hanh: “To be is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing.”

“Maithuna is not a way to achieve interbeing, it is a way to celebrate inter-being. The Song of Songs is not a method whereby one achieves union with Wisdom incarnate as the Shulamite, the Woman of Wholeness and Peace, it is way of awakening to that union.”

What is happening within you as you read through this interpretation of the Song of Songs?

What aspects of Shapiro’s insights and interpretations find resonance with your own? 

Mystics of many faith paths, notably the Sufi poets such as Hafiz, Rabia and Rumi, write of an erotic experience of oneness with the All, the Friend.

The Medieval Women Mystics of the Christian faith path are no less passionate in their accounts of their own experience of the Unitive Way.

Does this unfolding of the Song of Songs assist you in your understanding of these other experiences of Oneness with the Holy?

How does this resonate with your own experience, your own desires?

Embracing the Divine Feminine: Five

An ancient Persian tale, “The Conference of the Birds” by Farid Ud-Din Attar, tells of a great gathering of many kinds of birds who set out on a quest seeking a spiritual leader who would guide them. After all, they said, other creatures had their leaders, but birds did not. The journey was inspired by the discovery of a golden feather, so magnificent, so rare, that the birds believe it must have fallen from the breast of the greatest bird in the sky, a bird worthy to be their leader.

One of their number tells the others that the bird to whom the feather belongs dwells at a great distance requiring a hazardous journey over soaring mountains through mist-filled valleys. If they will allow this one to guide them she will take them to the golden bird.

An uncountable number of birds, a gigantic flying carpet of robins and bluebirds, canaries and sparrows, ravens and blackbirds, parrots and pheasants, seagulls and cormorants, nightingales and larks, bluejays and cardinals, goldfinches and mourning doves, herons and owls, chickadees and woodpeckers, begin the journey together.

birds in flight

a gigantic flying carpet

But over the days and nights, many turn back, discouraged, exhausted, or finally no longer believing that there is a great bird is to be found. Sadly, some die on the way, attacked by predators, lashed by storms, wearied to death.

At last there are only thirty birds remaining. At sunset they come to a great lake still as a mirror. They cry out in astonishment, in wonder, for they are gazing down at the most magnificent being they could ever imagine: her bird-body holds feathers that are the blue of the jay, the red of the cardinal, the gold of the finch, the soft white of the dove… Overcome with ecstasy, the birds prepare to dive into the lake.

Then a voice, more pure and melodious than nightingale or lark, calls to them: “Wait!” A great bird is flying towards them. She is the Phoenix, a bird they knew only in ancient tales. In her each birds sees her own bright feathers within  a rainbow of translucent Light.

“Do you not understand? The beauty and wisdom you have come so far to find is hidden within each one of you. You are Wisdom, feathered like me, and I am within you.

“Do not regret the price you paid, the labours of your great journey. You had to come that you might know this truth: I am you and you are me and we are all one.

“Rest here, then return to your own nests. Live as birds who know yourselves to   be Daughters of the Golden Feather. Rejoice: My wisdom and my love will be within you for all the days, all the flights, all the songs and all the loves of your life.”

In Attar’s original tale, translated in 1889 by Edward Fitzgerald, and published by GlobalGrey 2017 (globalgreybooks.com), the Great Bird’s words to the travellers are these:

…Pilgrim, Pilgrimage, and Road,

Was but Myself towards Myself: and Your

Arrival but Myself at my own Door;

Who in your Fraction of Myself behold

Myself within the Mirror Myself hold

To see Myself in, and each part of Me

That sees himself, though drown’d, shall ever see.

Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,

And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:

Rays that have wander’d into Darkness wide

Return, and back into your Sun subside.

 

Take time to allow this story to replay within your heart:

How does the quest of the birds resonate with your own journey in search of wisdom and love?

Listen carefully to the words the Phoenix speaks to the questing birds, as though they are being spoken to you. Notice the feelings that arise in your heart as She speaks.

How does this story illuminate these words about the Shekhinah?

