Category Archives: Sophia as Archetype of Spiritual 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)

firstqsos_esa_a

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.”

11261593_1064331516930152_2458458929397885903_n

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.”

 

 

Sophia: an Embodied Presence

As I continue to experience and reflect upon the ways the Sophia Presence reveals herself to us, I am coming to understand that hers is an embodied presence. As Maiden, as Mother, as Crone, within mystics of the past or women present in our lives, she shows herself in moments of light or deep need.

 I met the Sacred Feminine Presence through someone I would call a true Baba Yaga. Many years ago, I interviewed a woman renowned for her wisdom and holiness. She lived in the deep woods by the Madawaska River in the Ottawa Valley. Her name was Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Like the Baba Yaga, she was Russian.  Catherine, from an aristocratic family, had escaped from the Revolution barely alive after almost starving at the hands of the Red Guard. Arriving in Canada in 1921, she vowed her life to God, working for a time in Toronto, then in Harlem operating Friendship Houses for the poor. In 1947, she and her husband, Eddie Doherty, settled in the Madawaska Valley, creating Madonna House, a community of love and world-wide service that flourishes today, more than twenty- five years after her death.

Catherine_Doherty_1970

Catherine Doherty

On that October day in 1979, when I travelled from Ottawa to interview her, Catherine was 84 years old. I had prepared my questions carefully, rehearsing them on the three-hour drive. Armed with camera, notebook and tape recorder, I was eager for the encounter, already anticipating the wonderful article I would write for the Catholic newspaper I edited.

 

When I arrived at Madonna House, I was welcomed and invited into the dining room where some one hundred people were gathered around wooden tables, laid with platters heaped with an abundance of vegetables and meats from their farm and gardens. After lunch, everyone remained seated while Catherine gave her daily teaching, a mixture of red pepper and honey, sweet fire for the spirit.

Afterwards, I followed Catherine and her secretary to a small library for the interview.

 What is your message for the People of God today? I asked, opening with Question One.

You just heard it, Catherine responded dismissively. Seeing my blank expression, she added, my talk after lunch. You just heard it.

Whooops. I hadn’t been taking notes nor had I thought to turn on my tape recorder. Intent on the interview that would follow, I had scarcely heard a word Catherine had spoken. Now I remembered nothing.

Hastily, I pulled up Question Two: How can we make the Gospel more relevant to people today?

You won’t get far as a journalist asking questions like that, sweetheart, the Baroness said, managing to drain from the last word any trace of warmth or affection. She went on to say that the message of the Gospel is clear, simple and unchanging. Go, give what you have to the poor, then come follow me.

But I was a modern woman, a Post-Vatican Two woman, perhaps even Postmodernist, though I did not at that time know the term. I persisted. Many people today find it hard to know how to live the Gospel in this time. Will you offer some guidance in their confusion? I want to be able to quote your words in the article l am writing for our Diocesan paper. Catherine, who is Jesus for us now?

You, a nun, ask me that? You should know the answer yourself. And if you are a nun, why aren’t you wearing a habit?

 

Rattled, I spoke about my community, about our prayer-filled discernments, our communal decisions and choices, all the ways in which we had sought to adapt to the modern world.

Catherine would have none of it. Nor would she answer any further questions I put to her.

 I understand you knew Thomas Merton? I asked.

I don’t talk about my friends.

I was outraged.  No one I had interviewed before had ever treated me like this.  I struggled on until Catherine herself ended the interview, saying to me: I’d like to interview you. Not now. Later. You are living in your head. One day it will fall into your heart and the walls will come tumbling down. Then I’d like to interview you.

It was four months before I had cooled down sufficiently to write the article. In those months, inklings of insight had been making their way through me. I began dimly to understand what Catherine had tried to do. I had been speaking with a mystic, a woman who, as I learned later, had fallen in love with God at the age of six. I didn’t ask her about the great love that was the ruling passion in her life. Nor about the price she had paid in suffering and misunderstanding as she followed that love’s promptings. I sat with her, dressed in my late-twentieth-century outfit, asking about adapting the Gospel, altering it to suit the times, as though it were an outdated garment.

 

Unlike Vasilisa, I hadn’t the wisdom to ask her for what I really needed – fire.

 

Catherine had wanted to speak of fire, and I wasn’t prepared for that. She tried to cut through my careful persona, find the woman under the journalist.  It would be many years before I could appreciate fully what she had been offering me. She wanted to light a fire in me, give me a skull that was aflame with passionate love. I wasn’t ready for her gift.

 

But Catherine’s role in my life didn’t end with that encounter. Though we would not meet again in her lifetime, I have come in recent years to know her words, her life, her heart, through presenting a one-woman play about her, written by Cynthia Donnelly.

