contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Lady Wisdom

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

NOTE

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.

ATHENE: PRACTICAL WISDOM

In Greek tradition, Athene is Goddess of Wisdom. Hers is a pragmatic wisdom – “good counsel, thinking through, or practical foresight – the capacity to reflect” (1) In a contest for the rulership of Attica, Poseidon shows that he rules the waves; Athene constructs the ship to ride them. Poseidon provides a horse; Athene bridles it and builds a chariot. Poseidon makes a salt spring gush up from the depths of the earth; Athene offers the carefully cultivated olive. Athene blends creative imagination with dexterity and skill. “She teaches weaving, wool-working, carpentry and all manner of handicrafts whose success depends on holding in the mind an image of the end”.

She also combines her Wisdom role with a Warrior one, where “even in war, she is controlled, in contrast to Ares’ savage and indiscriminate rage, and she easily defeats him in combat. She comes to the side of Achilles when he needs self-discipline, and to Odysseus when he needs strategy and foresight. Here, in the Iliad, Achilles is deliberating whether to reach for his sword in his quarrel with Agamemnon:

Now as he weighed in mind and spirit these two courses

and was drawing from his scabbard the great sword, Athene descended

from the sky.

The goddess standing behind Peleus’ son caught him by the fair hair,

appearing to him only, for no man of the others saw her.

Achilles in amazement turned about, and straightway

knew Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

“Significantly it is in a moment of reflection occasioned by his conflicting impulses that Athene appears, as the epiphany of his victory over unbridled instinct…. The quality of restraint is the value she embodies, and her ‘flashing eyes’ are the emblem of a lucid intelligence that can see beyond the immediate satisfaction.

The word metis was linked to this kind of wisdom, and it was highly valued. With metis, a person could chop wood better than through strength alone; pilot a ship through storms in the dark; or win a hotly contested chariot race. However, the word could also have overtones of shrewdness or craftiness or thinking too much on an event. Odysseus was known as polymetis (he of many counsels), with both Athene and Hermes to guide him.

At first glance, this seems a long way from the world of Sophia (Hokhmah) in Jewish and Gnostic tradition. But there are certain parallels. Three years ago (2), I wrote, “I am drawn to Sophia because for me she is fully in and of nature yet not locked in to the role of earth mother”. As an Olympian, Athene’s formal relation to nature is ambivalent, but she certainly has worldly concerns. Whilst also not locked into the role of earth mother, she too is willing to support and mentor humans. Sophia stands for awareness, which includes a willingness to see the world as clearly as possible and a capacity to hold and manage a measure of self-aware suffering. Athene, too, in a more pragmatic way, asks for an increase in awareness and a less impulsive response to experience. Sophia represents the energies of creativity and love as well as of wisdom. Athene is highly creative, and has her own wisdom, here based on skill, inventiveness and a capacity to be intentional and strategic. Although universal love and compassion feature little in the Homeric world, she is loyal to those she cares about and engaged with their fortunes. As a lens on how contemplation informs creativity and action, the archaic Athene extends and enriches my understanding of the Sophian archetype.

  1. Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993
  1. https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/sophia-hohmah/

POEM: GREEN MAN

William Anderson’s classic Green Man poem has thirteen verses of four lines each, and follows the wheel of the year from the Winter Solstice. As I write we have just reached the sixth verse, which has an off with my head theme. The honey of love is over and speaking through the oak is yet to come.

Like antlers, like veins in the brain, the birches

Mark patterns of mind on the red winter sky;

‘I am thought of all plants’, says the Green Man,

‘I am thought of all plants’, says he.

The hungry birds harry the last berries of rowan

But white is her bark in the darkness of rain;

‘I rise with the sap’, says the Green Man,

‘I rise with the sap’, says he.

The ashes are clashing their bows like sword-dancers

Their black buds are tracing wild faces in the clouds;

‘I come with the wind’, says the Green Man.

‘I come with the wind’, says he.

The alders are rattling as though ready for battle

Guarding the grove where she waits for her lover;

‘I burn with desire’, says the Green Man,

‘I burn with desire’, says he.