 Shekhinah is “the light that emanates from the primal light which is Chochmah.” (Wisdom) She is the same below as she is above; that is she permeates the manifest world and the unmanifest Source from which and in which the manifest arises. (Embracing the Divine Feminine by Rabbi Rami Shapiro)

Embracing the Divine Feminine: Part 4

Wisdom as Shekhinah

One of the great gifts to us of the Feminist Theologians of the mid to late twentieth century is the way they distinguish between the masculine and feminine ways of “doing” theology. The masculine way (oversimplified as it might be in a New Yorker cartoon) is to sequester oneself in a high lonely tower, removed from all distraction, to think about God. The feminine way is to reflect upon one’s own experience and to speak with other women of their experience and thus to come to recognize the common threads out of which our life with the Sacred is woven…

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Rabbi Rami Shapiro

As we continue to draw insights from the work of Rabbi Rami Shapiro, it is important that we take time to reflect on what we have experienced of the Sacred Feminine Presence in our own lives. His research into ancient Jewish thought and teachings as well as his own insights can be source of understanding and deepening for us where we find resonance with our own experience.

Shapiro writes: As Jewish thought works toward the unification of Wisdom and Shekhinah, it does so by reimagining Shekhinah as the feminine attribute of God rather than the presence of God.

Shekhinah is understood as an aspect of the way God’s self is shown to us.

Shapiro continues: The kabbalists refer to the manifestation of the Shekhinah in the world as “in everything.” She is “the light that emanates from the primal light which is Chochmah.” (Wisdom) She is the same below as she is above; that is she permeates the manifest world and the unmanifest Source from which and in which the manifest arises. In this…she resembles the Hindu goddess Shakti, the active energy of Shiva (God) manifesting as the externalized creation.

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“(Shekhinah) is the same below us as she is above”

Sunset on Hardwood Lake in the Petawawa River 

Chochma in her purest form is, in the minds of some kabbalists, Koach Mah, the potentiality of all creation – as yet unmanifest creativity…. When Wisdom shifts from… the unmanifest to the manifest, God without form to God with form, we speak of her as Shekhinah. In this sense the Divine Feminine permeates all reality, material and spiritual, physical and mental. She is imminent in, with and as the world, binding all things together in her infinite being.

Embodying the Shekinhah

Shapiro writes of the medieval kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla who “identified several women in the Hebrew Bible with the Shekhinah“: Sarah in Abraham’s time, Rebecca in Isaac’s time and Rachel in Jacob’s time.

Shapiro adds two more women to Gikatilla’s list: “in Adam’s time she is called Chavah (Eve), and in Solomon’s time (by which I mean the time portrayed in the Song of Songs) she is called the Shulamite, the Woman of Wholeness and Peace featured in the Song itself.” (Song of Songs 7:1)

Shapiro sees the Song of Songs as “completing the Garden of Eden story told in the third chapter of Genesis….That story ends with humanity exiled from the Garden; the Song of Songs tells us how to return.”

Retelling the Story of Eve

Shapiro offers a retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden which he says is truer to the actual Hebrew text than the traditional reading which places “the burden of evil coming into the world on Eve and through Eve on all womankind.”

Working through centuries of Rabbinic scholarship related to the story, Shapiro finds intuitive leaps to suggest that the first human was androgynous and from that being the man and woman both came.  “…only when they unite with one another can they achieve the unity from which they originally derived.”

What about the Serpent?

The Hebrew language allows for a substitution of words sharing the same numerical value. Applying this tool of Rabbinic interpretation, Shapiro notes that the Hebrew word for “serpent” shares the same numerological value as the word for “messiah.” He suggests: “the snake is the messiah disguised as a serpent!”

But the messiah wouldn’t seek to trick the humans into sinning, so some other goal must lie behind the serpent’s efforts to get the woman to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The goal, I suggest, is to open the eyes of the man and the woman and to move them beyond their childlike state into adulthood.

Why does the serpent seek out the woman rather than the man?

 “Traditionally the answer has been that the woman’s will is weaker than that of the man, and it is this reading that has become foundational to so much misogyny over the past thousands of years,” writes Shapiro.  