It’s called A Woman in Love.

 

Mother Moon: Sophia Within You

Have you been experiencing  your own journey into Wisdom? Have you sometimes heard or felt or intuited a wise voice, a loving presence within you? Like you, I also caught glimpses of a sacred holy presence for whom I had no name, about whom I knew nothing.

I first learned of her indirectly, in an English folktale called “Dead Moon” in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ retelling, “Stolen Mother Moon”. In Estes’ version, Mother Moon, who passionately loves her people in a small English village, learns that some of them are being destroyed by the evil creatures who dwell in a muddy moat that surrounds the village. She determines to come to earth to find out what is happening, and one night, wrapping her brilliance in a dark cloak, she sets out to cross the bog. The evil creatures trap her, beat her to death, bury her deep in the bog, rolling a great stone over the place.

11207377_1057164617646842_3761611266869826195_n

Bereft at the loss of her guiding light, especially on nights when they must cross the dark swamp, the villagers set out to find Mother Moon. After long seeking, guided by a tiny light seeping around it, they find the stone that marks the place where she is buried. They manage to roll the stone away, then watch in wonder as a radiant woman looks upon them with great love before rising into the night sky.

I came upon this story at a time in my life when I felt very much alone, without guidance. I longed for someone to mother my adult years with love, to show me the way through the uncertain pathways that were opening before me. The Moon became a symbol for me of the love and the guidance for which I longed. Slowly, as I worked with the story, guided by the Jungian teachings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, I learned to look for Mother Moon within myself, to begin to grow an inner mother. This I could do by being a kind mother to myself.

How radical that advice seemed to me, schooled as I was in ignoring my needs and desires, in distrusting the lure of what I longed for, in believing discomfort and suffering must be born heroically. Schooled as I was, in fact, in the masculine way of endurance, of striving after perfection.

To be invited, even advised, to grow an inner mother, to be taught that the way was through kindness and caring towards oneself, seemed revolutionary to me. But so great was my need that I began in earnest to practice self-care, kindness. Slowly, slowly, slowly over time a compassionate inner voice began to replace my harsh inner critic. Slowly, over time, I began to feel loved. I began to experience the wise guidance of an inner mother.

But not always. And this is the deep wisdom of the story of Mother Moon. Though we may invite a sacred mother, a holy feminine presence, to make her home within us, there will be times when she will seem to be absent, when we are left in the dark, feeling alone.

We muddle through at such times as best we can. We remember how we are, without her presence. And we do not risk dangerous journeys into the muddy depths of our own souls without her.

Her light within us is a great gift. A treasure. Of all that I have heard or read of this inner presence, I like best the words of Etty Hillesum, the young Jewish woman who wrote so compellingly of her faith journey. She was just twenty-nine years old when she died in Auswitch in 1943.

Here are words Etty Hillesum wrote shortly before her death:

I shall try to help you, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help you to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days, also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of you, God, in ourselves.  And in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much you yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the end.

 To return to the story of the buried moon. Did you recognize it as one of the great life/death/life stories? The loving Moon, drawn to her people’s suffering, walks into the dark bog where they are being attacked and devoured? Over the years since I first heard this story, it has become clear to me that the Moon must have known the danger she faced in coming to earth, must have taken the risk willingly, out of love.

She was beaten, murdered, buried. A great stone was rolled across her grave.

And then she rose, radiant, loving.

There is still more for us to consider. Can you imagine how perplexed the villagers were when they first determined to seek out the Moon? They had no idea where to begin.

As you yourself must have observed, when the Holy One who loves you is nowhere to be found, when you cannot possibly climb upwards to the sacred sky to seek her, you must instead look deep within yourself. Look into the dark, unpleasant, noisome, hidden recesses of your soul, the very place you are most reluctant to look. For that is where she may be waiting.

I am beginning to understand that the story of Mother Moon tells of the way the feminine aspect of God has been buried deep over the millennia, hidden, with a great stone of masculine power firmly placed on top to prevent her rising. But the stone has at last been rolled away.

The Moon is rising in the hearts and souls and spirits of you and me, in all the women and men who long for her return.

How may11207377_1057164617646842_3761611266869826195_n we assist in her rising?

 

 

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.

 

rami-shapiro

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.

Coming to Know Sophia

Inspired by Thomas Merton’s prayer–poem “Hagia Sophia” (High Wisdom), we have been reflecting on the presence of Sophia within all that lives, the beating heart of the planet.

In her book Praying with the Women Mystics, Mary Malone offers us a reworking of Hildegard of Bingen’s poem, “God: The Wisdom-Woman”.