In and out of the yellowing wands of the willow

The pollen-bright bees are plundering the catkins;

‘I am honey of love’, says the Green Man,

‘I am honey of love’, says he.

The hedges of quick are thick will May blossom

As the dancers advance on their leaf-covered king;

‘It’s off with my head’, says the Green Man,

‘It’s off with my head’, says he.

Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak

As its crown forms its mask and its leafage his features;

‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man,

‘I speak through the oak’, says he.

The holly is flowering as hay fields are rolling

Their gleaming long grasses like waves of the sea;

‘I shine with the sun’, says the Green Man,

‘I shine with the sun’, says he.

The hazels are rocking the cups with their nuts

As the harvesters shout when the last leaf is cut;

‘I swim with the salmon’, says the Green Man,

‘I swim with the salmon’, says he.

The globes of the grapes are robing with bloom

Like the hazes of autumn, like the Milky Way’s stardust;

‘I am crushed for your drink’, says the Green Man,

‘I am crushed for your drink’, says he.

The aspen drops silver on leaves of earth’s salver

And the poplars shed gold on the young ivy flower heads;

‘I have paid for your pleasure’, says the Green Man,

‘I have paid for your pleasure’, says he.

The reed beds are flanking in silence the islands

Where meditates Wisdom as she waits and waits;

‘I have kept her secret’, says the Green Man,

‘I have kept her secret’, says he.

The bark of the elder makes whistles for children

To call to the deer as they rove over the snow;

‘I am born in the dark’, says the Green Man,

‘I am born in the dark’, says he.

 

From:  William Anderson Green Man: archetype of our oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990

HOLY WISDOM

The reed beds are flanking in silence the islands

Where meditates Wisdom as she waits and waits;

‘I have kept her secret’, says the Green Man,

‘I have kept her secret’, says he. [1]

This is a dawn image for me, cool, misty, expectant, liminal.  I’m on a lake shore looking out.  I can see the reed beds and an outline of wooded islands.  It’s probably late November or early December, an in-between time, a period of latency between dissolution and awakening.  Not quite the still point at the turning of the world, yet leaning into it.  I don’t see the Holy Wisdom, and so am free of any fixed and limiting image of her.  She may manifest as she wills.  Yet even at a distance, I am aware of her presence.  Holy Wisdom is more than simple sagacity.  She is the fruit of spiritual insight and loving-kindness.  She belongs here as everywhere, connecting to this landscape with a simple English name. Holy has morphed somewhat, over time, from hāliġ or hāleġ; Wisdom has remained the same.

The reed bed image is what remains from my OBOD ‘sacred grove’ work, an active imagination practice in which I would build the core image of the grove and then develop a free-form narrative, often encountering inner world beings and/or moving out into other landscapes and connecting with them.  I began my personal contemplative inquiry when the practice lost its power as a working method for me.  What didn’t lose power was my strong felt sense of contact and guidance from a feminine higher power.  This contact had been initiated in one of the major rituals of my original Ovate grade work – though not planned for in the script.  At times I have thought of her as Sophia, but in the end this hasn’t quite felt authentic for me while practising.  I don’t feel fully engaged in the Gnostic theology and metaphysics which goes with that name.

My contact with Holy Wisdom feels simpler and She asks for a single-pointed clarity of working method – which, paradoxically, I can then relax into.  I’ve adopted an eyes open, real time form of sitting meditation, going to other traditions to get the form, yet always with Holy Wisdom as my ultimate guide.  I dedicate the whole of my morning practice to Her – body/light body work, walking, sitting, and blessing.  But my sense of connection with Her is strongest on entry into sitting meditation, where I feel supported in accessing the presence and attention I need for a free flowing communion with what is.  The reed bed image doesn’t play a direct part in this process.  Yet William Anderson’s quatrain reminds of what my practice is about, and I can slip into this imagery at any time.

[1] Green Man: the archetype of our oneness with the Earth, William Anderson HarperCollins, 1990

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