AN ENGLISH SOPHIA
It is 1663, less than three years after the restoration of Charles II, together with his Lords and Bishops. There is a nocturnal meeting in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. It is mostly attended by radical dissenters, politically defeated but staunch in their religion. The exception is the narrator, who holds a precarious position at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.
“All eyes in the place, every single person, were focused with extraordinary attention on a dim figure at the front, the only person standing, although as quiet as all the others … How long she had stood like that I do not know; perhaps from the moment she came in, which was now nearly half an hour; I do know that we all sat there for another ten minutes in the most perfect of silence; and a strange experience it was to be so very still and immobile with all others in equal quietude.
“When she did utter, she spoke so softly and sweetly that her words were hard to hear; instead everyone there had to lean forward to catch what she was saying. All the words, set down on paper with my pen, give nothing of my mood, for she entranced us all, bewitched us even, until grown men were crying openly, and women were rocking themselves with expressions of angelic peace such as I have never seen in any church … Her hands remained clasped in front of her and made no gestures; she scarcely moved at all, and yet out of her mouth and her whole body became balm and honey, freely offered to all …
“She spoke for well over an hour and it was like the finest consort of musicians, as the words flowed and turned and played over us until we too were like sounding boxes, vibrating and resonating with her speech. I have read these words over again. How much I disappoint myself, for the spirit is entirely lacking from them, nor have I in any way managed to encompass the perfect love she spoke, or the calm adoration she evoked in her listeners. I feel, indeed, like a man who wakes from sleep after a wondrously perfect dream, and writes it all down in a frenzy, then finds that all he has on the page are mere words bereft of feeling, as dry and unsatisfying as chaff when the corn is removed.
“’To all men I say, there are many roads which lead to my door; some broad and some narrow, some straight and some crooked, some flat and commodious while others are rough, and pitted with dangers. Let no man say that his is the best and only road, for they say so out of ignorance alone.
“’I am the bride of the lamb and the lamb itself; neither angel nor envoy, but I the Lord have come. I am the sweetness of the spirit and the honey of life. I will be in the grave with Christ and will rise after betrayal. In each generation the Messiah suffers until mankind turns away from evil. I say, you wait for the kingdom of heaven, but you see it with your own eyes. It is here and always within your grasp. An end to religion and to sects, throw away your Bibles, they are needed no more: cast out tradition and hear my words instead. My grace and my peace and my mercy and my blessing are upon you.’
“The meeting was over, and it was obvious that the only reason it had assembled was to hear Sarah speak; in that town, and amongst those people, she had a reputation that had already spread far. The merest mention that she might make an utterance was enough to bring men and women – the poor, the rough and those of low breeding – out in all weathers and risk all manner of sanction from the authorities. Like everyone else, I scarcely knew what to do once it had finished, but eventually pulled myself together sufficiently to realise I must collect my horse and go back to Oxford. In a daze of the most complete peacefulness I walked back to the inn here I had left it and headed home.
“Sarah was a prophetess. Only a few hours earlier the notion would have elicited the utmost scorn from me, for the country had been benighted by such people for years, thrown into the light of day by the troubles in the way that woodlice become visible when a stone is overturned. … A woman prophet was much worse, you might think, even less likely to inspire anything but contempt, yet I have already shown it was not so. Is it not said that the Magdalene preached and converted, and was blessed for it? She was not condemned, nor ever has been, and I could not condemn Sarah either. It was clear to me that the finger of God had touched her forehead, for no devil or agent of Satan can reach into the hearts of men like that. There is always a bitterness in the devil’s gifts, and we know we are deceived, even if we permit the deception. But I could say for a moment only what it was in her words that conveyed such peace and tranquillity, I had the experience of it merely, not the understanding.”
Iain Pears An Instance of the Fingerpost Vintage: 1998
I believe that the extract stands on its own, as an imaginative depiction of a form of spiritual experience, individual and collective. However, I have written this note to provide more context and information, and then added a personal insight piece relevant to my own inquiry.
The historical novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, is mostly set in the Oxford of the 1660’s, described as “a time and place of great intellectual, scientific, religious and political ferment”. That being the case, it touches on the high politics of the transition from Commonwealth back to Monarchy; the foundation of the Royal Society and a more empirical approach to natural science and medicine; and the rise of new religious currents emphasising a direct relationship with the divine though ecstatic and intuitive means.
The central figure in the novel is Sarah Blundy, a young woman accused of murdering a fellow of New College. The novel is in four sections, each narrated by a male character whose testimony is unreliable to a greater or lesser extent. The one who describes the meeting above is relatively reliable. He also comes closest to Sarah, and her personally burdensome gifts of prophecy and healing.