For this is the Wisdom-Woman of God.

She watches over all people and all things.

She is of such radiance and brightness

That you cannot gaze on her face or on the garments she wears.

For she is awesome in terror and gentle in goodness.

She has the radiance of divinity in her face.

She is with all and in all and of beauty so great

That no one can know how sweetly she bears with people,

And with what unfathomable mercy she treats them.

 Our Lady of Guadalupe: 16th c. image

Allow a time of quiet as these words settle within you, creating an inner space of peace and beauty.

In her book Godseed (Quest Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1992) Jean Houston offers a guided meditation inviting us into “A Visit to the Sophia”.

After a long spiraling journey upwards, you find yourself at the very top of a high mountain. You go inside the mountain to a path that travels downward in a spiral.

Moving along the path down and around within the inner mountain spiral, you pass scenes of your own life, from your earliest infancy. You see or sense yourself being born. Continuing on the path down and around, to your earliest childhood, you see yourself taking your first steps, forming words, reaching out and grasping things, learning to feed yourself. Further down you see yourself learning to tie your own shoes and attending your first days at school. Continuing down, you see yourself learning games and reaching out to other children. As you continue, you see yourself growing up fast and learning many things. You see your adolescence. Further along you observe stages of your life until today………..

Suddenly you find yourself at the very bottom of the inside of the mountain. There you discover a door of baked mud. Going through it, you find that it leads to a hallway and to a door of water. You pass through the door of water, and it leads to a door of fire. You pass through the door of fire, and it leads to a door of winds. You lean against the winds and pass through. This door leads to a door of bronze, and you pass through. This door leads to a door of silver. You pass through the door of silver and find a door of gold.

At the door of gold there is a shining figure who says to you: “Through this door is the Sophia. Through this door is the Wise One herself, the incarnation of Wisdom. When you pass through this door, you will be in the presence of the Sophia. There you must ask your question. You may see her or you may sense her. But know that she is there. She who is Wisdom itself.” When you are in her ambience, whether you see her or hear her or sense her or feel her, ask your question. Her answers may come in words or in images or even in feelings.

You now have four minutes of clock time, equal to all the time you need, to be in the presence of the Sophia and ask your question and receive her answers.

********************

Thanking the Sophia for her wisdom and kindness, and knowing that you can always return to visit her again, begin now to go back through the door of gold, the door of silver, the door of bronze, beyond the doors of winds, of fire, of water, of earth, beyond the spiral of the stages of your own life, reaching the top of the mountain. Now take the spiral path back down from the mountain. Find yourself here in this moment.

Open your eyes, sit up and stretch, and if you wish, write your experiences in a journal or make a drawing or sketch of what you found with the Sophia…
 

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.

 

il_340x270.1305628857_1e3i

 

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 –

11207377_1057164617646842_3761611266869826195_n

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.”

christ-sophia-by-merton-001

Thomas Merton’s drawing of Christ unveiling Sophia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

F1000009

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.

 

mount-sinai2-sunrise

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.”

Chris-Pramuk-Merton-and-Hagia-Sophia-e1420820188367

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)

 

June2015 033

the uncomplaining pardon that bows down the … flowers to the dewy earth

Pramuk notes that the image of “the Child”, one that Merton returns to often in his writings is  “the secret beauty within every person’s heart, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.”  (p.200)

The Child has been taken captive and yet:  She smiles, for though they have bound her, she cannot be a prisoner.

Pramuk takes this further: No matter how badly the divine image in humanity has been mocked and desecrated, there remains an elemental goodness and divine light rising up in the hidden fabric of countless lives that can never be extinguished. Often in conditions that would merit hatred and despair, love abounds and overflows in human hearts, resisting “the Unspeakable”. As Merton professes in an impromptu prayer offered in Calcutta, shortly before his death, “Love has overcome. Love is victorious. Amen.” (p.201)

Describing the ending of The Hour of Prime as “lyrical”, Pramuk writes that it invokes “the Spirit of gentleness and creativity, truth and nonviolence that lives hidden in all things. This fount of action and joy – one Wisdom, one Child, one Meaning, one Sister flows out from the roots of all created being and awaits our yielding consent. When we say yes, our lives become the life story of God, and our simple acts of love fill the vast expanses of the universe.  (p. 202) (phrases in italics from Merton’s Disputed Questions 1960)

The stars rejoice in their setting, and in the rising of the Sun. The heavenly lights rejoice in the going forth of one man to make a new world in the morning, because he has come out of the confused primordial dark night into consciousness. He has expressed the clear silence of Sophia in his own heart. He has become eternal.

Sophia and Teilhard de Chardin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

images

“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)