This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Holy Spirit


“The Holy Spirit of Wisdom as the guiding archetype of human evolution is one of the great images of universality. Transcending the limitations of any one religious belief, it is an image that embraces all human experience, inspiring trust in the capacity of the soul to find its way back to the source.  … To discover the root of the idea of Wisdom we have to go back once again to the Neolithic era, when the goddess was the image of the Whole, when life emerged from and was returned to her, and she was conceived as the door or gateway to a hidden dimension of being that was her womb, the eternal source and regenerator of life … the idea of Wisdom was always related in the pre-Christian world to the image of the goddess; Nammu and Inanna in Sumeria, Maat and Isis in Egypt, and Athena and Demeter in Greece. Even the passages in the Old Testament that describe Hokhmah, the Holy Spirit of Wisdom, powerfully evoke her lost image, though here the image is dissociated from the world.

“But as we move into the Christian era there is a profound shift in archetypal imagery as Wisdom becomes associated with Christ as Logos, the Word of God, and the whole relationship between Wisdom and the Goddess is lost. Now, the archetypal feminine is finally deleted from the divine, and the Christian image of the deity as a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit becomes wholly identified with the masculine archetype. … This theological development effectively erased the ancient relationship between Wisdom and the image of the goddess. Gnostic Christianity, however, retained the older tradition and the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom survived. Here she was the Great Mother, the consort and counterpart of the God head. When the Gnostic sects were repressed by the edicts of the Emperor Constantine in AD 326 and 333, the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom was again lost. However, after an interlude of several hundred years, it reappeared in the Middle Ages, in the great surge of devotion to the Virgin Mary and the pilgrimages to the shrines of the Black Virgin … then, in the sudden manifestation of the Order of the Knights Templar, the Grail legends, alchemy, the troubadours and the Cathar Church of the Holy Spirit, Sophia, or Sapientia, as the image of Wisdom, became the inspiration, guide and goal of a spiritual quest of overwhelming numinosity.” (1)

I am committed to a Sophian Way. My view and practice are largely settled. I have worked, studied and sometimes simply surrendered over a long period, exploring methods and movements and gaining insights from them. That phase is done. On several occasions now, the phrase ‘it’s over’ has flashed into my mind, imprinting itself with the force of command. A quest is fulfilled. I know how best to maintain (to use my own language) a sense of At-Homeness, a living ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ interconnectedness with the Divine. With this, my contemplative inquiry has reached the high-water mark of ‘contemplative’. It is therefore set to become a contemplation-and-action inquiry, in which I will, among other things, look at my understanding of ‘action’ at this time in my life.

One concern, given this confirmation of personal path, is the question of affiliation, and of social identity in the spiritual domain. How do I place myself in culture and community? Merely to name a ‘Sophian Way’ is an invocation of sorts, yet I am neither a Christian nor a Gnostic in the sense of the old movements. My valuing of a wisdom text like the Gospel of Thomas is on a par with my valuation of texts from other traditions – the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, the Tao Te Ching, or Rumi’s poetry. I don’t have a category called ‘scripture’. I value the concept of gnosis, especially as defined by Baring and Cashford: “knowledge in the sense of insight or understanding, which requires participation not merely of the intellect but of the whole being. It is knowledge discovered with the intuition – the eye of the heart – which has no need of the intermediary of a priesthood”. But people in many spiritual movements would stand by this definition, and I have limited resonance with the specific frameworks of the ancient and medieval movements that we call Gnostic.

I have talked recently about being ‘spiritual but not religious’, but this now feels somehow weak and lacking in content. My sense is that both words have lost precise definition in the English language. Thinking of my commitment, and conscious of the Baring and Cashford passage above, I feel Pagan, and still held within modern Paganism. Baring and Cashford describe a twelfth century image of Mary in her Sophia aspect at an Oxfordshire church. It is in a Christian setting but for me works most powerfully with a Pagan understanding. She is “seated on a lion throne, as were all the goddesses before her. The divine child is held on her lap and her right hand holds the root of the flower, which blossoms as the lily, disclosing that she is the root of all things. The dove, for so many thousand years the principal emblem of the goddess, rests on the lily, and a stylized meander frames the right-hand side of the scene. All these images relate the medieval figure of Sophia to the older images of the goddess, which reach back into the Neolithic past. But in her the goddess is given a specific emphasis, which offers an image of wisdom as the highest quality of the soul, and suggests that, evolving from root to flower, the soul can ultimately blossom as the lily and, understanding all things, soar like a bird between the dimensions of earth and heaven. Nor is this Christian image unrelated to that of the shaman lying in trance in the cave of Lascaux, for there, also, the bird mask he wears and the bird resting on his staff symbolize the flight his flight into another dimension of consciousness”.