Here is Shapiro’s alternate reading: The messiah/serpent sought the woman rather than the man because the woman…is the one with the potential to realize the internalized…intuitive knowing that is at the heart of Wisdom, and then take action…to move humanity in the direction of Wisdom. The serpent seeks out not the person most vulnerable to sin, but rather the person most capable of realizing Wisdom – the woman. 

Shapiro translates what happens next in the Hebrew Bible’s story:

The woman perceived that the tree was good for eating and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a means to Wisdom, and she took of its fruit and ate. (Genesis: 3:6)

Rather than seeing this “dawning realization” as a single happening, Shapiro suggests we see “three distinct encounters with the Tree of Knowledge”:

First the woman is attracted by the lusciousness of the fruit and the desire to consume it, but that isn’t enough to make her do so. She masters her hunger and moves on without eating the fruit.

Sometime later she passes by the Tree again and this time perceives that the fruit is beautiful, and she desires to possess it. But beauty also fails to move her, so she again masters her passion and moves on without plucking the fruit.

Only on a third encounter with the Tree does she see that the Tree will make her wise, and only then does she consciously and deliberately eat of the Tree of Knowledge….she is willing to risk her very existence for the sake of Wisdom.

What is your response to this retelling of Eve’s story?

Do you see Eve as an embodiment of Wisdom? A Shekhinah?

How does it resonate with times in your own life when you took a risk, made a choice, out of a desire for Wisdom?

 

  

 

 

Embracing the Divine Feminine : Part 3

Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s Introduction to his book on the Song of Songs offers us rich insights into the Sacred feminine as she is portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The One we know as Sophia/Lady Wisdom has a Hebrew name: Chochma. In translations of the Hebrew Scriptures she is referred to as “Wisdom”. As Shapiro points out in his earlier book on the Divine Feminine, Scripture Scholars often saw “Wisdom” as a quality or virtue, preferring not to recognize the clear indicators that the word refers to a sacred presence, one that is shown in the Hebrew language as unmistakably feminine.

Shapiro writes: “Wisdom’s goal isn’t to bring you to one set of beliefs or another but to make you wise. What does it mean to be wise? In the Wisdom of Solomon, the writer defines it this way:

Simply I learned from Wisdom: the design of the universe, the force of its elements, the nature of time—beginnings and endings, the shifting of the sun and the changing of seasons and cycles of years, the positions of stars, the nature of animals and the tempers of beasts, the power of the wind, and the thoughts of human beings, the medicinal uses of plants and roots. These and even deeper more hidden things I learned, for Wisdom, the Shaper of All, taught me. (Wisdom of Solomon 7:17-22)

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Shapiro comments: “Wisdom teaches us physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, ethnology, meteorology, psychology, pharmacology and more. Wisdom reveals to us the explicit and the implicit, the visible and the hidden. How can she do this? Because she is the means by which the universe came to be.”

For those of us who are familiar with the Christian Gospels, Shapiro makes enlightening comparisons:

“Just as the Logos is both with God and God in John’s Prologue, over time Chochma shifts from being a separate entity who exists with God to being an expression of God: God as we experience God here on earth. The presence of God is called Shekhinah, and she, no less than Chochma, is feminine.”

Shapiro continues:

“In Proverbs 8:22, Wisdom tells us she is God’s daughter, the first of God’s creations, established before the universe. Eight verses later, she tells us she is the architect of creation, but in neither case is she synonymous with the Creator. The intimacy between God and Wisdom intensifies but still remains dualistic in the second-century text the Wisdom of Solomon, where the relationship between God and Wisdom changes from daughter to lover. Solomon says of Wisdom:

She embraces the universe in its infinite power

and orders all things for their benefit.

Wisdom I loved and sought after her from my youth,

to take her as my bride.

I was intoxicated by her beauty.

She proclaimed her noble birth

and that she lived with God.

And YHVH loved her.