Although the book has a concern with evidence and the meaning of evidence seen through a later seventeenth century lens, it also has an element of magical realism. Sarah follows a cycle of immaculate conception, a favourable upbringing, a fall into compromised circumstances, the perils of her vocation whilst working as a maid servant, arrest, trial, execution, resurrection and ascension. The last we hear of Sarah, when on a ship bound from Plymouth to New England is that “She simply disappeared one day in full daylight, and without any sound, as though she had been taken up bodily into the heavens”.
Two of the book’s narrators mention a second century Christian movement later declared heretical under the name of Montanism, as a model for Sarah. They specifically identify a doctrine declaring that “in each generation the Messiah would be reborn, would be betrayed, would die, and be resurrected, until mankind turns away from evil and sins no more”. This person could be of any age or gender and would probably be from a humble background. The movement was founded by three teachers, Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla and their name for themselves was ‘New Prophecy’. They had a literature of their own, later destroyed by the Catholic Church. One remaining fragment from Maximilla’s ‘Oracles’ says that Christ visited her in the form of a woman. A modern expert on Gnosticism, Nicola Denzey Lewis, suggests (1) that they were familiar with two works now recovered as part of the Nag Hammadi collection – Thunder, Perfect Mind and the Trimorphic Protennoia (=triple-formed first thought). Each affirms both a cosmic feminine principle and women’s spiritual leadership in the teeth of opposition and abuse. “The Thunder alludes in paradoxical language to a myth …where Sophia and Eve are the human and divine aspects of one feminine being”. Protennoia is a divine cosmic being (in effect, Sophia with an even more abstract name) who says, “I am the thought that dwells in the Light” She also says, ”I have come the second time in the likeness of a female, and have spoken with them” – incarnating as a what some traditions would call a Christ Sophia, whereas on the first occasion she had come in her masculine form as a Christ Logos (2).
For anyone wanting to look into the re-emergence of similar currents in seventeenth century Protestant culture in England and elsewhere, Caitlin Matthews’ Sophia book (3) provides brief coverage in Chapter 14, The Woman Clothed with the Sun.
(1) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013
(2) Tau Malachi Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2006
(3) Caitlin Matthews Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom Bride of God Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 2001 (Revised edition – original edition published by Mandala in 1991)
A PERSONAL INSIGHT
I have personal responses and insights about the Trimorphic Protennoia and its relevance, for me, to Sarah as prophet and Christ Sophia. This work is said to be in part a critique of the prologue to St. John’s Gospel, (‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’). The Protennoia places thought before word, and asserts that this thought, the ‘thought that dwells in the light’ contains, and is contained within, every single sentient being in the cosmos. There is no possibility of complete alienation from it, though the illusion of it can be devastating enough. But for St. John, the light comes after the word and shines into a darkness. This light can only be found through the mediation of Jesus Christ. It’s a very different theology, with different implications..
When I read and re-read the account of Sarah’s meeting, I am held by its auditory metaphors, because they are themselves so tactile. I begin with a strong sense of how she builds on the silence and stillness already in the room. It is a fecund stillness and silence, a potent state of latency. She holds and extends this moment.
Then she becomes present with her voice. She is almost inaudible, in one sense. Yet she has the full attention of the meeting. The narrator is impressed by qualities of softness and sweetness and talks of being entranced without clearly hearing a single word. Sarah’s voice has a compelling energetic presence – a voice that is not just a voice but offers a fully embodied sharing. Sara’s utterance is like music, with the same emotional power. It releases that in each person which leans into her speech, and already understands what she is telling them. What is happening is not so much revelation as recollection.
Finally, we do hear the words, which for me are memorable and inspirational even in their plain meaning, without Sarah’s presence. They are very challenging to followers like hers, being asked to let go of their bibles and religion, so soon after the world and the powers that be have decisively turned against them. Each must find their own path, and refrain from judging others. The message is at once emancipatory and frightening. It is not readily reassuring. The hope is that the experience which Sarah offers will trigger the recollection of their own divine spark, as an inner intuitive knowing, often occluded but never wholly extinguished. .
This story is what it is, and I find it very moving. It also helps me to make sense out of the very dry and obscurantist seeming term Trimorphic Protennoia,- as a three stepped creative movement, demonstrated in Sarah’s own ultimate being and through her ministry. This movement begins in a primordial alive silence becoming aware of itself, through the emergence of a full-bodied voice that connects, to simple, profound and inspirational speech. Each successive state contains the previous ones, and the whole is fully enacted, a true and fresh creation.