From about the twelfth century, people in the West have increasingly made themselves creators of their own mythology (2), at an increasing rate. As a modern Pagan I know this and respond to the challenge. As a modern Pagan I can honour the tree of life, which is also the tree of knowledge, one tree, the Goddess’s tree, from root to crown. I can be At Home.

(1) Anne Baring & Jules Cashford Sophia, Mother, Daughter and Bride, Chapter 15 in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London” Arkana Penguin Books, 1993

(1) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (First edition published 1968 in New York by the Viking Press. Creative Mythology is fourth in a series of The Mask of God)


This post is inspired by The Byzantine Tarot, a collaboration between two notable talents – John Matthews as writer and Cilla Conway as artist. It’s an excellent piece of work, but this post is not a review. It’s about two of the major trumps and their effect on me.

I impulse-bought the pack about a month ago. I didn’t get it for divination. I wanted it for the iconography of the major trumps, though in fact all the cards are carefully chosen and beautifully rendered. Part of the integrity of this tarot is that the images are drawn from the culture they reference – a culture itself very busy with sacred images, though at times its ruling circles reacted against them. Cilla Conway’s work is a wonderful evocation of this culture and its imagery, an imagery consciously crafted in the service of Christian Orthodoxy*.  It’s an interesting subject for a tarot pack, since the tarot form itself introduces an element of gnostic subversion into the work.

In the Byzantine Tarot, Sophia appears as the Papesse/High Priestess. She mediates “between the higher and lower realms of creation, watching over the Holy Fool on his journey and guiding those who seek her blessings to find their own path through the world”. In the apparent world, Byzantine Orthodoxy had no vacancy for a Papesse/High Priestess, and was not in business to encourage people to find their own way unless it was also the Churches’ way. The Fool of this tarot is a Holy Fool and draws on the history of the Desert Fathers, though the specific image is from Moscow, for the Slav world inherited the Orthodox tradition and the role of the Holy Fool. There is a happy reframing of these formidable world-renouncing ascetics in the text. A naked, haloed man steps outside his cell raising his hands towards the dove of the Holy Spirit and “prepares to step off into the air above the sea, asking without words to be allowed to access the joy and wonder of the world”. He is said to represent ‘crazy wisdom’, also known to Sufi and Buddhist tradition.

I feel engaged with these images, but not close to the Orthodox Church. Fortunately good images transcend doctrine. They have a larger suggestive power. I see a Goddess, depicted in one card as an angelic intercessor and in the other as a dove. I see a devotee who is a completely opened up. I’m learning how development works in spirals. A few years ago I was taken up with the image of Sophia and this modified my experience of Druidry. It was initially her influence that got me to explore meditative disciplines and see through the eye of contemplation more systematically. When my exploration took me further East, my specific sense of Sophia began to diminish.

Two tarot images have brought her back into my life. Now that she’s in my life, I have to move on from the specific images, for all their potent catalyst role. In relation to my life and practice, the Sophia depicted is too hierophantic and static. I like the Holy Fool icon, but the ‘Crazy Wisdom’ references in the text open up unwelcome possibilities of dogmatic intuitionism and licensed abuse-by-Guru that we find in Crazy Wisdom Masters from many traditions.

If I want to orient myself to the ‘Holy Fool’ archetype, there are lines within W. B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium, which act as a better guide. He starts with the complaint “That is no country for old men” – Ireland, but more essentially the world of “whatever is begotten, born and dies, caught in … sensual music”. Then he says:

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress.”

On my reading the world of begetting, birthing and dying – with all its sensual music – is absolutely fine and to be celebrated. It’s the being “caught” in it that’s the problem. For there is another dimension. The seven directions operate vertically as well as horizontally, with eternity at the centre, within, around and throughout.  Sophia reminds me of this, and it changes everything.

* Early in the 4th century C.E. the Roman Emperor Constantine began the Christianisation of the Empire and moved the capital eastwards from Rome to the old Greek city of Byzantium which he rebuilt and modestly renamed Constantinople. Two hundred years later when Orthodox Christianity was dominant and enforceable, a new Cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) became the greatest building of the city. It still is in some ways, having survived two conversions since the fall of the city in 1453, first into a mosque and later into a museum in today’s Istanbul.

Matthews, John & Conway, Cilla The Byzantine Tarot: Wisdom from an Ancient Empire London: Connections Book Publications, 2015

Yeats, W. B. Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan & Co, 1964 (Selected with an introduction and notes by A. Norman Jeffares)


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