(Wisdom of Solomon 8: 1-3)

Shapiro cites the writings of Philo, the first century Jewish philosopher and Hebrew Bible commentator (20 BCE -50 CE), who makes an even more intimate connection between God and Sophia:

“And thus the Demiurge (God as Creator) who created our entire universe is rightly called the Father of all Created Things, while we call Episteme/Sophia/Wisdom mother, whom God knew and through this knowing created all reality, albeit not in human fashion. However, she received the divine seed and bore with labor the one and beloved son…the ripe fruit of this world.”

Shapiro comments: “We can see in Philo the beginnings of John’s theology and even a prototype of the later Christian teaching of virgin birth, with Mary taking the place of Sophia/Wisdom. While Philo is willing to follow the Hebrew Bible’s teaching that Wisdom is with God, he is not ready to take the leap that John does to affirm that Wisdom is God. This changes when talking of Shekhinah.

“While Wisdom is related to God as either God’s daughter or God’s wife, Shekhinah is of God herself. The term is unique to Rabbinic literature starting in the first century BCE. The Shekhinah is God’s dwelling – not the place in which God dwells, but any place that God dwells. Whenever you find yourself in the presence of God, you are in Shekhinah. Hence the Rabbis taught:

If ten people sit together and study Torah,

the Shekhinah rests among them….

This is also true of five….It is also true of three…

It is also true of two…This is even true of one, for it says,

In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned,

I will come to you and bless you.”

In the development of Rabbinic literature over time, the Shekhinah takes on a personification and gradually stands as separate from God, “a being in her own right.”

In the teachings of Jewish mysticism, in Kabbalah, Shapiro finds “the deepest meaning of and connection between Shekhinah, Wisdom, and the Song of Songs.”  The Kabbalistic idea of God is “dynamic.” God’s “creative power and vitality develop in an unending movement of His nature” flowing outward into Creation and “back into itself.”

Shapiro writes:

“God is YHVH, the be-ing of all being. God is intrinsically creative, indeed is creativity itself. Yet, God is more than observable reality. God is also the source of that reality. The metaphor I find most helpful is that of the relationship between an ocean, the waving of the ocean, and the waves that arise from that waving. Speaking metaphorically and not scientifically, God as Source is the ocean, God as Wisdom is the waving of the ocean, and God as Shekhinah is the wave that arises from that waving.”

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Shapiro explains that the Kabbalists differentiated between “two strata of the Godhead: one, its hidden being in itself, its immanence in the depths of its own being, and another, that of its creative and active nature, thrusting outward toward expression… the former stratum is designated in the language of the Kabbalists as Ein Sof, the undifferentiated unity, the self-contained unity…Root of Roots in which all contradictions merge and dissolve. The latter substratum is the structure of the ten Sefiroth which are the sacred names…the various aspects of God – or the ten words of Creation by which everything was created.”

And so “in the kabbalistic model of the sefirot, Shekhinah is the final manifestation and culmination of the divine activity: God as simultaneously mother, bride and daughter.”

 

 

Embracing the Sophia Presence

We return once more to Rabbi Rami Shapiro to receive his translation of the “Song of Songs”, the Jewish text originally written in Greek somewhere in the second or first centuries BCE. Shapiro, in his book, Embracing the Divine Feminine, traces the history of rabbinical scholarship and offers his own insights into this poem of erotic love which he sees as “a celebration of the union of the seeker of wisdom with Lady Wisdom herself.”

In his Introduction, Shapiro writes: Given the centrality of Chochmah, Lady Wisdom, to this reading of the Song of Songs, we would be wise to take a moment to understand just who she is. According to the Book of Job, Wisdom is the means by which God created the universe. God looked and took note of her. (Job 28:27) In other words, God looked to Wisdom to discover both the form and function of the universe. Wisdom therefore is the very nature in nature.

Curious, I opened my Jerusalem Bible to the Book of Job and found these lines:

But tell me, where does wisdom come from? ….

God alone has traced (her) path

and found out where (she) lives….

