Category Archives: Christopher Pramuk

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?

Merton’s Prayer-poem to High Wisdom, “Hagia Sophia”: Hours of Terce and Compline

June 24, 2018

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 )

III. High Morning. The Hour of Terce.

The Sun burns in the sky like the Face of God, but we do not know his countenance as terrible.

His light is diffused in the air, and the light of God is diffused by Hagia Sophia.

We do not see the Blinding One in black emptiness. He speaks to us gently in ten thousand things, in which His light is one fullness and one Wisdom.

Thus He shines not on them but from within them. Such is the loving kindness of Wisdom.

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All the perfections of created things are also in God; and therefore He is at once Father and Mother.

As Father He stands in solitary might surrounded by darkness.

As Mother His shining is diffused, embracing all his creatures with merciful tenderness and light. The Diffuse Shining of God is Hagia Sophia.

We call her “glory.” In Sophia His power is experienced only as mercy and as love.

(When the recluses of fourteenth century England heard their Church Bells and looked out upon the wolds and fens under a kind sky, they spoke in their hearts to “Jesus our Mother.” It was Sophia that had awakened their childlike hearts.)

Perhaps in a certain very primitive aspect Sophia is the unknown, the dark, the nameless Ousia.

Perhaps she is even the Divine Nature, One in Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

And perhaps she is infinite light unmanifest, not even waiting to be known as Light. This I do not know.

Out of the silence Light is spoken. We do not hear it or see it until it is spoken.

In the Nameless Beginning, without Beginning, was the Light. We have not seen this Beginning.

I do not know where she is, in this Beginning. I do not speak of her as a Beginning, but as a manifestation.

Now the Wisdom of God, Sophia, comes forth, reaching from “end to end mightily.”

She wills to be also the unseen pivot of all nature, the center and significance of all the light that is in all and for all.

That which is poorest and humblest, that which is most hidden in all things is nevertheless most obvious in them,and quite manifest, for it is their own self that stands before us, naked and without care.

Sophia, the feminine child, is playing in the world, obvious and unseen, playing at all times before the Creator. Her delights are to be with the children of men.

She is their sister. The core of life that exists in all things is tenderness, mercy, virginity, the Light, the Life considered as passive, as received,as given, as taken, as inexhaustibly renewed by the Gift of God.

Sophia is Gift, is Spirit, Donum Dei. She is God-given and God Himself as Gift.

God as all, and God reduced to Nothing: inexhaustible nothingness…. Humility as the source of unfailing light.

Hagia Sophia in all things is the Divine Life reflected in them, considered as a spontaneous participation, as their invitation to the Wedding Feast.

Sophia is God’s sharing of Himself with creatures. His outpouring, and the Love by which He is given, and known, held and loved.

She is in all things like the air receiving the sunlight. In her they prosper. In her they glorify God. 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.

She is life as communion, life as thanksgiving, life as praise, life as festival, life as glory.

Because she receives perfectly there is in her no stain. She is love without blemish, and gratitude without self-complacency.

All things praise her by being themselves and by sharing in the Wedding Feast. She is the Bride and the Feast and the Wedding.

The feminine principle in the world is the inexhaustible source of creative realizations of the Father’s glory.

She is His manifestation in radiant splendor! But she remains unseen, glimpsed only by a few. Sometimes there are none who know her at all.

Sophia is the mercy of God in us.

She is the tenderness with which the infinitely mysterious power of pardon turns the darkness of our sins into the light of grace.

She is the inexhaustible fountain of kindness, and would almost seem to be, in herself, all mercy.

So 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 from brightness to brightness….

She is in us the yielding and tender counterpart of the power, justice, and creative dynamism of the Father.

When you have read through Merton’s reflective prayer for the Hour of Terce, I invite you to re- read it from your own heart.

Seek an image or a phrase or a line that draws you. See how it resonates with your experience.

Spend time with just the small piece of the poem that chose you. You may wish to paint or draw or write of this afterwards.

 

IV. Sunset. The Hour of Compline. Salve Regina.

 

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Now the Blessed Virgin Mary is the one created being who enacts and shows forth in her life all that is hidden in Sophia.

Because of this she can be said to be a personal manifestation of Sophia, Who in God is Ousia rather than Person.

Natura in Mary becomes pure Mother. In her, Natura is as she was from the origin from her divine birth.

In Mary Natura is all wise and is manifested as an all-prudent, all-loving, all-pure person: not a Creator, and not a Redeemer, but perfect Creature, perfectly Redeemed, the fruit of all God’s great power, the perfect expression of wisdom in mercy.

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.

God enters into His creation. Through her wise answer, through her obedient understanding, through the sweet yielding consent of Sophia,

God enters without publicity into the city of rapacious men.

She crowns Him not with what is glorious, but with what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.

She sends the infinitely Rich and Powerful One forth as poor and helpless, in His mission of inexpressible mercy, to die for us on the Cross.
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)

 

 

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.

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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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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