In Goddesses in Older Women (2001), Jean Shinoda Bolen speaks of Sophia as an Archetype, Friend, Inner Guide that women may feel drawn to in their wisdom years.
“The mystic is an aspect of the Sophia archetype that is evoked by numinous experiences.” Words used in an attempt to describe numinosity are “awe, beauty, grace, divinity, ineffability”. Bolen writes that “a numinous experience is the defining moment for the woman who becomes a mystic.” After this, knowing God in this way “becomes the central focus of her spiritual life and her spiritual life becomes her life… she seeks to enter and stay in a mystical union with divinity.” (pp. 27-8)
Bolen notes that a woman with the Sophia archetype may be drawn to a Contemplative Community, either an Eastern Ashram or a Western Cloister such as many of the Medieval Women Mystics joined. However, she adds, “since mystics directly experience divinity and women (especially older ones) no longer automatically defer to hierarchy, question dogma and are aware of sexism”, they also leave these communities if they find the beliefs of a religion “constricting and in conflict with what they deeply trust is true for them”. (p.28)
With the greater freedom that women enjoy today, many “are inspired by their mystical insights” to seek a more “personally meaningful life”. Bolen notes that though most would not define themselves as mystics, “their mystical experiences are at the core of what they are doing with their lives”. Freed from the need to conform to what an institutional religion may define as mysticism, “women are redefining spirituality” writes Bolen. (p. 28)
Bolen tells of the writer Anne Bancroft who set out to find “authentically feminine insights and ways of being that differed from male thoughts about spirituality”. Bancroft found that “women tend to see all things around them as revelatory, revealing totality and completeness and a numinous quality. To see things in this way a certain attention has to be given, which women are good at. It is not the kind of attention with which one acquires knowledge, but rather that which happens when one lets go of all concepts and becomes open to what is there.”( Bancroft in Weavers of Wisdom 1989, cited on p. 29)
Bolen writes that Bancroft found in her study that women mystics “renewed and cultivated their mystical relationship with the sacred in their own way; in nature, in creativity, in contemplation, in a deep connection with another person, and had a life other than being a mystic… ” Their mysticism provided light for their particular path, as for Joanna Macy, whose “mysticism matured through Buddhist meditation and deepened her already-formed concern for social justice; this led her to become an anti-nuclear and ecological activist.” As a practitioner and teacher of “deep ecology”, Joanna uses a “meditative and active imaginative way of listening to plants and animals and even stones, to reach a deeply-felt mystical sense of a web of life.” (p. 29)
Bolen adds that mystical experiences may also inspire writers, poets, artists. She cites Meinrad Craighead as “an artist whose mysticism and paintings have become inseparable.” (p. 29)
Yet the difficulties encountered in describing one’s mystical experiences and in having them understood lead many “contemporary Sophias” to become “closet mystics”, writes Bolen. “Many women who have attempted to describe their mystical insights and found themselves having to defend or justify them arrive at the conclusion that it is enough to live with this connection…” (p. 30)
On this aspect of the Sophia, Bolen concludes: “When Sophia is not only a source of mystical insight but is also the archetype that fully engages the attention of a woman, then it is accurate to say that she is a mystic and her Self-directed task is to find a means of expression and a way to convey the insight she has acquired.” (p. 30)
And what of you, who are now reading these words? How does the Sophia archetype show up in your life? When have you experienced the numinous? Have you felt drawn to pursue that “knowing of God”as a life path? Do your mystical experiences shed light on your calling in social justice or poetry or art or service?
Please email me your thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to know about the monthly “Sophia Salons” offered here from February to May 2016 in the Ottawa Valley of Central Canada, send me a note asking for the information using the email address above.