When (God) willed to give weight to the wind

 and measured out the waters with a gauge,

When (God) made the laws and rules for the rain

and mapped a route for the thunderclaps to follow,

then (God) had Wisdom in sight, and cast (her) worth, 

assessed (her), fathomed (her). (Job 28:20, 23, 25-27)

 

Who is Lady Wisdom?

Greece 2015 138For answer, Shapiro offers his own translation of Proverbs 8: 22-32.

I am the deep grain of creation,

the subtle current of life.

God fashioned me before all things:

I am the blueprint of creation,

I was there from the beginning,

from before there was a beginning.

I am independent of time and space, earth and sky.

I was there before depth was considered,

before springs bubbled with water,

before the shaping of mountains and hills,

before God fashioned the earth and its bounty,

before the first dust settled on the lands.

When God prepared the heavens, I was there.

When the circle of the earth was etched into the face of the deep

I was there.

I stood beside God as firstborn and friend.

My nature is joy and I gave God constant delight.

Now that the world is inhabited, I rejoice in it.

I will be your true delight if you will heed my teachings.

Follow me and be happy.

Practice my discipline and grow wise.

(T)he Hebrew is clear: the speaker is Chochma, Lady Wisdom, and hence all the pronouns and verbs referring to Wisdom in this passage are feminine. The grammar of this and every passage that speaks of, to, about, or for Wisdom always uses the feminine form.

Shapiro invites us to consider the qualities of Wisdom usually associated with God. She is the “firstborn” of God and from her come the thousand things of creation. Her way is of truth and justice while her essence is pure delight. Wisdom delights in humanity and one who finds her finds life.

Shapiro compares this with Jesus who said, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6) Paul connects Jesus with Wisdom in Corinthians 1:24 when he writes: Christ is the power of God and the Wisdom of God.

Then Shapiro goes further: What becomes the male Christ in the Christian Scriptures was originally the female Chochmah in the Hebrew Bible.

He continues: Wisdom is the way God manifests in and as creation. Uniting with Wisdom, as the Song of Songs invites us to do, is a way of uniting with the life and the Source from which life arises.

Why do we personify Wisdom? Shapiro believes it is because “on a deep and subconscious level we know her to be the other with whom we long to unite. She is not an abstraction but our Beloved. She is not to be thought about but physically embraced in a manner that reveals YWVH to us.”

Returning to Proverbs, Shapiro offers us his translation of Chapter 9, 1-6:

Wisdom’s house rests on many pillars.

It is magnificent and easy to find.

Inside, she has cooked a fine meal and

sweetened her wine with water.

Her table is set.

She sends her maidens to the tallest towers to summon you.

To the simple they call: Come enter here.

To those who lack understanding they say:

Come eat my food, drink my wine,

Abandon your empty life and walk in the way of understanding.

 

Shall we accept her invitation?

 

.

 

 

 

Life With Sophia

Therefore I determined to take her to live with me,

Knowing that she would give me good counsel

And encouragement in cares and grief.

(Wisdom 8:9 NRSV Bible)

 

Midsummer:  a time for dreams, for magic, for the unexpected. We celebrate Solstice as the sun’s light comes earliest, stays longest in the Northern Hemisphere while coming latest, leaving soonest in the Southern Hemisphere.

A memory returns of a Summer Solstice morning eight years ago. I had wakened from a strange dream that I could not unravel. CBC Radio was playing Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” so I began to dance, hoping the mystery might become clear through sacred movement. Words began to rise from deep within me: “Unbind her and let her go free”. If the words referred to myself, that only puzzled me further. How was I bound? How did I need to be set free? I phoned a woman whose wisdom I trusted, Jean Houston, my mentor, teacher and friend.

“You didn’t come in here alone,” Jean said. “Unbind that sacred presence within you. Let her go free.”

Thus began my relationship with a sacred feminine presence whom I am coming to know through the ordinary, sometimes extraordinary, experiences of daily life.  On that day,  I determined to take her to live with me, knowing that she would give me good counsel and encouragement in cares and grief. “

Over the years of attending Jean Houston’s Mystery School sessions, I had learned a process for engaging with a sacred, archetypal presence for whom I had no name. I began a new journal. On the first page I wrote the date, and on the next line my own name, followed by a colon. How to begin?

