SOPHIA THE CATALYST
In my universe, Sophia primarily acts as a catalyst for what Cynthia Bourgeault (1) calls ‘singleness’ – the spacious mind of non-dual awareness. I find that gazing into the eyes of my icon (2), or at the image as a whole, triggers me into the Seeing state that I first fully entered with Headless Way (3) exercises. I make a slight shift into what they call the ‘one eye’ perspective, and there I am.
Of course this isn’t dependent on the icon, but the timeless, momentary, gaze in this instance connects with the imaginal realm where I find feelings and intuition to be most present, with a diminished foregrounding of the sensations and thoughts that predominate in other exercises. The experience is the same, yet the feeling-tone is different.
I am still clear awake space, and capacity for the world. I remain grounded in silent stillness. But the passing content, or form, which the changeless emptiness also is and interweaves, is different. A different constellation of human characteristics is brought into the cosmic play. I value and cherish this. The archaic Gaelic tradition spoke of the Oran Mor (Great Song, or Song of the World). I’ve always thought of a Silence being key, holding the Song, and giving it – in a sense – shape; preventing it from being just noise. Yet the distinctions between individual notes also matter – small and transient though they may be. The Song depends on them, too, for its coherence.
At the human level, I have an abiding sense that my true individual note in the Song is Sophian. I do not experience Sophia as simply an abstract Wisdom figure. Nor am I a conventional believing theist (whether unitarian, trinitarian or polytheist) – yet to a degree I am a Sophian devotee, under the tutelage of a psychopomp.
Overall, I associate the Sophian note with a modern Gnosticism, “based in an affirmation of nature and the world and a positive relation to embodiment, not the classical Gnosticism of world denial and pure transcendentalism. It is a gnosis based on bringing the world fully to life, while also enjoying the state of embodiment and sensual pleasure, without excess or obsessive appetite. This affirmation of the world also requires an affirmation of the World-Soul in all its vast complexity as the primary ground of a living and animate nature. This also includes higher orders of perception and awareness leading to more mystical states of unity and participation in the creative founding of human experience” (4).
Through Seeing, I have learned that the “higher orders of perception” are more accessible than usually suggested, hidden by their obviousness and simplicity, yet entering into empty awareness, recognised as original nature or divine ground. This is why it has become my primary practice. I think there is something of this in earlier Sophian tradition. In the ancient Jewish text The Wisdom of Solomon (5), characteristics of clear and empty awareness are at least intimated, and are linked to Her name.
She is the mobility of all movement;
She is the transparent nothing that pervades all things.
She is the breath of God,
A clear emanation of Divine Glory.
No impurity can stain Her.
She is God’s spotless mirror
Reflecting eternal light
And the image of divine goodness.
Although She is one,
She does all things.
Without leaving Herself
She renews all things.”
Wisdom of Solomon 7: 24-27
Cynthia Bourgeault comments: “This remarkable passage envisions Wisdom as the primordial reflective principle, simultaneously creating and created in a seamless dance of divine becoming. There is a goddess aspect to her portrayal, to be sure – the hint of a divine co-creator – but the important thing to keep in mind is that Sophia/wisdom is presented not as a divinity to be worshipped but as a transformational force to be actualized … Wisdom is about transformation and transformation is about creativity; the three form an unbroken circle.”
Moving forward into the early days of Christianity, Bourgeault says: “The logos (Word) of St. John’s Gospel is merely the grammatically masculine synonym for exactly the same job description as has already been ascribed to Sophia in The Wisdom of Solomon; or, in other words, it is wisdom minus the feminine personification. Functionally, the terms are equivalent, and the gospel text could just as easily have begun, ‘In the beginning was the Wisdom, and the Wisdom was with God, and the Wisdom was God … and the Wisdom became flesh and dwelled among us’. In so doing, it might better have conveyed the context and mystical lineage out of which this insight actually emerges. There is no ‘male’ ordering principle counterbalancing a ‘female’ ordering principle – only grammatically masculine and feminine synonyms for a single ordering principle.”
Sophian teaching stands for the transcendence of polarities, as made clear by the Jesus of the St. Thomas Gospel. “When you are able to make the two become one, the inside like the outside, the higher like the lower, so that a man is no longer male and a woman female, but male and female become a single whole … then you will enter in” (6).
Likewise, the Gospel of St. Philip says: “the embrace of opposites occurs in this world: masculine and feminine, strength and weakness. In the Great Age – the Aion – something similar to what we call embrace occurs as well, but though we use the same name for it, forms of union there transcend what can be described here. For in that place … Reality is One and Whole” (6).
‘This world’ and ‘that world’ are not different places – but the same one seen in different ways. In a similar way, Sophia can be described as “the transparent nothing that pervades all things” and also presented anthropomorphically and mythically, as in my icon. Both understandings have value to me. The world of ‘normal’ perception: embodied, of the earth – albeit ‘re-enchanted’ as we say in Druidry, and the setting for a nature mysticism (7); the world of what S. T. Coleridge called the ‘primary imagination’, and of Sophia as image of the divine (8); and the world of Seeing are the same world seen through three different lenses: all to be savoured, all to be enjoyed, all to be known as One.
(1) Cynthia Bourgeault The meaning of Mary Magdalene: discovering the woman at the heart of Christianity Boston & London: Shambala, 2010
(2) Artist Hrana Janto at http://hranajanto.com/ (This image is used with her permission.)
(4) Lee Brown Gnostic tarot: mandalas for spiritual transformation York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1998
(5) Rami Shapiro (translator) in The divine feminine in biblical wisdom literature Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2005 (The Wisdom of Solomon was originally written in Greek, probably by a Jewish sage writing in Alexandria during the intertestamental era.)
(6) Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman & Cynthia Bourgeault The luminous gospels Telephone, TX: Praxis Institute Publishing, 2008
(8) S. T. Coleridge Biographia Literaria London: Everyman’s Library, 1956 (First published 1817)