Category Archives: Thomas Merton

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.

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.

The Lure of Sophia

For several years, I have been seeking Sophia. Or I thought I had been. What I now understand is that Sophia/Wisdom has been seeking me, luring me under other names, other guises, leading me into a way of living that is a companionship more intimate than I could ever have desired or imagined. What joy to begin to recognize that this Presence of Wisdom, of Love, has somehow been both following my steps and leaping ahead to greet me as I arrive…

This is Sophia’s way. Through the ages she has walked with countless others whom we shall never know. Those who have recorded their experiences with Sophia have left us a priceless treasure, a template for what we can experience for ourselves. As Thomas Merton has done, they speak of the joy of knowing her intimate companioning:

When I go home, I shall take my ease with her, for nothing is bitter in her company, when life is shared with her, there is no pain, nothing but pleasure and joy. (Wisdom 8: 16)

When my friend Ellyn told me that this year’s theme for the annual Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky would be “Sacred Insight, Feminine Wisdom”, I was drawn to attend. For four days, we experienced Wisdom, a fountain of delight, shared by presenters, both men and women, from a wide spectrum of faith traditions.

Sophia’s is an embodied presence, within ourselves, within others. Through the days of the Festival her voice resounded, whispered, sang, laughed, spoke and taught in many accents, many keys, many cultures. From the moment when Hildegard of Bingen’s music  filled the Cathedral in Louisville with mystery and beauty, I knew that Sophia would be present within this gathering.

What was Hildegard’s experience of Sophia? Born just before the twelfth century, Hildegard wrote her brilliant theological treatise, “Scivias” in Latin, so in her writings Lady Wisdom is known as “Sapientia”. Mary T. Malone writes of Hildegard’s devotion to “Sapientia”:

Hildegard was fully aware of the biblical tradition stemming from Sophia, a female embodiment of God, which had been allowed to lapse from consciousness with the emphasis on the all-male metaphorical Trinity. For those of us in the Church of today, this is perhaps the most radical part of Hildegard’s teaching, but it occupies well near centre stage in her writings.

(Four Women Doctors of the Church Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 2015, p.27)

For Hildegard, as for so many others among women mystics, a favourite biblical passage was the Book of Proverbs where Wisdom/ Sophia speaks:

Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded,
before the oldest of his works.
From everlasting I was firmly set,
From the beginning, before earth came into being.
The deep was not, when I was born,
there were no springs to gush with water.

Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills, I came to birth;
before he made the earth, the countryside,
or the first grains of the world’s dust.

When he fixed the heavens firm, I was there,
when he drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
when he assigned the sea its boundaries
— and the waters will not invade the shore —
when he laid down the foundations of the earth,
I was by his side, a master craftsman,
delighting him day after day,
ever at play in his presence,
at play everywhere in the world…

The Jerusalem Bible: Proverbs 8:22-31

Feminine Wisdom embraces the sacredness of the earth and of the body. For Hildegard, this honouring of Sapientia would show itself in her wonderful teachings on “viriditas” or “greenness”.

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Malone writes:

Hildegard lived in the Rhine valley and writes with joy about the gardens and orchards of her monastery home. For her, the cycle of the seasons, especially the rising of the sap giving new life in springtime, was a primary metaphor of the spiritual life. Viriditas signified grace, the all-powerful presence of the Spirit….Hildegard saw aridity as the main sign of and metaphor for sin, and moistness and greenness as the principal sign of grace in our lives. We are told that she often concluded her letters with the words, ‘stay green and moist’, which for her meant openness to the Spirit of God. It is an approach to life that takes us right into the twenty-first century, with its emphasis on the environment and on God’s care for all Creation. Hildegard’s references to growing things, to clouds and rainfall and sunshine…are abundant throughout her work. As she worked to tend the sick in the monastery infirmary, Hildegard was intensely curious about the properties and powers of plants, stones and herbs….all part of the greening power of God’s Creation. (Malone, p. 28)

Hildegard’s music was a perfect beginning for the Festival which would have much to impart about “greenness” as an aspect of feminine wisdom.

 

Sophia and Thomas Merton

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

Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded,
before the oldest of his works.
From everlasting I was firmly set,
From the beginning, before earth came into being.
The deep was not, when I was born,
there were no springs to gush with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills, I came to birth;
….
I was by his side, a master craftsman,
delighting him day after day,
ever at play in his presence,
at play everywhere in the world…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of this epiphany Merton would later write:

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

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

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

Pramuk cites two passages in Merton’s Journal in the winter of 1965 that show his nearness to Sophia:
Merton wrote on his fiftieth birthday, January 31, 1965… from Wisdom 8:16: …”When I go home, I shall take my ease with her, for nothing is bitter in her company, when life is shared with her there is no pain, nothing but pleasure and joy.” Though he complains of suffering bitterly from the “fierce cold all night, certainly down to zero,” he expresses joy in the fact that “I woke up in a hermitage!” Then hearkening to the Wisdom text, Merton wonders: “But what more do I seek than this silence, this simplicity, this ‘living together with wisdom?’ For me this is nothing else…”

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

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

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

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Thomas Merton and Sophia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is how Merton’s  Prayer at Dawn begins:

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

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

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