Here is what I wrote:

Anne Kathleen: Dear Friend, who are you? What are you?

On the next line, I wrote the word Friend with a colon and let my pen script her response.

Friend: I am the One who holds you in love.

Anne Kathleen: There are moments from my life when I sensed a presence that loved me deeply. Was that you?

Friend: Sometimes I was in the voice or body of someone – I spoke to you, touched you through a beloved other. But were there not moments when you sensed a presence of love when NO ONE was there?

Anne Kathleen: You are that love? That presence?

(Here I made reference to specific moments and experiences in my life, and the Friend added others…)

Anne Kathleen: Are you the Mother? Isis? Sacred Feminine? I do not know how to address you.

Friend: For now, just allow me to be with you. Names, titles, descriptions, come later.

 

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Meinrad Craighead: “I am Summer out of Spring’s Death”, 1985  The spiral represents the onoging cycle of the seasons, ever-changing, ever renewing.

And that is how it began. I was grateful for Jean’s teaching that at first we will think it is our own imagination. But in time, there will be responses so surprising and unexpected that we accept they come from something deeper than the self we know.

For a long while, the nudges or suggestions I received from the Friend seemed so ordinary that I was disappointed. Seeking great adventures, I would instead be reminded about a necessary email or phone call, or a task I’d forgotten.

Slowly, slowly, over these eight years, the daily writings have become a compass for my life. When faced with a tangle of tasks, I am guided as to where and how to begin. When I feel overwhelmed, I might be invited to take some time to walk to settle my thoughts and feelings. When there are important choices or decisions to be made, I am sometimes astonished to hear a writing voice very different from my own who offers another approach, one I would not have found on my own, one that proves to be life-giving and peaceful.

Yet, I have not found this Friend to be all-knowing, for sometimes a situation changes in a way she did not seem to anticipate. Her love and her wisdom have brought a profound peace to my life, one that eases anxiety, assures me in uncertainty, brings light into the darkest times. I am no longer alone.

I share this with you as a way of suggesting that if you indeed seek the awakening of Sophia in your own life, you may wish to try this journaling approach. See where it might lead you. Notice how synchronicities arise in your life, bringing you the right book/friend/opportunity to nurture your dedication to this sacred presence.

A few years ago, it was the books of Thealogian Carol P. Christ that became light for me, as she wove personal experience through her scholarship.

Here Carol writes of being with her mother as she was dying:

As my mother drew her last breaths, I felt the room flooded with what I can only describe as a great power of love. A revelation had been given to me. Until that moment, I had always felt that I had not been loved enough. I began to understand that a great matrix of love had always surrounded and sustained my life. Since then, I have come to experience love as the gift of the abundant earth. It truly is the power of all being, the power I know as a Goddess. (Rebirth of the Goddess Addison Wesley Publishers, Menlo Park, California 1997 p.4)

 These are the words from that same book that I read on the Solstice:

 When we love concretely, intelligently, in our bodies and in concern for the whole web of life, we are listening to the persuasion offered to us by the Goddess whose intelligent embodied love is the ground of all being (pp. 108-9)

 

Coming to Dwell With Sophia

In recent weeks we have been coming to know Sophia/Holy Wisdom through the writings of Thomas Merton, especially in his prayer poem “Hagia Sophia” or “High Wisdom.” If you are like me, this comes as a surprise. Though I have long been inspired by Merton’s writings, I had no awareness of his deep connection with Sophia. It has opened for me a new pathway which I want to pursue.

On his fiftieth birthday, January 31,1965, unaware that he was entering the final decade of his life, Merton wakened in his hermitage on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani. He wrote of the “fierce cold all night, certainly down to zero,” yet he expresses deep joy at being in his hermitage, where his life is shared with Sophia. He quotes from the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Wisdom: Chapter 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.

Reflecting on this text Merton writes: “But what more do I seek than this silence, this simplicity, this ‘living together with wisdom?’ For me, there is nothing else….I have nothing to justify and nothing to defend: I need only defend this vast simple emptiness from my own self, and the rest is clear….” ( p. 14 in  Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton Christopher Pramuk  Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 2009)

When I first found this quote from Merton, I did a double-take. I had read it earlier in a book I have come to cherish: Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s The Divine Feminine in Biblical Wisdom Literature  (Skylight Paths Publishing 2005) Thanks to Shapiro’s opening my heart to the Sophia Presence in the Hebrew Scriptures, I was finding my own way to sharing my life with Sophia.

 

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Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Because of Shapiro’s insight into another passage about Sophia from the Book of Proverbs, I glimpsed the meaning of  Merton’s dream of a young girl whose name was “Proverbs”.

Here is where Wisdom/Sophia or Chochma, (her Hebrew Name) speaks in Proverbs:

The Lord created Me at the beginning of His work, the first of His ancient acts.

I was established ages ago, at the beginning of the beginning, before the earth…

When He established the heavens, I was already there.

When he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

When He made firm the skies above,

When he established the fountains feeding the seas below…

I was beside Him, the master builder.

I was His daily delight, rejoicing before Him always.

Rejoicing in His inhabited world, and delighting in the human race. 

(Proverbs 8: 22-31)

Shapiro writes that “Chochma ….is the ordering principle of creation”:

She embraces one end of the earth to the other, and She orders all things well.(Wisdom of Solomon 8:11)

 To know her, Shapiro adds, is to know the Way of all things and thus to be able to act in harmony with them. To know the Way of all things and to act in accord with it is what it means to be wise. To know Wisdom is to become wise. To become wise is to find happiness and peace:

Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all Her paths are peace. She is a Tree of Life to those who lay hold of Her; those who hold Her close are happy. (Proverbs 3: 17-18) 

Moreover, writes Shapiro: Wisdom is not to be taken on faith. She is testable. If you follow Her you will find joy, peace and happiness not at the end of the journey but as the very stuff of which the journey is made. This is crucial. The reward for following Wisdom is immediate. The Way to is the Way of.  

Shapiro teaches that the key to awakening that is Wisdom is having a clear perception of reality. Wisdom does not lead you to this clarity; She is this clarity….The Way to Wisdom is Wisdom Herself. You do not work your way toward Her; you take hold of Her from the beginning. As your relationship deepens, your clarity of seeing improves, but from the beginning you have Her and She has you.

I am my Beloved and my Beloved is mine. (Song of Songs 2:16)

Chochma is not a reluctant guide or a hidden guru, Shapiro writes.  She is not hard to find nor does she require any austere test to prove you are worthy of Her.

She stands on the hilltops, on the sidewalks, at the crossroads, at the gateways (Proverbs 8:1-11)  and calls to you to follow Her. Wisdom’s only desire is to teach you to become wise.  Her only frustration is your refusal to listen to Her.

….To  know Wisdom is to be her lover, and by loving Her, you become God’s beloved as well.

In our becoming partners, co-creating with Wisdom, Shapiro writes:

Wisdom will not tell why things are the way they are, but will show you what they are and how to live in harmony with them….Working with Wisdom, you learn how…to make small, subtle changes that effect larger ones. You learn how to cut with the grain, tack with the wind, swim with the current, and allow the nature of things to support your efforts. She will not tell you why things are the way they are, but She will make plain to you what things are and how you deal with them to your mutual benefit.

Evening Prayer in Merton’s Hagia Sophia

We come now to the final section of Thomas Merton’s Hymn to High Wisdom. For Merton’s Catholic sensibility, Sophia and Mary are one. As we look more closely at Merton’s poem for the Hour of Compline, we are guided by Christopher Pramuk’s  Reflections from his book: Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, Collegeville Minnesota 2009) with citations from Susan McCaslin’s “Merton and Hagia Sophia” in Merton and Hesychasm: Prayer of the Heart: The Eastern Church  (Louisville KY, Fons Vitae 2003)

Christopher Pramuk notes that in this Hour of Compline Merton returns to his artist-friend Hammer’s image of the woman who crowns the boy Christ:

It is she, it is Mary, Sophia, who in sadness and joy, with the full awareness of what she is doing, sets upon the Second Person, the Logos, a crown which is His Human Nature.  Thus her consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God.

 

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Quoting Michael Mott, Pramuk adds, Where Merton expects us to see the image from the painting …he also expects us to hear music. Michael Mott The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 362

When the Salve Regina is sung by the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani, all lights in the abbey church are extinguished except for one directed at the image of Mary in a window over the altar. (McCaslin in MHPH, 249)

“Yet,” Pramuk continues, “Mary crowns her son not with what is glorious, but with what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty. It is thus through Mary’s wisdom and sweet yielding consent that God enters without publicity in the city of rapacious men. Indeed her sadness and full awareness of what she is doing reflect a wisdom well beyond her years…that will one day cause a sword to pierce her own heart.” (206)

As McCaslin notes, Mary’s crowning of the boy Christ is “an act of feminine power.” This contrasts with images of Mary being crowned by Christ, “rather than she actively empowering him.” (McCaslin MHPH 250)

Continuing to draw from McCaslin, Pramuk continues: “in crowning the Child with his human nature, the poem reminds us that all men and women come from a common womb (the earth, the Feminine) and are alike vulnerable, frail, and utterly dependent on the earth and the feminine matrix.” (McCaslin MHPH 250)

By depicting the Child on the brink of adulthood, both the picture and the poem show our common humanity with Jesus “as ones who have undergone birth” as McCaslin says. Pramuk adds that we are like Jesus as well “as a people called to serve in world riven by sin and contradiction.” (Pramuk 206)

As incarnation of divine Wisdom, “the Child goes forth to …crucifixion and resurrection. As humanity the child goes forth, an Everyman or Everywoman, into exile from paradise.” (McCaslin MHPH 249)

Pramuk continues: “Mary, in her wise answer accepts the contradiction. Through her understanding, God enters without publicity into human history. The final scene of the poem, as Michael Mott notes, is a scene of haunting ‘solemnity, great beauty, and a piercing loneliness’.”(Mott,363)

The shadows fall. The stars appear. The birds begin to sleep.  Night embraces the silent half of the earth.

A vagrant, a destitute wanderer with dusty feet, finds his way down a new road.  A homeless God, lost in the night, without papers, without identification, without even a number, a frail expendable exile lies down in desolation under the sweet stars of the world and entrusts Himself to sleep. (Thomas Merton 1962)

Pramuk quotes McCaslin who finds here “a strangely modern figure of the exile or God as exile in us.” (MHPH 250) This suggests that “human destiny in a world exiled from Sophia is not altogether different from that of Jesus, the Son of Man who “has nowhere to lay his head.”

Reflecting on this final scene of the poem, Pramuk writes:

“What meaning can our lives have, after all, in the ‘vast expanses’ of an evolutionary universe? Like the hospital patient in the opening section of the poem; like Mary, receiving with astonishment the message of the Angel Gabriel; like Joseph who struggles in faith to make sense of it all; like Mary Magdalene, Peter, Nicodemus, John, all the hidden but crucial players in the narrative subtext pf the gospels –

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when  night embraces  the silent half of the earth everything depends on our laying ourselves down under the sweet stars of the world and giving ourselves over to the hidden Wisdom of God. Though our heads may pound with the clamor of many doubts and fears, and though it is more difficult than ever to see the stars, or even to remember to look for them through the glow of towering, sleepless cities, there is an inner music of Love, Mercy and Understanding that rises up from the earth itself, Natura naturans, and from the still point of the human heart, asking to be set free in the world. She is Wisdom, our Sister: God-given and God Himself as Gift. When we attend to her tender voice and give our quiet consent, she effects in us a work greater than that of Creation: the work of new being in grace, the work of mercy and peace, justice and love.” (Pramuk 207)

 

 

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.”

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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?

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)